Rehackling flax

It’s been a while, but today I release a new video! This time I show you how I rehackle flax that has been stored for a while. In this case flax from the Berta’s flax project that has been stored since the 1940’s, but I would rehackle any flax that doesn’t come fresh off the hackles.

I actually shot a version of this video in the summer of 2021. But as the time went by, I realized that I had changed my methods here and there. The footage wasn’t the best either.

A video project within a process

I procrastinated for a year. Then I tried again this summer, 2022. I updated my methods and my phone, so I got better footage too. The summer went by and I changed some more methods. I procrastinated a little more. Then I realized that the changes were due to my process, and a process is always changing.

I spun flax all summer and learned a lot along the way. I changed techniques, tools and my understanding of the process, while developing and refining my methods. Here are some changes I have made since I shot the video:

  • I divide the stricks into even smaller bundles for more control and better quality in the hackling
  • I have a different way of dressing the distaff with the fanned fibers (see archive video below)
  • Even if I put my hand very gently on the hackle spikes to keep the flax on them, there is a risk of getting hurt if I’m not careful. I now place my index finger on top of the fibers just in front of the spikes to force the fibers to stay in the hackle without risking getting my hand hurt.
  • I now use a different spinning wheel, my Kromski Mazurka Henrietta (see image below)

So what I give you is a still image of my methods as they presented themselves in the process then and there, in the shape of a video. I have learned a lot since then and a video produced now would look different. I hope my learning process is to the benefit of yours.

Rehackling flax

In the video I rehackle flax that is around 80 years old. The flax comes from the Austrian Berta’s flax project and the flax stricks have been stored in a chest until just recently. While the flax was in amazing condition it was compressed and needed a little love. In fact, I would rehackle any flax that I didn’t get straight off the hackles.

You can read more about rehackling flax in this blog post and more about the Berta’s flax project here.

Time and air

Preparing fibers invites air in between the fibers. In some preparations a lot of air with the fibers willy-nilly, but still evenly distributed, like a carded preparation. In other preparations a little less air and the fibers parallel, but still evenly distributed, like a combed preparation. Fiber preparation thus evens out the space between the fibers by of course untangling them, but also by bringing air into the fiber mass.

Regardless of whether 80 years or one summer has passed since the original preparation took place, time has gone by. Time causes the fibers to compress, whether it’s protein or cellulose fibers, carded or combed preparation. The air that the preparation brought into the fibers has escaped, making the fiber mass more compact and possibly retangled, depending on how it has been stored.

Spot the difference

Spinning from an old preparation would thus possibly be more straining on both the spinner and the fibers and leave a yarn of lesser quality. If you compare an old and a new preparation you would probably feel a struggle while spinning the old preparation and a lightness while spinning the new.

Newly rehackled and brushed flax is just dreamy to work with.

The old preparation would probably pull out more fibers from the preparation than a new preparation would, making it more difficult to spin an even and/or fine yarn. The drafted fibers would probably also be bundled. More fibers would break, there would be more waste, shorter fibers and more strain in the body.

Listening to the flax

As I prepare the flax and spin it I get the chance to know it. If I just listen close enough the flax will tell me how it works and what I need to do to spin it into its most beautiful yarn. As I prepare the flax I get the chance to see the length of the fibers, the fineness and the condition of the retting and, when applicable, the quality of the first preparation.

Enormously long flax fibers from 80 year old Swedish flax. It has been industrially prepared, and stored in untwisted stricks, leaving lots of tangles.

The video I shot in 2021 (and never published) was with flax I had got from a friend. It was the same age as Berta’s flax, but grown and harvested in Sweden. The length of the flax was impressive. The flax had been prepared in flax mill the 1940’s and stored in untwisted stricks. The unorganized storing resulted in many tangles, a struggle in the rehackling, a lot of waste and a lower quality in the yarn.

If the flax is underretted (like my 2021 flax sadly was) there will be more boon in it, the little pieces of cellulose that haven’t been properly removed because of the underretting, there will be more breakage and therefore more waste.

All is as it should be

I believe we learn from all experiences, even if they at the moment may seem wasted. From my 2021 underretted flax I learned to pay extra attention to the retting process. From rehackling the Swedish 80 year old flax last summer I learned how important the storing is. And from spinning the flax from the Berta’s flax project this year I learned what high quality flax and preparation feels and spins like and what I need to look out for. All my mistakes are opportunities to explore and learn. All is as it should be.

