As I mentioned in my previous post, I attended a workshop on spinning flax at the Fiber Fair this past weekend. I had spun flax before, but it’s a craft quite different from spinning wool, and I wanted some guidance from an experienced teacher. The workshop also covered the growing and processing of flax, which I’ve been wanting to learn about. Our instructor, Cassie Dickson, is a masterful spinner and weaver who specializes in weaving coverlets and processing the flax plant into linen cloth.
No wonder linen is such a prized textile, and used to be even more so in the past: it’s a lot of work! Traditionally, it would have taken about three months to grow the flax, then another month to ret it — soaking and rotting the flax stems, which loosens the fibers — and then perhaps yet another month to process the fibers by drying the stems, crushing them with the wooden blades of a flax break, combing and finally spinning the fibers. The weaving and sewing of clothes might have taken the rest of the year. So we’re talking about one full year of work towards a new set of linen clothes. How’s that to make you appreciate your wardrobe and take good care of it?
The crushing of flax, in particular, is pretty hard physical work. And yet, at the same time, so satisfying: as the woody outer layer breaks up into small bits, underneath one begins to find long, straight, blond fibers. These are then scraped, or “scutched,” using a scutching board, which Cassie demonstrates here:
Lastly, the fibers are combed using an old tool called a hackle — a pretty violent-looking one, don’t you agree? Some of us actually got our fingers scraped by the nails.
This final combing step separates the long line flax from the short, tangled fibers, called tow. Tow can still be spun, but it will be more rough, so it’s good for ropes and other everyday items. Incidentally, some of the idioms of the English language derive from this almost-forgotten terminology of flax-processing: a “tow-headed child” meant a child with hair as blond as the tow, whereas “to get one’s hackles up” — well, judging from the look of the look of the hackle, not a pleasant state to be in.
Lastly, we learned to dress a distaff, a vertical stick onto which the flax fiber is carefully wrapped and which keeps it neat for easy spinning, and practiced spinning flax with a cup of water in our laps to create even, smooth thread.
A friend of mine told me a couple of years ago when I first got into spinning: “You do know, don’t you, where all of this is going to take you? You do realize that you are inevitably going to have to learn weaving on a loom as well?” I didn’t see it then, but I think she was right. Seeing Cassie’s beautiful woven handwork, as well as these vintage linen handkerchiefs, nudged my crafter’s heart in such a way that there probably is no other way but to venture into that world as well.
Some Flax-to-linen resources:
- Linen: From Flax Seed to Woven Cloth by Linda Heinrich
- The Big Book of Flax by Christian and Johannes Zinzendorf
- the Hermitage in Pennsylvania, the community of Christian and Johannes Zinzendorf and their flax supply store — great source of flax seeds
- The Wool Gatherers: a source for beautiful quality strick flax, plans for making flax processing tools, and resources, including a fantastic “Flax Cam” — a photographic diary of a flax field