Spinster’s Corner • 5 : Spinning Bast Fibers

by Cyndy Donohue

Flax and Hemp:  these two bast fibers have been with us since the beginning of civilization.  They shimmer like silver and gold.  The cloth from these fibers becomes softer and more beautiful with age.  The history of the plants and fiber is both interesting and filled with folklore and romance.

The Greek scholar Plutarch once wrote that the reason the Egyptians used the flax plant, for cloth was because “the color of its blossom resembles the ethereal blue which surrounds the world….. “

Today, these fibers are still popular, touting reputations of strong annual crops that can be grown in almost a hundred days.  The products breakdown as well, making them an earth-friendly, biodegradable, recyclable, renewable resource.

Yet somehow, these fibers seldom find their way into the hands of the modern-day spinster.

Occasionally there comes a point in time, in the life of a spinner, when he or she begins to entertain thoughts of spinning a different fiber other than wool.  As beginners, most spinners learn to spin with wool and then move on to experience other fibers like silk or cotton, and sometimes they will consider the bast fibers, specifically, flax and hemp.  For some of us the idea of spinning flax and hemp may seem to be a bit of a daunting task.

I’m here to tell you that it isn’t, and I would encourage you to try it out if you have not already.  The first yarn that you make may not be suitable for more than garden or packaging twine, but with practice, the resulting yarn can be woven and or knit into wonderful garments that are strong and durable and comfortable as well. So, if you are ready to try spinning flax or hemp, the first thing you must do is find a supplier where you may purchase it in a form that is ready for spinning.

In America, both flax and hemp were once grown, processed and readily available for hand spinning.  Those days are long gone.  And there are few spinners who choose to go through the laborious procedure of growing, harvesting, retting, rippling, breaking, scutching and hackling to prepare their own strick for spinning.  Thankfully, there is another way to obtain it ( little more than a mouse click away) it may be purchased online, or perhaps at your local fiber supplier.  Most all of it is imported from China or Germany.  Textile flax has not been grown commercially for processing in the United States since the late 1950’s.  There is a good deal of flax for consumption being grown in the USA, and it is packed full of Omega 3’s, but the flax plant that produces the fiber is a different variety, growing taller and  bearing less seed than its shorter cousin.

Textile Flax fiber for spinning is available for purchase in different forms.

Long line strick (fine fiber and suitable for dressing a distaff) and tow (the shorter pieces that are left after hackling- good for making twine or rope) and Flax Sliver Top (made by a special patent process and available in a “roving” form), are the most common packages.  Hemp is also available in this “roving” package form and both flax and hemp may be found bleached or unbleached in a natural brown color.

When purchasing flax strick, the bundle should be clean and free from chaff.  The long line fibers should measure at least 30 inches in length, with an obvious blossom and root end.  You may have to shop around to find good strick, but if you intend to spin from a line distaff, flax strick is the package you want to look for.  Long line flax strick is the finest quality or preparation of flax available.

It is sometimes labeled “Euroflax”.  There is an old adage that says one must spin tow flax for 5 years before they are ready for the strick.  This is because it takes a bit of practice before you should expect to spin lovely “slub-free” linen thread.  You may want to first practice with flax tow or flax top so that your hands may begin to understand how flax feels and behaves while spinning. Flax Tow and Flax and Hemp Top may be spun without a distaff.

Tow flax is made up from the shorter pieces of flax that come from the strick.

Traditionally, these are the shorter pieces that are left behind in the hackles or hatchels (flax combs) when processing flax by hand.  Although some of us might choose to discard tow as waste, and use it at re-enactments for fire starting purposes, or for crafting projects like paper making, tow may also be spun into a coarse thread. Depending on the quality of tow, you may find some available for sale that is very clean, but it is not uncommon to find bits of chaff and boon.

Chaff and boon are the hardened part of the flax stem, or the small particles of the bark that are left behind after breaking and scutching and hackling.  At first glance, tow flax may look like a tangled mess of fiber, but with some teasing, the shorter pieces may be coaxed into spinning a thicker thread, or plied for use with projects like market bags or wash cloths or even rope baskets.

