Saturday, September 1, 2012

Spinning flax

I am interested in learning how to spin flax. I know that this is a huge part of our fiber heritage. Several of my favorite resources discuss flax culture.  In the chapter on flax culture in Home Life in Colonial Days originally published in 1898,  Alice Morse Earl discusses the importance of each American household being self-sustaining:

No farmer or his wife need fear any king when on every home farm was found food, drink, medicine, fuel, lighting, clothing, shelter. Home-made was an adjective that might be applied to nearly every article in the house. Such would not be the case under similar stress today. In the matter of clothing alone we would not be independent. Few farmers raise flax to make linen; few women can spin either wool or flax, or weave cloth, many cannot knit. (This was 1898 when she published this!) In early days every farmer and his sons raised wool and flax; his wife and daughters spun them in to thread and yarn, knit these into stockings and mittens or wove them into linen or cloth, and then made them into linen or clothing. Even in large cities nearly all women spun yarn and thread, all could knit, and many had hand-looms to weave cloth at home.   

(This quote is on pp. 166-67 in the edition that I own which is copyright 1993 by Berkshire House Publishers).

Of course, Mrs. Earl is discussing this relative to colonial America, whereas she also makes reference to flax culture being at least 4000 years old, there being representation of flax culture in the art of ancient Egypt.

Note, linen is the fabric woven or knitted from fibers of the flax plant. 

Of interest to me, of course, is her mention of early efforts at South Carolina flax culture which I discussed in a post several years ago, a section of which is quoted here:

It’s clear that flax culture was critical, as linen provided the coolest garments... Alice Morse Earl's excellent research for Home Life in Colonial Days revealed a letter from Major Lucas to Eliza dated 1745; in which he documented sending her via sloop (from the West Indies, presumably?) two Irish servants, a weaver and a spinner. He ordered flax seed sent to her from Philadelphia. The two Irish women were charged with training slaves to spin flax and weave clothing for the slave population. Eliza had spinning wheels and a loom made, and a "sensible negro woman and hundreds of others" had learned to spin. Mrs. Earl's followup comment is "excellent cloth has always been woven in the low country of South Carolina, as well as in the upper districts, till our own time" (p. 183) (e.g., again, a. 1898). She may have been alluding to the textile industry that is still active in upstate South Carolina).

Manual flax production from the plant has multiple steps, involves many tools,  and is very physically demanding.  Undoubedly,  the small amount that I purchased recently from Wild Fibre was produced using some industrial process. 

So...when my friend Deb was here, I got a tutorial.  I was relieved to learn recently that my spinning wheel, an Ashford Traditional, is perfectly good for spinning flax.  I needed a bowl of water at hand to keep the threads moist as I drew them out.  It was very easy to spin a fine, if a bit uneven thread with a high twist. finish spinning and figure out what to do with it...

1 comment:

  1. Hi Wendy...Flax looks so pretty but what does it feel like it soft. Is flax used to create linen?