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Spinning Flax


I have wanted to spin flax for a very long time.  I think it started when I slept on linen sheets for the first time at a hotel in Rome.  It was an amazing feeling.  Linen isn't smooth and silky like super fine cotton but it has a texture to it that is amazingly soothing to the skin.  It breaths like cotton but weighs less and wrinkles more.  It's part of our long textile history.  As recently as the 1940's it was grown and processed here in the US and it has been grown and processed for hundreds of years across Europe.  So my logic goes something like this.... If I can spin flax into linen thread, then I can weave it into linen cloth, then I can make something wonderful.  How hard could it be?

Note to self:  Anything that starts out with "how hard could it be?" will end up difficult indeed.

Spinning flax is totally different than spinning anything else.  Flax is a very long and very strong plant fiber with no resiliency, no stretch, no give.  It is generally spun fine and the fibers need quite a bit of overlap as you're spinning since they don't have the scales that make wool fibers grab so easily onto each other.  It all sounds good.  The first step is finding some wonderful line flax.

Line flax is the long unbroken flax fibers.  The short or broken bits are called tow.  Historically some of the best linen was grown in Belgium, France and Ireland.  What I have is from Belgium and is very old according to the label.  I bought it at the Portland Flock & Fiber Festival years ago.  It came from the estate of a spinner who is no longer with us and by the looks of the label she had had it for quite a while herself.  I looked on line and couldn't find any mention of The Cobb's Web.

The next step is dressing the distaff.  I have several books about flax but most of them only mention in passing how you get the flax onto the distaff.  I finally found the best reference - Linen Hand Spinning and Weaving by Patricia Baines.  Where the other books sum up the process in a sentence, Ms. Baines has a 25 page chapter on the subject.  Of all the types of distaffs and all the possible ways to dress it, I chose to make a brown paper cone to fit over the turned pole that came with my flax spinning wheel.

Here is about a quarter of the strick spread out on my desk ready to be put on the cone.  The process went so well that I'll probably put more on the next cone.

Once all the flax fiber is wound around the distaff, in this case my hand made cone, it is tied up with a ribbon.  The ribbon holds the flax on but allows it to be drafted off as you spin.  Finally the distaff gets put onto the spinning wheel.

Then its time to spin!  The spinning is different than anything else I've done and my first attempts aren't award winning but I did manage to produce a usable yarn.

I spun all the flax on my cone distaff and am getting ready to re-fill it.  I'm wet spinning this so I have a small cup of water at my side.  Patricia Baines suggests using a sponge in the cup since you don't need dripping fingers, just wet ones.  Sounds like a great plan as I've managed to splash water everywhere so far.

There are other dressing techniques to try and I have a free standing distaff I want to dress also but for now I'm working on getting better at drafting off my cone.  As with any skill the answer is practice, practice, practice. 

Peggy just pointed out that this would have been a good project to do next week on our Tour de Fleece day for doing something really challenging.  Nope.  I couldn't wait till then.  I'll just have to find something else challenging for July 18th.