Archive for the ‘seed to garment’ Category

hackling flaxHackling takes freshly broken and scutched flax and turns it into fine fiber ready to spin. You toss the ends of the flax onto the hackle and draw it through. With each new toss, add more length of fiber until you get to the middle. Then turn it around and do the other side, beginning with the tip.

Just like with flax brakes, flax hackles may be hard to find. I found my first one for $60 in an antique mall in Pennsylvania. The spacing of the tines varies and you will find them in fine, medium, and coarse spacing. Lucky for me, the one I found in that antique mall was a medium. The tines are a half inch apart with offset spacing, meaning they are not lined up like the corners of a square. If you have a medium hackle you can do a good job of processing flax into fiber to spin with just one hackle.

line flax-tow-hackle

line flax, tow, and medium hackle

The first flax I processed here was some I bought unretted from the Landis Valley Farm and Museum. When you hackle flax you will end up with line fiber that will look like a ponytail and you will have a good quantity of tow. Tow is what is pulled out of the ponytail by the hackle and can amount to quite a bit. You can re-hackle the tow and get usable fiber. Tow fibers longer than 6” can go back through the hackle. If the tow is shorter than 6” you will need to card it. Wool cards can be used for tow, but it is best to have a set just for flax. In this photo you can see line flax, tow, and my antique medium hackle.

coarse hackle in use

homemade coarse hackle

The medium hackle worked well, but I wanted to take it further and make a coarse and a fine hackle. For the coarse hackle, I sharpened 28 16D common nails and set them into a piece of walnut 1″ apart on offset spacing. The nails were 3½” long. I chose to use that many because I was keeping to the size footprint of my medium hackle.—about 4”x5”. I used walnut because we had a walnut board. I used a drill press to make the holes in the board using an ¹¹̷₁₆ drill bit. The nails didn’t fit quite as tight as I wanted, so I set them with epoxy. I made the base from pine. Screws are inserted from the bottom of the pine into the bottom of the walnut to hold the two pieces together. I sharpened the nails by putting each one into a drill press and holding a metal file to it until it was shaped as I wanted it.

That worked well for the coarse hackle, but sharpening all those nails was slow work. For the fine hackle I needed 267 16D finish nails, 3½” long. I decided to use the nails as they were, without sharpening. I put them at ¼” spacing and this time I lined them up as on the corners of a square. I used graph paper with ¼” squares and marked where each line intersected, poking a nail through the paper to mark the wood. I used a ⅛” bit in the drill press for this. The nails fit snug enough that there was no need to use epoxy when I set them. Since there were so many nails in this hackle we added a ½” wide aluminum strip around the sides, screwing it on at two places on each side. It may or may not be necessary to keep it from splitting, but it really looks great!

fine hackles-old and new

fine hackles–antique and newly homemade

We used the plans from Woolgatherers as a guide to start, with added inspiration from the medium hackle I already had. Flax hackles can be as distinct as the maker. In days gone by, they would have been made on the farm or by a blacksmith. In her book, The Practical Spinner’s Guide to Cotton, Flax, and Hemp, Stephanie Gaustad says that the tines on hackles for flax should be square in cross section, with each side sharpened, rather than round like the nails I used. However, they are round on the antique medium hackle I have. I was able to purchase a fine hackle at the auction at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival in May for $40. The cross section of the tines on that hackle is square. The edges may have been sharp at one time, but they aren’t now.

I thought I would eventually get around to sharpening the ends of some nails for a fine hackle to compare to the one with the plain nails, but I haven’t done that yet. Since I acquired the antique hackle, I don’t know if I will bother making another. I thought I might notice a big difference between the two fine hackles, but I have worked with them side-by-side and nothing stands out so far. Future work with the two hackles might reveal a bigger difference. I do like having fine, medium, and coarse hackles.

This is how people processed flax for linen on their farms until commercial fabric was available. Some people are learning this so they can demonstrate it for historical purposes. I think we need to look at it as, not only something done long ago, but as an activity that we can do on our homesteads and actually make clothes and other textiles for ourselves again. We can go from seed to garment, right at home!

