Those of you future flax growers without a spinning wheel, take heart. The first 3200 years of making textiles were all managed without one.
The viking ships that sailed hundreds of miles on colonising voyages were all made possible by women with drop spindles, spinning the flax to make the linen to weave into the sails. Makes the effort involved in producing tea towel seem pretty minimal by comparison.
Dry or Wet Spindling?
I have dry spindled flax. It is possible to do if you concentrate hard. I didn't find it easy and there was a greater emphasis on the 'drop' than the 'spindle' in my efforts. Wet spinning cuts down the yarn breakages during spinning, and produces a smoother thread. It also makes areas where you have to join in new fibre much stronger and less prone to breaking. In the picture above is a ball of predrafted flax (top right), some wet spindled thread (botton right) and a woven sample of the wet spindled yarn. I don't use the predrafting method anymore - that was just a trial. I find spinning from the fold of a flax 'twist' (see photo in last post) works just as well. I can see no difference in quality between my spindle spun and wheel spun samples, the only difference is the speed of production. That being said, with wheel spinning I'm limited to spinning at home, while with a spindle I can spin wherever I happen to be at the time. My friend Billy spindle-spun some lovely linen on the train back from Seattle last week. He used his coffee cup to hold the water he needed to wet his fingers as he worked.
This, by comparison, is a picture of my dry spindled flax. Much hairier, and I suspect it would be a pain to weave on anything larger, as the warp would tangle.
I use a top whorl spindle (like the egyptians) to spin linen. One with a long spin, which usually means a whorl with a weighted outside edge for centripetal force, is ideal. However, my favourite spindle of this description was borrowed by someone in an Urban Weaver workshop in the fall, packed in her move to Toronto, and despite many requests has never been returned to me. For those of you who were lucky enough to get hold of a Don George (of Quesnel) spindle before he stopped making them - they're ideal. The strength of the flax in resisting twist is easily overcome by the amount of spin it is possible to get with this spindle, meaning that it doesn't easily start to untwist as the spindle revolutions slow. Another advantage of this spindle is that it has a long shaft, so you can stand and spindle using your feet to produce the spindle rotation. Great for when you're standing in a line up, or spindling as you walk along. However, as I no longer have this spindle, I used one of my hand made chop stick and wooden bead spindles for the samples. Sigh. Any chance of getting my spindle back, Sharon De Souza?
A small pot of water by your side while spindling is all the other equipment you'll need. Just moisten your left fingers (for right handers) or which ever fingers you use to pinch and smooth twist. I carry a small screw top plastic pot and fill it from my water bottle. I also use rain water if waiting at a bus stop - just hold your hand out, or dip you fingers in the rain drops on the bus shelter!
Another advantage of wet spinning is that when you reel off the yarn, it has 'set'. There's very little twisting and doubling back on itself like a wool yarn would. The disadvantage of this is that it's harder to ply (if you intend to ply). Yarn with very little 'energy', doesn't ply well. However, if you're intending to weave with your yarn it doesn't need to be plied, and that lack of 'energy' really helps in warp making.
Next time - spinning some extra fine flax fibre I bought in Seattle (proper high quality 'line' flax with a staple length of 14cm!), and weaving linen using my old tapestry frame and some home-made string heddles.
Having abandonned the King Tut method of flax spinning, I'm going to stick with my tried and true personal favourite method. For you wheel spinners, wet spinning is probably the best way to go. I'll get to spindle spinning in another post.
Starting with one of these – a twist of hackled flax, lay it on a damp towel on your lap and fan one end out while keeping the other tucked into the towel. If you're spinning from a strick, the unfanned out ends at usually tucked into your belt or tied round your waist with the strick ribbon.
If you need to stop spinning for any reason, wrap it up in the towel. That keeps the flax moist and reduces breakage if you're spinning a fine yarn. Keep a pot of water close by and keep wetting your fingers as you spin. This keeps the yarn smooth and strong. It also helps to join in more fibre if the yarn breaks. Spit is always an alternate option, but I worry about the bacteria count of my frequently dropped flax.
