Spinning Flax

Last week was April vacation, which meant I had more free time than usual to do fun things. Last Tuesday I was thrilled to spend about four hours with Lisa Bertoldi getting some instruction in spinning flax. You might think, with all the flaxy things I do, that I would already be good at spinning flax. Not yet. It has been a goal for me for many years, but recently it has made it to the top of my “urgent” list. Urgency plus vacation days equals actually devoting time to it! Thanks to Lisa, I am quite a bit better at spinning flax now.

Here is the strick of flax spread out on the table. I am getting the fiber ready to dress the distaff. You can see the distaff on the left:

A strick is a neat arrangement of long flax fibers known as “line”. The preparation usually comes in a neat twist, which looks like this:

When you first buy them, they are usually very neat and tidy, This one has come with me on a few flax processing demonstrations and educational programs. As a result, it has been handled quite a bit, and is not as tightly twisted as it once was.

This is not my own home-grown flax. This is some lovely dew-retted flax, which is why it has that soft greyish-silver color. I always water-ret my flax, which results in a light creamy-beige color. Sometimes it comes out quite bright, almost white. Here’s a photo of some of my own flax from 2012 and 2013:

Eventually I will spin up my own home-grown and hand-processed flax and weave it into something wearable. Meanwhile, I am using commercially bought flax to practice the techniques and hone my skills.

Here is the distaff with the flax distributed around it and tied in place. It is not expertly done, but I still think it looks very pretty:

I have always felt it was kind of odd that when you are processing the fiber, you put so much work into straightening up all the long fibers and getting them all nicely aligned. However, when you get ready to spin, you wrap the fibers around a distaff in a criss-crossing, jumbled sort of way. Conversations with flax spinners over the past several months have convinced me that it is, in fact, sensible. The reason to spread all the fibers around a distaff is that when you draw them down, you can more easily control exactly which fibers come into the drafting zone, and which fibers catch the twist and get drawn in as you spin.

Here are two views of me spinning:

You can see that with this style of distaff, we supported it by pushing it down into a belt around our waists. In the photo on the left, I am trying to figure out how to allow fewer fibers into my yarn. In the photo on the right, I have figured it out (somewhat!), and am trying to practice a rolling motion with my lower hand that allows moisture to reach across all the fibers and keeps the fibers continually grabbing onto each other. I would describe the sensation as attracting nearby fibers with a sort of twisty electricity, by briefly separating the fibers to increase the surface area of each strand of fiber so they can all wrap around one another securely with maximum contact.

The water bowl in the foreground is for wetting our fingers periodically. I was wetting my lower hand to moisten the fibers, and keeping the upper hand dry. Wet spinning allows for a smoother yarn. The towel on my lap is to catch drips.

While I managed to produce a consistent yarn after a couple hours, I also got a stiff neck using this set up. Lisa suggested tipping the distaff forward so it would be in front of me, but this felt awkward and insecure at the time. However, I think that having the fibers in the same line of sight as the orifice of the wheel would be much more comfortable and ergonomic.

 

Last Session on Saturday Afternoon

Once the morning sessions at the Flax and Linen Symposium were over, and had obviously been successful, I moved into the afternoon mode. I have already posted photos of the demo session in the afternoon. I didn’t post this photo at first because it seemed too frivolous. However, I decided to include it because you can obviously see that I am happy. Goofy and happy. As nervous as I was and as much as my legs were shaking, it was fun. So, here’s a photo of me having fun amidst the anxiety:

MP happy

The bemused person standing next to me is the lovely Jill Horton Lyons of Winterberry Farm in Colrain, MA. I continued to be nervous all the way until Saturday evening, however.

I was in charge of organizing and facilitating the last panel on Saturday afternoon, called “Flax Today”. After the demonstration session down at the History Workshop, everyone headed back to the Deerfield Community Center (where the majority of the symposium was held). We were all quite happy that they had installed air conditioning earlier in the summer, since it turned out to be a very hot day. Here’s a view of the room as we were gathering:

the roomful of people

Here are some of the presenters sitting in the front row right before we got started:

right before my panel

My goal with this session was to highlight a range of contemporary, small-scale flax-growing projects and to explore some of the challenges facing a revitalized flax-to-linen industry in North America. Here are the presenters on the Flax Today panel, and a quick summary of what they talked about:

Jeff Silberman is chair of the Textile Development and Marketing department in the Jay and Patty Baker School of Business and Technology at FIT. In this session, he was speaking about the current realities of natural fibers in the global textile market, and flax in particular. Linen is currently a teeny niche which is facing a formidable competitor in hemp, which he illustrated graphically as an almost-invisible sliver on a large textile pie-chart.