There is a Fibershed movement going on that is exploring ways to make local fabric a viable production possibility. For that, you need to go beyond the flax brakes and hackles that I have described to increase production for a community. It just so happens that the Taproot Fibre Lab in Nova Scotia has been working on production scale equipment. Also, the folks at the Chico Flax Project in Northern California have been working on a community Flax to Linen project and there is a Flax to Linen group in Victoria, British Columbia. So, local linen is a possibility for communities in the not so distant future, although it already is a possibility in your backyard.homeplace earth logo

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1. brake and scutching board with flax - BLOG

Flax Brake and Scutching Board

Being able to grow your own flax fiber to spin and weave into linen clothes is a wonderful experience. The growing is the easy part. Once flax straw is retted it can be stored indefinitely until you are ready for the fiber. When that time comes, you need to have some equipment that may not be readily available until you make it yourself. You will need a flax brake and a scutching board.

The fiber you are after is located between the skin and the inner core of the flax stems. A brake is the tool that you will use to break up those outer and inner layers, freeing the flax fiber. I have seen the tool name spelled as both “brake” and “break”. In The Big Book of Flax, Christian and Johannes Zinzendorf mention that the noun and verb are spelled differently for some reason unbeknownst to them. Flax brake is also the term used in Linda Heinrich’s book Linen, so that is the spelling that I will go with.

2. flax brakes-Cindy and Becky - BLOG

Flax Brakes

If you just want to see if you can do it, probably any method of pounding the flax will break up those layers and result in releasing the fiber. However, if you are going to produce enough fiber to work with, you will want to be as efficient as possible. When I was learning about flax I was fortunate that my friend Becky loaned me her brake. Now I have my own and you can see them both in this photo. Becky’s is obviously smaller. She has used it in demonstrations with children and says she puts it on bricks to raise it to use herself. You see mine here when it was brand new—before I applied an oil finish. My talented husband made it from plans we purchased from Woolgatherers. Those plans were made from the design of an antique brake. The only change we made was to make ours several inches taller. It is put together with pegs and can come apart into four pieces—the top, two legs, and the bar between them.

My brake is made of oak left from a previous building project. It was rough-cut and my husband used his planer to smooth the pieces. To make the holes precise so the dowels fit well, he used a Forstner bit in his drill press. The wooden knives were formed on the table saw. This brake is a terrific tool to use. Becky’s brake is lighter and easier to tote around in a car when she takes it places for demonstrations. The legs on hers are screwed on and, as far as I know, she doesn’t take them off.

3. flax brake top--portable - BLOG

Tabletop Flax Brake

For portability, you can’t beat the brakes we used at the Flax to Linen class with Cassie Dickson at the John C. Campbell Folk School. They are easier to build, lightweight, and take up little space. Cassie brought this tabletop brake to the workshop at my place.

4. flax brake bottom--portable - BLOG

Notice the rounded edges on the bottom of the tabletop brake.

It works well and is great to take for demos, but I would like it to have a way to clamp it to the table for serious work. It is certainly easier to make than the larger ones. In order for it to work, you need to be sure and round the bottom ends on the inside pieces, as you can see in the photo.

5. flax brake portable--open - BLOG

Simple Tabletop Brake

Another simple brake that was available at the Folk School class is this one. You could use clamps on the pieces that stick out on the sides. Not all brakes have two wooden knives that go into slots to break the flax.

6. flax brake-jan - BLOG

Antique Flax Brake

Some brakes are singles, like the antique brake in the photo. The wooden knives that come together to do the breaking are beveled on the larger free-standing brakes, but not on the tabletop models. The brake you make will depend on the tools you have available and your expertise in using them. Decide what features you want and go from there.

scutching board and knife

Scutching Board and Knife

The next step is scutching. The broken inner and outer pieces clinging to your flax fiber after breaking is called boon. The process of separating it from the flax fiber is called scutching. Boon can be whisked away by rubbing it off against a hard surface, often using a scutching board and wooden knife. My scutching board was made from a wide pine board that still had bark on the edges. Our source of such wood is our daughter and son-in-law’s sawmill. The scutching knife was cut from a 2×4. Both pieces were based on plans from Woolgatherers. We changed the top of the scutching board to make it easier to build and I am quite happy with it. I like the fact that my scutching knife can be stored by hanging it from the scutching board.

tabletop scutching boards

Tabletop Scutching Boards

At the Folk School we used the tabletop scutching boards that you see here. They are easy to take for demos. You don’t have to go to elaborate means to make a scutching board. When I first processed flax at home I used a scrap piece of plywood for the board and a piece of wood trim for a scutching knife. Actually, you could probably just whack it against a tree to release the boon.

