Harvesting flax and the future of linen fibre in Scotland

MEMBERS of the Innovative Farmers Scottish fibre flax field lab have now harvested their trial crop. The field lab aims to rekindle Scotland’s lost linen industry, supporting farm diversification and the transition away from petrochemical-based fashion.

The field lab started by comparing three imported Dutch varieties of fibre flax to see how well they are likely to perform in a commercial agricultural context and Scottish growing conditions.

This feeds into the longer-term aim of building a practical knowledge base that we can share with a future network of fibre flax growers in Scotland (and the UK), whilst also supporting the development of a localised supply chain and markets.

Innovative Farmers says that the flax has now been hand harvested on the three trial farms. It took slightly longer than the recommended 100 days to mature, but the drought in the spring/early summer and cooler temperatures in July may have affected growth and ripening.

The crop was ready to pull around 40 days after flowering, when the seed pods have changed from pale to brown and the stem has started to yellow. At this stage, the seed heads aren’t ripe but the flexible fibre in the stem is at its strongest for being processed into textiles. If over-ripe, the inner fibres break easily and become more difficult to process.

Plants are pulled by hand to ensure maximum fibre length, as the fibre extends down into the root. It’s then laid out on the ground with roots at one end and seed pods at the other, in a process known as retting (old Scots word for rotting) – where soil microbes and moisture in the damp ground break down the lignins and pectins in the woody stem, allowing the flexible fibres to be extracted for processing.

After 10 to 20 days the crop is turned to allow the top layer to become damp and ret. The whole process is weather dependent and can take from two weeks to two months depending on conditions. When the crop is fully retted it needs to be dried and stored, ready to be processed and spun into yarn for weaving.

The field lab assessed yield, crop height, crop density and crop weight. A good crop would have tall, thick stems growing densely together. They also considered factors that may influence germination and growth, so recorded soil type, measured soil health and compared weed pressure. Observations were also made of differing root structure – ideally as little soil as possible will come up with the roots.

Find out the results of the Innovative Farmers field lab here



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