Scutching, Hackling, and Bee Graveyards

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Our string of sunny days continues, but the afternoon light is dense and golden enough to let us know that that the season is changing. Fall is breathing down our neck and we feel the need to finish up outdoor chores. George has been working on a drainage trench and rain garden to siphon the spring sogginess from our little orchard.

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I have been processing the flax from my small patch so that I can spin it this winter.
After harvesting, retting, and rippling–removing the seeds–I bundled and stored the flax.

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I had searched antique stores and barn sales for months this summer to try to find antique flax tools.

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I found three hackles and bought a scutching knife on ebay.

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But I was not able to find a flax break or scutching board, so George made them for me.

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A flax break uses leverage to smash and break the woody portion of the flax stalk into pieces–the boon, while leaving the fibrous strands intact.

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The top half of the stalks have been broken here.  The stalks are then turned to do the other  half.

George made a table-top break, which I initially set up on plywood. I later moved it to sit directly on sawhorses (which was what George had in mind).

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That allowed the boon to fall to the ground rather than getting re-tangled in the flax bundles.

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After breaking.

The next step was scutching. The term apparently derives from an obsolete French word “escoucher,” meaning to “shake out.” The process requires an upright board–slightly angled worked well for me–and a wooden scutching knife to whack and scrape at the flax to remove the woody bits.

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I did a great deal of shaking out, feeling as if I was grooming bits of chaff out of some lovely horse’s tail.

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Close up of the bits off boon being broken up by the flax break.

For me, scutching was the real test for whether I had retted the flax properly.  Too much retting time, and the spinnable fibers start to break down, too little retting and the fibers remain ribbony, rather than thready, and the hard boon doesn’t easily separate.

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Over-retted, with broken frizzled fibers before any processing.

The retting process uses soaking or nightly dew to break down the pectin in the fibers. I retted the flax in three different batches. One was submerged under water in a kiddie pool, the second was dew-retted on the ground where it was grown, and the third was dew-retted on our front lawn. I suspected that I had over-retted the kiddie pool batch by about a day and that proved to be right. The fiber was more fragile and broke up more than the other batches.

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The batch that was dew-retted where it was grown, was slightly under-retted, with more ribbon-y strands. It also included the largest plants, at the outer edges of the plot, which tend to produce coarser fibers.

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Under-retted, with ribbon-like strands.

The front yard dew-retted flax was the Goldilocks “just-right” batch. It was in a sunnier and drier spot than the other dew-retted batch and I let it sit for about a week longer.

Each batch had a different color. The water-soaked batch was white and looks like gorgeous shining platinum-blonde hair (with lots of split ends). The batch from where the flax was grown received more overnight dew and was quite yellow (tow-headed) with some silver. The front-lawn was a gleaming silver.

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All of the colors were beautifully lustrous.

I like the silver, but traditionally it would have considered undesirable and bleached out. Apparently, to have avoided the dark spots on the flax that resulted in the silver coloration, I should have waited until cooler weather for retting.

George made a perfect scutching board and I whacked, scraped, and shook. I don’t usually buy things on ebay, but I couldn’t find any scutching knives locally. The knife I bought is from Sweden and is supposed to be from the 1800s.  It looks to be old, perhaps with a newer paint job. I didn’t buy it for authenticity, but as something I could use, and was delighted to find that it felt perfectly weighted in my hand and worked beautifully. It’s nice to look at, too.

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After scutching out most of the woody bits, the final step was hackling. Hackles are metal combs of varying degrees of fine-ness that cull out remaining boon, rat’s-nesty stuff, and short bits.

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What is left after hackling, are long strands of shiny line flax–the most desirable end product–and lots of tow flax–the combed out portions of fiber that are shorter, but also spinnable.

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Tow flax–what’s left on the hackles.

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Tow flax ready to spin.

From my small flax patch, which was about 6 X 12 feet, I ended up with 5 ounces of line flax and lots of tow flax. I didn’t expect to get this much, so I’m delighted. Now I have to learn how to spin the stuff.

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Line flax

Now that I have finished with the flax, I need to put the gardens to bed. Our tomatoes are still producing, we have parsnips, leeks, and carrots to pull, and we have fresh greens in our cold frame.

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My bees seem to be doing well. We still have lots of flowers blooming and I’ve stumbled on several bees that died in the performance of their duties–while gathering nectar from Queen Anne’s Lace or pollen-dusted in a cup of hollyhock.

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Not a bad place to die.

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This bumble bee died in a hollyhock.

In the cool mornings, my honey bees sleep late, but the bumble bees are out early, scouting the remaining flowers.

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Covered with pollen.

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In the dry afternoons, the honey bees congregate at the bird baths, sucking up water.

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Our red October moonrises have returned.

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And the dogs are happy.

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35 thoughts on “Scutching, Hackling, and Bee Graveyards

    • I had so much fun doing this–no dedication required! It was rewarding to learn something entirely new and the work itself was very soothing. Plus, it transported my imagination back in time. And … I ended up with flax to spin.

  1. Fascinating process, Brenda. Can’t wait to see what you make with the flax.
    Looks like you had a great harvest – what a year!
    The weather has been so beautiful, if a tad dry for the land, that I wish it would last indefinitely. It really feels and looks like autumn around here. Every day I try to spend as much time outside as possible because we know what’s coming!

