In November I had the wonderful opportunity to take the Flax to Linen class at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina. I don’t remember when I first heard about the Folk School, but it was many years ago. Whenever I met someone, most often broom makers and blacksmiths, who had taken a class there, they always recommended it. I came across the Folk School’s listing for their Flax to Linen class this summer. It was a busy time and I still had two major trips ahead for the Mother Earth News Fairs, so I put the thought of attending aside but kept it in the back of my mind. By the time I had returned from Pennsylvania where my flax experiences included the Stahlstown Flax Scutching Festival and the Landis Valley Farm and Museum, in addition to the MEN Fair, I was ready to consider the flax class. It was full, however, and I was put on the waiting list. I thought that if I was meant to be in that class, a space would open up. A couple of weeks before the class was to start I got the call that I was in.
There were eight students in the class that was taught by Cassie Dickson and her assistant Peggy Patrick. Cassie was a great instructor and was backed by much experience. She grew some of the flax we were working with. Peggy makes her own shoes, among other things, and has taught classes at the Folk School about that. I was pleased to see that Jan Thomas, a fellow member of Clothos Handspinners, was there. Although Jan and I were there because we intend to grow flax and make linen for ourselves, not everyone aspired to be producers. They were there to learn the process because they thought it was interesting, to learn more about their heritage, or to learn enough to encourage the museum they volunteered at to add flax-to-linen as a program.
Among the students there was a wide range of skills and previous experience with flax or any other fiber. I had acquired a spinning wheel in August, but delayed getting started with it until I could replace a couple parts. I was an experienced spindle spinner, but spinning on the wheel was something else and took getting used to. I kept at it so I would be comfortable with the wheel before I attended the class. For me, spinning flax was important. For some of the others, the exposure of what was involved was all they were after. I was able to take my wheel, but if you didn’t have one there were wheels available to use. Everyone was spinning before the first day ended. After having just gone through my learning process with the wheel, I had great respect for those who were learning to use the wheel in class for the first time. We learned about distaffs and how to put line flax on one, which I found helpful
The second day we worked outside breaking, scutching, and hackling flax. How well the flax is retted before you work with it is important. We had the opportunity to work with flax from more than one harvest and retting. Since the processing can be dusty, we were advised to wear a mask while we worked, which explains why Ron was wearing a handkerchief over his face while he was breaking flax, as you can see in this photo. Ron is a Folk School regular, taking a new class every couple months or so.
The focus at the John C. Campbell Folk School is to help people develop skills in a non-competitive environment. Everyone learned at his/her own speed and could concentrate on the aspects of the craft they were most interested in. To quote from their 2015 catalog, “…the Folk School seeks to bring people toward two kinds of development: inner growth as creative, thoughtful individuals, and social development as tolerant, caring members of a community.” I enjoyed being in the class and couldn’t help but think of the students who took my classes in the past at the community college. They, too, arrived with different skills and ambitions and it was fun seeing them work toward their own goals. Unfortunately, they also had to work toward my goals and I was required to give them a grade. There are no grades at the Folk School, just learning.
The third day we were into dyeing, although processing and spinning continued. Cassie prepared dyepots of marigold, osage orange, broom sedge, onion skins, madder, butternut, and butternut with iron added, plus two indigo pots. She had already prepared the linen samples by mordanting with alum, tannin, then alum again. The marigold, osage orange, broom sedge, and onion skin dyes yielded yellow colors. Samples of each yellow were put in the indigo to produce green, each expressing a different shade. The madder was dug from the Folk School garden the day before to make the red dye.
Plant fibers take up dyes differently than animal fibers. In this photo you can see a sample of wool yarn that came out a deeper red than the linen dyed with the madder. The photo also shows four green samples from the yellows overdyed with indigo. Cassie plans on teaching this flax class next year, but dyeing won’t be part of it. Instead, silk will be added. Yes, she has her own silk worms and knows what to do with them. The next day we had the opportunity to try our hand at weaving patterns on three small table looms that were warped and ready to go. We each prepared a book of samples of the flax straw, processing at each stage, and our own spinning and weaving. The books included linen swatches from each color dyed.
Besides this class there was so much more going on around us. I stayed on the grounds, as did many others and we all ate together in the dining hall. That was a wonderful opportunity to meet others and learn about the classes they were taking. In the evenings there were other activities to participate in. It happened to be Shaker Week, so much was centered around that. Our class finished each day by 4:30, allowing us time to take advantage of these activities. However, that was not so for some of the other classes. The weavers, woodworkers, and basket and broom makers tended to return to their studios in the evening. The last afternoon everyone gathered in the main hall with each class displaying their work. It was fun to see what we had been hearing about all week.
If you want to meet interesting people and learn something new, check out the John C. Campbell Folk School. I am happy I had the experience.
As the holidays approach, remember that Homeplace Earth now offers free shipping on books and DVDs. In addition to the ones we have written or produced, there some other great books that are available at a discount while supplies last.