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So far, the linen process has not called for any special equipment. However,the next stage, which involves separating the stem from the fibre, and is known as scutching, is made easier if you have a flaxbreak. A flaxbreak is a simple tool, that stands on two legs, and has a sort of long wooden blade, fastened between two planks, which you whack up and down on top of the dry linen stems. The blade smashes the stems, without breaking the fibres, and the debris falls down between the planks onto the ground. I have made my own flaxbreak, and I am not a very skilled woodworker, so it really isn’t too difficult.
If you have grown a small amount of linen, you can scutch it by hand – which I did for about three years. Simply twist a few plants together, first one way and then another, to break the stems, and then shake off the woody bits onto the ground.
If using a flaxbreak, lay a few stems across the parallel planks, at right angles to the blade, and pull them through, whilst whacking the wooden blade up and down to crush the stems. Keep doing this, until you’ve got rid of as much of the stem debris as possible. The hardest bit to separate is at the top of the stems, where the seed heads were. I tend to do this bit with my fingers, but maybe, if the linen was super-well retted, it wouldn’t be neccessary.
Combing the Fibre
Combing (or hackling) the fibre is very important. I have made two linen combs, from nails hammered into a plank. One comb is finer than the other, because the nails are much closer together. First I pull the long bunch of scutched fibres through the coarse comb. It pulls out all the tangles, and the bits of stem, and it also pulls out lots of the shorter linen fibres, but this is quite normal .
The short linen fibres are called tow, and I put them to one side, and later add them to a big basket. In the past, it seems that people made use of tow for all sorts of things – lighting fires, making string, stuffing mattresses, and spinning coarse thread for sacking etc. I must confess, that although I have heaps of tow, I haven’t used it much yet, but maybe its time will come…
Anyhow, next you comb the linen fibres in the finer comb, put the tow to one side, and twist the combed fibre into something called a strick. I do this by twisting the length of linen fibre in the middle, wrapping it in a loop round one of the nails of the comb, and then braiding the two halves over and over into a long twist. I moisten the two ends with spit, then twist them together, loop them over, and tie to form a knot. This way the linen can be stored, without getting tangled.
Spinning the Linen
Spinning linen is a highly skilled process, and I am only a beginner. However, even a beginner can produce thread that is very strong, and durable, even if looks extremely coarse. The important thing to remember, is that although linen thread and fabric sold in the shops look amazing, the process of producing them will have involved the use of chemicals and machinery, which will have made them much weaker than your home-grown, home-processed fibre.
Linen fibre can be spun into thread using a spindle and a distaff (a sort of stick, which you tie the linen fibre to), or a spinning wheel and a distaff. I use a Louet spinning wheel, with a special high speed bobbin, as the regular wool bobbins did not work for me. However, I have also used a hand held spindle, and although this is slow, in some ways it is easier, and certainly less expensive.
How to Spin
Preparing the distaff is another skilled job. I spread out the newly-combed linen fibres on a cloth on the table, or on my lap, and them wrap them gently around the distaff. Next I fasten them in place using a long length of ribbon. With the distaff leant up against me I gently draw out the fibres, and twist them with the fingers of my right or left hand, using a little spit to stick them together. The spinning wheel twists and winds on the thread, and I keep on drawing, twisting, and dampening.
My thread is still quite uneven, so once I have two bobbins worth of thread, I ply them together, to make one thick thread.
Spinning linen is more tricky than spinning wool, as it is not at all elastic, and quite stiff, which means that it jumps around on the bobbin, in a silly way (just start spinning, and you’ll understand what I mean) – it also needs to be moistened with spit all the time, which can leave you feeling quite dried out.
However, once you get going, it is pretty good fun, and the thread is an amazing thing – because it is plant based, it is unlikely to get attacked by moths (a big problem with wool), and any waste can easily be composted.
Weaving the Linen Thread
The most common way of using linen thread has been to weave it into cloth. I have done a little weaving, using a simple, homemade device, called a backstrap loom. Once again, it wasn’t that easy, but I have made two small cloths, which are useful, and very strong. This is an area in which I still have a lot to learn, but now I understand more about growing and processing the linen, maybe soon I will be producing enough homespun cloth to make a shirt.
There are several articles, websites and videos online, which describe the whole linen producing process. I have found them very helpful.
Ten videos on flax, going from planting to spinning. These videos are extremely helpful. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wsGruqWa9oY
This website gives information on how to grow linen, and how to dress a distaff for spinning.
This website sells tools used in linen production, including combs and flaxbreaks.