It’s flax time again in Nova Scotia as NSCAD prof weaves a sustainable textile supply chain
When Jennifer Green looks at a flax plant, she doesn’t just see a stalky green stem with a blue flower. She sees potential.
She sees linen. She sees clothing, rugs, tapestries and quilts. She sees rope, paper and dye. She sees a way to bring farmers and artists together. She sees a way to connect urban communities to rural ones.
When Green sees flax, she sees the potential for an eco-friendly textile industry to emerge in Nova Scotia.
Green is a professor at NSCAD University in Halifax who has been a spinner and weaver of natural fabrics for over a decade. In 2022, Green was researching flax during a sabbatical project and fell in love with the idea of growing her own.
“Flax is amazing. One plant can produce so many things,” says Green.
Flax is a versatile plant that, above all, is used to make linen. Green learned Nova Scotia’s climate is ideal for flax-growing. In fact, from the time of European settlement till the 1920s, there was a successful linen industry in the province. Now, with the popularity of cheap clothing manufactured overseas, those local supply chains are long gone.
Green saw this gap and wanted linen made from Nova Scotian flax again. She wanted to be a part of every stage of the linen creation process — from farm to fabric. But Green was having difficulties — and reservations — about starting her own farm.
“I was feeling really daunted by the idea of breaking into a new rural community coming from a city context. And finding land was hard,” she says.
So, Green reached out to farmers who already had established farms and endeavoured to grow flax with them. “I wanted to use this idea as a way to build a community around flax-growing.”
Last year, Green got a van, filled it with supplies for growing and researching flax, and connected four farms to different craftspeople around the province. With that, the Flaxmobile project was born.
Flaxmobile is an initiative connecting farmers, fibre mills, craftspeople and consumers. Each contributes their skills in the production of linen textiles.
This year, 17 more farms and 15 more craftspeople are participating.
From farm to fabric: how Flaxmobile works
Flaxmobile works in several stages, and education, research and collaboration are involved each step of the way.
Planting takes place in late April and early May. Green travels to each farm and helps plant — teaching, if need be, about the flax-growing process. The Flaxmobile team also conducts research on flax, hoping to learn over time the best methods for growing the crop.
Lola Brown is a farmer who, with her husband and five children, runs Wilder Hill farms, a small, off-thegrid organic operation that began growing flax with Flaxmobile last year. Brown says the Flaxmobile project was a perfect match for her family farm’s ambitions.
“Nova Scotia has the perfect climate for flax,” says Brown, “but it’s challenging to learn. Not many grow it anymore, so having someone like Jennifer eager to learn with you and walk you step by step through the process was so ideal.”
Through September and October, the flax is retted by farmers like Brown. Retting is the process of breaking down the plant into fibres that can be spun into thread.
By November, the flax is retted, the farmer’s work is done and the spinning process begins.
The now separated flax fibres, called stricks, are spun into thread by spinners across the province, Green being one of them.
“Knowing the result of our labour will go to something both usable and beautiful is truly exciting,” says Brown.
From November through January, the stricks are transformed into threads, and the other parts of the plant are processed as well. Fifty per cent of the crop goes back to the farmers — almost half of last year’s crop is being made into workwear garments for the farmers who grew it.
“Knowing your clothing was made here,” says Brown, “from fibres grown here, it connects us to our clothes in a more meaningful way. It gets us away from the global, fast-fashion garbage dump that we’re in. And as a bonus, linen is beautiful and timeless.”
In February, artists will get the spun fibre, and other materials they may have requested. Throughout the year, the artists prepare an exhibition of their work for the following fall.
Anita Cazzola, a textile and installation artist with the project, is looking to use her yield in as many ways as possible.
“I feel so, so lucky to be able to have that deep connection with the farmer who’s growing the flax so that I can witness and aid in the process of bringing the fibre into being,” says Cazzola.
Alongside textiles, Cazzola hopes to grind flax seeds into flour for a loaf of bread, make brooms and brushes from the raw fibre, use the flower’s dye and even repurpose the seeds’ oil to make paint.
The future of Flaxmobile
When asked what the end goal of Flaxmobile is, Green is frank with her ambitions: “I want to see the development of a textile linen industry here,” she says.
That means production being scaled up in the coming years, as well as working with more farms and larger plots of land.
She’d also like more farmers and craftspeople to get involved with Flaxmobile, and to see the general public learning about flax.
“I think it’s really important to me that we start to value our farmers and also value the labour that goes into our clothing,” she says.
From the farmer’s perspective, Brown wants nothing less as well: “My dream is to see fields of beautiful blue flax flowers everywhere and know that Nova Scotia can be a leading supplier in Canada.”
Bridging the urban-rural divide is also at the heart of the project. Most artists with the project are based in the city or come from an urban background. Connecting farmers to artists builds special relationships.
“Sometimes when it comes to the urban and the rural, I can feel like one side doesn’t understand each other,” says Brown.
“The more we get to know each other, the more you understand the perks and the difficulties of the lifestyles on each side. To see us come together over a crop like flax — it’s really beautiful.”
For more information on the Flaxmobile project visit flaxmobile.com, the project is always looking for new farmers and craftspeople or researchers interested in getting involved.