Not all the boon will come off with scutching. Further cleaning will be done with hackles, but that is a story for another day. My next post in two weeks will be about hackles. homeplace earth logo

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Flax brake in use during workshop.

Last month Clotho’s Handspinners, the handspinning group I am part of, sponsored a Flax to Linen Workshop. My husband, Walt, and I hosted it at our place and it was wonderful! Cassie Dickson, our instructor from North Carolina, has been working with flax for many years and teaches the Flax to Linen class at the John C. Campbell Folk School each year. I met her when I took that class in 2015. Although the pictures you usually see in this blog are ones that I took, thank Stephanie Conner, our daughter-in-law, for these wonderful photos. She volunteered to be our photographer for the workshop.


Show and Tell evening program.

Cassie and her husband Charlie arrived on June 9 and that evening everyone came for a 2 hour orientation and show-and-tell. Cassie gave a Powerpoint presentation and explained the many things she had brought for us to see. She had so much good information to share. The next day everyone would learn the mechanics of turning flax into linen, but this was different.


Flax to Linen instructor Cassie Dickson.

The weather was beautiful on Saturday, June 10, for the workshop. Understandably, this part took place outside. Trees provided shade, as did our house, and we put up a canopy for more. The hours for the workshop were 9am to 4pm. Everyone showed up with their spinning wheels, ready to learn. Cassie explained each step of the process of turning flax into linen. Then everyone was free to use the equipment we had set up and have at it for themselves, with help from Cassie, of course. (Once you separate the fiber from the flax straw it is still called flax until it is spun, then it is linen.)


Flax samples grown and retted by  Cassie.

Cassie had samples for everyone of flax that she had grown herself and retted differently. This way the participants could have experience working with flax that was over retted, under retted, and retted just right. She also had some line flax that had been purchased for everyone to spin. Line flax is what you would end up with after processing. She showed how to prepare a distaff with line flax and had even brought distaffs for each person to use. They were self-supporting posts with tissue paper wrapped around the top. The flax was tied over the paper and you pulled it from there.


Hackles of various sizes were available to use.


Breaking and scutching with tabletop tools

Cassie brought some equipment with her and we added to it. Besides the distaffs, she had a set of hackles, two tabletop flax brakes, and a tabletop scutching board. I provided my brake (top photo), scutching board, and hackles. We also had the use of two more flax brakes provided by Clothos members Jan and Becky, who are already knowledgeable about flax and wanted to support the workshop. In addition, Jan loaned her hackles. We had plenty of equipment to keep the group busy.


After processing their flax, spinners found shady places to use their wheels.

When they weren’t breaking, scutching, and hackling, the participants were spinning using their own spinning wheels. When I took the class at the Folk School, although already knowing how to use a spinning wheel was recommended, not everyone did. Since this was a group of spinners, that was not a problem here. There are some differences spinning flax over other fibers and that is what they were learning. One of the differences was that it is best to use water when spinning flax, so everyone had a small bowl of water nearby to dip their fingers into.


Flax growing in the foreground in the garden.

Everyone brought their own lunch and I provided water and iced tea. After lunch, before we started back to work, I led a tour of my garden.  I had flax growing that was one week away from harvest. There was also cotton to see, plus my food crops, cover crops, and compost piles. When we first started to plan this workshop last winter I knew that my place would be the best location to have it. We could fit everyone in our house and backyard and there would be flax growing in the garden.



Instructor Cassie Dickson (right) offering spinning tips to Susan Palmer.

