For our September Studio Hours, we welcomed Karla Sandwith to share her personal flax-to-linen journey. It was wonderful to learn from her as she shared details beyond what was in her recent D&T article. Karla lives in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, and since 2019 has annually grown a plot of flax for her own use. Karla shared photos of her process and brought many samples to show. She sat at her spinning wheel for the talk, making it easy for her to quickly show us how she wet spins her flax and dresses her distaff.
Karla and her husband, Jim, both have degrees in horticultural science from the University of British Columbia, and they used to grow field crops on a farm on the Saanich Peninsula. Six years ago, as a new spinner, she struggled through a spinning workshop beyond her abilities. The instructor was Diana Twiss, who, at the end of the workshop, mentioned that she grows flax and spins it into yarn at her home in Langley, B.C. Coincidently, the Flax Issue of Ply Magazine came out that same year, and Karla was hooked—excited to learn the magic of growing her own fibre to turn into yarn.
Since then, she’s been experimenting and learning best practices for growing fibre flax and processing the plant into fibre for spinning. She shared photos and nuggets of insight, from seed selection to planting, weeding, irrigation, harvest, retting, and further processing.
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All flax seed will grow fibre, but some varieties are better than others for long line flax. Karla and Jim start their crop by doing a germination test to help determine the sowing density they need. They want to sow the seed with close spacing to encourage a single tall stalk; if the plants have too much space, they tend to branch. They sow at high density and then tamp the soil to press the seeds in. Weeding is needed a couple of times: once when the plants are about 5 cm (2 inches) tall and again before it’s so tall they can’t get into the rows anymore. They water their plot using drip irrigation and make sure their soil is healthy. The plant flowers over a couple of weeks. Each flower only lasts one day—the petals drop by the afternoon, leaving a beautiful blue carpet in the field. Once the flowers have dropped and the seed bolls have formed, they watch for the right time to harvest (about ninety days after germination). When the bottom two-thirds of the stalk has yellowed, they harvest by hand, pulling the entire plant from the soil and forming bundles.
The next step in the processing is retting the stalks. During their first couple of years they used a field retting technique but more recently they have started tank retting, an anaerobic, underwater biological process which more closely mimics the historic Flemish methods. They use an old hot tub, which allows them to control the incubation temperature (as you would for sourdough or yoghurt) and circulation, and, importantly, has a drain at the bottom! Over time, the pH drops to about 4.5. They then drain the tank, sending the water out onto their field, rinse the fibre twice, and lay out the stricks (twisted braids or bunches of flax fibres) on the field to dry, keeping the root ends aligned. Tank retting takes just a few days and results in a bright, blonde fibre.
When properly retted, the fibres start to spring out. Karla suggested that most people tend to under-rett their first crops. After retting, they use handmade tools for scutching and breaking, then run the fibre through hackles to make it ready to spin. Their tank-retted fibres are beautifully blonde, and Karla says that under-retted fibres often carry an ebony or silvery colour. She then showed us her wheel and dressed distaff, some of her spun yarns, and her handwoven dishcloth project.
After Karla’s presentation, she took questions.
A couple of people asked about the volume of her production, wondering how many plants one needs for a tea-towel, for example. How many metres of cloth can one acre of flax provide? Karla hadn’t done the math but did point out that she can’t spin fast enough to use all her fibre! Historically, the saying was that it took four spinners to keep one weaver in yarn. Everything she could spin in 2022 went into her dishcloth project, about 1.5 kg and 6,000 m of spun yarn.
Another member, an embroidery artist, started a discussion of woven linen cloth for embroidery. Aida cloth is woven in a canvas weave structure. Taproot Fibre Lab in Nova Scotia sometimes has handwoven tea towels and cloth available for purchase. Karla is weaving for her own use and doesn’t have any plans to sell her cloth.
One member wondered if Karla finds spinning her flax fibre to be hard on her hands, as knitting with linen can be. Karla says that growing the flax is, but spinning isn’t. She uses a wet spinning technique. Adding a little moisture reactivates the pectins in the fibre which helps to “glue” the twist, resulting in a much smoother yarn.
There were a couple of questions about specific growing conditions. One member wondered about growing flax in containers, for those people who don’t have garden space. Karla hasn’t tried it, but Kim knew of someone who had, with some success. An issue could be keeping it watered and fed enough.
Another member wondered if she’d be able to grow flax in her climate, considering the length of the growing season and temperatures. Karla reminded us that flax grows from Norway to Egypt—it’s a plant that can thrive in many conditions. Generally, around coastal B.C., harvest is 90–100 days after germination. Karla plants her flax seeds in March when she plants her peas, and harvests in July. This year, on B.C.’s coast, many people’s flax reached maturity earlier than usual and at a shorter than normal height, which people are attributing to the drought and heat. Karla’s flax was shorter than in previous years but not by much, and she still achieved a good length fibre (approximately 105 cm). She pointed out that longer isn’t always better—it depends on what you want to do with the fibre. One of the members of NALA, the North American Linen Association, is a large U.S. fibre mill which prefers fibre of about 90 cm (36 inches).
As the evening drew to a close, Karla showed us a special strick of golden flax. Now that she’s had a few years working with flax, she’s feeling confident enough to start on a special project, spinning some of Berta’s flax. This fibre was grown eighty years ago and was part of a woman’s dowry. Christiane Seufferlein in Austria started and leads the Berta’s Flax project, collecting dowry flax and distributing stricks all over the world, connecting recipients through their love of fibre.
Photo courtesy Karla Sandwith.