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!

On growing linen for the first time!

At the start of this year I decided to try growing my own linen after listening to Rebbecca Burgess’ book Fibreshed while I was working on my patchwork.

Learning about the Fibreshed movement really got me thinking about where fabric comes from and what I could do to learn more and share this with others.

I realised that I could actually grow my own fibre on our allotment!

Which seeds?

I searched online for linen flax seeds and learnt that there are two types of flax. One is better for producing flax seeds (which are used for making linseed oil or for eating) and the other produces a taller plant and makes good fibre. 

I bought some flax seeds from www.wildfibres.

I was very excited when they arrived on 25th January!

When to sow?

I then waited until after the middle of March, prepared a patch on the allotment and sowed the seeds!

Within two weeks they had germinated and by the end of April the little plants were about 3 inches high.

A month later and they were tall, gorgeously lush green plants.

In early June they produced beautiful blue flowers and by the end of June the seed heads were formed.

Harvest time

Linen plants are considered to take around 100 days from sowing to harvesting. In the middle of July I harvested them and tied them up into 4 bundles (apparently these are called ‘beets’).

I leaned them up against the fence to dry. At this point, we had a heatwave so they soon dried out.

I then smashed up the seed heads with a block of wood and captured the seeds in a sheet.

Once all the husks were blown away, I succeeded in harvesting around 200gms of my own seeds!

Then what?

Once the plants are harvested and the seeds gathered, the plant fibres are ‘retted’.

Retting is where you break down the pectin which is glueing the flax fibres together.

There are two ways to do this – water retting and dew retting. 

It was so hot and dry that I wasn’t convinced about dew retting and as I had a tall enough water butt I put all the bundles into the water and covered them with a board.

After about 3 days I returned to the allotment and removed the board to discover the most extraordinary almost sweet smell! Wasps and flies were buzzing around excitedly.

It was quite an event!

I removed the plants from the water and lay them out to dry because I didn’t want to risk retting them too much and actually rotting them. Apparently this can happen!

So this is where I have got to so far.

Next: I must learn to ‘break’ the flax and then spin it…

To be continued!

Art Lady features in University of Brighton entrepreneur magazine!

Yes: wouldn’t that be wonderful: Dedicated art and craft studio spaces in sheltered housing and in fact all communal housing?

Why not? 🤔

“Lets get to work!”

British Doctors May Soon Prescribe Art, Music, Dance, Singing Lessons | Smart News | Smithsonian

Campaign is expected to launch across the entire U.K. by 2023
— Read on

Some of the parts…

I play many parts in my role as an inclusive artist. These are some moments I experienced recently that reminded me of the constantly shifting roles I play at the ‘pop-up studio’ (and back in the ‘art cave’!)

News update from the art cave…

Can’t believe a month has gone by since I last posted! I’ve been hard at it taking the Art Lady pop-up studio on the road for creative art workshops.

Here are some pictures of the wonderful work made at some of the sessions…

…and I was thrilled to learn a new technique from a visitor to the pop-up studio table at Robert Lodge in Whitehawk last week…

We’re in the paper!

Yes indeed!

Charlotte Harding has written this wonderful article in The Brighton and Hove Independent about our art group!

If you’re in Brighton or Hove this week you can pick up a copy in the library and some shops (I think Hisbes might be one?)

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