This week I have worked multidimensionally with flax. I have spun Austrian flax harvested and processed before 1900, knit my handspun yarn from 80 year old Austrian flax, hackled my own flax from 2020 och 2021 and monitored my 2022 flax. Have a peak in my current flax brain!
When I teach spinning (wool) I like to start from the beginning, preparing the fibers. As we go along in the class, I encourage my students to look at the previous step for trouble shooting – can I change something in the carding to solve problems in my spinning? When I have trouble getting my rolags even, will I find the solution in the teasing?
The other day I read a quote that stuck to me. It said: “Creative activity is a type of learning process where the teacher and pupil are located in the same individual.” (Arthur Koestler). As I work with the yarn, learning about its properties and the technique I teach myself to improvements on current, previous and following steps. And I would add the material as my teacher too.
The flax brain
I’m not nearly as experienced in flax processing and spinning as I am with wool and I only sow, harvest and process my flax once a year. But this week I have been in the flax on quite a deep level and in many dimensions. Those of you who follow me on Instagram may have seen my Daily flax theme in my stories, where I post one flax related picture or video each day.
Searching for pictures and/or contexts where I can take a picture of something flax related has switched on my flax brain. What is it that I do and why? Can I make improvements in one step to ease the next? What can I learn from one step that may change how I do things in a previous step?
Knitting my handspun flax
As I wrote in a previous post, I have started knitting with flax yarn that I have spun from 80 year old Austrian flax from the Berta’s flax project. By knitting with the yarn I understand how my style of knitting influences the yarn.
In this case, with a Z-plied yarn I take off some of the (already low) twist, which results in two singles almost parallel on the needles. This means that I need to add twist when I ply to compensate for the twist I take off when I knit. This way there is sort of a communication between steps in the process via me, a communication between the teacher and the pupil.
Rehackling and brushing pre-1900 flax
As I rehackle and brush the pre-1900 flax from the Berta’s flax project I see what really high quality is. I see how fine the fibers are, how little boon that is left (even if it differs between the three batches of Austrian flax I have, all are very clean) and how much time, skill and effort that has been put into the preparation of the flax.
Without that knowledge I would probably not understand how my own hackled flax should look like. Without the fresh experience of spinning yarn from flax of high quality I would not have the organic connection between the steps of the process.
Creating a fan and dressing the distaff
As I create a fan and and dress the distaff my flax brain is turned on. Since I made the previous distaff dressing and spun it quite recently I have a fresh understanding of how important a thoroughly prepared fan is for the flow of the spinning.
For this distaff dressing I spent a lot of time creating the fan, making sure all the layers were very thin and evenly spread. And I did notice the difference from the last distaff dressing – the fibers came out into the drafting zone more effortlessly and evenly. Instant feedback between steps in the process is truly satisfying.
Spinning pre-1900 Austrian flax
Even if the 80 year old flax was in very high quality, the pre-1900 flax was exceptional, with next to no boon at all. I see what even the smallest proportion of boon remnants do for the spinning flow and the softness of the resulting yarn. The more boon the less fluent the spinning and the coarser the yarn.
Spinning this flax has been a joy and a journey back to pre-1900 Austria. As the flax has been going through my hands, so has my thoughts about all the people who have been involved in the preparation of this high quality flax and the significance it had for the people of that place and time.
Preparing my 2020 and 2021 flax
Preparing my own flax helps me understand what retting does in all the processes: An underrated flax will create more waste, more work, coarser yarn, more tangles and less flow in the spinning process.
The sentence above is very sensible. I always tell my students that their mistakes are a map of what they have learned and I usually embrace my mistakes. I do that with my underretted flax too, but I can’t help but shed a tear too.
The 2021 flax harvest was large, the largest I have ever had, and with very long fibers (see picture of broken flax above). But it was all underretted. There was so much waste, both in amount and length. Even with the large amount of waste I still see a lot of boon and I know it will cause problems when I spin it and in the resulting yarn.
My 2020 harvest was very modest and of very different lengths, none of which was very impressive. Still, it resulted in very fine fibers of an almost silvery colour. And a high yield.
Rehackling the tow
I did take the opportunity to rehackle my large pile of newly produced tow, though. I have saved all my tow through the years, but without having done anything with it. Because of the underretted 2021 harvest, the strick of rehackled tow turned out to be the thickest strick.
Harvesting my 2022 flax
As I harvest my flax I have the chance to do what I can to make a high quality preparation. I begin by investigating the flax to find the best day to harvest. I was planning to harvest this week, but as it started raining I didn’t want to risk molding in a damp bundle. So due to the rain there is no picture of my harvested 2022 flax here.
I’m a little afraid of going to the allotment to check on the flax. What if the rain (and wind) has felled the plants?
This week I bought a spinning wheel and I now have three. It was all done quite spontaneously. I have been spinning my flax with my makeshift umbrella stand and carved stick sort of distaff. My sitting position in relation to the distaff hasn’t been ideal for my body.
The ad for the wheel turned up at a very convenient time. My friend Anna was selling her pre-production Kromski Mazurka that she in turn had bough from a spinner in Germany. Anna lives in Gothenburg and I was going there by car for my aunt’s funeral. My destination, the car and the sweet wheel all fell into place.
The wheel had a flax distaff and was quite petite. Anna came to the hotel where I was staying and brought the wheel. I tested the wheel in the lobby (always a joy to make spinning wheel transactions in hotel lobbies) and decided she would come home with me.
I am calling the wheel Henrietta, which is the name of one of my Austrian great-grandmothers (one of my other wheels is named Berta after my Swedish great-grandmother). My aunt was in turn named Harriet after Henrietta. If I remember it correctly, my aunt Harriet dreamed of being called Henrietta.
I have spun with Henrietta for a day or so and we are slowly getting to know each other. She is such a sweet wheel to work with! She is very easy to carry which is a big plus since I like to bring her out to the balcony to spin my flax. The distaff is too short (long flax gets tangled into the flyer hooks), so for the moment I hold it in my hand and draft from there. I hope I can get my wood turner to make me a taller distaff.
Today may be the day I harvest my 2022 flax. I have high hopes for the retting this year.
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