Flax Ferment

Books & Literature

<p>Beautiful blue flax blossoms bloom for one day.>

Beautiful blue flax blossoms bloom for one day.>

By Josef Beery

Tiny strands of Linum usitatissimum, the ubiquitous flax plant have held human culture together like a spider’s threads for millennia. These incredibly strong fibers can be discovered directly if one attempts to use a weed eater to trim the edges of their garden flax bed. The plant’s stem is lined with cellulose filaments which bind together quickly into a rope-like mass which will stall the most powerful gasoline engine’s spinning trimmer end.

Neolithic man discovered these bast fibers at least 30,000 years ago. Easily grown, flax is one of the first documented cultivated plants. It’s fiber allowed man to not only create string and rope, but to develop weaving and begin to wear cloth in addition to furs and skins. Egyptian tomb paintings often picture farmers growing flax and weavers making linen cloth.

The species name usitatissimum alludes to flax’s other uses. Flax seed is nutritious and we still add it to many foods to improve their nutritional value. The seed has a high fat content and was pressed to produce a rich oil for cooking and lighting.

Of what concern is this unique plant to book artists? To me, flax is THE bookmaker’s plant! For centuries, after paper making arrived in the west, it was linen rags (cloth originally woven from flax) which provided the raw fiber for paper making. Thick printers’ ink (not water-based writing ink) is made from linseed oil pressed from flax seed mixed with pigments such as lampblack. The oil is a drying oil, it does not stay greasy, but hardens with exposure to air into a durable surface which is the basis of not only printers’ ink but almost every form of paint. Finally, these linen pages printed with linseed oil inks are gathered into sections and sewn together with linen thread into our bound books. Amazing!

Flax is THE bookmaker’s plant! For centuries, after paper making arrived in the west, it was linen rags (cloth originally woven from flax) which provided the raw fiber for paper making.

Students from the VABC and University community recently joined UVA art professor Dean Dass and me to investigate the process of manufacturing paper from the flax I had grown in my mountainside garden over the past several years. We almost immediately discovered that transforming flax fiber into a material useful for making paper is, like so many other pre-industrialization processes, HIGHLY labor intensive. The steps developed over the millennia by all of those folks with far more time on their hands than my iPad-powered students include rippling, retting, breaking, scutching, and hackling. And these unusual names describe only the activities required BEFORE one starts making paper.

The title of this short article comes from step number two, retting, or rotting. To remove the fiber from the plant’s woody stem, the natural bacteria and other microscopic critters living on the plant are encouraged to proliferate and devour the pectins and other non-fiber portions. To do this we placed the truckload of sheaves under water in a cattle trough. After several days the contents indeed began to ferment. A thick bubbly mass of foam covered the surface of the water and a noxious odor permeated the paper-making studio. We tolerated the discomfort for a week and then poured the malodorous soup down the floor drains. After rinsing and drying, the now weakened stems were ready to be separated into fibers.

The next steps, breaking, scutching, and hackling, required the class to manufacture some primitive tools. Rude flax breaks, scutching knives and boards, and hackling combs were built from 2x4s, nails, and bolts purchased at Lowes. Long dusty hours later we had converted our haystack of dried flax plants into just about half a pound of usable fiber! [We really did learn an awful lot too, mostly why we didn’t want to ever do this again.]

Finally, we could begin the paper-making process. Dean led us in chopping the fiber into small bits, cooking it in a mild caustic solution and then beating it until the fibers were so macerated that they were just dying to make new friends—it turns out this “affinity” to bond to other fibers is the essential building block of paper. But getting these fibers pulled apart on a microscopic level involves many, many hours of heavy beating with mallets and sticks. Fortunately for us all, those lovely Dutch invented the Hollander beater several centuries ago. [While papermakers in China and Japan were still beating their fiber plants with sticks for days, westerners simply dumped the fibers into a water-filled vat where a rotating blade pulled the fibers apart.] This still takes time and skill, but we were instructed by one who had been down this road many times before.

Now we had PULP—a slurry of tiny fibers in great buckets of water. The Chinese had developed methods for straining these fibers out of the water, squeezing these resulting sheets under pressure, and then drying them to produce the felt-like product we know as paper. This was the fun part. We rolled up our sleeves and using large picture-frame-sized screens dipped paper from the vat. We learned to carefully “couch” the sheets onto wool blankets and then using hydraulic presses and fans slowly remove all of the water.

The result, paper. Beautiful, crispy, tan-colored paper! Pure flax paper, a material almost unobtainable any other way than be making it yourself. It is very strong and durable due to its long fibers. [Flax is an important ingredient in the paper the Cranes Corporation uses in making the paper used for US currency]. It is wonderfully translucent and invites the artist to hold it up to the light and imagine its myriad creative possibilities.

Newly appreciative of the industrial revolution and the discovery that cellulose provided by trees—or in finer paper, cotton—could make highly serviceable paper, we vowed to use paper, which we had so long taken for granted, as the very precious and magical material it really is. After four four-hour sessions we divided up our half-pound of paper between us and promised one another to meet again next month to share what each of us has been inspired to make with this miracle matrix.


About the Author

Josef Beery is one of the founding members of the Virginia Arts of the Book Center and a graphic artist specializing in the design of publications for educational institutions, museums, historic sites, and literary publishers.