As we’ve had some sunny days here in the UK recently, I’ve begun to think about projects for warmer weather and the fibres that are suitable for them.
A trip to the Cotswolds
The Cotswolds are a lovely hilled area of southern England that stretches up north-eastwards from Bath. They’re a haven of green landscapes, thatched stone cottages and villages that time seems to have left well alone. Tucked away in this rural idyll is Flaxland, where Ann and Simon Cooper grow a small field of flax and run educational courses about the fibre. I went to visit in mid-August last year.
Out in the fields are flax plants that have grown tall and already gone to seed. They are harvested at this stage when the fibres are long and strong, before the weather gets too wet. The plants have shallow roots and are easily pulled up in bundles by hand. These bundles are then laid on their side in the field to be retted.
Retting and drying in the field
Retting is the process of using moisture to break down the brittle outer ‘bark’ of the stems to be able to easily separate it from the straight, vertical inner fibres that run the length of the stalk.
When the retting is complete, the plants are stacked upright in large bundles leaning against each other. This helps air circulate and allows them to dry out. There’s an art to stacking these little ricks perfectly so that they aren’t constantly blown over when it’s windy!
Breaking, scutching and hackling
Flax that is ready to work is brought in to be processed. The aim is for fine, long, perfectly smooth fibres that are strong and free of coarse material. Once work begins, the flax releases the most beautiful scent of fresh hay, which makes a refreshing change from the smell of wool!
Despite the name, the length of the useable fibre doesn't actually snap and only the woody outside breaks.
Again the handful of flax is grasped tightly, and pulled through a literal bed of nails – the hackle – at speed to comb it out. Ever wondered why a dogs hackles are named so? This is why!
The flax is drawn through sets of progressively finer hackles, resulting eventually in a beautifully soft, glossy bundle of long, grey-beige fibres.
Spinning flax fibre into linen yarn
The distinctive thing about flax as a fibre is that – compared to wool, alpaca, mohair, cotton etc. – the staple is incredibly long. This is why linen fabric is so very strong. However, it necessitates a different approach to spinning, to ensure that all the fibres are aligned with no bumps and bends.
The distaff is then turned upright and the flax gently tied on with ribbon to hold it in place. For spinning, the fibres can then be drawn from the base of the distaff, and it’s possible to spin incredibly finely, only twisting a couple of staples together.
I loved learning about this process and am so glad to have found somewhere quite near to me where I can source locally grown flax!
How about you? Have you worked with flax/linen in your craft work? I’d love to hear about how you’ve used it and your opinions in the comments below!