Posts Tagged ‘flax tow’

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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