    • We finally got rain today after a long dry spell. And then the sun came out and we had another glorious moon rise. I found the flax process to be absolutely fascinating and still have so much to learn. Have you read Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s “A Midwife’s Tale”? It’s based on a Maine midwife’s diary. I read it for the first time this summer and was tickled to read all the references to flax growing and production.

    • Thanks Peggy. Amazing to me that just 200 years ago home flax production was common here. All that work just to get the raw material and then it had to be spun and woven. I will be lucky to get a small placemat out of this!

  2. Great post, Brenda! What fun you will have this winter! I sure hope we can get together for a day of spinning and knitting ( how do we get so busy that this has not happened yet!!). I’ll be in Ireland most of November working and then home. Love the flax process and what an excellent job you’ve done presenting all the steps involved! Gardens here still producing, still need rain, and there seems to be a long list of chores before I go. Oh, my. Maybe we can have a day in December before the traveling gets bad….

    • I’m really looking forward to this winter. I have so many fun projects lined up–including my first knitting in about 40 years. We finally had some rain yesterday, I hope it reached you, too. Have a wonderful time in Ireland, and take lots of pictures for us. Let’s definitely get together in December. It’s time!

  3. What a wonderful post–so warm and lovely. Your overview of the linen process is really interesting–you’re learning a lot and it’s all looking so beautiful. I always feel bad when I find a dead bee on a flower but now I’ll remember what you said–a fine place/way to die.

    • Thanks Kerry. Do you weave with linen? I cannot wait to get my loom going for some winter weaving. I rescued another antique spinning wheel a few weeks ago, so that’s my current project. Bees have short lives, so I’m always pleased to see ones that die on or in flowers. It does seem like the best way to go.

      • I have woven with linen but only at Vavstuga Weaving School. It has a reputation of being difficult to weave with but I think we used tow linen and I think that’s supposed to be easier than line. I need to take the plunge and do more–I love the look.

  4. Can’t wait to see what you make with your beautiful flax! Glad your garden is still producing. I haven’t posted about it but we lost our sweet Blondie last week. The house and the RV are so empty without her.

  5. Gosh, how amazing to be making your own cloth, Brenda! It does look like a load of hard work but I’m sure it must be incredibly satisfying to make something right from scratch and to understand the processes and effort that goes into it. It makes you wonder at the value of the garments we buy today. The Swedish scutching knife is lovely and good on George for making the tools you couldn’t find. It seems as though you’re really living the dream 🙂 Love your bee and moon pics, and, of course, your faithful dogs.

    • I started spinning the flax today. It’s a bit mind-boggling to me that the fiber is coming from plants in the garden. You know, it’s funny, but all the comments about the process being hard work made me think about the fine line between work and play. I did all of this because I wanted to do it and it was pure pleasure–play for me. It didn’t seem like work at all. But if I HAD to do it, I wonder how quickly it would become work to be endured. You are right, we certainly don’t value what goes into garments today–they are ridiculously under-priced, really, and often made in pretty horrific conditions. Maybe we need to go back to growing our own!

  6. What an interesting post & I’m full of admiration for your dedication to the project …the colours of the flax are lovely in different ways. I look forward to seeing your weaving projects. Great photos of the moon & the bees, and I agree the best place for a bee to die is surely face down in a flower! Enjoy Autumn in your lovely part of the world.

    • I was fascinated to see the different colors of the flax emerge. No dedication involved, really–pure fun. I can’t wait to do more next year. I haven’t done any weaving in forty years, so it’s going to be a re-learning experience. Happy spring to you!

  7. Your flax is beautiful, and I really appreciated the detailed description of the process. It gives me a better sense of what Martha Ballard (the late 18th c. Hallowell midwife whose diary forms the basis of my favorite Maine history book, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s The Midwife’s Tale) is talking about when she mentions processing flax.
    When I go out to walk around the morning on cold mornings (~40F) at this time of year, I find many bumble bees sleeping at the center of aster blossoms. As the sun warms them, they start to move around and get back to work.

    • I read “The Midwife’s Tale” for the first time this September, Jean, and was delighted to see all the references to flax. I was especially happy to find that I had harvested my flax at almost exactly the same time that Martha Ballard started pulling hers in August! I loved the book and now am reading Ulrich’s “The Age of Homespun,” in which I learned that I should have waited a few weeks before dew retting to avoid getting the dark spots on the stems. I, too, sometimes find bees stirring in the morning after it warms up. These particular girls, however, were quite dead.

  8. What an interesting process, you had me spellbound. Amazing seeing the results. You will have plenty of fascinating projects to keep you entertained throughout the winter. Loved the bee shots, and that stunning moon. Good to see the happy pups too.xxx

    • I’m looking forward to the cozy days of winter with lots of creative projects. We are having a mild fall, which keeps the bees flying while the flowers fade. It’s becoming a concern in this area that the bees’ activity late into our recent mild falls depletes their winter stores of honey. We are all having to adjust to the crazy weather. I love to see your happy pups, too. Hope you are recovering well.

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