Sunday, September 21, 2008

Processing Flax

These photos were taken at the Fingerlakes Fiberfestival in 2008, as demonstrated by Wendy Caffee. I've read this in Markham, but never actually saw someone go through all of the steps before.

She started her demonstration by talking about growing flax in Pennsylvania, and how it ought to be planted 5 seeds per square inch to prevent the plan from branching out too much - straight stalk = straight fiber- and when to harvest- from 90 to 120 days. Finer flax comes from the earlier date, but if you want seeds for next year, one ought to wait until the flowers have started to go to seed. The stalk should yellow about a third of the way up, and one must weed in the beginning. Then ideally tie the bundles up for drying.

This is a dried flax bundle with the flowers still on it. The device below (a ripple- thanks Habetrot) is designed to be the first run through to break up the bundle and remove the flowers- or you can lay out a sheet and walk upon it with flat shoes (pattens), which will do an initial brake as well. Then you can take the sheet and separate out the chaff so you collect the seed for next year.

Then one must brake the flax. These two devices are called brakes and they will break the outer crust and begin to separate the fibers. The one on the left is designed to be used standing, and the one she is using is for kneeling or sitting.

The next step is called scutching, and I did not get any pictures of her in action doing this step. It's essentially beating it between two boards, cracking off any light chaff further and separating the fibers.

She is flicking the flax at a coarse heckle. This separates the flax from the tow. She offered up the tow to any Revolutionary or Civil War reinactors for gun cleaning. She also stated that the tow was used for various things like mattress stuffing, and while I had not heard that, it made sense. The hank was then put through a succession of finer heckles.

Spinning flax on the wheel with a distaff. Her distaff was obviously hand made of greenwood twisted and tied to the useful shape and then dried. Note also the little clay pot for wetting her hands as she goes, so she can spin wet. This isn't an Ashford Traditional wheel, but it's very similar.

These are several examples of her handspun flax. They are placed on a sheet she found in a garage sale that was done entirely by hand and embroidered with initials and year of 18something. The hand is fondling a small skein of stinging nettles. Behind it is flax she has prepared for spinning.

Notice the lovely collection of heckles on the left side of the table, with the finest closest to the viewer. Not finest quality- but finest grade because those are the tines thinnest and closest together. Her collection mainly consists of antiques local to Pennsylvania.

The paddles are scutching knives for scutching. I didn't photograph the actual scutch board, and I should have.

The two hanks of raw flax show the difference between dry and wet retting- dry wetting is done by leaving it lying out on the grass and letting the bacteria and dew do the work. It's the one on the right- the darker one. The lighter one was done by retting wet. She admitted to not using a stream, but using bins of water.

Her coarsest heckle is in the background. On the left of this pic is a little commercially prepared flax.

And for something completely different, for Lady Kayley:

This is a loom specifically designed for weaving trim, like an inkle loom. Main difference- inkles are a little more portable and you can add as many heddles as you like- here you are limited to one real heddle. Inkles will only have the length you can fit on the loom- but she can put many, many more yards on this loom. It's from 1810? or so. She bought it on ebay. I think this is Bonnie Weidert, and she's written a book about Tape Looms: Past and Present, which includes a history of and pattern collection.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Spindle whorls

Lately, I've been obsessed with spindles. I wanted to know why most of the high-end spindles for sale (Golding, Bosworth, Butterfly Girl, LDL Danish Woodturner, and others) were all high whorls. The whorl, to clarify, is the weighted disc on the spindle. I had heard "All spindles in period were bottom whorls." Usually when I hear such an absolute statement, my hackles go up, so I poked my nose in a few books and websites.

It turns out the earliest top whorl spindle is around 3000 BC shown on a wall carving in an Egyptian tomb. (one source for this is the book Prehistoric Textiles By E. J. W. Barber, which can be found on Google Books) Top whorls were also called "Scandinavian spindles" throughout the middle ages, and were also used throughout the middle east. Bottom whorls were used throughout western Europe. In fact, there are images of spinning flax from a distaff without any whorl at all on the spindle, or using a middle whorl and letting the flax wind over the whorl. But that's with Flax, and leads to why the difference in whorls- it's all about the length of the staple of the fiber.

In Egypt and the middle east, the fibers are mainly cotton and camel- and these are very short staple fibers. There is also some goat, but the goats don't have seriously huge undercoats or they would not survive the heat. Again, short staple.

In Scandinavia, they have a lot of reindeer undercoat- again a short staple.

In western Europe, it's linen and flax - which have very long staples of 6 to 12 inches. Many of the wools have long staples as well.

A bottom whorl works better with a long staple, and that's why it was the preferred spindle there.

A top whorl works better with a short staple. It's so common right now because the most popular fiber for spinning seems to be merino with its 3 inch staple.

Think about the length between shaft where the yarn is and the hook (or half hitch) leading to the actual spinning area. If it's longer than a 4 inch distance, the odds are better that a staple of half that distance is going to break if you lose concentration or aren't paying attention. Therefore a 3 inch staple is less likely to break with a nice top whorl, and a 12 inch staple can handle being wrapped over the bottom of the bottom whorl, hooked there, brought up to the shaft, secured with a half hitch, and then being spun from there.

A bibliography with some spinning pictures.
A source for bulk silk and hemp, with rare books.

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