Thursday, November 22, 2012

Flax to Linen to Threads in the Garden

Linen has to be my favourite plant fibre for zillions of reasons and for years I have been in awe with this wonderful bast fibre.  The tiny flax seeds will grow into long stalks of up to 1.5 meters with beautiful blue, violet or white flowers that will follow the sun's direction and close up at night. What I revere the most though is the devotion one gives to the processing by hand of such fibre before it can be spun into linen threads.

When ready, the plants need to be collected and hung to dry.  Next the seeds are removed - a step called "rippling" - and saved for next year's crop. After the stalks are rippled, they are bundled and prepared for "retting" - a rotting process that breaks the outer coating of the plants.

Once the retting is done the fibres are dried again before the stalks are first broken to separate the bast fibres from the inner core of the plants, and then scraped to remove the remaining straw off the stalks - a process called "scutching".  The breaking can be done by hand, though a tool such as the "flax brake" quickly becomes handy, while the scutching is done with a wooden knife and scraper.  One last step before the fibres are spinnable and that is "hackling" - the combing of the fibres through finer and finer hackles (different sizes of comb). The hackling process releases the spinnable fibres and it usually takes several passes to produce a good spinning fibre.

I don't know too many people who grow flax themselves - let alone spin it into linen.  A few years ago, I came across The Linen Project - a regional initiative in Victoria - now regrouped under Flax to Linen. It was then that I scutched and hackled some fibres while getting a better understanding of what it really means to process bast fibres.

More recently, I was delighted to meet Julia Ostertag, PhD candidate at UBC. As part of her research project, Julia grew flax this past season, processed it into striks and learned to spin her own linen. Julia's devotion to her bast fibre is inspirational and I am pleased that she invited me to assist her with her spinning and workshop.  It is not every day that one gets to spin local flax into linen - it is rather an honour!

The spinning is part of Julia's research - "an art and garden-based exploration into the history and contemporary practices of school gardening to better understand the relationships between land and teaching".

The public is invited to view Julia's installation and participate in her research process. To read more about Julia's project visit The Orchard Garden.

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