Flax, from Seed to Linen Yarn
Some of my earliest memories are of a field of lovely blue flowers swaying in the breeze and of my maternal grandmother spinning in her kitchen in the evening. I spent a lot of time with my Finnish grandparents as a young child; both of my parents were working and childcare was difficult to find. I still have several kilos of flax grown by my grandparents. It is in perfect condition although it is over 50 years old.
I have grown a small amount of fibre flax (Linum usitatissimum) in my garden in Wales every summer for 25 years. The size of my plot has varied from 12 square metres to just one. I rarely sow my flax before April and have sometimes left it as late as early May, depending on the weather and how busy I am. I use about 15 grams of seed per square metre to obtain slender stems and fine fibre. I broadcast the seed evenly over my plot, raking it in lightly and covering with a net to prevent birds from eating it. My flax follows a crop like potatoes which were grown in well manured soil. I add some wood ash before sowing the flax. My soil is fairly heavy clay, but I am lucky to have a south facing garden with plenty of sun. The seedlings emerge in about a week. When the seedlings are still small it is good to keep the plot weed-free and watered during dry weather. When the plants are growing well there isn’t much to do before harvesting. The flowers will start appearing about 60 days after planting
Flax will be ready for harvesting in about 100 days from sowing, when the lower half of the stems will be turning yellow and the leaves falling off. There can still be some flowers on the plants and the seeds will not yet be ripe. The longer the plants are left to grow the coarser the fibres become. Flax is a bast fibre with bundles of fibres running the whole length of the stem between a woody core and outer bark. The plants should be pulled rather than cut to obtain the maximum length of fibre. The stems are tied into bundles and left to dry in the sun. I place them against a bench or saw-horse, turning them around occasionally. Fully dried plants are called flax straw and at that stage are ready for processing.
The first process is rippling, the removal of seed heads. This is usually done by pulling the stems through a coarse comb. However, I just place a bundle of straw in a shallow tray and press the dry seed bolls with my feet so that they open and any ripe seeds fall off, making them easy to collect. I store the straw in a shed through winter and carry on with the processing during the following spring and summer, when weather conditions are less unpredictable.
The second process is retting. This loosens the fibre bundles from the stem’s inner core and outer epidermis. Retting can be done by spreading the stems loosely on a lawn; they will be kept damp by dew and rain (dew-retting). They will have to be turned over every few days in order to obtain an even ret. Dew-retting can take anything between 4 and 6 weeks. Another method is to keep the stems submerged in water (water-retting).
I ret my flax mainly in a water tank. As soon as the water starts to smell foul, it needs to be changed every day. This prevents the plants getting slimy and smelly by the time retting is finished. Water-retting is much faster than dew-retting. Depending on the temperature of the water, retting can take anything between 6 and 10 days. Whichever way the flax is retted, it is important to test it regularly to avoid over-retting. Under-retted flax can always be processed again, but over-retted flax is spoilt. To test if retting is complete, bend a few stems and see if the fibres come loose easily from the core.
By growing and processing your own flax you can obtain many different shades of natural colour depending on soil and weather conditions during growing and whether it is dew- or water-retted. Dew-retting gives greyish colours, whereas water-retting gives pale golden fibres. I find it fascinating that every year’s yield of fibres differs both in colour and quality.
After retting, the stems need to dry properly before the next stage, which is breaking. During breaking the well-retted and dry inner core, or boon, is broken into pieces and falls off, leaving the long fibres intact. Breaking is a messy job and is best done outside. Remaining pieces of boon and any shorter and tangled fibres are removed in a scutching process. My husband has made tools for both breaking and scutching; they are similar to the ones my grandmother used, but smaller and without legs for easier storage. I can clamp them to a garden table when needed.
The final stage before spinning is hackling. Hackles are several parallel rows of metal pins set in wood. By gripping the flax firmly at one end it is pulled through the pins starting with the tips and progressing further into the bundle with each draw. This is then repeated with the other end. The sharp pins divide the bundles of flax into individual fibres and separate the long ‘line’ fibres from short ‘tow’ fibres. I use two hackles, first a coarser one with fewer pins and then finish with a finer one. The resulting flax ‘strick’ is shiny and all the fibres lie parallel to each other. The tangled tow fibres left in the hackles are not wasted, but are also collected for spinning.
To be able to spin the long line fibres they have to be arranged carefully. This is usually done with a distaff. The shape and size of traditional distaffs varied enormously, as did the way they were dressed. Every country and region had their own variation. I use my grandmother’s method to dress my distaff. I place a small finger of fibres in a U-shape on a table and pull back alternately from both ends with my left hand while easing some fibres from the fold with my right hand. When I have filled the whole length of the table I place my distaff on the fibres and roll them around it. I will repeat the spreading and rolling-on as many times as needed to use all the fibres. It is important that the fibres are well separated from each other. The more carefully this is done the easier it is to control the amount of fibres that are drafted during spinning. Distaffs can be made by rolling a piece of card into a cone which can be placed on top of a broom handle. This can be tied to a table or chair leg. The distaff is usually positioned on the spinner’s left side. It is important to have the distaff at the correct height to make spinning comfortable.