Jeff at podium

Patricia Bishop is an owner and farmer at TapRoot Farms and TapRoot FibreLab in Nova Scotia. TapRoot Fibre Lab is designing and producing a line of small-scale flax processing equipment. They are also acquiring spinning equipment to process both flax and locally grown wool into yarns with the goal of creating local cloth. Check out their blog here. Each piece of flax processing equipment can function separately, or can be installed as a system that’s appropriate and affordable for local fiber/local economy initiatives. Patricia presented about the history and development of their flax growing project. She also screened video explaining the line of equipment they are creating. Engineer Mike Pickett was originally scheduled to come to the symposium and present this portion himself. However, as their production deadline loomed, he needed to stay in Nova Scotia and finish up the construction of the last machine. So, the video included never-before-seen footage of their newest equipment in operation! I was so excited and felt so lucky to be in attendance for the North America debut of this video (which you can watch on You Tube here).

Patricia Bishop TapRoot Fibre Lab

Sandy Fisher is a professional weaver and a founder of the Chico Cloth project in California. They are growing flax in arid conditions (including small patches in the shade in the winter-time) and processing it by hand with the goal of creating a uniquely local cloth. Retting under such arid conditions is a challenge! You can view some news articles about their project here and here.

Sandy Fisher Chico Cloth

Destiny Kinal of the Reinhabitory Institute, presenting on her research into small-scale technologies, growing, and processing models that could be adapted for a bioregional approach to local cloth. She is especially interested in sources of energy that are not dependent on fossil fuels, is enthusiastic about the possibilities of solar, water, and wind-powered mills.

Destiny Kinal Reinhabitory InstituteDestiny’s observations about the labor and equipment used in pre-industrial times, and her speculations regarding the necessity of communal labor, made a great segue to the final talk on Saturday night.

For the keynote talk on Saturday evening, Christian and Johannes Zinzendorf presented their research about communal flax processing in the early Moravian community of Bethlehem, PA.

Here is Johannes explaining about the fate of religious non-conformist and reformer Jan Hus, who was burned at the stake in 1415 in Europe. The followers of Hus subsequently established the Unity of the Brethren, which become the Moravian church.

Johannes explaining

Early Moravian leader Nicolaus Zinzendorf believed that God entered directly into his heart, which you can catch a glimpse of in the illustration on the screen at the left of the photo:

straight to the heart

The Moravians were avid missionaries who established outposts all over the world, which is how they wound up in Pennsylvania. Nicolaus Zinzendorf was one of the founding members of the Moravian community of bethlehem, PA in the 1740s. In addition to explaining the history of Bethlehem, and the role of flax growing and processing in the town, the Zinzendorfs shared about their own personal journey and efforts to re-create an 18th century life-style. One major take-away for me was that two men, no matter how hard-working, creative, well-educated, and dedicated, cannot do the work of an entire community. They were inspiring nonetheless.

Christian

Later on Saturday Morning at the Flax and Linen Symposium

The rest of the morning was about retting and flax processing. Again, it’s hard to take photos in the dark, and it’s hard to summarize. The first speaker about retting was Cassie Dickson (John C. Campbell Folk School) with her amazing examples of the different colors that different retting conditions can produce.

The take-aways from Cassie’s talk were: Only experience with retting can help you figure out when enough is enough. Repeated observation of your specific climate and locale will help you determine when your ret is complete. Each ret, whether water-retted or dew-retted, is unique and will yield a specific color. Label your retting batches so you can keep track. Thicker stalks will ret more quickly. Thinner stalks will ret more slowly. In a deep tank, put the coarser stalks at the top and the finer ones below, so you can pull off the coarse bundles sooner. Retting makes the water acidic, which can cause problems in metal tanks. To do a “stem check”, you have to pull it out of the tank or off the field and dry it. Then test it to see if the fibers pull free. For water-retting, keep the bundles loose. For ground-retting, flip as frequently as you can given the limitations of your scale: Daily is fine for small batches, but weekly or every two weeks is reasonable for larger acreage. Cassie also related some specific recommendations compiled from Linda Heinrich, Mavis Atton, and other sources.

First, leach the dried straw for about 4 hours to get rid of the air in the stalks and other impurities.

Second, if you are using fresh soft water, aerobic bacteria start working at this point and will work for about 8 hours.

Third, after about 8 hours, anaerobic bacteria become active, and outweigh the aerobic (think about your unturned compost).

Fourth, beginning around the eight hour mark, change 10% of the water every 8 hours or so to neutralize the acidity (and presumably to change the oxygen ratio). If your water temperature is below 70 degrees, retting will take 2-3 weeks. If it’s between 75-80 degrees, retting will take 4-7 days. If the water temperature is between 80-90 degrees, retting will take 3-5 days.

