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There are two ways of retting flax, water retting and dew retting. Dew retting takes longer, but is much easier for a beginner, it is also much less smelly than water retting. Dew retting produces a darker, more silver fibre than water retting, which tends to produce a more golden colour.
Dew Retting Flax
Spread your flax thinly on a lawn or grass field, so that you can still see the grass through the flax; make sure all the roots point in the same direction. Turn the flax once a week, so that it rets evenly. If the weather is dry, water the plants with a watering can. Dew retting takes between 3 and 6 weeks, depending on the weather. The process is easy but the trick is to know when the fibres are retted.
After the first three weeks have passed, pick one stem with both hands and gently break it. Wiggle the stem and gently bend it. If the fibre separates easily from the core, retting may be complete. Bring the fibre indoors to dry.
Several books say that if the fibre comes away in ribbons it is insufficiently retted. However, I found that when I waited for the ribbons to ret into individual fibres my flax became over-retted and the fibres broke into small pieces. You can still use over-retted fibres by carding them with wool or using them in paper making.
Water Retting Flax
Put the flax in water, for example inside a water butt, paddling pool or an old bath. You might need to put a weight on top to keep the fibre submerged. The fibre usually rets in about five day