Spinning flax on a spindle

This is the third post in my series about flax. I wrote the earlier posts about flax processing as a whole, and about this year’s harvest. I don’t have a lot of experience spinning flax, but I’m eager to learn. And I made a video. This time the video is about spinning flax on a spindle. The video also includes how I dress a distaff. Spinning flax on a spindle is a wonderful time to really get to know the fiber and the spinning technique. Also, I’m a bit smitten by Norman Kennedy when he demonstrates spinning flax on an in-hand spindle.

Tools

I use a medieval style in-hand (grasped) spindle with a spiral notch and whorl (in featured image). I bought them from NiddyNoddyUK and I asked Neil to make a spiral notch turning counter-clockwise. The outermost layer of flax fiber is slightly turned counter-clockwise.  Hence, most flax is spun counter-clockwise. This gave me a chance to practice my in-hand spinning with my left hand. If you want to know more about my thoughts on spinning direction I made a blog series about this earlier, check here, here and here.

The distaffs are my own hand carved from our lime tree avenue. I made one belt distaff and one floor distaff. In our terrace lounge furniture there is a very convenient hole in the lid, which fits the floor distaff perfectly.

Dressing the distaff

I have tried to read up on how to dress a distaff. there are many traditions in this, and I picked one that appealed to me. In the video I use a strick of hand processed Belgian flax.

A stick of flax
A beautiful strick of Belgian flax

I tied a ribbon around the root end of the bundle and tied the ends around my waist. I then carefully criss-crossed the bundle several times in very thin layers in an arch on the table in front of me. In this way, the fibers are well separated and always has another fiber to catch on to.

Josefin Waltin preparing to dress a distaff. The flax is spread out in an arch on the table in front of her.
Preparing to dress the distaff. The fibers are criss-crossed in thin layers and they all have fiber friends to hold on to.

When I had finished making the arch, I rolled the flax around the belt distaff and tied with the ends of the ribbon. I should have used a longer ribbon, though.

The flax on the floor distaff in the video is machine processed, also from Belgium I think. Bought at Växbo lin. I dressed the floor distaff the same way as I did the waist distaff.

Spinning flax

I wet spin my flax. The fiber has sort of a gluey substance that is activated in water. This makes a smoother spin. It also helps balancing the yarn. But you have to make sure to add the water at the right place – at the point of twist. Too low and nothing happens, the yarn just looks wet spun but when it dries the fibers go their own way. Too high and you will have trouble with unspun fibers clogged together. I put some flax seeds in my water to get some of that flax seed gel in the spinning.

A person spinning flax on a spindle
Add the water just at the point of twist

Flax fibers are very long and I can keep quite a long spinning triangle. This can be a bit fiddly sometimes, when the drafting triangle gets longer than my arms can reach comfortably.

Because of the length of the fibers, I don’t need very much twist. When I spin wool on an in-hand spindle I usually use a short suspension. I don’t need that when I spin flax. Keeping the spindle in my hand all the time gives me control over the spinning and I can put my focus where I need it the most: On the drafting zone. I need to make sure that there is just the right amount of fiber in the drafting zone.

Josefin Waltin drafting flax fiber from a distaff.
Drafting away, always keeping a close eye on the drafting triangle.

Flax isn’t as forgiving as wool when it comes to lumps, you can’t untwist and redraft. But I still do untwist. Right at the moment where I draft, I untwist slightly to make a smoother draft. This comes in handy especially after I have removed my spinning hand from the yarn to wet my fingers.

A word about climate change

In the shot when I spin leaning against a tree, you can see the yellowed grass behind me. This is not because it is autumn – the video was shot in July, a time when the grass is usually fresh and green. The summer of 2018 was extremely hot and dry. Over 30°C for weeks and almost no rain in large parts of the country. Harvests were ruined and cattle owners had to slaughter their animals because there were no pastures left. We had over 70 forest fires and had to get fire fighters from continental Europe to be able manage them. Talk about climate change.

