Simon Shows You How To Make Linen From Flax
This wonderful little film shows you how to make linen from flax, going from seed to cloth.
This is another film we shot a few years ago that never made it to this channel, but we are sharing with you in lieu of our usual videos whilst we recover from our nasty nasty cold bugs.
What Does The Flax Plant Look Like?
I’m going to show you how you can grow flax to make linen and cloth.
So here’s the flaxseed
It looks very much the same as Linseed, you might be familiar with these as a health food thing, where you eat them crushed up.
And these are the plants we planted about a week ago, so this is what they’d been looking like in the field now.
In about two months time, the end of June, they’ll be really tall, they’ll be this tall.
A lovely vibrant green plant and it’ll have those beautiful blue flowers, which you also see growing in this country, but they’ll be grown from the linseed, a different variety of the same species, but this is a linseed one, lots of seeds, this is a flax one, nice and tall.
How Flax Is Cultivated
So what we’ll do, we’ll have to pull this from the ground, and then it’s left to get wet and dry, and that starts what’s called the ‘retting process’, which is also known as rotting.
You get some of these, break them like that.
You see; they’re packed full of fibre.
So that’s where the fibre is.
So there’s a variety of ways you can get the fibre out, you can just use very simple hand tools.
How To Get The Fibres Out
So I’m sort of crushing it, lifting it up.
And that’s just what’s known as breaking.
There’s lots of different terms when you’re working with flax.
So when you’ve done that to the whole plant, all the way along it, it needs a bit of a scraping and this is known as Scutching, that’s breaking off more of the fibres, more of the woody straw bit, which is known as shive.
You can see, it’s already starting to get to look a bit like something you could wear.
So it’s a combination of scraping, and then you’ll start combing.
And fairly rapidly you start getting some fibre.
So that would be combed further and then that’s ready for spinning.
And that can be done on the spinning wheel or with a drop distaff.
This is going to create your thread.
Fine thread there, which can then be plied up.
And with this you can either knit it, this is a knitted top made from flax that I’m wearing, or it can be crocheted, or it can be woven.
So there’s many different ways which you can treat the fabric.
Now probably, if you looked about, you’ll find
lots of small bits of fluff floating around.
This is known as Tow(e) or Tou.
That can also be spun into something more like a garden twine, a bit of a heavier fibre, and that would be what’s used for rope making, or your garden twines, or very heavy canvas, so every part of the plant can be used.
The next stage are these tools, which would be very much cottage industry tools, which would speed the process up to some degree.
But it’s still, as a hand job, very very labour intensive.
If we were going to make a pocket-handkerchief, or a very small pillow case, it would probably take about a week to make, or more, in terms of weaving.
Industrial Flax Making Tools
So this tool helps with the crimping and breaking the fibres out.
It’s just a very simple thing, a bit like an old-fashioned mangle, but with fluted rollers.
And this would be more like an industrial tool, but there’ll be a lot more rollers and it’s going break the flax through them.
As you can see it’s a lot quicker done on the bench.
Today being a sunny day it works really well, because it’s nice and dry because being linen it draws moisture very quickly.
So this is broken, but there’s still lots of shives in there, which are blowing away nicely in the wind.
This is scutching, this is a scutching knife, and when you’re working flax
it’s a question of holding a third and working two thirds.
So this is going to get a scraping.
And you can see lots of shives coming off, and the fibres are gradually starting to clean up.
There you are look, it’s already getting a lovely sheen to it in the sunlight.
Lovely and soft.
So that’s the scutching.
Now it’s just a question of Hackling, or combing.
You start off on the very coarse combs.
Very much like combing tangly hair, you don’t want to get it stuck in the combs, you just want to let it flow through nicely, and just keep working it in until it flows through.
If you’re not careful you seem to end up with more flying around then you end up with in your hand.
We should be saving all this and using it for spinning into the rope twine.
Now that’s going quite easily through that one, I’ll move on to the finer combs.
Hoping that the last few bits of straw are coming out of it, and down to a finer comb again.
Flip it over.
Clean the combs off.
And then work the ends down again.
So that now would be ready for spinning into a very fine linen thread, and this would go into your ropes.
We’re looking for a nice open fibre.
Then it’s put on the distaff and back to the spinning wheel.
What Is Linen
Anything that is called linen- which people often refer to as bedsheets, tea towels, if it’s made from linen, as opposed to cotton, this is what this is.
It’s a lot better fibre at wicking moisture away.
So this will then be woven into making tea towels, clothing.
I mean traditionally it was all sailcloth, ropes, rigging, fishing nets, tentage.
Just any sort of fabric which couldn’t be made from wood.
Cotton is a relatively new fibre, it’s only been around for years, so everything would have been linen.
This thing spinning is pulling it in but what it’s also doing is twisting it, it’s giving this action.
So all I’m doing with my hands is just feeding.
The spinning wheel is doing most of the spinning.
Just letting the twist run up into the fibres.
And as it catches there, that’s where the twist is created.
It’s a question of not letting the twist go too much into the distaff.
If you’re doing fine linen you would go even finer than this as well.
The Distaff is really quite a traditional tool because you do need, unlike wool- where you can just hold it in your hand, and feed it out, you need a way of making the threads join together evenly, but sort of randomly.
So the Distaff is sort of a vital tool with flax spinning.
You can usually tell if a wheel has been used for spinning with flax because it will have a distaff with it.
When it’s really feeding nicely, you can actually almost do it one handedly.
As you can see I’m quite a long way from the wheel, the spinning’s actually happening up into the distaff.
You let the threads twist a little bit up in there and catch a few more and pull them out.
But if you let too much go in there all of a sudden the whole lot will disappear inside.
What Else Can You Make From Flax?
What we’ve done here is we’ve reconstructed the plant into a canoe.
The fabric is made from the stem, and the oil from the seeds has been made into a special resin, here’s some of the linseed oil.
It’s what waterproofs it.
So, the hull of this boat, is 80 percent the flax plant reconstructed.
A very traditional material.
As you can see, one of the beauties of it is it’s translucent.
So when you’re out on the river, in amongst the reed beds, you’re almost part of the environment.
And another advantage of being so light is that we rigged it up so you can tow it on the road.
And we’ve got a folding bike, when you get to the river or the lake, you will fold the bike up, tuck it inside, and off you go down the river, get out at the other end, cycle off to another river or another lake, and you can just keep on river or estuary hopping, something like that.
So that’s what we’ve done with these fabrics.