Friday, May 6, 2011

Spinning Flax

No I didn't spin flax, LOL! And I don't think I ever will. Our Knitters' Guild Meeting this month was about the process of turning flax into yarn. A woman from the local textile museum came to speak to us about this. It was very interesting.

Flax is grown both for its seeds and for its fibers. Various parts of the plant have been used to make fabric, dye, paper, medicines, fishing nets, hair gels, and soap. Flax seed is the source of linseed oil, which has uses as an edible oil, as a nutritional supplement and as an ingredient in many wood finishing products. It is also grown as an ornamental plant in gardens. (Wikipedia)

Flax fibers are amongst the oldest fiber crops in the world. The use of flax for the production of linen goes back at least to ancient Egyptian times. Dyed flax fibers found in a cave in Dzudzuana (prehistoric Georgia) have been dated to 30,000 years ago. Pictures on tombs and temple walls at Thebes depict flowering flax plants. The use of flax fiber in the manufacturing of cloth in northern Europe dates back to Neolithic times. In North America, flax was introduced by the Puritans. Currently most flax produced in the USA and Canada are seed flax types for the production of linseed oil or flax seeds for human nutrition.

Flax fiber is extracted from the bast or skin of the stem of the flax plant. Flax fiber is soft, lustrous and flexible; bundles of fiber have the appearance of blonde hair, hence the description "flaxen". It is stronger than cotton fiber but less elastic. The best grades are used for linen fabrics such as damasks, lace and sheeting. Coarser grades are used for the manufacturing of twine and rope. Flax fiber is also a raw material for the high-quality paper industry for the use of printed banknotes and rolling paper for cigarettes and tea bags. Flax mills for spinning flaxen yarn were invented by John Kendrew and Thomas Porthouse of Darlington in 1787. (Wikipedia)

Processing Flax for Spinning
After the flax is harvested. The first step in the process is called threshing - removing the seeds. The next step is called retting - soaking it in water. There were many different methods for this, soaking in a pond or stream, leaving out in a field to collect dew and get rained on (this took longer), or soaking it in a tank.

Once this was done, there's still a lot more to do. Breaking the flax is breaking the stalks into smaller sections, then there's scutching the flax, which occurs when it is slammed between two wooden boards in a mechanism called a scutch. Then there's heckling, which is a large comb type item. A heckle is a bed of "nails" - sharp, long-tapered, tempered, polished steel pins driven into wooden blocks at regular spacing. Whew, and the woman from the museum actually demonstrated this for us (except for the threshing and retting), LOL! I guess this is why in colonial times the entire family participated in this process.

Probably more than you ever wanted to know about linen, no?


Anonymous said...

You know, I never knew any of that. Ok, I knew about the hair thing, and the linseed, but not the rest. That's pretty fascinating!

Anonymous said...

Thanks! Good read.