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Flax to Linen in Vancouver, Canada - Kwantlen Polytechnic University and EartHand Gleaners

Updated: May 26, 2023

The "A Year On The Field" project welcomes a new grower - the partnership of the

Kwantlen Polytechnic University and EartHand Gleaners from Canada. In the following article, Dr. Kathy Dunster introduces the project! We look forward to working together!

We are a partnership of an academic research scientist (Dr. Kathy Dunster @ KPU) and a local NGO of artists, makers, and educators who believe that bringing people together to share creative projects that connect us with the land helps our communities become strong, resilient and just (Sharon Kallis at EartHand Gleaners). We are based in the Metro Vancouver area of coastal British Columbia. Flax was grown locally for linen cordage until just after WW2 and used to make rope and fish nets. Over the past 10 years interest has grown around the province to revitalize production of flax for fibre to support a sustainable local linen industry – from small recreational plots grown by fibre artists to organic production.

EartHand artists and makers have been at the centre of the movement to re-skill farmers, processors, and makers to grown and process flax for linen since 2014. The aim is to expand cultural conversations around the sustainability of natural local fibres versus the social and environmental implications of the present dependence on cheap and durable fibres that are used in fast fashion. Visit the EartHand YouTube channel for a deep dive into the many eco-art cultural practices EartHand is involved with:

In 2017 the scientist on the team posed some basic research questions that continue to direct our work:

• What do we know about the history of flax that can inform fibre flax growing in South Coastal British Columbia?

• Are there climate adaptive fibre flax varieties that we can grow here?

• Are there better varieties for our climate and soils than the modern commercial varieties available from northern Europe?

• What heritage varieties can we retrieve from Plant Gene Resources (PGR), the federal agriculture seed bank in Saskatoon to conduct research and seed trials?

• What sort of effort [time] is needed to increase small quantities (100 seeds of each variety provided by PGR) to grow the acreages of organic fibre flax needed to run a local processing and spinning mill?

• What growing, harvesting, and processing techniques and tools are needed and what skills are essential to connect growing and producing to the final material product?

• Given the changing climate, can flax become an early season rotation crop for small organic farms alongside perennial Indigenous fibre plants such as nettle (Urtica dioica) and dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum)?

In 2017 PGR sent 100 seeds of 18 varieties from their fibre flax seed bank for us to grow, evaluate the fibre, and increase seed. We grew in pots for a few years until 2020 when the trials moved to the teaching farm at KPU Richmond. This Pandemic Crop yielded fantastic results (both seed increase and fibre quality) for 10 PGR varieties due to perfect growing conditions.

All the PGR varieties grown in 2020 produced a grand total of 854 grams (not even a kilogram!). When growing flax for linen you need 12 to16 grams or more of seed per square meter or 50 to 65 kg per acre. There are 4047 square metres in an acre. Right now, we have enough overall to grow 53 to 71 square metres. We clearly must keep growing and increasing seed until we get at least 50 kg of each variety.

Eleven PGR varieties were selected for the 2023 trials to keep the seed alive. We have learned that flax seed has a very short storage life and needs to be grown to remain viable. Seven of the PGR varieties originated in Ireland, two were bred in France and one originated in Sweden. We are excited to be growing about 70 m2 of Linore x Agatha, a hybrid variety bred at Oregon State University for winter hardiness and fiber length.

For all our flax research, measuring is done once a week, and photo documentation of all the steps along the way from soil preparation to seeding, weeding, harvesting, processing, spinning, and weaving. Not much has changed in the techniques and technology of growing flax and all the volunteers involved in this project are directly connected to a process that humans have been doing for thousands of years. The lovely thing about growing flax is that it is so predictable. We sowed on April 5 and have set our harvest date for July 14 – if you are in Vancouver please join us!

Text prepared by:

Dr. Kathy Dunster


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