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.


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)”

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?”

Bloody ‘ell!

“What’s a bloody L, Mummy?” This is a direct quote of myself as a young child–or perhaps one of my sisters, because sometimes those memories are blurry. The backstory here is that I grew up in London in the 1970s. A family friend used the phrase “bloody hell” to express exasperation and dismay, which translated through his accent and my young ears to “bloody ‘ell”. Was it the letter L that had somehow become bloody, and if so how? Was it bad? Why? And why would you bring it up in conversation if it was so bad? Parsing grown-up-speak isn’t easy.

Now I will get to the point: blood is what my blog post is about. And also my feelings about it, as expressed by this old-fashioned swear. Exasperation, dismay, despair. An existential questioning… What am I doing? I can’t believe I’m doing this. Is it doing any good? Continue reading “Bloody ‘ell!”

Pennyroyal Oil Is Not a Deterrent

The title about sums it up. I wondered if a strong-smelling essential oil would keep away my flax-chewer. My mother uses peppermint oil to discourage mice from chewing the insulation in the stove at our family’s cabin when we close it up for the winter. I didn’t have any peppermint on-hand Sunday morning, but I did have pennyroyal oil.

I saturated some strips of row cover:

pennyroyal oil on strips

Then I tied them to bamboo stakes:

strip tied to stake

Then I stuck them inside the beds so the cloth hung near ground level:

stake in position

Continue reading “Pennyroyal Oil Is Not a Deterrent”