Josefin Waltin spinning flax with a spindle and distaff. Yellow grass in the background
Spinning in front of the yellowed grass from an extremely hot and dry summer.

Ergonomics

There are a few things you need to think about to be kind to your body. We don’t need to strain our muscles, we want to be able to spin as much and as healthy as possible, don’t we?

Try to keep your spindle close to your body. This way you don’t need to lift your arms more than necessary. Use your body as support! I rest my spinning hand against my belly or hip when I spin.

Aim towards a straight spinning hand wrist. Bending the wrist too much can lead to strained muscles. Adapt your grip to get the most comfortable hand position. In the video you can see me using two different grips on the spindle. Before I started editing the video, I didn’t realize that I was using two different grips. I noticed it when I was adding the captions and figured I had changed grips to get more comfortable.

The first grip is when my hands are close to each other, i.e. when the hand of my spinning  arm is perpendicular to my body or pointing slightly upwards. In this grip I hold the spindle between my thumb, index finger and third finger. The other fingers are supporting the grip. Thumb on the inner side of the spindle and the rest of the fingers on the outer side. I roll the spindle between my thumb, index finger and third finger. I would not use this grip when my hand below a 90 degree angle, since it forces my wrist to bend.

Josefin Waltin spinning flax with a spindle and distaff. Text says "Grip 1: Roll the spindle between index finger and thumb. Support with other fingers."
Grip 1, which I wasn’t even aware of that I was using before I watched the video.

The second grip is one I can use for all my hand positions, but if I have started with the first grip I change to the second when my arm is below a perpendicular angle. I put my fourth finger on the inner side of the spindle to support it. I do the rolling mostly with my index finger in this grip. This is my preferred grip, but it is still nice to be able to change between two different grips during the spinning.

Close-up of a person spinning flax on a spindle. Text says: "Grip 2: Hold the spindle between your third finger and thumb. Supporting with your fourth finger and rolling with your index finger."
Grip 2 is the grip I use most of the time.

Spinning towards  the end of the summer

It takes time to spin flax on a spindle and I’m far from done with the flax I dressed the distaff with. I will keep spinning until the summer is over and it’s not comfortable spin outdoors anymore.

Happy spinning!


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3 Replies to “Spinning flax on a spindle”

  1. Question: Why do you spin that way? It was my understanding that the drop spindle was used without needing to hold it. Granted, this way makes the actual dropping off less likely but doesn’t it tire your hand out more? I am intrigued. I’ve been spinning with a drop spindle for 3 or 4 years now, but I let the spindle hang and use both hands to deal with the fiber. I recently joined the SCA so I want to know if I’m doing it wrong. I have yet to try distaff spinning but really really want a distaff. Thanks!. Annabelle of Stierbach

    1. That is a relevant question. The spindle I am using in the video is a medieval style spindle stick with a separate whorl. These are used in-hand/grasped style, as s third type next to suspended (drop) spindles and supported spindles.

      As you can see, I do not let the spindle leave my hand. This gives me full control over spindle and twist. And flax don’t need very much twist since the fibers are so long. It does tire my hand a bit, but if I listen to my body and try to spin as ergonomically as possible, I can spin for quite a long time. For example, I spin counter-clockwise with my left hand. This means that my index finger pulls the spindle. This is less straining than if I were to push the spindle, since we have more muscles working together to pull than to push. In the blog post I have linked to a blog series I wrote about spinning direction a few months ago. It is possible to spin both with a long suspension (drop spindle style), short suspension, supported and in-hand style with this kind of spindle. In the video you can see how I support the spindle against my belly when I roll the yarn onto the spindle. I have made a video where I spin medieval style, and you can see the short suspension there. I don’t, however spin with long suspension on this kind of spindle, since I feel that I don’t have enough control over the spinning when my had oss so far from the spindle (I do spin on suspended spindles sometimes, though). See this blog post for the medieval video, https://waltin.se/josefinwaltinspinner/medieval-style-spinning/

      I hope this answered your question.

      Happy spinning!

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