I like to spin on my double treadle wheel with a 20:1 ratio, but you can pretty much spin flax on anything. Ideally, I'd use double drive so the pull on was smooth and not too harsh. However, I usually spin wool and prefer Scottish tension for that and I'm way too lazy to change the drive band between projects.
The yarn you spin will be great for weaving. It will be smooth – no hairy bits to catch in the warp. The more even you can keep the diameter and amount of twist the better. Linen is worse than wool (IMO) for twist running to the thinner sections. That can create overspun parts that look weird in the weaving and are a pain to deal with when you ply. Young women's marriage prospects used to be judged by the evenness of their linen spinning.
You can see from my sample that my spinning wasn't very even at all - I would have be destined to remain a spindster if a young man was using this sample to assess my worth as a potential wife!
I suggest getting some practice in with long fibres before you start spinning any of your precious crop this year. It will increase your chances of producing a fine heirloom, though I doubt it will enhance your chances of finding a partner these days.
You can practise at the field house on the flax fibre bought from Biolin. It arrived today, along with the flax seed, while I was out, so has been delivered to the post office for collection. I have yet to work out how I will get 10kg of fibre and 5kg of seed from Chinatown to the field house, especially while the New Year celebrations are ramping up, but hope to get it to McLean park by next week.
I thought I'd start the review of ways to spin linen by looking at the most time consuming of the techniques. Perhaps I'm not as skilled as an ancient Egyptian, but my results reproducing their methods were disappointing compared to the less complex ones.
The linen spinning process in ancient Egypt began with a woman making spliced roving from the hackled fibres. This is where you draw out the fibres into a fine, very slightly twisted line using wet fingers. The ball of roving is then given to the spinner who uses a drop spindle to spin a thread.
Here's a model showing all that from an Egyptian tomb. These linen 'factories' were always in the underground parts of the Egyptian buildings because the humidity was higher there. Wet linen thread is stronger than dry thread, so there was less propensity for the thread to break during the weaving process:
Here, for comparison is what I managed (with one spindle at a time!):
At the top right, is my ball of wet drafted roving. I did this by drawing the tops out by hand, dipping my fingers in water as I went along, and putting a slight twist in using my thumb.
Below it is some spun yarn, and to the left, my woven, 2 ply sample.
It was easier when the roving split to use the water to rejoin the ends. When dry spinnng, if the yarn breaks, it's very hard to draft in new fibres to rejoin it. Traditionally, this is when the spinner would run the thread end over her bottom lip and use spit to hold the join together. You may remember the Grimm's fairy tale about the three spinning fairies, one with a braod foot from treadling, one with a big thumb from twisting the fibre and one with a bottom lip that hung to her chest from licking the fibre. The amylase enzyme in the saliva makes the starches in the linen dissolve, then as it dries they form a strong bond.
My spun yarn was much hairier (scratchy!) when I predrafted for some reason. The spinning was quicker, and there was less breakage, but when you add in the predrafting, the whole thing was much slower. I also found it harder to get a fine thread this way.
The resulting woven sample was softer, but hairier and the textile wasn't as fine as the other methods I tried.
If I was going to spin my flax crop later this year for a knitting project where softness is important and fineness isn't, I would use this wet predrafting method. For a fine woven textile, unless I could find an ancient Egyptian (or three fairies) to give me lessons, I think I'd use a different technique.
Now that the flax seed has been ordered and also a 10kg 'brick' of grade 1 flax shive (partially hackled flax) for Monday night Urban Weavers to try out, I took the time to make some linen samples this week. Here's the results of my experiments using some unbleached flax tops left over from a previous project:
I tried combinations of wet spinning, dry spinning, spindle spinning, wheel spinning, washing, on singles and 2 ply woven samples.
I wanted to get a feel for what the end product of the UW flax project might feel/look like.
As it takes 5 minutes to upload each photo to this blog, and I'm not noted for my patience, I'll write separately about each of the samples with a photo in upcoming posts.
At this point, suffice it to say that you can spin and weave very nice linen, which gets softer with each wash, using only basic equipment like a top whorl spindle and small pocket loom.