Why pulling and retting is key for flax

17.07.2017

Pulling & Retting

The Linen Craft

Pulled, not cut

Flax is unique, in so many ways. After the bloom, the plant is mature. In the month of July, farmers pull the flax from the ground rather than cutting it. This is mostly to avoid a high wear and tear on the cutters, but also for the quality of the yield. Pulling preserves the long fiber in the stem, whereas cutting results in wasting valuable fiber.

Pulling the plant is best when the weather is dry. Depending on the period of growth, the farmer estimates the best time to pull. The better he knows his métier, the better his estimates and the higher the quality of the reaped flax.

As only flax requires this method of harvesting, farmers need custom-made machinery to reap their acres. Most machines pull two rows of flax from the soil simultaneously. The pace of the machines is rather high: up to 15 km/h or 9,3 mph. Almost immediately after pulling, the stems fall on their side behind the machine in two neat parallel rows. The acres now obtain shades of green and yellow, but only for a little while.

Retting

Flax fibers are attached to the woody stem of the plant by natural pectins. Dissolving these pectins is vital to extract the fibers from the stem without breaking them. For this, farmers rely on a process called retting. As opposed to pulling, retting needs moist. Rain and dew, alternated with sufficient sunshine, provide a favorable setting for micro-organisms to break down the pectins. It is during the retting process that the fiber obtains its natural beige color, often referred to as écru. Just like wine, the amount of sun and the terroir influence the color. The flax can have a rather gray color one year and a more golden tone the next.

This color is just one of the vital indicators the farmer will use to estimate when the time is ripe for harvesting.

Turning

Equal retting on both sides of the flax is the ultimate goal. For this,  the farmer has to decide when to turn the flax. Another phase in which his expertise is vital. Adapted machinery scoops up the flax and turns it on its side.

Natural water retting used to be the way every Flemish farmer retted flax. The surroundings of the river Leie flourished because of the flax industry (hence its nickname the “Golden River”).

Stocking the flax in the river basins.
Pushing the basins with flax into the Leie river

Labourers threw the flax in basins on the riverside and let it ret for up to two weeks. After shoveling the wet fibers up again, farmers set up “vlaskapellen” or flax ‘chapels’ to dry the flax. This resulted in a unique landscape typical for this region, often found on old pictures from that era.

The Linen Craft illustrates the passion and dedication of linen artisans. Browse through the making of our linen, from fiber to fabric, with detailed images. A luxurious hardcover in three languages: English, French and Dutch.

Linen Craft - Book laying in a field of flax

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