It is often said that linen should be S-spun because flax fibres tend to twist naturally that way. However, my grandmother as well as all the other people I knew in Finland always spun with Z-twist. I have been involved in recreating many historic fabrics and always had to use Z-twist yarn. For the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s bedspread I spun 3.6 kilos of fine linen yarn which according to the original had to be Z-spun. All commercially spun linen yarns are Z-spun. I think it is fine to spin whichever way you feel more comfortable with. I still spin mine with a Z-twist.
To create a smooth even yarn, line flax needs to be spun wet. Moisture helps to fix all the fibre ends into the yarn. My grandmother, like most of her contemporaries, used saliva by spitting on her fingers while spinning. These days it is considered unhygienic so most people use water. You can also make a flax-seed solution by boiling a small amount of seed in water. I use a sponge in a small bowl on a towel on my lap. It can also be hung from the spinning wheel or kept on a chair nearby so that it is easy to reach.
Line flax is best spun fine. A wheel with a high ratio works best, but most wheels can be used. I am lucky to have my grandmother’s spinning wheel which is a joy to use for flax spinning. To start spinning I pull some fibres from the distaff with my left hand, twisting them around a long leader with moistened right hand fingers, and start treadling.
My left hand draws down the fibres and the moistened fingers of my right hand smooth the yarn by lightly rolling it as the twist is forming. When I have smoothed the yarn all the way back to the distaff I will allow a small amount of twist through the fingers of my left hand to catch a few new fibres from the distaff for my next draw. It is important to learn to feel how much twist has built in the yarn so that you know when the next draw down can take place. You have to be careful not to let too much twist into the fibres on the distaff or you will get too many new fibres and very thick yarn. Too little, and the fibres can become detached from the distaff. It is important to move the yarn from hook to hook regularly to avoid losing the end if the yarn breaks. When you master the technique you can create a lovely rhythm with the left hand controlling the twist and drawing fibres down, the right hand smoothing the yarn from orifice back to the distaff. I think linen yarn for weaving is most beautiful as singles. I never ply my linen yarn.
Tow can be spun by placing it on a special tow fork from which the fibres can be drawn down in a similar way to spinning line from the distaff. Tow can also be carded and spun much like any other fibre. After carding I loosen it from the carder and roll it sideways rather than making a normal rolag; this way more of the fibres are aligned parallel. Line fibres lend themselves to spinning a fine yarn whereas tow can be spun thicker. It can be spun wet or dry. I usually spin thicker tow yarns dry, but thinner ones wet. I can’t, however, use my grandmother’s wheel to spin thick because it has too high a ratio, giving the tow too much twist. Short combed fibres in the form of sliver are also available, but I don’t find them as interesting to spin. All the towels and everyday table linens in my grandparents’ house were woven with tow yarns. Line was often sold as yarn or woven fabric. Tow is used extensively for decorative weaving in Finland. It is also fun to knit with, on its own or blended with other fibres.
Linen yarn will feel stiff and hard when it comes off the bobbin. Scouring will soften, clean and lighten the colour of the yarn. I boil it with 25-50% (of yarn weight) of both soap and washing soda (more for dew-retted than water-retted fibre) letting it simmer at least an hour. Never leave the skeins in the dirty water to cool and rinse them well until the water is clear. To lighten the yarn further, repeat the boiling, but reduce the quantity of soap and soda.
For the best result, re-skein the still-wet yarn. Run it through a damp sponge or just roll it gently between your fingers while winding the skein, smoothing all loose fibre ends back into the yarn. Hang the new skein to see which way it wants to turn, then twist it in the opposite direction, fold and hang it to dry from both ends without a weight. When dry, open up the skein and it should hang straight. To further soften the yarn, work the skein up and down between your hands, a section at a time.
It is interesting, as well as confusing, how somewhere between the distaff and orifice the fibre as it is spun changes from flax to linen.
Riitta learned to spin and weave with her grandmother in Finland where she later studied for a degree in woven textiles. She has lived in Pembrokeshire for 37 years. She runs courses in her workshop as well as other venues. Riitta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org http://riitta.webeden.co.uk
Linda Heinrich (1992) The Magic of Linen, Flax seed to woven cloth, Canada: Orca Book Publishers
Patricia Baines (1989) Linen, Hand spinning and weaving, London: Batsford Books
Kati Reeder Meek (2000) Reflections from a Flaxen past, For love of Lithuanian weaving, Alpena, Michigan: Penannular Press International
Flax seed can be bought from wildfibres.co.uk and flaxland.co.uk
Tow and stricks from Riitta Sinkkonen Davies, email@example.com
Flax stricks from Moira Diane Wood, firstname.lastname@example.org
Readers interested in flax cultivation and processing on an industrial scale may wish to read Journal 227, September 2008, Straw into Gold – the Processing of Flax, Moira Diane Wood.
For a review of The Big Book of Flax please see page 40 and of The Magic of Linen, Flax seed to woven cloth (recently republished as Linen from Flax Seed to Woven Cloth; Schiffer) please see Journal 240.
The Journal is published on behalf of the Association of Guilds of Spinners Weavers and Dyers. It covers a wide range of textile subjects, including articles on historic textile techniques and cutting edge modern design.