gather and grow

Homegrown, hand-spun living in the city

flax

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?

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Crushing the flax stem between the blades of a traditional wooden flax break

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:

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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.

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Combing the bundle of flax fiber on a hackle.

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.

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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

6 thoughts on “Flax to linen

  1. How wonderful to read your blog! I am in a very active flax and linen study group in western Massachusetts. We are planning to host a flax and linen symposium in a year and a half, in August of 2016. There is such a lot of interest in flax just now, what a thrill.

    1. Mari says:

      Hi Lisa, Oh thank you for writing! I am in Massachusetts regularly because my husband’s family is from Boston, and we come to Western Mass from time to time. This sounds like a good excuse to make my way there…

      1. Okay, that’s great! Please keep in touch. I am on facebook. My weaving business website is http://www.weft.us. I am in Williamsburg MA. The dates we have chosen are August 20 and 21, 2016, should you wish to pencil them into your calendar. This symposium should be very interesting!!
        You might want to know that Becky Ashenden is now hosting week-long flax and linen classes at Vavstuga Weaving School in Shelburne Falls MA…I was in the beta class last year, and it is quite good and quite fun. There are two scheduled for August in this new year.
        Do you have the excellent book by Patricia Baines? It is a truly jam-packed volume on the topic.

      2. Mari says:

        Hi Lisa, your weaving looks stunning! Thanks for all the info. I smile to see that you’re in Williamsburg — it has a special place in my heart, my husband and I even considered buying a farm there recently… I do hope to connect with you and the fiber crafts community in that area soon!

  2. Flax and Linen symposium is solid! August 20 and 21, 2016 at Historic Deerfield in Deerfield MA. NE Flax and Linen Study Group, P. O. Box 611, Williamsburg MA 01096

    1. Mari says:

      Fantastic, thanks for letting me know, Lisa! I’ve marked my calendar. Let me know if you’re looking for someone to talk about the natural dyeing of flax and linen at the symposium.

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