Spinning flax on a spindle

A spindle and distaff

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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Harvest day in the experimental flax patch

I never know when it is the perfect day to harvest my flax. When I read up on the subject, it usually says to harvest about 30 days after the first blossom. The stems should be yellow to up to about a third of the length of the stalk. This year, though, has been extreme in the sense that it has been hotter than ever before. Weeks of temperatures close to 30°C  and no rain for over a month. According to a local flax association, the heat can make the flax mature faster than usual. I the end of July I decided it was harvest day in the experimental flax patch.

This is the second post in my flax series.

A quick resume

This is the fifth year with the experimental flax patch. My ambition with it is to learn something new every year and bring that new knowledge into the next season. Someday I hope I have enough knowledge to produce spinnable flax fiber.

I have processed the harvests for the first three years to the best of my ability. The only flax processing tools I own are two hackles. Last year’s harvest has been retted and dried but I haven’t processed it yet. I may be getting some real processing tools later in the fall.

I bought the first seed from a commercial seed brand. The resulting harvest was ok and I used the threshed seeds for the following seasons. Earlier this year, though, I bought the seed Ilona from a retiring flax farmer.

Flax harvest of 2018

I used the Ilona seed for the 2018 flax season. I have never had such long and straight plants! When I sowed the seed I got a little carried away, though. It was too much for my regular flax patch in the flower bed at the house. I decided to expand the experiment with a branch in the allotment. Unfortunately, I hadn’t enough seed for both patches. This resulted in the seed being spread unevenly, which in turn affected the quality of the flax harvest. Flax likes to be planted evenly and quite closely together. The further away the plants are from each other, the thicker the stems and the more seed capsules they will develop. For spinning the flax stems need to be thin and straight with fewer capsules. Perhaps the extreme weather contributed to the quality as well – the plants were uneven in both length and thickness.

Close-up of bundled-up flax stalks
Quite a difference in thickness of the flax plants in this year’s flax harvest.

When I pulled the plants I tried to pull the same length for the same bunch. I’m still concerned that I may have pulled a little too soon, but since this season has been so crazy, I didn’t want to keep it in the ground anymore.

The root of a flax plant
The flax is pulled straight from the ground, root and all. Photo by Dan Waltin

It is perfectly fine to pull the flax early, though. It will result in finer fibers, but also a less amount of mature seed to thresh for next season. So I will have to buy new seed and hopefully I will get some good quality seed from an experienced spinning flax farmer.

Flax seed pods
Sweet seed capsules

Next step: Rippling and retting

The next step in the process is rippling and retting the flax. I usually dew ret on the lawn just outside the house. But since the weather has been so dry, I think it will be a while before there is any dew to talk about, so I think I will wait a couple of weeks before I start the retting process. Meanwhile, the flax hangs safely on the wall of the house and looks pretty and promising. And I still have last year’s retted flax to process and some commercial flax to spin.

Happy spinning!


You can follow me on several social media:

  • This blog is my main channel. This is where I write posts about spinning, but also where I explain a bit more about videos I release. Sometimes I make videos that are on the blog only. Subscribe or make an rss feed to be sure not to miss any posts.
  • My youtube channel is where I release a lot of my videos. Subscribe to be sure not to miss anything!
  • I have a facebook page where I link to all my blog posts, you are welcome to follow me there.
  • On Patreon you can get early access to new videos and other Patreon only benefits. You can read more about my Patreon page here.
  • Follow me on Instagram.  I announce new blog posts and post lots of woolliness.
  • If you like what I do, please tell all your fiber friends and share these links!

New series: Flax

It’s flax season! I don’t want to spin flax indoors because of all the dirt that falls out in the process. This is why I basically only spin flax in the summer. Also, late summer and autumn is the time for flax processing. So, I will write a flax series.

In this series I will write about my own experimental flax patch, processing the fiber and spinning. To begin with, here is a short summary of the different steps in the process from seed to yarn.