If you are thinking of bringing an instructor in from afar for a workshop of any kind, you need to plan carefully. We needed to cover Cassie’s travel, food, lodging, and her workshop fee. Also, there was a $45 materials fee for each participant. If travel is by car, reimbursement usually corresponds to the standard IRS mileage deduction for business, which is 53.5 cents per mile for 2017—make sure to count roundtrip miles. So, the further away your instructor is, the more the workshop will cost. If we would have needed to rent a space for the workshop or provide hotel accommodations, that would have increased the cost. Wherever you have it, you need to supply a large enough space, parking, clean bathrooms, etc. Instead, I hosted Cassie and her husband at my home as friends and loved having everyone here for the workshop. Our barnyard provided parking space. The twelve people who signed on for the workshop each paid $140.



Clotho’s Handspinners’ Flax to Linen Workshop, June 2017

It was a great time! Yes, it was a lot of work getting ready to have the workshop here, but that meant projects around the house that we had been putting off got done. The only time the four of us (Cassie, Charlie, Walt, and I) had to sit and enjoy talking together was during dinner before the evening program and breakfast the next morning.  It was a busy time, but now more Clothos members know the ins and outs of working with flax, so I have more people to play with. It was a great way to start the summer!homeplace earth


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Flax bundles waiting to be retted.

Flax bundles ready for retting.

It is time to harvest the flax that I planted for fiber in early March. I wrote about harvesting (pulling the stalks) and taking the seeds out (rippling) on May 23. The nice thing about flax is that, once the flax is pulled and dried and the seeds removed, there is no rush to process it further. It can be stored in your barn or shed until your time opens up to work with it. After I pull it to harvest I put it somewhere to dry, which can be outside or inside, depending on the weather. I usually gather it up in bundles with baling twine around each to hold it together; but when I want to dry it, I’ll loosen the twine, or take it off, and leave the flax spread out and leaning against the shed, fence, or the picnic table. I can take the seeds out once it is dry, or do the rippling just before retting, if I am going to be retting soon. I store the flax bundles in my garden shed.

Dew retting fiber flax.

Dew retting fiber flax.

Retting is the process of freeing the flax fibers from the inner core and the outer epidermis of the flax stalks. This is done by dissolving the pectins that hold everything together. I prefer to ret my flax in the summer so that it will be ready for processing further whenever I get to it. Before I studied flax-to-linen I thought that retting involved pools of water or a stream and was happy to find out about dew retting. All I have to do is to lay the flax straw out in the grass! It needs to be spread thin. Of course, here in humid Virginia the grass is heavy with dew each night. If you live in a very dry climate this method may not work as well for you. If the weather is too dry it will be necessary to water the flax every few days. I do that here if it doesn’t rain. It will need to be turned occasionally to keep the moisture level even throughout.

Flax retting complete

Fully retted flax.

Retting is complete when you can break the stalks and see the flax fibers inside. Under retted flax can be retted again—even at a much later date. Over retted flax is ruinous to your crop, since the flax fibers themselves will have broken down. Watch carefully! Last year, the first year I grew flax here, retting was complete in 17 days in July. During that time, July 9-26, the nighttime temperatures ranged from 67-79° F. (16-26° C.) and the daytime temperatures were 87-93° F. (31-34° C.), so it was quite warm. If the weather was cooler, it would have taken longer. Warm temperatures speed it up and cold temperatures slow it down. The previous fall I retted some flax I bought from the Landis Valley Farm and Museum Heirloom Seed Project. I remember that it took at least three full weeks then.

Water retting flax.

Water retting flax.

If you are in a hurry, or don’t have a suitable place to leave your flax lying around for several weeks, you could water ret it. Just about anything that can hold water and allow your flax straw to stretch out is suitable to use as a container for retting. When I took the Flax to Linen class at the John C. Campbell Folk School, flax was retted in a plastic box. I have heard of using a child’s rigid plastic swimming pool and even a plastic toboggan sled for the project. I saw the sled idea submitted to the Flax to Linen Facebook page by Corrie Bergeron.

