Tag Archives: making linen by hand

Making linen by hand – preparing the flax fibres for spinning

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.

flax-bundleThat bundle of grey stuff will become beautiful linen

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.

not-sureAnn says, ‘Shall I use this one?’

There were three of these wonderful contraptions, all made by Simon who we discovered to be a very skilled and inventive craftsman.

break-2‘No, this one’

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.

break-3After breaking the stems

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.

rollerSimon’s rolling machine

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.


fibres-1After scutching

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.

hackelAt the start of the hackling stage

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.

fibres-2Ready to spin

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.

first-stringOur first string

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.

bird-thingThings in the background. Who made this and what is it for?

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!

karl-simon-distaffSimon guides Karl on pulling out thread from the distaff

Making linen by hand – the first steps

Earlier this year, I came across an interesting looking one day course on the hand-processing of flax plants into linen. It was run by a small company called Flaxland, to be held at the end of July. It was months away at that time and we were still in the dark days of winter, but we booked up right away, curious to know more. The perennial question, ‘How do you do that?’ had been asked and could not be un-asked, we’d have to go and find out. People have known how to make linen for thousands of years and linen flax (Linum usitatissimum) was reputedly an important crop as far back as 7000 BCE, while the oldest preserved fibres ever found are those of flax. The dyed flax fibres were discovered in a cave in Georgia, in the Caucasus, and were dated to thirty-six thousand years ago. Not bad for so-called rock-bangers.


So we turned up on the morning of the course at a tied-farmworker’s house to be welcomed by Ann Cooper, suitably dressed in pale blue linen. We’d meet her husband Simon Cooper, the one who started it all, later in the morning. The day started with coffee and introductions. Ann wanted to know what had attracted us to the course (‘Because we like knowing how to do things’) and gave an explanation of what the day would involve. We learned strange, arcane-sounding words – retting, rippling, scutching, hackling – and by the end of the day had made them familiar through the act of doing them.


To the field, where we saw the flax growing in situ, about half an acre of it. That doesn’t sound like much, but Ann said that in the days of handworking, one acre of flax would employ two people fully for a year and having seen what’s involved in the processing, I can well believe it. To one side of the crop, bundles of stems were set out on the grass for the process called retting, in this case ‘dew retting’.


According to the wiki page ‘Retting is a process employing the action of micro-organisms and moisture on plants to dissolve or rot away much of the cellular tissues and pectins surrounding bast-fibre bundles, and so facilitating separation of the fibre from the stem’. Depending on the weather, this can take anywhere from two to several weeks.

Faster is water retting, where bundles of flax are submerged in tanks for four to six days and then laid to dry on the ground. The tank water stagnates and the flax stems come out with a smell to them that can best be described as ‘bovine’. I’ve always liked a bad smell so found this pungent reek interesting – it reminded me of the milking shed in the days when I was working on the Victorian museum farm and the cows would often react to being milked by loosing their bowels.


Anyway, back in the field, Ann showed us how to tell if the retting process is complete by taking a stem between thumb and fingers and bending it roughly back and forth. If the bark flakes off easily, leaving the inner fibres intact, then the stems can be stooked and stored away for later use.


That done, we turned to the growing plants – they had come to the end of flowering so the plants could be pulled up. I asked why they were pulled and not cut and Ann suggested we try cutting some, so we tried to with a sickle and understood why pulling is done instead of cutting – my sickle usually goes through plant matter with incredible ease, but flax stems are like wire. They didn’t cut, they just bent. Useful to know – flax is incredibly strong.

karl-flax-pullSpot the sickle

The next half hour or so was spent talking and pulling up handfuls of flax, then laying it out for retting in rows with the roots all facing the same direction. It’s done this way to make processing more efficient but the visual effect was a beautiful gradation in colours, from the brown of the roots, to the pale greens and yellows of the stems and seed pods.


Following the field work, the next stop was the barn. Here we’d learn the uses of an array of fascinating machines, all made by the skilled hands of Simon Cooper. We would ripple, scutch and hackel until our shoulders ached – read all about that in the blog to follow.