The institute’s tagline is “housing, clothing, and feeding ourselves in a post-fossil-fuel world,” but we give short shrift to the “clothing” part as we work on gardening and construction projects. We were lucky enough to be offered some growing space near the institute and in addition to growing chicken feed, we thought it would be a good opportunity to try a project we’ve been mulling around for a few years: make a shirt from start to finish.
Most natural-fiber clothing is made of cotton, wool, or silk, but we don’t have the climate for the first, the space for sheep to produce the second, or anything needed to create silk, so we are turning to another fiber more suited for northern climates: flax.
Flax for Fiber
Many of us eat flax seeds in whole-grain bread or other baked goods (be sure to use ground flax seeds, so our bodies can digest them; unground flax seeds simply pass through our systems). Flaxseeds contain about 41 percent fat (mostly as oil), one of the highest percentages of any oil seed (comparable to sunflower or canola). But the seeds we get in the grocery store or are pressed to create linseed oil, are selected for their fat content, so planting these seeds won’t give us what we are after: fiber.
It took over an hour of fruitless internet searching until we stumbled upon the Hermitage. Founded in the 1980s, this community has been growing and processing flax fiber (read more about their story in this 2015 New York Times article). They have a series of flax-processing videos on YouTube as well as a website that, while dated, provides some basic information for would-be flax fiber enthusiasts.
From the Hermitage, we purchased a half pound of Avian flax seeds, specially selected for a warmer, drier environment in the Netherlands for $6. Over this growing season, you’ll see how we’re growing and processing flax.
Flax for Seeds
Just as a comparison, we’ll also be growing some flax seeds for eating. We’ll try to process some of these plants for fiber, as a contrast to the fiber varieties. We’ll also try to eat some of the fiber seeds, again, to compare. The two types of flax will be isolated on opposite ends of our field. We got these seeds from Bob’s Red Mill (we have no affiliation, contact, or other relationship with Red Mill).
I’m hoping to grow enough flax to spin into thread and weave enough fabric to create a new shirt based on one of my current ones. I’ll record the whole process and log the time and effort needed to create a basic shirt. I anticipate it will take a long time.