From what I have read, I have come to understand that if flax is left in stagnant water it will produce a smell. To avoid that, you could add fresh water to the container or keep your flax submerged in a flowing stream. Flax has a tendency to float, so it is necessary to put something on top to keep it under water. Boards and/or rocks may be used or anything else you have to keep it down. Water retting is usually faster than dew retting, depending on the temperature of the water.

Once the retting is done, the flax needs to be dried before storing. Just like drying it after harvest, lean the loose bundles against something so that air can pass around them. When dry, the flax bundles can be stored indefinitely until you are ready to process them for the fiber. Processing for fiber—now that is where it gets exciting!

Clotho’s Handspinners held a Flax to Linen workshop at my place on June 10 and the participants processed retted flax into linen to spin. They brought their own spinning wheels and the equipment for processing the flax was here for them to use. I will tell you about that workshop in my next post (July 11). The post after that will have specifics about the equipment you need, such as a flax brake, scutching board, and hackles. This is going to be fun!homeplace earth

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Marilyn flax flowers - BLOG

Marilyn Flax flowers.

The first of my flax plantings started to flower last week. I planted this bed on March 9 and it was 70 days later when I noticed the bed full of blooms. It is important to note the time of flowering so you can estimate when to harvest, especially if you are new at this.

Flax will bloom profusely for about a week or so. That is the time to have on record. Look forward to harvesting in about 30 days. You will still see flax flowers pop out, probably even up to harvest, but it is the major bloom time that you calculate 30 days from.

Marilyn flax flowers in bed - BLOG

Marilyn Flax in bloom.

You could easily miss this great show if you only visit your garden in the afternoon or evening. The flowers themselves are short-lived. They will bloom before noon, then the petals will drop off. By later in the afternoon you wouldn’t know that the whole bed had been in bloom in the morning. So, if it has been two months since you planted flax in your garden, keep a mid-to-late morning eye out for the blooms.

It is time to harvest when the plants begin to turn yellow at the bottom. The tops will still be green and will have seed heads on them. In the photo you can see freshly harvested flax laid out on the ground next to a bed of flax still growing. I waited two more weeks to harvest that standing bed to give the seeds more time to mature. In 2016 I planted flax on March 8 and harvested the first bed on June 22 and the second bed on July 8. I live in Virginia in zone 7.  Last year was my first year to grow flax, so my experience is limited, but I didn’t see much difference in the fiber from the two harvests. However, by waiting the two weeks, the seeds looked better. To harvest flax you pull it right out of the ground. Not cutting it, as I am used to doing with wheat and rye, was a surprise to me, but it sure made it easier. Usable fiber goes all the way into the root.

flax ready to harvest4--BLOG

Harvested flax ready to bundle and a bed of flax ready to pull.

I have read that earlier harvested flax will yield finer fiber. In fact, in The Big Book of Flax, Christian and Johannes Zinzendorf say that if you are only after fiber you can pull the plants just after flowering when the plants are still green. If you want seed only, you can wait until the whole plants are brown. The fiber will not be usable, but you will have fully mature seed. I relied on what I’d read in Linen: From Flax Seed to Woven Cloth by Linda Heinrich and planned my harvest close to 100 days after planting and 30 days after major flower flush. Actual harvest of the first bed was 101 days after planting. I’m sure different weather conditions can affect harvest time, but this gives you an idea of what to look for. One year I might experiment with harvesting earlier and later.

flax ready to harvest--seedhead closeup - BLOG

Seed heads on flax ready to harvest.

When you pull the flax you will need to put it in bundles and dry it. A piece of flax can be used to tie each bundle together, or you can use a piece of twine for that. I lay the bundles against a fence to dry a bit before putting them away in my shed. Keep the flax stalks going the same way in each bundle, with the seed heads at one end and the roots at the other.  The next step, called rippling, is to remove the seeds. It can be done at harvest or after the stalks have dried. The seed heads will be full of seed which are attractive to birds and rodents, so don’t delay.

flax bundles--with seed and without--BLOG

Rippling flax by laying on solid surface and stepping on the seed heads.

