Flax processing on the Worcestershire Young Archaeologists allotment

7 11 2013

With thanks to Liz Pearson, Environmental Archaeologist and author of today’s guest blog.

Worcestershire Young Archaeologists have been growing flax on their allotment. It was sown in April, and then harvested in early September when the stems were starting to turn yellow and the seeds pods ripening.

Flax at WYAC allotment

Flax at WYAC allotment in early September 2013

Why grow this on our allotment? Because flax cultivation has been an important part of the farming landscape for thousands of years. It was grown for its fibres which were used to produce linen cloth and flax rope and only dwindled in importance when cotton cloth was mass produced and synthetic fibres replaced flax and hemp in rope making It has been an important crop until relatively recently, even as late as the World War II when production was increased so that we could be self-sufficient in this trusty resource Flax seeds, capsules fibres and pollen are sometimes found on archaeological sites (see below) giving us some idea of how widespread flax cultivation was in the past.

A ripening crop

A ripening crop

Timing the harvesting of the crop is important: harvest too early and the fibres will be too weak, harvest too late and the fibres will have become too coarse. With any luck our timing will have been ok. The seed capsules were at various stages of ripeness on each plant from green to fully ripe, so perhaps the crop was slightly over-mature, but not drastically. It’s all a learning process this year.

As by October the programme for WYAC (Worcestershire Young Archaeologists Club) was fairly full for months ahead I’ve decided to process a small batch this autumn as a test-run, and store the rest for processing later in 2014 as an activity with the group.

Retting is one of the first processes, where the stems are partially rotted so that the fibres in the stem are exposed. We are dew retting our crop, which means that it is left in bundles on the ground letting the moisture and microbes in the soil get to work on the stems.

Retting a small batch first is a good idea as it can take some experience to recognise whether the retting process is going well (whether it needs watering during dry spells, when to turn it and when it is fully retted).

First I have combed and stripped off the seed capsules from the stems.

Saved flax capsules

Saved flax capsules

Seed capsules can be saved and used to sow the nest year’s crop. Several years ago when I processed an archaeological sample taken from a medieval peat deposit below a building in Leominster, I found hundreds of these little seed capsules – presumably the waste from flax retting, a process which was usually carried out on the edge of towns and normally in ponds or small streams. See our report on the Leominster Hop Pole Inn in the Worcestershire Archives and Archaeology on-line library.

Dew retting flax

Dew retting flax

A few small bundles of stems are now lain on the ground in between the wheat stubble left over from harvesting our long-straw wheat. Over the next few weeks I will be checking on its progress and maybe even taking a leaf out of Prince Charles’s book…….talking it into submission!

 

Liz Pearson October 2013

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