Flax processing

Last weekend I attended the Wool and flax days at Skansen open-air museum in Stockholm. Dressed in all wool and linen, I brought my own retted flax from the 2017 harvest. My plan was to process my own flax with their tools and guidance. My friend Anna was kind enough to shoot the whole thing.

This is part four in a blog series about flax. The previous posts are about flax processing in general, the 2018 harvest in my experimental flax patch and spinning flax on a spindle. Last year I wrote about the first harvests in my experimental flax patch and my first attempt at spinning flax on a wheel.

Skansen open-air museum

Skansen is the oldest open-air museum in the world. Old houses and buildings from all over Sweden have been brought to Skansen for display. Skansen employees are dressed in period costumes and tell the visitors all about the buildings, tools and ways of living.

I spent an hour of the beautiful August afternoon at Älvrosgården, a farm from the beginning of the 19th century. For this event flax processing tools had been brought out on the yard to show how a strick of dry and dull flax stems can be turned into gold.

Tools for processing flax were often a bridal gift. A married woman needed to be able to process the family’s flax to make clothing and domestic textiles. You can often see names and wedding dates on old distaffs, hackles and scutching knives.

I showed the staff my modest flax harvest and asked if I could process it with their tools. They were delighted and very kind and showed me the ropes.

Breaking

The flax fiber is placed on the outside of a cellulose core. To separate the flax from the core you need to break the core. This is done in the flax break. In this stage you see how the cellulose cores crumble to bits while the long flax fibers stay intact. The Swedish word for this stage is bråka. Quite similar to the English word.

A person breaking flax
I’m breaking the flax to break the cellulose core that is surrounded by the flax fibers. Photo by Anna Herting

Pulling

This is a tool I have never seen or heard of before. It is called a “draga”, which is an old word for something that pulls. Which makes sense – you pull the broken flax through the “puller” to remove the coarsest bits of cellulose. Quite effective! Has any of you seen this type of tool before?

A person pulling flax through a puller
I’m pulling the flax through the “puller” as a step between breaking and scutching. Photo by Anna Herting

Scutching

The next step is the scutching, Skäktning in Swedish. You use a wooden tool similar to a knife to remove the bits and pieces of broken cellulose from the flax fibers. The more bits you are able to remove, the better prepared the flax will be for the final step.

A person scutching flax
I’m scutching the flax to remove the small pieces of cellulose that were broken in the breaking step. Photo by Anna Herting

Hackling

Hackling the flax is usually done in several steps. In this case, two steps. You pull the scutched flax through vicious tines to remove short and brittle fibers and the last pieces of cellulose. In this step you also arrange the fibers parallel. After having hackled a while I learned how to lift the strick of flax over the hackles instead of swinging it. When swinging, the flax turns in the air and doesn’t lie straight over the tines.

A person hackling flax
First hackling step. Flax samples on the table with different retting methods. Photo by Anna Herting

On the table you can see samples of flax that has been retted with different methods – dew retting, water retting and snow retting.

A person hackling flax
Second hackling step. Photo by Anna Herting

The first step of the hackling process is through a rough hackle and the second step through a finer hackle. This stage is performed at your own risk. I managed to go through it with only one pierced finger. These are the only flax processing tools I actually have at home.

Close-up of a person hackling flax.
I ended up with only one hackling wound! Photo by Anna Herting

The coarser bits that end up in the hackles, the tow, is saved and spun into a coarser yarn or used as insulation in the buildings. The pieces of cellulose core that is scattered on the ground are treats for the chickens. So while this is a time and labour demanding process, nothing goes to waste.

Admiring

The flax turned into such a beautiful bundle of gold. I am still amazed at what I have managed to make, from just a handful of flax seeds. I got new seeds for this season from Ann-Marie, a retired flax farmer and spinner. This flax is actually spinable! And I just found out that Ann-Marie is selling out the last of her seeds and she is sending me some for next season!

My beautiful strick of flax from the 2017 harvest in my experimental flax patch.

The fibers are long, lustrous and plentiful. And I must have done something right with the retting too. I am happy as a clam about my beautiful flax.

Four strikes of processed flax
Results from my experimental flax so far. From the left: 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.

You can see the difference to the earlier years. The 2014 harvest was the thickness of a rat’s tail. 2015 was at least three rat’s tails!  In 2016 I failed with the retting, you can still see lots of pieces of cellulose. Finally, the newly processed flax from the 2017 harvest is long, beautiful and silky. And just outside our house, the 2018 harvest is retting on the lawn.

I’ll be back next year

I passed my flax processing exam. The Skansen staff was so kind and helpful and welcomed me back to process my next harvest. A big thank you to the Skansen staff at Älvrosgården for their kindness and guidance, to Anna for shooting and to Ann-Marie for the seeds.

Happy spinning!


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