Flax experience and depth

I don’t have nearly as much experience spinning flax as I have spinning wool. But this and last summer have been flax summers and I have spun commercially prepared modern (Hungarian? Belgian?) flax, commercially prepared 80 year old Swedish flax and hand prepared 80 year old Austrian flax. During this brief time I have encountered several challenges and learned what they do in the yarn. I know now that rehackling is vital for the quality and yield of the yarn and for my physical health. I know I need to spend time on the distaff dressing, pulling out very thin layers in my fan (the only distaff dressing method I have explored so far) to distribute the fibers as evenly as I can.

An evenly prepared fan gives high hopes for a high quality yarn.

When I rehackle the yarn I get a feeling of what I need to do when I get to the distaff dressing and spinning stage. Every time the fibers go through my hands in the process I get information that I can use to create the best yarn I can.

Flower and root ends

One thing I got a little caught up in while editing the video was the flower end and the root end. In the video I tie the flower end to my waist as I create the fan. In a previous video I tied the root end to my waist. Tyeing the root end to the waist is what I had learned from a couple of books on flax preparation and spinning. I thought I was doing it the same way this year as I did in the older video, but apparently I wasn’t.

A freshly dressed distaff with what I believe to be mainly flower ends at the top.

I discussed this with a couple of flax friends, and it turns out that in most cases it doesn’t really matter what end you start with when you spin the yarn. It is important to keep track of the root ends and keep them even as you harvest, dry, rehackle the flax. This is to get as little waste as possible through the different steps of the process. But for the spinning it doesn’t really matter. I like to be consistent through in my yarn, aiming towards keeping all the root ends in the same direction throughout the yarn, but it doesn’t seem necessary at all. And unless I haven’t processed it all myself there is no way of making sure which end is where.

A distaff in a thousand dresses

I dress my distaff with a fan as in the video. This is the only way I have explored. But in Sweden there are several other methods that other flax spinners are way better at than me, and in other parts of Europe still more. This is a very interesting topic that I would love to explore more. Marie Ekstedt Bjersing shows a couple of methods she uses in this video (in Swedish).

Since I shot the video I have started dressing my distaff a little tighter. In my experience this keeps the fibers better organized.

Here is an interesting method that Christiane Seufferlein, the head of the Berta’s flax, showed me. And in this video the spinner prepares a fan in the most beautiful way. She also dresses the distaff with the flax tighter, a method that I have been exploring since after I shot my video.

In the summertime

There is still so much to learn and explore. Next summer my sweet wheel Henrietta and I will be out on the terrace again, diving deeper into flax preparation, rehackling and spinning. I still have lots of flax from the Berta’s flax project, but I also plan to spin my own flax for the very first time. I expect to learn a lot from that too.

Happy spinning!

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6 Replies to “Rehackling flax”

  1. Great post! I really enjoyed seeing the different ways of preparing the flax and dressing the distaffs. How are you able to find these amazing old films? I’m at the beginning of my flax journey. It was the first fiber I learned how to spin on a spindle. Then I wanted to try all the other types of fiber. I’m back to flax and am excited to grow and process my own.

    1. Thank you! I got the links to the old films from Christiane Seufferlein who manages the Berta’s flax project, so all credit goes to her for that. I wish you happy flax farming!

  2. Thank you for the interesting post, Josefin. I probably won’t ever spin flax (and have done very little wool spinning), but I love reading about the process, as I think it could give me a deeper understanding of yarn. And! You write beautifully! The thing that struck me most, and it isn’t related to spinning, is that I now fully see where the description of “flaxen hair” comes from. The triptych of the rehackling process looks exactly like hair in all three pictures. Is there a word in Swedish that relates the color of flax to the color of hair?

    1. Thank you Shana! I hope some day you will be able to spin flax, it’s such a remarkable fiber. And if not, I hope I can be a small part in your journey towards a deeper understanding of yarn. The Swedish word for flaxen hair is linblond.

  3. In addition to watching Marie’s fascinating flax spinning, I have discovered that I love listening to Swedish, even though I don’t speak a word!

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