Super Fine Water Retted Flax Top is something rather new on the market.  It has been available for a few years, and is described simply as flax that has been “split and combed in a special, patented method used by the supplier.”  Upon closer examination, it appears to be composed of very fine and uneven lengths of flax that have been shaped or extruded to a strick or roving sort of package.
Hemp Top for hand spinning is also available in this roving type package.  It is generally imported and has been highly processed.  The plant itself grows to a height of between 12 and 15 feet, yet the staple length of the fibers in the “roving” package average only 2-4 inches.  You may find Hemp Top available in bleached or unbleached and natural tones.  Some suppliers will even carry some that has been dyed.

Now that you know what is available for purchase, you may want to decide how or which method to choose to spin your flax or hemp.

Hand spindles and hand held distaffs were the first tools used to spin flax and hemp, the Saxony Wheel with the onboard distaff came later.  Deciding what to use may depend on what form of material you are using.

Since hemp is only available in roving form, you don’t need a distaff to spin it, and you may have the best results if you choose to spin it from the fold.

Hemp is easily spun on a spindle or a wheel, and personally, I think it is best when spun into a fine strong yarn. If desired, you may keep a small water pot nearby to dip your fingers and smooth down any wispy ends.

If you choose to spin line flax from a distaff, you don’t necessarily have to own one to get started.  Use your imagination; a distaff can be made easily from an old lampshade.  A quick makeshift distaff can be put together with a dowel or an inverted broom tied onto the side of a chair.  If your wheel has a hole in the bench for an onboard distaff, take a walk into the forest and find a suitable branch.  Many antique distaffs are simply the leading shoots of a sapling that has been trimmed of the leaves and small branches. Of course, you can always purchase a ready-made distaff.

There are several types of distaffs to consider.

The most common one that you can purchase is known by several names- tow distaff, lantern distaff, or a cage distaff.

The method used to dress it has been described as the Danish Method.  To dress this distaff with flax strick, first open the bundle of strick and select a small amount about the size of a quarter or about “two fingers” worth.  Start from one end of the strick, and slowly separate or peel out the amount needed.  Wrap the end around the top of your fingers and gently shake out the flax.  The flax will open up and you can whip it over your other hand to fluff it up and loosen the fibers.  Next, lay this piece of flax on a table and spread it as thin as you can.  Avoid clumps of flax; you want nice thin layers to wind on.

Now you may moisten the reed on your distaff if you like.  Place the distaff parallel to the flax.  Holding the distaff by the base- begin by lifting a pinch of flax from the center of the strick and while holding that pinch on one piece of the reed-  start winding on by turning the base of the distaff.  A thin layer of flax should cover and wrap around the distaff.  Continue to turn the base of the distaff and lift gently at the same time.

Keep turning (as if you were winding a nostepinne or pretend you are making cotton candy) lightly lift the strands of flax and wind them around the distaff.  The strands of flax should feed onto the distaff slowly and evenly, if too many fibers catch at once, use your other hand to hold the flax on the table.  Clumps will make it difficult to draft later on when you are spinning, so take your time and dress your distaff evenly.

When you are finished winding, your distaff should look somewhat like a big cocoon.

Once the distaff is dressed, spinning may commence!

The idea here is to pull down with one hand while drafting with the other.  The point of twist should not enter the distaff; otherwise too many strands of flax will pull down at once.

The movements of drawing down as the twist runs up can be mesmerizing and meditative. Feeding flax from a distaff to a spindle seems to cast a spell over me, and I am enchanted for hours.  There is the magical moment that happens, between the index finger and the thumb.  It is that very moment when the flax turns to linen.  It is captivating.

And suddenly, you have filled a bobbin.

Linen and hemp yarn need to be finished, and ideally it should be boiled under tension and wound onto a blocker to dry.  For most small projects, you can simply tie your skeins in several places and simmer them in enough water to cover generously and add about a teaspoon of dishwashing liquid.  Simmer for about an hour and rinse and weight the skein to dry.  You may also hang your skeins out in the rain, or allow the brook or the river to rinse them the old fashioned way, just be sure to wring them well enough and give them a good drying in the fresh air and sunshine.

Photos © Cyndy Donohue