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Flax is a plant fibre with fabulous properties!

 

It is strong, soft and beautiful.

In Sweden flax was grown out of necessity for a very long period of time until cotton textiles become common in our country.

Today not much is  left and known of that tradition, and I think it is important to keep the knowledge of flax preparation and spinning alive.

Harvest flax
  • Harvest

 

We harvest flax on the field at Ingeborrarp Folk museum.

Flax straws are not cut when harvested, but pulled up with the roots.

  • Drying

 

The flax is hung up to dry after harvest before the seeds are rippled off.

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  • Seed ripling

 

The seed is ripled off by a rippling comb after drying. This is done to get seed for the next years sowing and to make the  flax easier to handle during further preparation.

  • Retting

 

The flax fibres are lying around a ligneous stem in the center of the straw.

To separate, the flax is retted.

For land- or dew-retting, the flax is spread out on the ground in a thin layer.
Mould affects the flax and causes the fibres to become loose from the stem.

Retting flax

The time this takes depends on temperature and humidity. To obtain an even retting of the flax, it has to be turned at least once during a retting period. When you think the retting is almost completed, it is necessary to take out samples at least once a day and estimate the degree of retting, and how it is proceeding.

Land (dew) retted flax is typically darker than water retted , ranging from silvery grey to almost black. Since it is mould that has done the retting job, there are mould spores left on the fibres. They will come loose and spread around in the air when the flax is further prepared. It is an advantage to do this job in open air.

With water retting, the flax is immersed completely in water. In this case, bacteria are doing the job to get the fibres loose from the stem. The resulting flax is typically lighter in colour than land retted. The colour of the fibers depends, among other things, of water temperature during the retting.

The mould problem does not exist in this case, but on the other hand the smell is not very pleasant!

For both of the retting methods it is important to stay in the temperature interval where the micro organisms can live and do their job and to carefully check out the retting progress.

If the flax is 'under retted', parts from the ligneous stem will stay on the flax fibres all the way through the further process.

On the other hand, 'over retting' will make the fibres weak, or even break them up into shorter mono fibres that are impossible to spin.

  • Rettening check

 

To check the retting, a few straws are taken out and are left to dry completely in a warm place.
When dry, break them a couple of times and remove the ligneous stem to get hold of the fibres.
Then pull off the fibres from the ligneous stem.

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The "pull strength" is the key to evaluate the retting. The fibres should come off with some force -all the way down to the root and all the way up to the top. If the flax seems ready, it is also advisable to do the knot test described below.

If the force to loosen the fibres is too high, the flax needs more time to rett. On the other hand, if the fibres come off almost by themselves, the retting has already gone too far.

In that case there is unfortunately no way back! That is a good reason for careful testing every day and even twice a day sometimes!

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With all fibres from one straw, a knot is done. Then, place your hands, one at each side of the knot and about 15cm apart from each other and snatch off the bunch of fibres! They should burst straight off, and the fibre ends should look like a brush.

When the retting is ready, it is important to have the flax dry as fast as possible or the retting might continue.

  • Breaking.

 

Next step in the flax preparation is the "breaking" of the straws in a break.
When the straws are crushed, a lot of particles from the ligneous stems will fall off.

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braka  

My husband made this pretty break for me after an old break from Dalarna. The material is from an ash tree, a hard wood, but not as heavy as for instance oak.

Still, breaking flax gives a good exercise!

  • Scutching

 

In this step, as much material from the ligneous stem as possible is removed with the help of a scutching knife or -sword.
Mine is 100 years old , and is the model that was common in the southern part of Sweden.

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  • Hetcheling

 

The last step in the flax preparation is hetcheling  (or hackling ). I use four different hetchels with a different number of needles on. Here the last reminders of the ligneous stem are removed.

When hetcheling, you need to be very gentle, and not let the flax go down to the bottom of the hetchels, otherwise too much of the fibres are lost. Once you got the rhythm, you can 'dance with the flax'!

Just be careful not to put the fingers in the hetchels, they are really very sharp!

A hand full of silky soft, shining flax is the reward!

Hetcheling
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  • Flax-Horses

 

If the flax is to be saved for some time before spinning, this is the traditional way to store it.

 
  • Spinning of flax

 

My wheel, aged with beauty, was built 1904 by Manne Brodin, who worked as a spinning wheel maker in the countryside of  Småland in southern Sweden..

I spin the flax from a distaff. Spinning is so much easier if the distaff is dressed with care. If the flax has been stored for some time, a few times through the finest hetchel is needed before the distaff is dressed. The flax should lay soft and lofty, like sugar floss, so that is possible to pull down single fibres.

Spinning wheel
Old loom  

 

  • Weaving with flax

 

The loom in the picture is probably at least 100 years old. It had been stored in parts, in the attic of a farm house outside Lund for a good many years before I bought it.
The loom has a draw attachment for damask weaving, and damask is what I weave in it at present.
The warp is cottolin, but the weft is my own, handspun linen.

  • Bobbin Lace

My dear friend Siv Nelson has made and given me this lovely bobbin lace using yarn that I spun from flax from my own  patch.

The name of the pattern is "Danish Hearts".

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