Flax processing

Processing flax is quite labour intensive. Since I – so far – have a very small flax patch (about 2 square meters), it is manageable. These are, in short, the steps I go through with my flax in the process from seed to yarn:

Sowing

The seed can be sowed as soon as the soil is defrosted and manageable. I usually wait for the first weed to sprout. After deweeding, I’m ready to sow. This makes it a lot easier to distinguish the sprouting flax from weeds later on. To avoid the flax patch becoming a day bed for the neighbour’s cat, I usually place a grid a few inches over the ground.

Flax seeds
Flax seeds

Harvesting

I try to harvest about 30 days after the first blossom. I grab a bunch of plants and pull them right up, roots and all. Keeping the roots gives me a longer stalk. Also, the root protects the fiber from rotting (compared to a cut plant).

Drying

I make bundles of the flax and hang them over a fence in the sun to dry. I try to hang them high enough to avoid any curious rodents. When the flax is totally dry it is time to ret it.

Bundles of flax hanging to dry
Bundles of flax hanging to dry

Rippling

The seed capsules need to be removed from the stalks before you can process the fiber. This is done with a ripple. It looks like a big comb. You pull a bundle through the ripple, and the seed capsules fall off. The seed capsules are saved and threshed for next season.

I don’t own a ripple. Instead, I put the bundles in a pillow case and beat it with a mallet to remove the seed capsules from the stalks.

Retting

This is a tricky part and I don’t have enough experience to know when the retting is just right. Since we don’t have a stream nearby, my only option is to dew ret my flax. I spread the bundles in a thin layer on the lawn. If it isn’t wet enough, I water the flax with a watering pot. I have to watch the process carefully to avoid under or over retting. I also turn the flax once a week to get an even retting process. When the fibers separate easily from the core when I bend the stalk, the retting is finished.

When the retting is complete, I dry the flax in bundles.

Breaking

The flax stalk has a cellulose core. The flax fibers are placed around the core. To get hold of the fibers, the stalks needs to be broken. This process breaks the core, but not the fibers. Since I don’t own a flax breaker, I do it the stone age way – I try to crush the core with a stone against a rock. Sometimes it works.

Scutching

In the scutching process, the majority of the broken pieces of cellulose are removed from the fibers with a scutching knife. Since I don’t have one, I use a spatula. It doesn’t work very well.

Hackling

To separate the fibers I use two different hackles. A coarser one at first and then I continue to a finer one. This is the final part of the processing of the fiber. I end up with the hackled line flax and the coarser tow.

Spinning

I haven’t spun any of my own flax yet, mainly because I don’t think it has a good enough quality. I also haven’t practiced flax spinning to a point where I think I deserve to spin my own flax.

Coming up

In the next post in this series I will write about this year’s flax harvest.

Happy spinning!

The experimental flax patch

I grow my own flax in a miniature experimental patch. Miniature means about 2 square meters and experimental means that I try to improve every year by experimenting and learning from my previous mistakes. I started in 2014, it was all coincidental. I was seed shopping for our allotment and found a pack of flax seeds for spinning flax. When I planted them I had no intention of processing the fiber, but come August I thought I might give it a try. I had no knowledge and no tools, but my plan was to keep it experimental and grow flax just because I could, and I was sure to learn a lot in the process.

The first year’s result was meager, but I was still  very proud of it. I had grown it and gone through all the steps required to produce fiber. With no tools, I had to be very inventive. After drying and retting, I separated the seeds by putting the bundles in a pillowcase and hammering on it with a mallet. I broke and scutched the stems with a rolling pin on the tiled kitchen floor. I think I used a comb to hackle the fibers. And I was left with a line the thickness of a rat’s tail. But it was my rat’s tail.

