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.


Handspun Louet Flax Top

Thanks to more snow days than usual this winter, I have finally finished spinning up a fiber preparation I bought years ago, 8 ounces of Louet bleached flax top. I have not spent much time on spinning in recent years, hence the delay. My plan was to experiment with wet-spinning and dry-spinning the fiber, to see if it made a significant difference in the yarn. I think it did. Continue reading “Handspun Louet Flax Top”

Perchta and Flax Burning

I have been having a hard time wrapping up this thread because the more I read, the more complicated this whole subject becomes. I was initially annoyed by the idea of wanton flax-destruction on St. Distaff’s Day or Rock Day (a rock is a distaff). Then I was intrigued by the relationship between St. Distaff’s Day/Rock Day and Plough Monday, which is the following day. Known by these names, these two traditions appear to be mostly English. However, there are plenty of similarities to other holidays in other parts of Europe that are celebrated around the same time. Then I became intrigued by the holidays that are celebrated the night before St. Distaff’s Day. To sum up, there were theatrical antics on Twelfth Night/Perchtenlaufen, then antics on Rock Day, then more theatrical antics on Plough Day. The dates of these holidays are January 5th, 6th, and 7th, respectively. If everyone had to celebrate each of these holidays, we’d all have to spend several sleepless nights and exhausting days parading around in the snow in fantastic costumes, running or getting chased, making a lot of noise, getting wet and/or being set of fire. Phew. I can hardly get out of bed this time of year. The timing struck me as more than co-incidental. These holidays seem to be related, but how? Continue reading “Perchta and Flax Burning”

Possible Rock Day Antecedents

medieval-spinners3To begin, I must start with a spelling comment. I have been spelling Rock Day “r-o-c-k but it is often and perhaps more correctly spelled r-o-c with no “k”. A German-language thing maybe? Not being a linguist nor a German speaker, I humbly accept critical comments on this issue. I cannot endorse one spelling versus another for any reasons other than personal: I like r-o-c-k because it is more punk rock! Roc conjures images of a ginormous killer bird, which on second thought I suppose is badass in its own way. So, either way, I don’t mind.

To quickly sum up earlier posts: celebrated on the day after Epiphany (the twelfth day of Christmas), Rock Day or St. Distaff’s Day marked the return of spinners to their spinning after the mid-winter holiday hiatus. Festivities were marked with the burning of flax by the ploughboys, and the dousing of the fires–and of the ploughboys–by the spinners.

Historically in Europe, spinning was prohibited on certain days or during certain times of day. The Twelve Days of Christmas were not the only days during which spinning was banned. Depending on the region and the time period, these prohibitions were imposed by goddesses, hefty folklore figures, or the church.

In general, I subscribe to a view of history that accepts this hypothesis: many traditions which came to be associated with powerful folklore figures or Christian saints in relatively recent times were, during more ancient times, the province of goddesses and gods. In the same way that geological principles of continuity help us understand how layers of the earth were created, despite significant disruptions, I like to think that continuity of human traditions through time gives us glimpses to the past, despite the disruptions of history. On the other hand, history is a tricky thing. Knowing who truly might have done what, when, where, how, and (most importantly) why is boggling in its distance and inaccessibility, yet so compelling. I try to find sources and ideas that seem reasonable, to question what seems too thin, and scrutinize what seems prejudiced. Again, I humbly accept informed critiques. Nevertheless, here are my two cents.

In Celtic and Germanic regions of Europe, according to Hilda Ellis Davidson (The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe and Roles of the Northern Goddess), there were many spinning prohibitions. In Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, two figures known by various names including Holda or Holle and Perchta or Berta, would punish spinners who worked on Saturday evenings, Sundays, or the evenings of a number of other festivals. Spinning at night was also prohibited. In the northern latitudes, it is hard to avoid doing anything after dark in the middle of winter, so an extended period of abstinence around midwinter makes sense. Holda or Perchta would punish transgressors by setting fire to their distaffs, tangling or breaking their yarn, and other terrible things. These figures also punished lazy or careless spinners no matter when they were spinning, and rewarded diligent ones. Despite their punitive aspects, these figures were also protective and beneficent.

Also according to Davidson, in Blekinge, a region of Sweden, spinning was not allowed on Thursdays because the goddess Frigg was spinning on Thursdays. Apparently there is only so much spinning the world can handle on a given day. This makes a certain sense, especially if goddesses were spinning Z and humans were spinning S. Ha! The earth might come to a standstill. “Z” is used to describe the twist in yarn spun with the wheel turning clockwise. “S” describes the twist in yarns spun counterclockwise. Here’s a picture:

Davidson also notes that in Latvia, spinning, knitting, and chopping wood were prohibited on Thursday evenings, thanks to a goddess named Laima.

Davidson comments that even though the festivals of these beings (which, by the way, included dietary stipulations including dumplings and fish on Berchta’s holiday) all took place in mid-winter, she disagrees with Lotte Motz that they represented an earlier Germanic winter goddess. Spinning is not confined to winter and their powers extended beyond the winter season. However, I am intrigued by the association between Berchtentag and the feast of the Epiphany in the Wikipedia article about Perchta (see link above). Someone with more linguistic knowledge than me will have to figure out if that association–which suggests that these holidays may be linked– is well-founded or not.

In Ireland, spinning was forbidden on February 1st, the feast of St. Brigid and also the holiday Imbolg or Imbolc. February 1st was also the first day of ploughing to prepare the fields for spring planting, according to Pamela Berger in The Goddess Obscured. More on that, and on the possible relationship between spinning female characters and processional ploughs and carts, when I finally get to Plough Day.





Rock Day Part Two

OK, back to the main topic of research: St. Distaff’s Day a.k.a Rock Day. What was it, when was it, and why was it so important? And was it ever linked with quasars? No, just kidding! It was actually linked with Plough Day.

Here’s the short form: During the Twelve Days of Christmas, women ceased their spinning labors (and probably increased their cooking labors, to everybody’s satisfaction). When the Christmas celebrations were over, the day that spinning commenced once again was acknowledged with traditional “pranks”. Apparently, one of the principal forms of entertainment was that the ploughboys (who did not have to go back to work until Plough Day or Plough Monday, which was either the next day or a fortnight later, depending on what you read) would light the spinners’ flax on fire. Continue reading “Rock Day Part Two”

Rock Day

A few days ago someone on the Yahoo Flax and Linen group sent an announcement about the celebration of St. Distaff’s Day, or Rock Day, at the Westford Museum in Westford, MA on Sunday January 6th.  I meant to post about it before the event actually happened, but then I had to do some research and go on some tangents, and that took a few days.

Even though I am very interested in old European traditions regarding agriculture and textiles, I had never heard of St. Distaff’s Day or Rock Day by those specific names before. However, I had read about prohibitions against spinning on certain holidays, so, I figured they were probably related. It was time to go into research mode. Continue reading “Rock Day”