I have seen plans for rippling combs made of wood, but you don’t need to bother with that. Just lay an old sheet or a tarp on a hard surface, place the stalks on it, and gently step on the seed heads. The bolls will pop open and spill their seeds right there. Nothing could be easier. In the photo you can see one bundle with the seed heads still on, and one bundle that has been stepped on. The seeds will need to be winnowed to remove the chaff.

My yield for the 80 sq. ft. bed that I harvested on July 8 last year was 6 oz. (170.1 g.) of fiber for spinning, 19 oz. (538.6 g.) of tow, and 6 oz. of seeds. Calculating the yield in terms of 100 sq. ft., that would be 7.5 oz (212.6 g.) of fiber, 23.75 oz. of tow (673.3 g.), and 7.5 oz. of seed per 100 sq. ft. I have not worked with the tow yet, but I know that I can salvage some for spinning. That flax was planted in rows. This year I broadcast all my flax so I expect my yield will be higher.

There is a lot to learn in order to turn flax into linen and it can be exciting. It is even more fun if you can do it with others. My handspinning group is having a flax-to-linen workshop in June, broadening the group of friends who have the skills to do it. I will be telling you about that in a future post. After rippling, the flax can be stored until the next step, which is retting. After that is the breaking, which is when you actually separate the fiber from the stalks. I will be writing about each step and what equipment you will need. A heads up about retting—you can lay it out in the grass and let the dew work on it, no pool of water necessary. Once you understand the whole process and actually work through it and have fiber to spin, doing it again will not seem so daunting.homeplace earth


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tahkli and cotton--green-brown-bolls and skeins - BLOG

Nankeen Brown and Erlene’s Green cotton with a tahkli spindle. The fiber is lighter at harvest, as you see in the bolls, and darkens once you scour it.

I love to spin cotton, but I will be the first to admit that it is not an easy thing to learn. I had no knowledge of spinning any fiber when I took on cotton, but I wanted to learn to spin fiber that I grew in my garden. Wool spinners had told me it was hard to spin cotton because it was such a short fiber. However, since I would learn on cotton, I figured that would be my normal.

Cotton is a short fiber, being only about an inch or so long, more or less. You are probably familiar with seeing drop spindles that spinners use. You see them hanging from the fiber in front of the spinner while she/he works. Short fibers, such as cotton, require a lighter weight supported spindle. The tip of the spindle rests in a small dish while spinning. I needed to acquire a spindle and instruction, so I turned to Joan Ruane in Arizona. I didn’t make the trip there, but learned from her video, which came in a kit that included a tahkli spindle, support dish, bobbins, and cotton sliver. It took much practice to go beyond something that resembled rope to something that resembled thread, but I kept at it. Eventually muscle memory kicked in and things got easier. Joining a handspinning group helped tremendously.

When you look for cotton fiber to spin, most likely what you will find is cotton sliver, which is a long rope-like preparation. You might come across roving, which is a thinner preparation of sliver. I often use the words sliver and roving interchangably. I learned when working with sliver that, by dividing it lengthwise into several strands, it was easier to work with if I only used a strand at a time. You might also find cotton in the form of punis, which is cotton that has been carded and rolled into cigar shapes. I have never spun from punis.

lazy kate-bobbins and carboard box - BLOG

Box holding tahkli for winding off; plastic, wood, and homemade bamboo bobbins; lazy kate that holds two bobbins for plying.

None of those preparations are quite like what you will be working with from your homegrown cotton, but it is something to learn from. I believe that anyone learning to spin should learn to spin with a spindle before progressing to a wheel. For one thing, it is cheaper to get started. Also, you gain skills that will help you with any spinning. With only one tahkli spindle I was able to spin enough cotton to make my vest, which you can learn more about here. Once the spindle was full, I would wind it off onto a bobbin and fill the spindle again. In the photo you can see the cardboard box I used to hold the spindle while I wound off onto bobbins. I bought plastic and wooden bobbins and even made some from bamboo. With 2 bobbins on a lazy kate, I could ply the cotton on a larger spindle made with a dowel and 2” wooden wheel. I used 2-ply cotton for both warp and weft when I wove the fabric.

book charkha-cotton-seeds-mat - BLOG

Indian book charkha from New World Textiles.

