Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Growing My Own Linen

A few years back I attended a Fiber Arts Festival. It was so much fun seeing all the various types of natural fibers. There were booths set up so you could purchase raw materials to spin yourself, or already dyed and spun yarn. Spinning wheels, demonstrations, and so much to see and do!

I purchased some flax seeds, so I could grow my own flax for spinning linen. As a novice spinner, but avid gardener, I figured by the time the flax was ready to harvest, I would have half a clue. I was not as prepared as I had hoped!

Flax is very easy to grow. It grows fairly tall (about 2 feet), has beautiful flowers, and will reseed itself if you let it. This was the easy part. As I did my research on processing the plants in order to have usable, spinnable fibers, I discovered that it could be a rather complicated process.
This is some of the original crop that I have not processed yet.

Back in the day, meaning pioneer days of course, you would often have two different spinning wheels. You would have your large ‘walking wheel’ for your wool, and then a smaller wheel for spinning linen. Linen wheels were quite small, and most had a special arm that would hold a small bowl for water. Water is essential when spinning linen, as I soon learned!

To spin linen one requires patience, water, patience, more water, more patience, and did I mention patience? Processing flax stems to obtain the fiber is a long, tedious process, especially if you are just doing it as a ‘hobby’. It is the most involved of any hobby I have ever done, and is hard work!

The flax plants must be harvested by pulling from the ground, removing the roots, and then going through a process called ‘retting’, which separates the outer stem from the inner fibrous core. 

Retting is not an easy task, in that it involves essentially rotting away the outer stem. If you use the wrong amount of water, wrong amount of sunlight, and do not turn it correctly, you end up with a pile of moldy flax and can damage the fibers you need for spinning.

Once you have retted the flax, you now need to comb the fibers so they lay flat, straight, and separated. Often, if you are not careful, you can break the fibers during retting, which means you must comb through gently to remove short pieces. Once combed and sorted, you are ready to spin.

These are some of the retted flax fibers, ready to be re-combed and spun. They were sitting after a combing, and as you can see, now look a bit like a rat's nest.

I spun my linen using a drop spindle, by hand. I didn’t own a spinning wheel at the time, and honestly, I thought it would be easier to use the spindle. A small bowl of water sat by me the entire time, and despite numerous false starts, I was able to produce over 4 yards of usable linen cord. Once done, I decided to experiment with the bleaching process, and ended up with a lovely shade of cream linen cord.

The water is essential to keep the fibers flowing smoothly during the spinning process. It also helps your fingers out a ton, as linen fibers are much stronger and sharper than wool, and you can end up with small paper-type cuts on your fingers. You just want the fibers damp, not wet, so dipping your fingers in works very well.

Bleached linen cord. Perfect for crafts and jewelry, not quite fine enough for crochet or knit items.

The plan for this year, is to plant another flax bed, try some new methods for retting, and maybe, finally, spin the rest of the linen!

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