Flax processing at home

I have grown flax in our townhouse flower bed since 2014. It is only one square meter and I call it my experimental flax patch. Every fall I have taken last year’s retted flax to the Flax Days at Skansen Outdoor museum to process. It has become a tradition that I look forward to every year. This year was different. The Flax Days were cancelled due to the pandemic. Luckily I now have a complete set of flax processing tools, so I did my flax processing at home.

Ripple

During the late summer I have presented my flax processing tools, but I was missing a flax ripple. My friend Cecilia made a beautiful ripple and I decided to make one myself. I bought wire nails from Swedish eBay and nailed them into a board I found on the attic. It is not the prettiest ripple I have seen, but I have made it.

I rippled this year’s very sad flax harvest with my new ripple. It works so much better than putting the dried flax in a pillow case and trying to remove the seed capsules with a rolling pin, I can promise you that. I just placed a sheet on the lawn and held the ripple fast on the ground with my feet and rippled away. The seed capsules danced off the stems and rolled together into puddles of beads on the sheet. When I was done I placed the rippled flax on the ground to ret.

Break

The gem of all my flax processing tools is my break, dated 1821. The wood is smoothed where skilled hands have held it. When I broke my flax from the 2019 harvest I imagined all the people who had used it before me. I got goose bumps.

While I was standing there my neighbours came by and wondered what I was doing. It can take a while to explain the process to someone who has never thought of where their flax shirts, skirts or trousers come from. A few hours later they came back and I was still working with my flax ( a very small harvest). Once again I sent a thought to all my predecessors who had processed whole fields of flax.

Breaking flax can be quite straining, especially with a break that has been made in a time when people in general were shorter than I. The break breaks the cellulose core that is surrounded by the long fibers. It takes quite a few beats to break the core of a bundle of flax sufficiently. I understand why flax processing must have been something a whole village or community did together. It is hard labour. I do my flax processing at home just like they did, but with just a teeny, tiny harvest.

An in-between step

When I have processed my flax at Skansen Outdoor museum there has been another step after the breaking and before the scutching. In this extra step the broken pieces of cellulose core are further removed from the fibers. At Skansen I have used a tool for this called draga (“puller”) that looks quite like a break. You can see me use this tool in this video. I have also seen pictures of a hand tool for this purpose, called stångklyfta (“cleft bar”, also used instead of a scutching board and knife). You hold the tool and control the “mouth” with your hand, pulling the scutched fibers through the jaws.

Stångklyfta, cleft bar, from digitaltmuseum.se

Scutch

My scutching board and scutching knife are a bit younger than the break. I have seen so many beautiful antique scutching knives – perfectly shaped to fit the hand, ornamented with flowers and perfectly fitting a right hand. I would sacrifice my flax harvest for an antique scutching knife made for lefties. But I doubt I’ll ever find one. The ones I have works well and is made to fit both lefties and righties and of course I’m grateful for that. But still.

Scutching removes the broken cellulose bits from the flax fibers. This is where the retting will be revealed – if the flax hasn’t been retted enough the cellulose won’t separate enough from the flax fiber. And if it is over retted I imagine the fibers will break in the process (if not sooner).

Rough hackle

My first flax processing tools were two hackles, one for rough hackling and one for fine hackling. They are both quite old and I use them with great respect of their age and their potential to hurt me (I only got one hackling injury this time!). Hackling takes care of the remaining bits of cellulose (if the flax is retted enough), removes the short fibers and aligns the fibers.

Fine hackle

In the final step, the fine hackle, the fibers are aligned even further and short fibers removed. Two hackles has been quite common, but sometimes three have been used, with the addition of one or two flax brushes just before dressing the distaff.

When I was done with the fine hackle I looked around for a second bundle of hackled flax. But I found none. This was it, just a tiny bundle. There is a lot of waste in flax processing! Well, not waste per se, all of the flax is used for something – the short fibers (tow) are used for coarser yarn or insulation and the cellulose bits becomes food for the chickens. But the yield of finer spinnable fibers is quite low.

The remaining flax after the second hackling. It isn’t much, but it is mine and a result of flax processing at home.

When I look at the resulting skein of flax I can evaluate last year’s harvest and retting. When I harvested this flax (2019) I knew it wasn’t top quality, so I was prepared for that. I can also see that it may have been slightly under retted. Some pieces of cellulose remain in the flax.

A flax odyssey

I like to bring out all my flax to see the progress (or not) from year to year. The first year, 2014 (to the far left) I only got a rat’s tail, but I was immensely proud of it. 2016 was the year of under retting. 2017 quite successful, but 2018 was really good, both when it comes to quality and regarding the amount of flax ( I had a second patch that year). And 2019, well very little, but a decent quality.

Flax harvests: 2014 (less than 1 gram), 2015 (4 grams), 2016 (5 grams), 2017 (17 grams, new flax seeds), 2018 (53 grams from two patches) and 2019 (7 grams).

I’m fascinated by the different colours. All my flax has been grown in the same place and retted the same way, but still the colour varies significantly in all shades of dew retting.

This year was a disaster and I’m not sure the result will be more than a rat’s tail. But the goal with my experimental flax patch is to learn and I do learn a lot every year through all the parts of the process, both growing and processing.

The retting of the 2020 flax harvest is finished after 19 days of dew retting.

This week I checked my retting flax and decided it was finished, after 19 days of des retting. When I broke the stems the fibers separated easily and in all its length from the cellulose core. Next year I will learn know if it was right to finish the retting when I did.

Happy spinning!


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