Last summer I mustered up the courage to spin flax. I had got some very long 80 year old Swedish flax from a relative of a relative. To manage it more easily I rehackled it, and spun it whenever I could spin outdoors. This year I am rehackling again – with 80 year Austrian flax from the Berta’s flax project.
It was a mixed feeling when I unraveled the Austrian flax from Stephanie Gumpenberger. I was both eager and scared to spin it. It had such a significant history and I wanted to be sure I could do it justice. But then again, just spinning it at all would do it so much more justice than seeing it burnt, as so many flax chests of the time had been.
Stephanie’s flax has been neatly stored in a chest for many years. As with any flax I like to rehackle it right before I dress it on the distaff, just to give myself the best possible spinning conditions.
I have one rough hackle and one fine hackle and so that’s what I used. As I opened the strick I was amazed at the quality of the flax and the condition it was in. Long, smooth and shiny. Almost no tangles. Still, it had been compressed for many years and would do good with rehackling.
I divided the opened strick into smaller bundles to be able to work as gently as possible in the rehackling. The rough hackling took some shorter fibers and a just a few tangles. This first rehackling opened the bundles up a bit and aligned them.
The fine hackling took even less fibers but there was still a significant improvement from the rough hackling. The fibers were even smoother and a bit loftier.
In Ångermanland, a small part of Sweden, but an important place of flax husbandry in the past, a flax brush was often used after the fine hackling and just before dressing the distaff. Sometimes two or even three brushes of different fineness were used – the finer the fibers the finer the brush.
Last year I managed to get my hands on a flax brush on Swedish eBay – a real hog-hair brush with a tar handle. I don’t know if it’s considered a rough, medium or fine brush. It does its work though, and it feels very special to be able to use it on my flax. After the brushing all the short fibers are gone and the flax shining in all its glory.
Dressing the distaff
By distaff I mean maple stick I have carved and shoved into a parasol stand on the terrace. Despite its origin and makeshift construction it works very nicely as a floor distaff.
To prepare the flax for the distaff I make a fan of it. I place the flax on the table in front of me and draft out one thin layer at a time into a fan, until I have fanned out the whole bundle. The fibers are now criss-crossed across the surface so that each fiber easily can catch on to a nearby fiber. You can watch how I create my fan in this video.
Sittin’ in the morning sun
I have been spinning the Austrian flax daily when I haven’t been away. I spin the flax on our terrace, either in the pale morning sun or in the shade in the afternoon. The wind catches both my hair and the flax on the distaff, giving the spinning an extra dimension.
As I slowly draft the fibers from the distaff into the twist I find a sweet rhythm – draft, treadle, draft, treadle, occasionally mixed with wetting my spinning hand fingers or moving the draft across the flax. I feel every fiber go through my hands as I think about why they were grown, the land they grew on and the connection to Austria and my own Austrian heritage.
It’s really hard to stop spinning flax. As there is quite a lot of fibers dressed on the distaff I can alway spin a little more before I take a break. When I finally do I realize that I have been spinning for over an hour, just treadling and drafting.
I work a lot with switching hands, both for reasons of ergonomics and to teach both my hands to understand the roles of both spinning hand and fiber hand. With the knowledge that I often spin for long periods when I work with flax, I find it extra important to switch hands.
My daily flax session on the terrace is one of focus and joy. Having the flax going through my hands right in front of my eyes makes my heart sing. And my hands with it.
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