Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The culmination of my growing flax for linen experiment

So, three years ago I started growing flax in the hopes of processing it into linen yarn and then making something with it. This is something that I have secretly wanted to do ever since reading A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich back in the 1990's. 
Martha was a midwife in the later 1700's in New England. She kept a kitchen garden, an herb garden (medicinal) for her profession, and she grew flax so that she could make linen to weave into clothing. The flax garden is barely mentioned in her diary and in the book, but it fascinated me. She was by no means unique in this, many people made their own linen clothing this way.
Fast forward to 2010 when I took up spinning. Right away I started researching about growing flax for fiber. I started growing flax in 2012. I started with a small experimental plot, and then graduated to a larger one after that. For the past two years, I've grown flax in a 10' x 20' plot, harvested it, processed it into flax fiber, and spun the fiber up into laceweight linen yarn. 
After two years I had about 1500 yards of laceweight linen yarn - enough to make something. I chose to make a garment, and chose the knitted pattern Seta Sun, which I found on Ravelry. If I had a loom I would have woven cloth or towels, but I don't have a loom yet.
I began the top last week and finished yesterday. Here are a progression of photos:

I messed up the lace pattern at the bottom, but I actually like how it turned out, so I refrained from ripping back and re-doing. 
I really love my top. I am so happy to have done this after thinking about it and wanting to do something like it for so many years, even before I started spinning.
I will continue to grow flax for linen. Someday I'll have a loom, and then watch out! Until then, I'll make knitted things like this top. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

This year's (2015) flax-for-linen plot

 I planted my flax a few weeks ago by strewing the seeds. I had 13 ounces of seeds, 5 oz. of my own that I saved from last year's crop, and 8 oz. more that I bought. My plot is 10' x 20'. I divide that roughly in half with a roughly 1-foot swath down the middle for walking on to help with weeding. I prepare the plot by tilling in compost/manure, lime (flax likes a sweet soil), and alfalfa hay (which acts as a sort of slow-release nitrogen). Here is the plot just after strewing the seeds, raking lightly (lightly is the key word), and then stepping all over it to tamp it all down a bit:

 Here the flax is starting to sprout:

Here it's getting taller:

This is from today, it's starting to shoot up. It needs a good weeding, but we've had a week of steady rain and the soil is just too wet to weed. I've laid newspapers down the middle and put straw on top of that to keep the weeds in check on my little walking corridor. I think the flax is at week 4-5 here, I believe I planted in the week after Mother's Day:

We are finally looking at a rain-free day today, but this weekend it's back to rainy. It's really getting swampy out there, You can see how the plot next door on the left is flooded. Hoping things calm down a bit rain-wise, but it looks like we'll get still more in the coming week.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Knitting with homegrown, handspun linen

 I have finally begun knitting with my homegrown, handspun linen - the next stage in my flax-to-linen experiment/project. If you wish to see more about my foray into growing flax for linen, click on the flax and flax-to-linen labels at the bottom of this post.
 I'm knitting a pattern I found on Ravelry, called Seta Sun. You can find it here: Seta Sun by Birgit Freyer.
I have a lot going on, so it may take me a while to get this thing done, and who knows if my knitting skillz are up to it? But here goes!

Friday, June 5, 2015

Book Review: Wild, by Cheryl Strayed

When this book first came out, the few things I heard about it made me not want to read it, and I thought I never would. I thought it was going to be about a whiney, stupidly ill-prepared woman who bit off more that she could chew hiking the PCT and wrote a book about it. In my youth I enjoyed the outdoors and was a backpacker and maybe a little bit of a snob in that I had little patience for people who went into the wild unprepared. But my book club chose this book as the read this month and I decided, against my better judgment, that I would read it.

Well, actually I listened to it, and I was hooked pretty much from the beginning. Everybody sees the books they read differently from everyone else because of what they bring into them regarding their own life experiences. A lot of the reviewers saw this book the way I originally thought it would read, whiney and self-indulgent. But I ended up not seeing it that way at all. Yes, she was stupidly ill-prepared for such a monumental endeavor, and yet she was also very well prepared in some ways, having read the guidebooks and prepared packages for herself, etc.

What it really comes down to is that her life was on the cusp of something when she decided to do this hike. And the thing of it is, this was HER life, not yours and not a story made up to please anyone. This book is her life laid honestly bare. The book is about what she did to figure out which way she would ultimately nudge herself to go while her life teetered on that cusp.

And, putting all of the very personal stuff aside, just making a decision like the one to hike the PCT alone takes moxie. To actually go through with preparing to do it takes more. To sell everything you have to be able to do it is almost unimaginable. To do it with increments of $20 parsed out to yourself along the way because that's all the money you have in the world is just plain brave. And to get to the trail ill-prepared, with bad boots, a too heavy pack, in the Mojave in summer, begin, and not quit in the first week, much less the first couple of days, is outright bold. To actually finish hiking over 1000 miles of challenging wilderness alone with all of the above being true, is absolutely heroic. And to come out of it at the end having gone through something of a cleansing crucible is absolutely wild.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Finding a gem of a fleece

Today I have been working with a beautiful Icelandic fleece I got at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival. I didn't get it at the fleece sale - if there had been any Icelandic there, they were gone by the time I was looking for them. I bought mine at the Icelandic Breeders booth. There were several fleeces there and I looked at possibly all of them until I found one that really caught my eye.

