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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