Thursday, August 2, 2012

Retting Flax

From Gerry, Historical Interpreter:

There are many different ways of retting. The retting process is rotting of the inside reedy layer of the flax, so that you can free out the fibers.
The Germans use the process of dew-retting, in the fall of the year, when the dew is the heaviest. It is laid out in long thin rows in short grass to collect the nightly dews. It may take several weeks. The problem with this method is that you get mold and mildew on the flax, so the quality is not as good as the Irish linen.
One of the other ways people may be more familiar with is placing it in tubs, but we haven't found 18th century references to this, and it may be a modern (and more environmentally friendly) method. Here on the 1730s-40s Ulster Irish farm, we use our creek.

We started out by getting our flax out of the cow byre, which is Scottish for barn, in our new turf wheelbarrow. We harvested it from our farm in late June. The seeds have already been rippled off, to be sold to the miller and crushed into flaxseed oil.
 The long journey down the hill to the creek.
Find the deepest part of the creek, though no deeper than two feet, and remove any debris from that area. These waters were murky, and smelled bad.
I picked up a medium sized bundle of flax, making sure all the roots are facing in one direction.
The flax got gently tossed in to the center of the creek.
 This was repeated until it was all thrown in the water.
 We spread it out in even layers. That way, it wouldn't get crowded, and will rot more evenly.
We laid some boards on top to keep the flax submerged. It should be entirely under water. One board should go across the roots, the other across the heads.
 The boards needed some adjustments.
We put rocks on top to weigh the boards down, so they won't float away with the fierce storms of summer. The more flax you have, the more rocks you need. Rocks should be about 3-5lbs.
 Don't fall in!
The flax should ret from three to seven days, depending on the temperature of the water. The hotter the water, the less time it'll need, and the colder the water, the more time it'll need. At the museum, we average about four days.
How will you know it's ready? You pull out a few strands, dry it, and see if it breaks cleanly. When you wrap it around your finger, there should be snaps at every bend. This frees out the fiber, and it should come away in long strands.
When you first start retting your flax in early summer, it's rather pleasant to spend time by the creek. But as the summer wears on, the smell of the rotting flax and the muck in the creek bottom becomes very foul. The smell is like a broken sewer pipe. In fact, the stench is so bad, that, according to folk lore, if you had anything to hide, you'd bury it there because no one would come close. Also, according to folk lore, only young single men were allowed to work at the retting ponds, and this is an age when personal hygiene wasn't well-known, so you can only imagine what a horrendous stench it was.
 A bucolic view.
The next time, we will show you more of the flax processing. We will put the flax through the break, use the scutching knife, and draw it through the hackles.


  1. Great example of small scale water retting. I especially like the flowing water cleansing the biproducts away. My only question is in the beginning. Isn't flax a bast fiber, growing on the outside of the woody central stalk rather than inside it?

    Wayne Randolph, Historic Farmer
    Colonial Williamsburg

    1. You are absolutely correct. The sentence wasn't worded well, we changed it to better reflect our proper meaning. Thank you!

  2. Hi,
    My name is Susan Koziel, and I was wondering if I could get permission to use your photo of pond retting in an academic poster that shows historical bast fibre processing.

    I work for Alberta Innovates Technology Futures (, this is a government research organization that spans a number of disciplines. My group (Bioresource Technologies - is currently working on breeding fibre plants for various industrial uses and we currently do a lot with both hemp and flax.

    We currently field or snow rett our hemp and flax, since we really have neither a good stream or a pond in the area. I would however like to show the variety of retting options available, and I like to use your picture of the flax weighted down in the water.

    Please contact me at