Friday, August 02, 2013

granulobacterium pectinovorum or retting success



There is a bit of mystery that surrounds the process of wet retting flax. The procedure sounds simple enough. One need only submerge the dry flax stems in water and weigh them down so they are entirely covered for a period of time long enough for the bark to soften and allow the easy extraction of the fiber. The bark is macerated by active bacterium...specifically, granulobacterium pectinovorum...which dissolves the pectose present in the stems without injuring the bast fibers that will be spun to linen. There is science involved.



The mystery is "how long?" a period of time is required for the operation. How long will it take the microbes?? If it is under-retted the process is incomplete, the bacterium has not done the job and the retting has failed. If you over-rett, you have allowed the bacterium to go to far and it has ruined the flax. So, there is a decision to make about the timing...when is it "just right" to pull the flax from the pool?



It is an operation which for success calls for much judgment, vigilance, and precision. The determination of the exact point at which to stop the process demands much experience. So says Alfred Stewart Moore, author of .."LINEN" published by The Macmillan Company in 1922.

So, it isn't any wonder that I approach the retting pool with trepidation and proceed with caution. After raising the plants from seed and having a successful harvest, no one would want to risk it all and loose the fiber in the retting pool. I've lost linen in the pool in the past, and expect it will happen in the future. There is a learning curve. So, I rett small amounts at time, and take good notes.



I wait for the weather. When I see a good heat wave approaching on the weather map, I prepare. I had some dried flax in storage. This is flax that has been harvested, dried and rippled before storage. (Rippled meaning that the seed has been removed, so as not to attract hungry little critters).

My husbands cement tub is used for the pool. I position it in the streambed, where I channel a trickle of water to flow into the tub. Since there is a slope to the land, the pool has a deep end and a shallow end, and the water overflows on the deep side. The root ends should be positioned at the deep end of the pool. The flax wants to float, so rocks may be used to weigh the stems down. My flax was too long for the tub, so I had to bend the blossom end and tuck it under the rock.



In the slow flowing, soft, warm water, the microbes of putrefaction work on breaking down the pectins that trap the fiber. They convert the insoluble to soluble, and free the cellulose substance.

"The change is stated to be achieved by a special enzyme, pectokinase, which converts pectose successively into pectin and sugar, the bacteria afterwards fermenting the sugar with the production of hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and a little butyric acid. It may seem strange that this pectose is the same substance with gives apple jam its peculiar glutinous stiffness." ASM

I've been making raspberry jam, and have to add pectin in some form (fresh or powdered) in order for it to "gel". But out in my retting pool, I'm trying to remove pectin in order to retrieve my fiber. I find it ironic that adding and subtracting pectin can either create success or failure, depending upon ones objectives! You see, I've been thinking about pectin a lot.

There is no way of knowing exactly how many days it will take the microbes in my retting pool to do the job. There are estimates, anywhere from 3 days to 7 days. Water content, water temperatures, and the quality of the flax are all factors to consider. I test the stems daily after about 3 days...and pull the flax when I think it is ready. Then I hang it to dry for a few days. Then comes the moment of truth.



The shive or boon the broken fragments...some would consider waste, I will save this and use it this fall, for starting wood fires in my kitchen stove. The Longs, the Shorts and the Tow...I separate and set aside. I am relieved to see that the retting pool has yielded good results this time.



First we "completely remove all the pectin that binds the fibers together, and then the aim is to join them together again, by contact and twist inserted by the spinner".



I select a handspindle and fasten some of the new flax to the distaff...I cannot resist and must sample, just to see how it will look when it is spun. It really is a marvelous process..taking a little seed and raising it up..removing the tough outer shell to release the golden fibers so they may be spun...for me ...it is worth the work. Yes, Alfred Stewart Moore said it best...



"when you look at a dainty feather weight cambric handkerchief, you virtually see the soul of the flax plant"

16 comments:

Lynn said...

This is so wonderful - thank you!

judy said...

Amazing to see the process and that it works!

Lisa at Greenbow said...

This is way beyond my comprehension and I think you are an alchemist just knowing what to watch for. This is all a mystery to me. It is why I like to see what you are up to.

thecrazysheeplady said...

Very interesting!

textilepractice said...

wow, you have already done the whole thing!!! fantastic! very inspiring and encouraging :)

Judy said...

I have a long galvanized tub if you want to use it to do more....which is as close to doing this as I will ever come. Much easier to raise sheep!!!!

ICQB said...

Hi! I'm growing flax for the second time this year. I'm using the same seed as last year(Marilyn), but would like to try something different because my Marilyn comes pre-coated with I-don't-know-what. How would you recommend going about finding other sources of fiber flax?

I didn't do a good job of retting last year's (very small)crop and the fibers came out rough. I was still able to spin it up and was able to make a small coin purse with the fruits of my labor (a very rough coin purse). I'm hoping retting will go better this year.

cyndy said...

Hi Linda,

It is very frustrating that we are so limited in our choice of flax seed. Marilyn seems to be the only one available these days. Try contacting the USDA. They may be able to supply you with a different type, but they will only send 200 seeds (at that rate it will take years to save enough to grow a shirt!) At least it is enough to grow a sample and learn from. Good luck with your retting pool this year!

ICQB said...

Hi cyndy,

Thanks so much for the tip. I did find a source for a type of fiber flax seed called Evelyn which can be had here: http://www.richters.com/Web_store/web_store.cgi?product=X2702&show=&prodclass=Herb_and_Vegetable_Seeds&cart_id=385704.10104

I'll look into it next year when it's seed-ordering time. Thanks so much for your beautiful and informative blog!

cyndy said...

yes, Linda, Richters does stock Evelyn, however, I believe that seed will also be treated. Best to check with them before ordering!

ICQB said...

Thanks, I'll check. Found out Marylin is most likey treated with Prelude 20LF to control disease. Thanks again!

Cathy said...

I'm thinking I need to follow your retting instructions for my milkweed.

Always tagging along!

Zdolność-tworzenia said...

Super naturalistyczne podejście do lnu.

Carol said...

Thank you for giving me a glimpse into flax production. Wonderful Blog

Leigh said...

Oh Cyndy, how neat. I grew flax this summer too, but for the seed. Maybe for fiber another year.

d said...

Cyndy, you blog is always fascinating, with beautiful photos. What lovely flax!

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