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retting plants for fibre  RSS feed

 
r ranson
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Like the strings hidden in a stick of celery, many plants contain fibres within the stem or leaf.  In some plants, these fibres can be used to make clothing. We call these 'bast fibres' and my local bast fibres are nettles, flax, and a handful of others.

There is a 'glue' that holds the fibres in place, this is usually pectin and to get rid of this glue, we can use chemicals, machines or my personal favourite bacteria.  When we use bacteria, it's called retting.  A bit like making sauerkraut - retting is a controlled rotting and it can be done several different ways.  Sometimes we submerge the plants in water and let anaerobic bacteria do its thing.  Sometimes we use aerobic (air loving) bacteria.  Each has a different effect on the fibre.  Water retting is fastest but it can contaminate waterways when done on a large scale. 


My favourite is dew retting.  This method is slowest, but it also has the least eco-impact of all the retting methods.  It also produces the finest flax fibre.  For this, we lay the plant straw or leaves on the grass, and the dew moistens it every morning and the environmental factors work together to break down the pectins. 

dew retting plant stems and leaves for fibre


This year, I am trying something new and putting out several different plant fibres.  I have my regular fibre flax, ornamental flax, stinging nettles and New Zealand Flax.  I don't know what's going to work or not, but it's worthwhile trying it to find out.  But because I'm doing so many different kinds of flax, I'm keeping them in bundles instead of spreading them out like I would normally. 

fibre flax - long streight stems make it easy to produce linen


ornimental flax is shorter, and has more branches


stinging nettles


new zealand flax


These flax are part of my linen landrace project.



Some more information on retting.

http://www.wildfibres.co.uk/html/retting_flax.html

https://flaxtolinenvictoriabc.blogspot.ca/p/blog-page.html



https://www.richters.com/show.cgi?page=InfoSheets/d2701.html

Water retting
 
David Livingston
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I am looking forward to seeing how you get on with nettles . It's the one plant I can grow with ease unfortunately it's perennial also unfortunately .
I assume even more unfortunately that the taller the better
I also like the dew idea as it's free and seems like less work

David
 
r ranson
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I'm curious about the nettles too.  Looking at historical accounts, there seem to be about 50 different ways to process the fibre from them.  It's going to be a lot of trial and error.  This is the way I want them to work because that's what I'm already used to.

However, the thicker the stem, the faster the ret.  I need to keep a close eye on the nettles so that they don't over ret. 
 
David Livingston
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I wonder about that . Nettles seem on the face of it a much easier crop than the others , it grows fast I suspect I could get two crops a year , it's perennial . Where I live there is so much pollution from my neighbors cows it grows very well fertilizer not needed .
Why is it not utilized more ?

David
 
Amit Enventres
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Anyone try milkweed aka as butterfly weed? It supposedly has fibers like flax and also has a cotton around the seeds. The monarchs eat the plant, but not enough to affect yields. They leave by the time us in the North would harvest the fiber. It's perrenial and spreads by seed and root. It's native and some varieties can be weedy, but all also have pretty flowers. I'm planting out a bunch in my tree lawn and am curious if anyone else has tried to process it this way. I'm wondering if there freeze and thaw of fall will also process it and how long that will take.
 
Judith Browning
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Great information Raven...very interesting and it will be fun to watch your results. 

Back when I would read something and have to try it for myself, I used this dew method to ret iris and gladiolas leaves...It worked very well and I made a nice little basket that I kept for years (it's gone now).   I remember it as 'retting' but it may have been just a way of softening the leaves for use as there was no separation of fibers, the leaves were still whole in the end.

Now, I thoroughly enjoy reading about others adventures in these sort of things and don't feel like I need to try it all for myself...thanks so much for all of your interesting topics
 
Maureen Atsali
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I am a bit scared by the amount of work this seems to require.  I tried retting some sunhemp, but I must have done it wrong because I didn't get any fiber. (Sunhemp is s tropical legume, but supposably its used as a fiber crop in India, hence the name.)

I have found stinging nettle in the swamp.  How do you harvest it?  Are the fibers fine enough for clothing?
 
r ranson
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Retting, especially dew retting, is really easy.  I lay the stuff on the grass, flip them every few days, and wait.

When it's done well, it makes all the next steps in fibre processing easy too.  Unfortunately getting the timing right takes experience to learn.  What I'm going to try this year is to bring in a few stems at different times so I can see what it's like.  Some early, some late.  Just gather experience for next year's bigger projects.


Nettles are possibly the finest of the bast fibres.  They can be a lot finer than linen and in many medieval garments are indistinguishable from linen except by high power microscope. 

There are so many historical accounts on how to harvest nettles, none of which go into detail because people assumed everyone already knew how.  There are still a few modern cultures that harvest nettles too, but their method seems very different than what I expected.  To try some of these different methods, we have a nettle-a-long going.  It's a perennial conversation which will keep going so long as anyone's interested. 
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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raven ranson wrote:My favourite is dew retting.  This method is slowest, but it also has the least eco-impact of all the retting methods.  It also produces the finest flax fibre.  For this, we lay the plant straw or leaves on the grass, and the dew moistens it every morning and the environmental factors work together to break down the pectins. 


