Guild member Sophie presented this workshop. There is a long history of flax growing in Friesland in the Netherlands where Sophie lives. As recently as 150 years ago everyone had a small field of flax, which the women spun into linen yarn for shirts, nightwear, children’s clothes, lace etc. The woman who taught Sophie to spin flax was taught by her grandmother.
Flax needs a well manured, well tilled sandy clay soil, a growing temperature of 10-26 degrees, full sun and plenty of moisture. The seeds were planted closely (about 2400 per square metre) so that the plants would grow tall and give long fibres – flax is a bast fibre like hemp and ramie: the fibre comes from within the stem. Traditionally the seeds were sown on the 100th day of the year (10 April), hand weeded after 2 weeks, and harvested around 18 July after 100 days of growing. The plants were hand pulled for maximum length, and gathered into stooks to dry in the fields. Then they were rippled to remove the seeds which can be used for linseed oil, medicine and animal feed.
Once the seeds were removed the flax could be stored, as it was no longer of interest to mice! It was generally stored over winter, then in April the retting process was begun. The flax was tied in bundles and put into ditches and ponds, covered in mud to make it sink and left for about 3 weeks. Retting can be done in salt as well as fresh water, and flax can also be dew retted in the fields. Retting dissolves the pectin in the outer sheath of the stem releasing the fibres. Because of the bacteria involved the smell was very unpleasant and there was damage to water life. Nowadays flax is retted indoors in tanks of hot water with chemicals. The retting is complete when the hard core of the stem can be pulled out.
After drying the next part of the process is scutching – using a wooden blade to break up and remove the hard outer coating. Then the flax is hackled to separate the fibres and produce fine flax for spinning. The shorter fibres were used for rougher yarn for rope and string.
A dressed distaff is used when spinning flax to keep the long fibres from tangling. Sophie has a distaff that attaches to her wheel, but a distaff can just be a straight stick with a cardboard cone on top. Sophie showed us how she dresses her distaff: take a small portion of the flax strick; take hold of some of the fibres at the end, pull them out and lay them on a table; carry on like this until the whole portion has been opened out, then it roll onto the cone, and tie a ribbon tightly round the top, then loosely crossed down to the bottom (see pictures below).
Flax has a natural twist to the left and is spun S (with the wheel turned anti-clockwise). It is best spun damp, so Sophie has a damp sponge in a pot hanging on her wheel. Grip the fibre near the distaff with the left hand, dampen right fingers, pull out fibre and feed onto the wheel. Instead of watching the orifice you watch your fingers. Change hooks often as the yarn loosens as it dries and it is easy to lose and end! For weaving the flax needs to be spun fine with a high twist. The linen yarn is often used as a single (i.e. not plied).
The linen skein needs to be boiled in a solution of soap (half the dry weight of the yarn) and sodium carbonate (washing soda). Rinse (can use cold water) and dry. Repeat the process if necessary. The washed skeins used to be taken to a weaving mill to be woven and bleached – moisture, light and air will bleach. Linen has several natural shades depending on the retting process – greyish from mud, slightly bleached from salt etc. It will not dye successfully until it has been bleached completely and only the cellulose remains. The yarn is about 25% thinner after bleaching.
The afternoon Craft and Chat session was lively. Sheila is following an on-line weaving course from Jane Stafford Textiles, and showed a beautiful woven sample she had done. A number of other people had weaving projects to share; Dave showed us his hand spun and dyed knitted garments and a fleece picker that looks safer than a swing picker; Sarah had been doing some embroidery.
Finally Dave demonstrated how to use a nostepinne.