Next up after Cassie, Gina Gerhard (fellow study group member and historical interpreter extraordinaire of the mid 1700s) talked about pond retting. She showed some historical slides explaining why and when certain types of retting pits, ponds, or tanks were used. Below a certain depth (3-4 feet), you can’t maintain a consistent temperature, so pits, tanks, or ponds were limited to this depth until there was some way to control the temperature in modern times. Gina also talked about the restored retting pond in Gilmanton, New Hampshire. I posted about my visit to Gilmanton here if you’d like to see photos. She also gave some specific pointers (from Fred Bradbury’s 1921 book, I believe) about how the best retting tanks were built. Soft water is preferred, and if that isn’t available, then fill the tanks 2-3 weeks ahead of time. Surface run-off was discouraged (perhaps this depends on what’s around your tank). Clay soils were preferred for an in-ground tank or pool because they were more stable and less prone to collapsing. Different colors of clay would stain the flax accordingly. Farmers would know their local climate, and would ret in the season with the most stable weather conditions. Maintaining a water temperature between 60-70 degrees for the necessary length of time wasn’t possible at certain times of the year in certain locales.

For an acre of flax, a retting tank or pond 36 feet by 10 feet by 4 feet was sufficient. A single ret (all your crop retted at one time) yielded consistency of color and therefore demanded a higher price. In sum, consider this: Imagine that you grow one crop of flax a year, from which your annual supply of textiles has to be produced. And you and all your neighbors have to combine your flax harvests and submerge it all in one big dammed-up stream to ret the flax. And it really, really has to be well-retted in order for anyone to get a new shirt that year. And you have to rely on the weather in New Hampshire to be favorable over a few weeks’ time in order to accomplish this. Not a 21st century problem, but one worth taking a moment to appreciate. How did anyone ever manage to actually have any clothes?!

The last speakers about retting were Christian and Johannes Zinzendorf (The Hermitage and The Big Book of Flax) talking about their experiences with retting in Pennsylvania. Their experience taught them that ground or dew retting may only be possible in certain locales. They found that it worked just fine around Bethlehem, PA, and they became expert at this method while they lived there. However, it didn’t work at all once they moved to the higher elevations in PA. Soil chemistry and soil microbiology are key. They switched to pond retting, and can ret in their pond in four days!! They use old doors to keep the flax submerged, and let the flax float loosely rather than tie it in bundles.

After that, Ron Walter (author of Stay at Home and Use Me Well) gave an overview of flax processing, using the diaries of 18th century farmers to guide us through the steps. Ron specifically referenced the Diary of Oliver Harris (1780-1845) from New Market Township, Ohio (who had moved to Ohio from New Jersey). The steps in processing flax are rippling (pulling off the the seed heads, usually done before retting to save the seed), threshing (opening up the seed pods to get the seeds out), braking (crushing the retted stems), swingling (scraping off the remaining woody material from the fiber), and heckling (separating the long from the short fibers, and aligning all the fibers for spinning). Ron estimates that families planted a quarter of an acre of flax for each family member, and they had to process their whole crop before the next year’s crop was ready to process. According to the diary of Oliver Harris, on one day in 1802 he crushed six and a half bushels of seed. The winnowing took several days. In 1830 he got 40 cents a bushel for cleaned flax seed. Oliver Harris was dew or ground retting between October and January. To dry the flax sufficiently to process it, he used a “kiln” or oven to warm it up and dry it out. His diary entry from March 22nd, 1803 indicates that he dressed 35 pounds of flax! Quantities that he processed on other days ranged from 13-19 pounds, and as high as 25 pounds a day when his sons and neighbors helped with the work. He often dressed flax for the neighbors, also.

Take away: Processing flax is, and was, a lot of work. Oliver’s family used their flax brake so heavily that he needed to build a new one every 4-8 years. Though it might sound a bit monotonous on paper, it was even more monotonous (and physically demanding) in reality. Plus, reality contained the added stress of literally having to make the very shirt on your back. Well, Oliver sold a lot of his dressed flax, which indicates that he wasn’t using it all himself. Also, one can imagine that you really had to get along with your family members and neighbors or you’d be working for hours in close quarters in awkward silence. Luckily some folk kept diaries so we’d know just exactly how hard life was in the 1700s.

That brings us up to lunchtime. Phew!

Early Saturday Morning at the Flax and Linen Symposium!

