Flaxen Dreams: Growing Flax for Linen in the Mountains of BC

12 August 2022
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Not long after we launched Digits & Threads, I started off my column in these pages with an introduction to our family’s hay farm. I promised updates about foraging and natural dyeing, and maybe eventually growing flax or indigo.

Re-reading that column today, I realize that I have not really delivered on those promises. Summers, when we spend the most time at the farm, have been intense through Covid, and many plans we had had to be swept aside.

Image description: Round bales of hay on a green field with mountains in the background and a sky tinted yellows to pinks from wildfire smoke.

Hay on the farm, with skies tinted by wildfire smoke.

But this summer, while still unusual and still progressing within the context of the ongoing pandemic, we’re getting back to some of our earliest ideas. We’ve felt particularly inspired after we visited with Patricia Bishop at Taproot Farms and Fibre Lab, in Nova Scotia, while we were there for a wedding in July.

We published a piece about Taproot earlier this year. Patricia’s vision is to grow clothing in a similar manner to how she has long grown food: organically, sustainably, with a focus on local processing and consumption. When we confirmed our trip to Halifax, I got in touch with Patricia and we made a plan for my family to visit Taproot’s spinning mill and flax operation.

Our hay farm is situated inland, at elevation, in a narrow valley that’s a wind tunnel. The closest I can figure it, it’s in a plant hardiness zone of about 4b. It’s in a region of BC where agriculture is focused on ranching and hay production; the land is not great for growing food, or crops other than hay.

When I first started researching growing flax, though, I learned that because it’s so labour-intensive to process into linen, you really can’t grow too little of it. Our initial plans were to put in very small plot, and see how it goes.

Those plans never came to fruition, though, because of the pandemic and other things, and because I received advice that flax won’t grow well in zones lower than 5 and that was just discouraging.

Speaking with Patricia on her farm has changed our thinking. First, and true of almost anything related to fibre or craft, it just can’t hurt to try. Second, she confirmed a suspicion I had, which is that there are quite a few folks in BC interested in growing flax for linen, as there are in Nova Scotia. The idea of swapping notes from one end of this enormous country to the other is exciting. The idea of connecting with more folks in BC about this is also exciting.

So in addition to some linen and some wool batts from Taproot, I came home with seed for next season.

Image description: Tan-coloured fibres including a cyllindrical batt of tow linen, a skinny twist of long linen fibre, and a larger twist of long-line linen.

From left to right: linen tow roving; long-line linen from the demonstration of Taproot Fibre Lab’s equipment; long line linen ready for handspinning, produced by Taproot Fibre Lab.

Flax-Growing Plans

This summer, we’ll identify where we’ll establish a small plot for next spring. We do have some topsoil on the farm—for such a small plot, we should be fine to scoop some up to create a bed for flax.

The best case scenario is that the flax will take, I’ll be able to get back to the farm at the right time to weed the patch, and the plants will grow with good groundwater and little additional irrigation as the season progresses. The worst case scenario is that none of this will happen, or that my schedule come sowing and tending time will be too intense to accommodate the work I’ll need to do to establish the experiment.

The best case scenario comes with so many other considerations, though. The reason you can’t grow too little flax is that it takes a huge amount of manual labour, and time, to process. On a small scale, the tools and methods used to do so are the same as have been used for hundreds of years. It’s slow, hard work. And that’s before you even get to spinning it into yarn!

20220729 153249

Our son breaks retted flax at Taproot Fibre Lab.

Writing this out, I can see exactly where our plans went sideways two years ago: This endeavour is daunting.

So I’ll keep our visit with Patricia Bishop front of mind, and just take it one step at a time. First up, next spring I’ll plant some flax and see if it grows. I promise to actually write more about it!

All photos credit Kim Werker.

Copyright © Kim Werker except as indicated.

About Kim Werker

Kim Werker (she/her) is a co-founder and publisher at Digits & Threads and Nine Ten Publications. She has worked in the crafts industry in one way or another since 2004 as an editor, writer, instructor and speaker. She's authored six books about crochet and one about making ugly things on purpose as a creativity exercise. Kim lives in Vancouver, BC, with her husband and son, and their mutt who's named after a tree.

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