I don't get dew in my arid climate. My work around is to put the bundles on the lawn where the sprinkle irrigation will dampen them once a week. And on the north side of a building so that they stay damp longer.

My other method is to just leave the plants outside overwinter.
 
Joylynn Hardesty
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raven ranson wrote:Retting, especially dew retting, is really easy.  I lay the stuff on the grass, flip them every few days, and wait.

When it's done well, it makes all the next steps in fibre processing easy too.  Unfortunately getting the timing right takes experience to learn.  What I'm going to try this year is to bring in a few stems at different times so I can see what it's like.  Some early, some late.  Just gather experience for next year's bigger projects.
 


Perhaps you could take close up pictures of the plant stalks and fibers at the stages that they are ready to process? I have no notion of what any of the fibers look like when they can be worked. This fall I hope to play with nettle, flax and ragweed.
My prior attempts of ragweed retting were left alone too long. I rotted them instead of retting them.
 
Sharon Kallis
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Anyone try milkweed aka as butterfly weed?
yes, but yet to totally unlock the code on this one! I did see a huge difference in what the plant looks like come October on a trip to the interior of BC last year versus my coastal locale... the trick as I understand so far is to harvest the stalks when golden yellow- when the latex has gone back down to the roots. (spreading dogbane aka Indian hemp is the same)  that was what the milkweed looked like when I was in Kelowna last year and made me realize we were not getting cold enough nights- just wet- so the stalks would rot but not mellow, so to speak. when I harvested a stalk in Kelowna, I could snap the stem and strip the fibres off very easy, the white silky fibres would roll off the remaining  outer bark layer when I rolled the fibres quickly between my palms.
It all comes down to timing! If the timing is right the fibre releases easy- if too soon it is sticky, if too late the fibre has rotted- so checking regularly and learning from the plants is the way to go for sure!
 
Sharon Kallis
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One trick I can verify for nettle is that it gets easier the older the stalks are... a rare time where procrastination pays off. I had someone give me nettle she harvested over 10 years ago and had retted, but then had no patience for processing so it sat in her garage over a decade- it was super easy to pull the fibres off, and when I have found old stashes of nettle in the back of a plant fibre corner that had been forgotten they too were easy to process. I remember Berte makes mention in her nettle book of labeling the crop year and storing her nettles at least a year. You of course can harvest from freshly harvested and retted- but way more time consuming so if you want to go into production for clothing it is worth the wait!
 
r ranson
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I brought my retting in when the stems started to get black spots.  A little over two weeks. 

The great thing about retting is that if you under ret, you can always put it out again.  The bad thing is that if you over ret, there's nothing one can do.

I haven't had a chance to play with my stems yet to see if they are ready.

One thing I did notice is that the thicker the stem, the faster the ret - just like the books tell.
 
r ranson
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Some more information about retting

Retting, process employing the action of bacteria and moisture on plants to dissolve or rot away much of the cellular tissues and gummy substances surrounding bast-fibre bundles, thus facilitating separation of the fibre from the stem. Basic methods include dew retting and water retting.

Dew retting, which is common in areas having limited water resources, is most effective in climates with heavy nighttime dews and warm daytime temperatures. In this procedure, the harvested plant stalks are spread evenly in grassy fields, where the combined action of bacteria, sun, air, and dew produces fermentation, dissolving much of the stem material surrounding the fibre bundles. Within two to three weeks, depending upon climatic conditions, the fibre can be separated. Dew-retted fibre is generally darker in colour and of poorer quality than water-retted fibre.

In water retting, the most widely practiced method, bundles of stalks are submerged in water. The water, penetrating to the central stalk portion, swells the inner cells, bursting the outermost layer, thus increasing absorption of both moisture and decay-producing bacteria. Retting time must be carefully judged; under-retting makes separation difficult, and over-retting weakens the fibre. In double retting, a gentle process producing excellent fibre, the stalks are removed from the water before retting is completed, dried for several months, then retted again.

Natural water retting employs stagnant or slow-moving waters, such as ponds, bogs, and slow streams and rivers. The stalk bundles are weighted down, usually with stones or wood, for about 8 to 14 days, depending upon water temperature and mineral content.

Tank retting, an increasingly important method, allows greater control and produces more uniform quality. The process, usually employing concrete vats, requires about four to six days and is feasible in any season. In the first six to eight hours, called the leaching period, much of the dirt and colouring matter is removed by the water, which is usually changed to assure clean fibre. Waste retting water, which requires treatment to reduce harmful toxic elements before its release, is rich in chemicals and is sometimes used as liquid fertilizer....


This last line is interesting "Waste retting water, which requires treatment to reduce harmful toxic elements before its release, is rich in chemicals and is sometimes used as liquid fertilizer."  I wonder what treatment they use.  It is pretty toxic stuff but full of soil nutrients.  
 
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