Things to Make and Do

Turning flax into linen is this summer’s spinning and weaving project.

Flax is the fibre that comes from the plant Linum usitatissimum. Once it has been processed and spun (and then woven) it becomes linen.

The aim of this project  – which could be subtitled ‘Yet more adventures in spinning and weaving.’  is to take flax fibre, spin it into yarn and then weave that yarn into a length of linen cloth. This is Part One: Spinning.

Traditionally flax was processed into stricks – long lengths of fibre extracted from the plant stems after a process of retting, scutching and hackling. There’s a great old Pathe News Film about Flax processing here.

Modern mechanisation produces flax ‘tops’ where the fibres are now shorter (about 4 – 6 inches) and lying parallel in a loose rope. So 1kg of unbleached linen tops were purchased.

Stage One: Preparing the Fibre.

Flax Stricks were dressed onto a distaff, which held the long fibres in place ready for spinning. This is trickier when using tops. Another technique is to spin ‘from the fold’ which involves pulling off sections and folding these over a finger and spinning from there. But after a little research and a little experimentation the best option was to pull off sections (about 6 inches long) and spreading each out width ways into a rectangle which then got rolled up into a sort of rolag.

They look flaxen ringlets.

Stage Two: Spinning

Because of the way it grows, apparently flax prefers to be spun ‘S’ twist – so the wheel is turned anti-clockwise.Wool is usually spun ‘Z’ twist (clockwise). And to keep it smooth the fibre needs to be dampened at the point of spinning, which softens the natural gum on the fibre which then holds all the fibres together. If spun dry the resulting yarn is distinctly hairy. You can just wet your thumb on your tongue or lower lip as you go along, but a little pot of water placed beside the wheel will do just as well. Read the tale of Habetrot for a warning about using your lips to wet your thumb when spinning.

The resulting yarn. About 2100m – well over a mile of it!

These are all singles. There’s no need to ply as it’s going onto the loom in due course. It’s also unwashed and distinctly string-like at the moment. But this is only part one. The Weaving is yet to come.