Flax


cyanotype print of flax 









flax growing in lower garden in Brockwell Park Community Greenhouses Summertime 

flax nearly ready to harvest

the blue flower of the flax




the flax is harvested roots
 and all and left to dry

the seed heads are then removed

the flax is retted on grass
 and moisture from rain and dew
breaks down the outer fibres

frost on retting flax,
 after a few weeks, it is dried again

the outer woody fibre of flax can then be easily broken with hands and samples of the long inner fibres obtained
outer woody fibre is broken
 and removed

after woody parts removed
 beginnings of flaxen fibre
emerge

Scutching - or breaking outer woody stems of plant to reveal inner fibres in preparation for spinning. In the past a hinged scutching bat was used to evenly break outer fibres of the plant. We tried using a mallet on a board and found just twisting the stems with our hands was effective in dislodging the woody bits. This slow hand process put me back in touch with how our ancestors must have first discovered and processed the fibre by hand, many thousands of years ago.
Heckling - cleans and clears  the fibres of any remaining woody residue and polishes them too. In the past this would have been done using a bed of nails on a board with the nails arranged in size order to assist in removing any impurities from the stems. Inside the woody stems are several fine strands of long fibre which when combed resembles long blond hair and helps capture an image from folk tales of women and girls with "flaxen" hair.
We experimented with wool carders and animal grooming combs with wide metal teeth and narrow wiry teeth on a brush, which sometimes tangled the fibres when groomed in a clump and produced fluffy tufts and shorter strands to work with. It seemed breaking the fibres by twisting them manually to obtain the longer strands was more successful but  time consuming - more fun if working together in a community setting. It is dusty work (a face mask maybe desirable) and hands benefit from protection too. The residual short papery husks can be used for paper making - will try!

Some history taken from: http://www.irvineburnsclub.org/flaxtrade.htm
"The flax hecklers of Dundee established a reputation as the most radical and stroppy element in what was a famously radical town and by 1800 were already operating as a powerful trade union, to the extent that in 1809 a local employer noted that they were to some extent in control of the trade, dictating wages, conditions and bonuses (mostly alcoholic). The heckling shop, said another observer, was frequently the arena of violent harangue and ferocious debate. One heckler would be given the task of reading out the day's news while the others worked.
When they moved from factory floor to public meeting, they then fired off interjections designed to tease or comb out truths that politicians might prefer to conceal or avoid. Thus heckling entered the world of political debate, combining an incisive comment or question with spontaneous wit - quick-fire challenges enjoyed by those speakers who could deal with them and amuse their audience with a ready riposte."

Spinning - Diane Sullock used both a drop spindle (not shown, see film) and a spinning wheel to demonstrate spinning the flax fibres into a linen thread. The fibre is twisted to make a stronger thread.
Distaff -  Diane used a homemade distaff out of a broom handle - see photo to hold/carry the spun fibre which can then be used for weaving or knitting

Linen thread sample
Weaving - using a simple loom
 made out of cardboard,

 Diane demonstrates a small

 sample of woven flax, 

threading a weft fibre,

from left to right through

 a warp (vertical fibre).

Wall displays flax in transformation to a linen fibre and fabric,. Experiments with bleach to produce lighter fabric using one teaspoon or bleach  or the juice of a whole lemon steeped over a week. Plus woven, knitted and naturally dyed samples.

Linum usitatissimum, collected by Allan Octavian Hume in 1903
in West kent. Cyanotype print made by Zoë Burt from this herbarium specimen.
1878, Wickham Mills Essex 
label states from cultivated fields


 1871, Coombe fields, Croydon


1878, Weybridge Surrey

1906, Cottenham Park Surrey


The library at
 The South London Botanical Institute

The herbarium



http://www.slbi.org.uk
http://herbariaunited.org