Sunday, May 7, 2023

Writing is Like Retting by Molly MacRae

This post won’t take long – unlike writing a novel or processing flax for making linen.

I write mysteries and dabble in fiber and textile stuff, and I’m sometimes amazed by the parallels between the two – especially when it comes to processing flax and producing a murder mystery. Both, for instance, are labor intensive and take months or years. They also involve wicked implements ideal for villains looking for their next weapons.

Here are the steps for processing flax, briefly described, and what I see as the corresponding steps in writing. Some of the parallels are obvious and need no explanation.

photo of blooming flax courtesy of Pixabay

Sowing the seeds – Necessary for flax and stories.

Growing – See above parallel.

Pulling – To harvest, pull the whole flax plant up by its roots to maximize the length of the fibers. / To write, pull all the ideas for your novel together and start typing.

Drying – Gather the plants into bundles that you can get your hands around. Stack them in stooks or hang them to dry. / Getting your hands around . . . a neck? Hanging? Some of these flax steps sound just plain violent; your writing doesn’t have to be but take notes for your villains.

Rippling – Removing the seed capsules; can be done with a spiked implement called a ripple. It looks like a giant, very sharp comb. Or put the dried flax stalks in a pillowcase and roll over them with a rolling pin to remove the seeds. / Spikes, bags over heads, and lethal rolling pins. More wickedness.

Retting – Think ‘rotting;’ a process for separating the outer cover of the flax stalks from the cellulose core; requires moisture and mold; can be done by submerging the flax in a kiddie pool, a pond, weighing the flax down in a creek, or laying it out in the snow. Takes weeks or months. / Writing a novel takes even longer than retting, a time during which writers might think their brains or novels or both have gone rotten. On the bright side, there are good suggestions here for body disposal.

Drying (again) – Retted, dried flax stalks can be kept for decades before further processing. / So can the manuscript in your bottom drawer.

Breaking and Scutching – After retting and drying, the stalks are beaten with a big wooden contraption about the size of a shaving horse, then further smashed, to remove the fibers from the outer cover and inner core, with another wooden tool called a scutching knife or scutching sword. / So many ideas for mayhem.

photo by Alan Broyles for the Johnson City Press
 showing the author with hackles in 1989

Hackling – Hackles (also called heckles or hatchels) are boards with spikes attached (see photo above).  The previously retted, broken and scutched flax is repeatedly pulled through the spikes, thus separating the fibers, straightening them, and leaving them clean, fine, and ready to spin. / Again with the spikes, but also back to writing craft; separating ideas, reading and re-reading your work to make the story clear, straightforward, and fine. (Has a villain ever used a hackle in one of my books? Yes indeed. Read Plagued by Quilt to find out who, when, and why.)

Spinning and Weaving – People have been spinning and weaving linen and stories for thousands upon thousands of years. Isn’t it grand?

What stories are you spinning and weaving these days?







  1. I used to quilt and thought piecing together a story had a lot of similarities to piecing together a quilt too.

    I've seen those hackles in real life and they do look nasty!

  2. Thanks for taking me through a process I had not had a clue about.

    I'd always thought about animals "raising their hackles" when they "got their back up." But now I also vison a fierce woman rasing a very different set of hackles to demonstrate her anger or fierce determination.

  3. Now I know what a hackle is! Fascinating process.

  4. I've always had the vague notion that producing linen was a labor-intensive process. I know "linens," as bedding and table coverings were often called, were considered valuable family possessions. Your description shows why that was.

  5. Quilting is another good comparison to writing, Annette. Sometimes I feel like I'm putting together a crazy quilt - emphasis on crazy.

  6. It really is an amazing process. There are usable fibers in other plants stems, too, that can be soaked until pliable then twined. You might want to experiment, Jim. I can see you or one of your characters using homemade cordage in a pinch.

  7. WOW - I learned to spin and weave in girl scouts, but we never had to prepare the wool to spin. Now I know why! My hat is off to you, Molly.

  8. It makes you wonder how this process was discovered thousands of years ago. Fascinating. Thanks for enlightening me about linen. Now I understand why linen items are so expensive.

  9. I learned a lot from your post... scares me what you can kill with from a simple past-time that creates such beauty.