Report Synopsis

From Seed to Shirt: Flax to Linen in Canada for the Local and Global Market

Josh Oulton

Canada has a history of growing flax and processing it specifically for fibre. It has been over 80 years since we, in Canada, grew flax for fibre. In 2011, on our farm in Port Williams, Nova Scotia, we started to grow flax for fibre, with a vision to offer textiles to our customers along with fruit, vegetables and meat.

In 2019, I had the privilege of completing travel for a Nuffield Scholarship (6 countries in 4 weeks) to learn about flax for spinning yarn and making fabric around the world. My study focused on how other people are growing and processing their flax, challenges they face, the history of the industry, the markets they sell to, and the potential for Canadian and Nova Scotian flax to fit into the world market. Flax is a relatively lightweight but high-value commodity; it has great export potential for the world market.

I travelled from mid-January to late February and visited Belgium, Poland, Egypt, India, Singapore, and Guam. I found the most relevant information for our purposes in Belgium and Poland, which I feel have the most similar growing and marketing conditions and most applicable lessons to the Nova Scotia case. Egypt and India offered interesting market contrasts.

I came back to our own farm in Canada re-invigorated about our idea that we can produce quality long line flax for fine fabrics, of the quality that they achieve in Normandy, and which is highly valued for flax spinners and weavers. In addition to gaining knowledge about growing and selling flax in similar climatic conditions, I gathered information about what to do with the other products that result from flax processing, such as the tow (short flax fibres) and shives (flax straw) so that I might understand how to optimize both our production and sales ecosystems.

Specific climatic regions of Canada are well positioned to begin growing flax for long line linen production. I propose three main recommendations based on my study:

  1. We need to start educating farmers in those regions of Canada about growing and retting flax;

  2. Include instruction in flax fibre production, perhaps under the Flax Council of Canada;

  3. Investment should be made in scutching mills to make fibre available for export.