Breaking, scutching, heckling and spinning the flax

At the end of my last post I had retted the bundles of flax and they were ready for ‘breaking’. This involves crushing the outer and inner layers of the stems to free up the flexible fibres that you can use to weave linen cloth.

For ages, I pondered how to make myself a braking tool which looked a bit complicated to be honest. Then one day, I looked at the bench on our allotment where we sit and rest and sometimes clean the mud off our boots, and I realised that there might be a way to use the gaps in between the slats of wood to break my flax! You can hopefully see from the video how I found a way to do this.

Breaking the flax on the bench.

Once it had been ‘broken’, it became quite pliable but still straw like.

It was ready to be ‘scutched’. First I tried with a piece of wood:

Scutching with piece of wood.

I soon realised that it was too uncomfortable to work like this for long periods so I asked Patrick for a wooden scutching knife for Christmas. He bought me this fabulous scutching knife from Flaxland.

Using the scutching knife made the job so much easier! I found I was able to really get into a rhythm with it and soon the flax bundles became quite pliable.

They were still full of spiky bits of chaff though and this is why after scutching, the flax is ‘heckled’ with a heckling comb. I bought a heckling comb from Flaxland.

This is the heckling comb and the first piece of heckled flax

My four bundles had now been drastically reduced to four pieces of ‘flax roving’.

The scutching and heckling process creates a quantity of ‘flax tow’ which apparently can be used for stuffing upholstery etc.

Now that I had my beautifully soft flax roving, I was keen to start spinning but hadn’t a clue where to start! I was lucky enough to learn about a gathering of local textile growers, spinners, weavers, dyers and textile artists not far from where I lived. It was organised by a group of textile artists known as the ‘Woolly Umbrella’, who I learned of when I attended the premiere of ‘The Nettle Dress’.

My mother and I had a wonderful time meeting them and sharing our interest and passion for textiles and the environment. They were a very enthusiastic and generous group; sharing their skills and experience. I was fortunate enough to meet Allan Brown who kindly gave me an impromptu master class in flax spinning, showing me how to ‘dress the distaff’ with the prepared flax roving, then gradually drawing off a few strands of flax at a time, wetting it and twisting it to fuse the fibres together creating the yarn. Back home, I soon got to work, making my distaff from a large sheet of rolled card taped together to form a sort of trumpet shape. Then I ‘dressed my distaff’ like so:

‘Dressing the distaff’

Initially I wound my linen yarn onto an old toilet roll. This sort of worked but it was a bit awkward to spin so I ordered a proper drop spindle from – yes you guessed it; the wonderful Flaxland! Spinning was much more streamlined and satisfying with the drop spindle.

I am currently spinning and once it’s all spun I will be ready to start weaving my cloth! 

I have also sown seeds of Woad, Japanese Indigo and Madder this spring so that I will be able to dye some of my yarn. I have already experimented with avocado skins and dyed some of it a fabulous red colour.

Spun flax yarn dyed with avacado skins.

Next: weaving and more dyeing!

I can’t wait!

Published by eturnerlee

I am an artist. I currently work in textiles (quilting) and run inclusive art workshops.

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