A very thin stick of homegrown flax.
Flax harvest of 2014

The following year I had a small experience bank to build on. I planted tighter and more, which gave result. One problem was weeds that sprouted at the same time as the flax, and it was difficult to deweed without deflaxing as well. I had found two hackles which helped me a lot and the result was much improved, the thickness being of approximately 3 rat’s tails, and a lot longer and finer fibers than the first year.

A thin stick of homegrown flax. Hackles and tow in the background.
Flax harvest 2015

In 2016 I waited for the weeds to sprout before I started the flax planting. That way I could deweed before I put the flax seeds in the ground, which was a success. The flax grew nicely and the patch looked very promising. Until the next problem arrived. The problem spelled C-A-T. Frasse, the neighbour’s cat had found a new bed. In my flax bed. He lay there every day and didn’t care about my golden fiber at all. So a lot of the harvest was ruined by cat.

Also, the fall was very dry. I dew retted the flax longer than I had before, but when I processed it, it was really hard to separate the fibers from the core. The consequences of which led to both more waste (=less usable fiber) and more core cellulose in the finished fiber. And I think it has less shine than the previous harvest.

A thin stick of homegrown flax. Hackles and tow in the background.
Flax harvest 2016

But this is why I do it – I learn every year and use my experience to improve the next year. And I did end up with 4 rat’s tails!

This year’s flax has had its ups and downs. To start with, I put a compost grid 5 cm above the soil to prevent the cat from hi-jacking my flax patch. He came, he sulked and he left. I increased the patch with two pallet collars below our big oak. Also, I got some new seeds (Ilona) from a retired flax gardener. But the oak sucked out all the water from the soil and all that is left are some sad yellow stems, about 20 cm high. So we are left with the original patch. Which is full of weeds between the flax stems. However, I planted the new seeds on the original patch and this flax is a lot higher than it ever was before, so I’ll make sure to use the new seeds next year.

Flax flowers.
Flax in blossom

First flax

I have spun my first flax!

I bought a kilo of heckled flax from Växbo lin a year ago, but I have been a bit intimidated by it. I have read a lot about flax spinning but I haven’t had the courage to start spinning.

Two books about flax processing.
Reading up on flax spinning and husbandry

Also, I didn’t have a distaff, so I asked around and finally got a comb distaff. It was hand-carved in the -80’s after an old original. But I had no holder for it and I started playing with ideas how and where to arrange it. We have a floor lamp in the living room and I thought it might be a good idea to tie the distaff onto the lamp shaft.

I wanted to get some sort of container for water to be able to wet-spin the flax. My idea was to hang the container on my spinning wheel, so I needed something with a handle. Last week we went to a flea market and I found a pretty copper cauldron that would be a perfect candidate for the job.

A small copper cauldron hanging on a spinning wheel.
A cauldron for wet spinning

Today I decided it was the day to face my flax fears and start spinning. When I looked at the lamp to figure out how to attach the distaff to it, I saw my blocking wires behind the lamp, neatly stored in their one meter tube. And it was the perfect distaff stand!

So I started spinning with the distaff tube tucked under my arm. It was a little awkward, trying to spin, hold on to the tube and wisp away flying flax fibers at the same time. I realized that I had to spin outdoors and organize myself. So, I moved my equipment out to the terrace and folded up the parasol against the sun and the showers in the ambivalent weather. And I found the perfect floor stand to the distaff tube in the lounge furniture!

Josefin Waltin spinning flax on a spinning wheel on the balcony.
Spinning flax with inventive distaff holder and stand. Photo by Dan Waltin

Finally, I was able to spin. I was happy as a clam, spinning away in my perfect little arrangement. The rain was pattering cozily against my parasol canopy and the bobbin slowly turned into a treasure in pale gold.

Close-up of a bobbin full of flax yarn in motion
A golden thread. Photo by Dan Waltin

And I’m really happy with my first flax yarn. And now there is only 974 g flax left of my 1 kg!

A skein of handspun flax yarn.
First flax skein, 209 m, 26 g
A hand wound ball of flax yarn.
First flax ball