After the vest, I made a shirt. By this time I had acquired an Indian book charkha from New World Textiles and used that to spin all the cotton for the shirt. I had also acquired a Louet S10 spinning wheel. I used the spinning wheel for the plying, but I needed to get a high-speed bobbin to do it. No matter how fast I treadled, the regular bobbin did not go around fast enough. Cotton requires a high spinning ratio. Plying with the wooden spindle worked great, but using the spinning wheel for that job was faster.

I can spin off the seed with the tahkli, but find the charkha is so fast that it is better to take the seeds out first, which I do by hand. However, when I first started working with cotton I thought I would need to card it. Cotton cards cost more than I wanted to spend for a project I was just getting into, so I bought dog brushes at the pet store. They worked fine. I’ve since acquired regular cotton cards, but the lighter weight dog brushes are great for starting out. I only card the fiber if it has become compacted. I’m working with some cotton right now that I didn’t grow. This cotton had the seeds removed with an electric cotton gin and I find that I need to card the fiber before spinning. Some spinners card cotton and roll it into punis. I find that unnecessary. The fiber that I’ve taken the seeds from is loose enough to spin as it is and the fiber that I’ve carded is also loose enough. Of course, spinning it off the seed is the easiest way and that can happen with your homegrown supply.

Sliver, roving, and punis are fiber preparations that are better for commercial transactions. They can be manufactured, measured, stored, and shipped easier than working with cotton fluff pulled from the seed. Actually, in manufacturing, the fiber isn’t pulled from seeds, it is cut from them in the ginning process.

balls of cotton for shirt and swift - BLOG

Swift with skeins and balls of naturally colored cotton for a shirt.

When I made the vest, I worked with one spindle at a time and put the fiber on bobbins. From there it went into skeins. Since three spindles came with the charkha, once I had three spindles full, I wound the fiber from all three spindles into one skein using my swift. Lacking a swift, you could wind it around anything that you could remove it easily from. I scoured the skeins by boiling them in a large pot of water with washing soda and a bit of soap. That is when the color pops. The fiber was then wound into balls over a core of crumpled paper. The balls you see of cotton in this photo are what I prepared for my shirt.

The cotton you grow in your garden is a premium product. Hand picking ensures that the fiber is never subjected to the harsh treatments that commercial cotton is. Take care in the picking to not also gather leaves or other bits of the plant that will dry and be hard to pick out later. Removing the seeds by hand is not hard. You can take a small bag of seeded cotton with you anywhere and work on the seeds while you are waiting for whatever you need to wait for. It is good to keep your hands busy. Save the seeds to plant next year.

For spinning, I have recently moved up to a Bosworth attache charkha, which is wonderful. As much as I like it, I would hope that you start your cotton journey with a tahkli, like I did. I still use my tahlki and spin with it in public whenever I can. Spinning in public is a great way to meet people and spread the word that this is actually something you can do, not something out of the history books. Have fun spinning!homeplace earth

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spinning wheel-flax distaff - BLOGI have promised to take you through the whole process of seed to garment with flax this year. You start with getting seeds in the ground, then once harvest occurs—which is about 100 days from planting—a whole lot more needs to happen before you have fiber to spin. Nevertheless, I have decided to jump right to spinning. You can learn to spin flax fiber you have bought while you are waiting for the harvest. That is what I did starting out. When it is closer to harvest, I’ll write about what to do next.

Whether you are going to spin flax or cotton, it is always a bit different working with “store bought” fiber, rather than with your homegrown fiber. However, any experience you have with whatever fiber you can acquire will be beneficial. Lacking homegrown flax, you can buy flax to spin in either strick form, also known as line flax, or roving. A strick is what you will have from your homegrown flax. It is long flax fibers, just as it would come from the hackles. You will learn about hackles in a future post. You need to keep those fibers manageable while you are spinning, and that is the part that was daunting to me at first, until I learned that all I needed to do was to hang them up like a ponytail and pull fibers from the bottom to spin. You can see in the photo that I hang a flax strick from a fancy stand that I believe held a lamp long ago. I thought it was interesting when I found it in someone’s barn, not knowing that I would put it to use as a distaff.

distaff with flax - BLOGA distaff is what is used to hold fibers for spinning. You might have seen photos of traditional distaffs with flax fibers surrounding a core with a ribbon holding everything in place. In the Flax to Linen class at the John C. Campbell Folk School I learned to spread the fibers from a flax strick out and fill a distaff. This photo was taken during that class. Some distaffs are shorter and made to be portable. The spinner puts one end in her/his belt or pocket, supporting the rod with their arm, as they spin on a spindle.