I was especially nervous about how things would go on Saturday because I had a lot of responsibilities that day. For one thing, I was a speaker on the first panel in the morning, which was focused on the botany of flax, growing flax, and seed saving. My legs were literally shaking from Friday afternoon to Saturday afternoon.

The first three speakers of the morning on Saturday were: Carolyn Wetzel (fellow study group member who is also a professional botanist, lacemaker, spinner, and weaver); Jeff Silberman (who heads up the textiles and marketing department at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, consults globally about cotton and flax, and grows flax and dye plants for education and for fun); and me. Continue reading “Early Saturday Morning at the Flax and Linen Symposium!”

More About Saturday Afternoon at the Flax and Linen Symposium!

Picking up where I left off…. During the demonstration session on Saturday afternoon, I couldn’t personally walk around and take pictures of everything, since I was responsible for running one of the flax dressing stations. Thankfully, my beloved Matthew ran around to do the photo-documentation. I hope presenters and participants don’t mind being featured here, but I really want to show photos of people doing their flaxy thing. What made this weekend so incredible was all the people who presented and attended. The objects and artifacts were fascinating and informative, no doubt, but the fact that living people were actively examining, interpreting, and using them was the most thrilling and meaningful part to me. The expressions of rapt attention, concentration, puzzlement, and joy are demonstrative of the feelings we were all experiencing!

The first stop on our mini-tour of Saturday afternoon’s demo session is Christian and Johannes Zinzendorf’s display of tools and antique textiles. Here are a couple wide angle views:

Continue reading “More About Saturday Afternoon at the Flax and Linen Symposium!”

Flax and Linen Symposium!

OK, obviously I only managed to write a couple posts about dye plants before I returned to flax. But this is a pretty big deal so I feel OK about prioritizing it. We had our long-awaited flax and linen symposium and it was totally awesome!

The official title was “Flax and Linen: Following the Thread from Past to Present” and our flax and linen study group organized it in collaboration with Historic Deerfield. We worked on the planning and organization for about two years, and even though we tried to think through every detail and put together a program that we hoped would appeal to a wide range of people, we really had no idea how it would all turn out. Well, it turned out fabulously. It was pretty much everything I hoped it would be, and I was so grateful and happy. Continue reading “Flax and Linen Symposium!”

Last Straw(s)

flax in bucketsI realized in my last post I didn’t show the buckets of transplanted flax. They transplanted just fine, which was a useful discovery.

After we came back from our weekend away on July 9-10 and found that the seeds in the buckets of flax at home had been chomped, I bought two new types of rodent repellent and a solar robotic owl for the garden. The first type of repellent I tried, Bobbex-R, stinks to high heaven! I wanted to run away from it myself as I was spraying it. We have been having a sustained spell of very hot weather, and the directions said not to spray when it’s over 85 degrees, so I waited to spray the plants at dusk when the temperature cooled off a little. It was initially more effective than the Plantskydd. I didn’t detect any new damage overnight. After a day or so, though, things went back to normal. Sigh. Continue reading “Last Straw(s)”

Nothing Works

I read that a chili pepper/garlic spray would keep rodents away from plants, so I gave it a try. We grow a lot of chilis. A major goal of our gardening endeavors, besides growing flax and dye plants, is to grow tomatillos and chilis to make home-made salsa verde. We also grow garlic for the salsa, but it’s too precious to use for mouse-repellent so I just used store-bought garlic.

For each batch of spay, I crushed up 14-16 dried chilis:

our chilis Continue reading “Nothing Works”

Know Your Enemy, or Just Photograph Them

By late June I had not definitively proven that rodents were eating my flax, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t insect larvae, as I said in my last post. Stalks were being chewed daily, between 4-6 stalks per bed, per day. Sometimes more. So, additional sleuthing was required.

I continued to pay close attention to anything that might be suspicious and tried to document anything I saw just in case it turned out to be a problem. It turned out there were a lot of flying insects on the buds, flowers, and newly-forming seeds. Continue reading “Know Your Enemy, or Just Photograph Them”

What Constitutes Evidence?

The Plantskydd did nothing to stop the chewing of my flax stalks, unfortunately. So, I wondered if perhaps it might not be rodents after all. What if it was insects, for example? I sent out inquiries to various flax-growing contacts, and to the UMass Extension folks. Many thanks to flax and linen study group friends Faith Deering and Carolyn Wetzel (with expertise in entomology and botany, respectively), to Tawny Simiski (entomologist at UMass Extension), Alvin Ulrich at Biolin, and Ken at the Crop Development Center in Saskatoon for their suggestions. My favorite suggestion was that “flax beavers” were using flax fiber to build dams, but I also liked the idea of a night-vision camera to catch the culprits in action. Continue reading “What Constitutes Evidence?”