FLAX TO LINEN
Many of my projects present questions about the origin of the materials that I deem healthy and safe for ecosystems. In today's global market, we can easily acquire anything we desire with a tap or click. When we speak natural fibers, cotton, wool, and silk dominate the conversation. Many others are more of a mystery.
In 2017, I wanted to know more about a lesser discussed fiber, linen. This project entails researching and developing the processes involved in producing a linen textile.
Linen is a fine fiber textile grown from the flax plant, Linum usitatissimum. The results are endless if you research for the health benefits of wearing this fiber.
The objective of this project was to fully comprehend the processes involved in producing this fabric from the seed. Most flax production takes place in Europe. Much of the early work in this project was to understand the history, growing conditions, and all processes involved in making linen. This research left me with the following questions: Could linen be produced on Oregon's north coast? What tools would I need for this process? Can I acquire these tools? How long will this take? Is this possible?
My approach was to take things one process at a time, not to get bogged down by the enormity of this project. I started with the seeds...
I acquired 113 grams of flax seeds from a grower in Pennsylvania. Together with the grower, we determined this would accommodate the 8-square-foot raised bed in my yard. Per growing instructions, I sowed the seeds after the last spring frost.
The seeds take approximately 100 days to germinate and be harvest-ready. The seeds turned into plants and thrived. I documented this on my social media site. The process of watching this plant grow was more informative than any textbook could describe.
When the bottom third of the flax plant was yellow (around 100 days), I harvested the flax. This entailed pulling the plant out of the soil.
These next steps were complex and spread over a 3-year timeline. After harvest, the flax plant was dried. The heat of the summer was perfect for this step. After drying, I removed the seeds from the plant in an effort called rippling.
I didn't have a specific tool for this process, so I used weaving tools called raddles to separate the seeds from the stalk.
After the seeds were removed, the stalk needed to be retted. The retting is the process of separating the flax fibers from the inner core and the outer epidermis of the flax stalks. This is done by dissolving the pectins that hold everything together. There are two methods to do this: dew retting and wet retting. I chose the latter because it was faster. For wet retting, I submerged the flax bundles in water and weighed them down with coastal rocks for a few days. This process requires much oversight as over-retted flax is useless, and under-retted flax makes it difficult to proceed in the following steps. Once I deemed the flax to be properly retted, I dried the bundles of flax.
The following steps were breaking and scutching. They both required specific tools that I couldn't find in the Pacific Northwest region. I didn't want to buy an expensive antique, so I reached out to the slow fiber community and hacked these tools. Braking flax breaks up those outer and inner layers, freeing the flax fiber. I initially used a plastic mallet for this process. This worked, but it took FOREVER. I determined to build a tool with wood and a hinge, replicating a flax brake. This worked far better but still took a long time.
Scutching separates the impurities from the raw material, such as the straw and woody stem from flax fibers. It is traditionally completed with a wooden knife and board. I didn't have a wooden knife but used a weaving pick-up stick and other small pieces of wood. This process is supposed to remove most of the delicate fiber's inner and outer bark (boon). This process felt like walking through mud with wind and hail pelting at 100 miles an hour. The boon was incredibly arduous to remove.
Throughout this process, I consulted with various fiber experts. These included Shannon Welsh of Fibrevolution, Johannes Zinzendorf, and social media groups focusing on this process. If I hit a wall, I would consult with this community. During scutching, I hit a wall.
After reaching out and asking why this step wasn't working, I deemed I needed to re-rett my flax. I had to be careful not to overdo it.
After the second retting process was complete, I dried and continued to scutch. I scutched with the knife and boards and even used my brake to help remove the boon.
The final step before spinning is hackling. Hackling takes broken and scutched flax and processes it into a fiber ready to spin. A hackle is essentially a tiny bed of nails that you comb your flax across. It aligns fibers and helps remove boon. I designed and built two hackles with 2 x 4's and nails. I made a course hackle for the first run and a finer one for the second. The hackle boards were clamped onto a surface, and I drew each flax bundle through the implements.
The handmade hackles moderately refined the fiber and proved to be another physically demanding step. The thought of gorgeous yarn encouraged me to continue, but it remained challenging. I contacted the fiber community to ask if I could borrow an antique hackle or commission someone, to do this for me. As I was waving a white flag, I discovered a wig-making tool called a hackle. It was within my budget and operated similarly to a flax hackle. I purchased this, and it worked incredibly well.
Before I could weave this fiber, I needed to produce yarn. Previous to this project, if you had asked me about spinning yarn, I would have laughed. Spinning wasn't on my list of things I wanted to do. However, this project piqued my curiosity about the spinning process. If you ask any spinner about spinning flax, they will tell you that this is one of the more difficult fibers to spin. Difficult doesn't deter me.
Using a drop spindle, I dipped my toes into spinning with a single spun linen yarn. I found that I enjoyed this process and wanted to expand upon it. I purchased a used spinning wheel and proceeded to teach myself to spin using wool as a practice fiber. Wool is easier to spin, and I needed to find my rhythm. Once I learned to spin, I needed to construct other tools for this process. After spinning, a single-ply yarn, I needed to build a Lazy Kate to ply two singles into a double-ply yarn. This is for strength. A lazy kate is a device used to hold one or more spinning bobbins in place while the thread on them is wound off from the side of the bobbin. A kate consists of multiple rods, which allow the bobbins to spin. I constructed this using 2 x 4's and rods to hold bobbins. This allowed me to create plied yarn.
Although I enjoyed this process, spinning requires much time, and this project is in its 3rd year. I decided to reach out to my coastal community to see if I could commission the remaining fiber to be spun. I found two spinners willing and sent them fiber. Shannon of @beautifulfiberlife and Allie Kloster @seasideyarnandfiber spun the fiber into linen yarn.
For now, the spun yarn awaits an appropriate composition. However, I did allow myself the pleasure of weaving partially processed flax into indigo-dyed cotton/silk yarn (video to the left). I plan to start weaving the spun flax into a tapestry in Fall 2022.
The project remains active and successful. I have learned many aspects of this process and have found a community of growers, producers, and flax enthusiasts that have all contributed to some aspect of this work.
The yarn you see in the image below is 300 grams. It is a combination of plied and unplied yarn. It is waiting to be woven. This project will be considered complete after the yarn is woven.