Monday, October 22, 2012

Flax to linen experiment - breaking, scutching, and combing

Okay, here is a report on further progress in my growing flax for linen experiment. As previously posted, I grew some flax this past summer in order to see if I could turn it into spinnable fiber, and then into linen.
The next step in the process is breaking the retted flax to release the usable fibers. I let the retted flax dry out. My husband built me a flax break. You can find videos on YouTube that show people using antique flax breaks. Although I searched for a long time, I couldn't find any flax breaks, antique or otherwise, for sale anywhere (although I did find plans for building a good one), so I asked my husband to build me one (we didn't use the plans, we improvised).
Below are some pictures of me using my flax break to break the retted parts of the flax plant up in order to get to the durable flax fiber (click on any of the pictures to see them larger):

The arm of the break comes up, and then is smashed down onto the bundle of flax:

After breaking the flax, comes the scutching. You can look this up on YouTube, too. Basically, you're swiping away the bits of retted plant material that still cling to the fibers, and sort of fluffing the fibers up as well. In the picture below, you can see a bundle of retted flax on the table that hasn't been broken yet. In the foreground you can see me scutching some broken flax:

My scutching board is just that, simply a board. My scutching knife is made out of a wooden pizza paddle which is cut in half - it needs to be improved a bit, but it worked:

The fibers become a little cleaner and a little fluffier with scutching:

Next comes the combing. The combing is done with a flax hackle (there are a few different spellings). It seems that the only flax hackles you can get a hold of are antiques. After much searching, I found a very nice one, made in 1842, on eBay. I paid $70 and am very pleased with it. It's got a lot of nasty, sharp teeth, is still very sturdy, and works really well.
The flax is pulled through the teeth to further clean and straighten the fibers: 

Shorter fibers are left behind in the hackle, along with any remaining bits of retted plant material:

Lash on and pull through:

Repeat until the fibers are looking nice and smooth:


You can find YouTube videos showing this process, too. You can see below that the fibers are looking much nicer:

What's left behind in the teeth of the hackle is called tow flax. This can be used, too, as stuffing, or to make ropes or rougher cloth:

And here is some combed flax, ready for spinning:

Percentage-wise, you get much more tow flax than nice, long, spinnable flax. Only about 10% of the flax plant results on fiber, 7% of that is tow flax, and the remaining 3% is the nice, long spinnable fiber that will make nice linen.
Here is the tow flax I've collected so far:
I'm a tiny bit disappointed with the quality of my flax fiber. There are lots of things that may be in play here. My growing flax had to struggle through drought conditions, although I did try to keep it moist. My soil wasn't the best - although I did add manure, lime, and alfalfa (for nitrogen), I'm sure it wasn't enough. I'm not sure if I pulled it at the right time - timing of the harvest can affect the quality. And I'm not sure if I retted it for long enough, because it seems like it was hard to get the retted parts off of the desired fibers - but this could also be a factor of my break not being up to par with the flax breaks of yore, not to mention my scutching knife.
The next step will be spinning the fiber. I still have about half of my flax to break, scutch and comb, so it will be a while yet. Whew, this is a lot of work, but I'm have lots of fun and learning a lot.
More posts on the great flax experiment to come!


Lyn said...

Did you watch the BBC Wartime Farm episode 7 last week where Ruth was doing just that?

ICQB said...

Hi Lyn!
No, it's not on here in the U.S., doggone it! I'd love to see it!

ICQB said...

Hi again, Lyn!

I found Wartime Farm episode 7 on the internet - fascinating! I hope the series hits the U.S. at some point, I'd love to see all of the episodes.

Stephanie Bray said...

It has been a few years since these posts. I'm wondering how it went with the rest of the flax and how it went spinning and wondered what you made with it. I'm hoping to find flax seed and do this this year.

ICQB said...

Hi Stephanie!

Right now I have about 800 yards of spun flax, and approximately 500 yards-worth of unprocessed flax waiting to be broken, hackled and spun. I am waiting until I have enough to make either a linen work apron, or if I happen to get a loom, some linen kitchen towels.

I have found a source for un-coated Marilyn flax seeds - here is the link:

They are based in the UK. Good luck with your flax!