These days the farm is looking like this, wintery and frozen, and staying indoors and processing flax feels right and makes sense. On days like this I get why, back in the day, linen processing on farms was done during the winter months.
In today's blog I'm going to cover the process of separating linen from flax plants.
Getting linen from flax involves a bacterial breakdown of the flax plant and a three stage process of breaking and separating plant residue from the fibers. Cotton's dominance as a textile eclipsed linen as a staple textile mainly because it is easier to prepare cotton for spinning than a bunch of flax sticks.
The tools for doing this breaking and separating still exist and are most actively used by historical re-enactment museums. We have been experimenting with these tools to get a feel for the fibers and learn more about this age old practice. We are working towards to using the break, scutching board and hackles as the backbone for a more mechanized system.
I wanted to show these tools and describe how we work with them. Next week we'll talk about the retting process, the step that precedes today's show and tell.
The first tool is the break – shown in last week's video – it breaks the shiv or dried plant stem.
Next, the loosened fiber is scutched, by hitting the fibers in a downwards and removing the large broken pieces of stem.
Finally, the fiber is passed through the hackles, closely fixed nails or spikes, which do a final clean of plant material and line up the fibers.
We have 3 sets of hackles, that progressively clean and refine the fibers.
Now the fiber is ready to be spun. As you can see there are a lot of steps and techniques to master in order to get just the right quality of fiber --- I like to think of it as learning how to be Goldilocks, refining my feel for the fiber so that I get it juuuust right.
Linen, despite being labor intensive, is valued for its durability and finesse. It has a special quality so that it actually improves with wear – the fibers becoming stronger and softer the more it is worn. There are days when I'm down in the greenhouse breaking and scutching that I feel like Rumpelstiltskin, turning a giant pile of straw into beautiful, soft, golden fibers that will someday be someone's shirt or hankie or tablecloth.
Linen fibers have a super long history of use by humans, and a key role in the development of global trade and the colonized world. Linen is made up of bast fibers; they are the long, strong strings that run from the base of the flax plant to the top. Linen flax, hemp and jute are all bast fiber plants, and have been used for ages for rope, cloth and paper. Imagine, 300 years ago a world without bast fibers for rope and sails, it would have been a much smaller and much more limited time.
I have come to appreciate, in handling flax and linen fibers on a daily basis, what high tensile strength feels like. You'll see, in this video Justine shot yesterday afternoon, that 'braking' the plants in order to separate the fibers from the rest of the plant material is a pretty forceful activity. I hadn't really realized it myself until watching this video. The result of this part of the process is a good sized handful of the long and strong fibers that we want for spinning and for fabric. The longer the strands, the finer the fabric, this is because the more ends you have meeting up, the bulkier the thread.
Stay tuned to see what final product we are working towards for Christmas!
In last week's blog post I touched on the topic of sustainable apparel, and I wanted to take a few moments to talk more about the 'why' of linen as a farm product at Taproot. Not only is food purchasing a choice about the kinds of farms and rural communities we want to support, but the textiles we use have an impact on the lives of the people that produce them and the environment we leave in their wake.
Fast fashion is a phenomenon that has accelerated over the last 10 years with the overflow of stylish, inexpensive and cheaply made clothing produced by companies like Walmart, H&M, Joe Fresh – to name a few. Not only are the labor practices in this industry brutal but the volume of manufacturing and post-consumer waste is gross. The desire to wear trendy, provocative garments is co-dependent on an industry that generates new looks for every season – believe me, I know the clothing crush well.
A sustainable fashion and fiber industry has gained momentum because of awareness raising about the impact our choices in this sector. The Atlantic Natural Fiber and Dye Industry Association is particularly interested in renewable fibers which can grow in more northerly climates. Hemp, wool and flax are durable and versatile and there is a market potential for their by-products. Flax is used more and more in the automotive industry for interior paneling, for bedding on farms, as a food source and for fiber.
Obviously, all of this is exciting and cool. Imagine tying up your garden tomatoes with locally made rope. Imagine padding around the kitchen in a linen nightie made in Nova Scotia.
At Taproot our desire to foster sustainable rural economies means that when we fall in love with a project we also think about how we can make it work. It means scaling production so that it makes sense, and developing a line of products that are feasible but also useful and have verve!
Stay tuned for our weekly flax updates to learn more about our exploration of the tradition of linen production and the development of our products.
Early in October Trish invited me to come on board the Taproot team to work on the farm's latest endeavor. Producing linen from flax is a practice we humans have done for thousands of years, but in the last 100 years cotton and synthetic fibers have taken up most of market share and techniques in textile production. We are lucky to have a climate in Nova Scotia that is very suitable to flax growing; long cool spring days allow for tall plants to develop before they start to head up into flower in early July. Our history shows that we have great growing conditions for quality linen flax; 100 years ago counties in NS rivaled Ireland in terms of flax yield and most every farm had their own plot of flax for home use.
By producing fiber and textiles locally, with locally grown materials suitable to this climate we are responding to the harsh impact that fast fashion and disposable synthetic-based clothing have, and that they have become a total norm in mainstream apparel. I know that when I buy a hand made item my inner accountant nods approval despite the higher price because a) I'm buying something that directly contributes to a better quality of life for the folks that produced it and b) because I take better care of things that have a unique story and I paid a little more for.
Down on the farm all of this talk looks like a big pile of flax in various stages of being processed.
We are drying freshly harvest flax, and undertaking the age old practices of separating the fibers from the plant material. I've begun a series of trials for the processing and will be posting updates on our facebook site. Keep your eyes peeled! Send us a picture of your grandma's old linen hanky! Shop local!