That was interesting and traditional, and I am sure it has some advantages, but hanging up the flax ponytail is a lot easier. A ribbon can still be added if you like. A simple free-standing distaff can be made from a long dowel or broom handle mounted on a base. A knob on top will give you something to tie the flax to. In her book The Practical Spinner’s Guide: Cotton, Flax, and Hemp, Sephanie Gaustad suggests putting a broom into a Christmas tree stand for a distaff. You could even hang a flax ponytail from a nail in the wall.

turkish spindle with flax sliver - BLOG

Turkish spindle with flax roving.

When I spin at home with my Louett S10 wheel, I use the set-up you see in the first photo. That spinning wheel was a gift from a friend who no longer needed it. I didn’t shop around and choose it for spinning flax. When I spin flax away from home I spin on a spindle; more specifically, a Turkish spindle. There are many kinds of spindles you could use, but I chose this one because I was in need of a spindle for flax when I visited the Woolgatherers store in Wisconsin and found this one made by a local woodworker from local wood. Furthermore, the woodworker’s name was Scott Snyder—same name as my brother in Ohio, who is also a woodworker. My brother makes rocking horses and other rocking things. I think Turkish spindles are great because they come apart, leaving you with your ball of yarn intact. You spin a length of yarn, then wind on going over two legs and under one all around (or over one and under two). Attach the yarn to the top of the spindle with a half-hitch and you are ready to spin some more.

You can make a drop spindle with a ¼” dowel, about 12” long or so, and a 2” wooden wheel, such as you would find in a craft store. If you put a hook in the end of the dowel, you don’t have to bother with the half hitch at the top when you are spinning. Once you spin a length of yarn, you wind it on the dowel, then spin some more.

Although I spin cotton clockwise (Z twist), I read in Linen: From Flax Seed to Woven Cloth by Linda Heinrich that flax fibers naturally spin counter-clockwise (S twist), so I spin flax counter-clockwise. To tell the truth, I never took the time to notice the natural spin of flax. You can spin either way, as long as you remember which way that is and always do it the same.

turkish spindle with flax strick - BLOG

Turkish spindle with flax strick.

The flax you buy to spin might be in roving form (above photo), which is sort of an untwisted rope. Cotton spinners may be familiar with cotton roving. The fibers in roving, which is machine prepared, are shorter than line flax. When I was first learning I bought flax roving from Paradise Fibers and a strick from Woolgatherers. At first I thought that the roving would be easier. I left it wound up in the bag it came in and pulled from there. I put the flax bag inside a shoulder bag so that it was hanging at my side and spun it on my Turkish spindle. However, the more I worked with the line flax, the better I liked it. Also, the line flax was what I would be working with once I grew my own. I learned that I could fold a towel around the line flax and lay it in my lap while I spun on my spindle. Of course, if I am walking around, like I tend to do at a handspinning meeting, I need to drape the towel over my arm or put in my shoulder bag hanging at my side.

It is best to moisten flax with water or saliva while you are spinning it. It will help to make it smooth, avoiding a hairy appearance. Traditionally, a spinner would lick her/his fingers while spinning to provide the moisture. Although I have used the saliva method, and like the idea of my enzymes being added to the fiber, I usually spin at the wheel with a dish in my lap holding a rag moistened with water or, if I am moving around with the spindle, I attach a cup to my belt loop with a small carabiner to hold the moistened rag.

I hope these tips will help to get you started spinning flax. Practice now and you will be ready when you have your own homegrown fiber to spin

.homeplace earth



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