The one that caught my eye wasn't as large as most of the others, and it cost less per pound than the others. It was white with small brown patches throughout, but what really caught my eye was that the thel (the softer part of the dual coat) looked exceptionally soft and wonderful. The woman I talked to, to ask about it happened to own the farm from which this fleece came. She explained that it cost less per pound than the others because it wasn't skirted. She sounded apologetic about this, but it didn't bother me. I had pawed through the bag and was satisfied that it wasn't exceptionally dirty - in fact I found it  a little hard to believe that it hadn't been skirted. When I said I would like to buy it she asked if I had seen that it was spotted, and I said yes. She seemed apologetic about that, too. I don't know why, because I came out of that booth thinking that I had gotten by far the best fleece of the bunch. And I still think that.

I've been separating tog (the longer, courser part of the dual coat) from thel  today and am looking forward to the day when I can spin the different fibers up. I am really wanting a loom now because I would dearly love to weave this up into a shawl or a small blanket, using the tog as warp and the thel as weft.

I have the contact information for the farm and when I am finished processing this fleece I want to contact the woman and let her know how special this fleece has been. For some reason, I don't think she realized what a gem this fleece was and I want to make sure she knows how much pleasure it's giving me to work with it.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival 2015

I had a great time at the 2015 Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival over the past weekend. I scored some really lovely fleeces, saw lots of sheep, bought lots of fiber and fiber-related things, took a class with the lovely Maggie Casey, got to be in the same room as said Maggie Casey and Judith MacKenzie at the same time, and watched part of the sheep-to-shawl competition.
 This is a gorgeous mutlti-colored Icelandic fleece that I got at the Icelandic Sheep Breeder's booth. It is just so lovely and I can't wait to start processing it:

This is a very lovely Romeldale x Rambouillet fleece I got. A note tucked in with the fleece said that the owner's sheep hadn't been coated this year because they were hired by Apple to graze under their solar panels to keep the grass shorn instead of using lawn mowers (the coats snag on the panels). It's so nice when a little information is included with the fleece:

I also got  a very lovely California Red fleece, and a very lovely Finn x BFL fleece. I'm excited about all of my fleeces this year and can't wait to see what types of yarns they will produce.

As I mentioned, I watched part of the sheep-to-shawl competition. It started at 8:00 AM with the shearing of the sheep and ended at about noon with the judging of the finished and washed shawls. The shawls were auctioned off after the completion. Here are some pictures of the teams, they all had themes, the most notable of which was the OZ team. In some of the pictures you can see the freshly-shorn fleeces that the teams are carding, spinning, and weaving into their shawls:

And last but not least, here is a picture of a little Barbados Blackbelly lamb. I love walking through the barns with the sheep pens, there are so many different breeds all in one place. The Barbados Blackbellies  were very distinctive and are prized for their lean and mild-tasting meat. They are a hair breed, meaning that they don't produce wool. Their hair is very stiff, almost like a bristle-brush - at least the mother of this little lamb felt like that when I petted her:

My California Red fleece actually has some Barbados Blackbelly in it! California Reds resulted in a cross of Tunis sheep and Barbados Blackbelly. I got a really nice fleece, I think it was the softest of the handful of California Reds there were to choose from. I'm looking forward to working with this wool - I love trying out new breeds and crosses that I haven't had a chance to work with before.

I am busy washing fleeces now, along with all of my other woolly and fiber pursuits.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Using Tow Flax

When processing flax, most of it becomes tow flax - the shorter fibers that stay behind in the hackles when hackling the flax. So you have a lot of this shorter stuff, much of which is quite nice.
Lately, I've been hankering to use my tow flax and have been experimenting with blends. I made a small sample blend of flax, cotton and silk. I carded the fibers and spun it up into a few yards and then knitted a small swatch. It was very nice, but a cat found it during the night and took it off somewhere, probably the basement to its hidey-hole, so I don't have any pictures of that swatch. 
I really liked the linen/cotton/silk blend, but decided I wanted to stick to all-plant-based fibers for a project I have in mind. So I tracked down some ramie, which is a bast fiber gotten from a type of nettle. I used my hand cards to make a small sample of a roughly 33/33/33 blend of flax, cotton and ramie. I spun the blend up into a few yards of a 3-ply yarn.
Below you can see the materials and the resultant swatch (click on the pictures to see them larger): 
Tow flax, cotton, ramie, and the blend in a knitted swatch.

And here is a closer look at the swatch:

Linen, cotton, ramie blend, approx. 33/33/33.

The linen/cotton/ramie is also a very nice blend. The project I have in mind for it is the Leksak Lady, found on Ravelry. The pattern calls for worsted weight, which I think would be a bit heavy in this blend, so I'm hoping I can successfully alter the pattern for a thinner gauge of yarn. If not, then I'll search for another suitable pattern for this yarn.

I'm planning on dyeing the yarn with natural dyes, possibly goldenrod or tesu or onion skins for a nice golden yellow color.

Anyway, that's how I'm hoping to use the tow flax I have on hand right now. The resulting yarn should be comfy and breathable.