Having spent some time in the field familiarising ourselves with the growing of flax plants on the flax processing course, we then went to the barn to learn the next steps of what to do with it in order to turn it into linen. The removal of seeds – rippling – had already been done, so we would learn breaking, scutching and hackling.
All pictures enlarge on clicking.
Ann picked up some bundles of dry grey flax stems, looking like the sort of thing you’d add to the compost heap, and introduced us to the equipment we’d be using. I’m not sure what to call the set-up – it was a stand with a blunt wooden chopper used to break the bark of the stems, with a series of combs fitted to it, from coarse to fine, plus a couple of other attachments for further processing.
There were three of these wonderful contraptions, all made by Simon who we discovered to be a very skilled and inventive craftsman.
The first thing to do was to remove the outer barky layer from the stems. This is done by repeatedly crimping the stems under a blunt chopper until a good part of the bark has fallen away – the bits that flake off are called ‘shive’. If you haven’t done it before, it takes longer than you might expect and can make your shoulders ache a bit.
After breaking, the bundle of stiff grey stems begins to soften and take on a silver sheen. Seeing this incredible transformation was a real eye-opener, for after only a small amount of work you have something quite unlike the original product.
Simon had experimented with a variety of machines for speeding up the breaking process, including this beautiful rolling device he had made, which crimps the flax stems very efficiently. The shive was collected in a bucket underneath and it seemed that a large amount of it accumulates. We wondered what they did with it and pondered the uses it might have – but more on that later.
The next step is remove yet more of the shive. This is done by holding a hank of flax and sweeping firmly down its length with a wooden paddle-like tool, turning the hank several times – a surprising amount of shive is removed in this way and the fibres are further smoothed and polished. The process is called ‘scutching’ and you do it with a scutching blade. Ann had several of these and they are lovely simple pieces of work that you can’t help wanting.
Having scutched, it’s now time to hackle, or to comb the fibres to further split them and remove short or rough pieces. You start with a comb made of nails, gently drawing the fibres through from the ends, as you would with long hair that’s got in a tangle, graduating to finer combs as you go.
At the end of it all, you are left with what looks exactly like silky grey-blond hair and this lovely stuff is, finally, what you can use to start spinning your thread.
A fair amount of waste seems to be generated throughout the processing – especially for beginners, Ann told us – and you end up with a pile of what looks rather like unwashed wool. This material isn’t used for linen, obviously, and is called ‘tow’, to be used for making rope, twine and possibly the tow ropes once used on canals when horses pulled the narrow boats.
Just had this fascinating snippet from my dad: ‘As regards tow, did I mention that when I was in Biddulph hospital with polio in 1950 they used tow instead of toilet paper? It was surprisingly soft and nice, though it doesn’t seem to have been taken up anywhere else’ – now there’s an idea!
We had a quick try at making twine and found it most satisfactory – one person takes a bundle of tow and twists out some fibres to put onto a hook which is fitted into a hand drill. One person works the hand drill and the person with the tow walks backwards, teasing out small amounts of it as they go and the turning action of the drill twists the fibres into a rough twine.
In our case, it was very rough indeed, but it was strong and I’m sure we’ll improve over time. We loved our twine and want to make more. So curious were we at the use of this residue that Ann gave us our very own bin bag of tow take away and play with. I anticipate the satisfaction of using home-made twine the garden.
The morning over, we had done some field work and prepared flax fibres for spinning, so it was time for lunch. After that, we’d learn about making and loading a distaff and spinning the fibres. What an interesting day this was turning out to be!