It’s said that the first automated spinning machine helped kick start the industrial revolution. The practice of spinning fibers itself came from a rudimentary toolset such as a stick and a small weighty rock that was invented independently all over the world as separate cultures birthed their own thread spinning traditions. And this simple act of spinning, spinning, and spinning fibers, over and over made clothes, bags, and sails for ships to launch out to sea, which using a non-automated spinning wheel would take around 4 and a half years to spin. Flax is believed to be one of the absolute earliest cultivated plants and one used for its fiber. But in order for the world to hop on the back of flax to fully spin out of control it needed fermentation to carry it from plant to fiber, from flax to linen.
In growing habit flax is a cooler weather loving plant so is often sown in the spring in Western Pennsylvania. It has thin strong stalks that reach maybe around 3’ or so. They can be broadcast but doesn’t compete well with weeds. Flax grown for fibers are sown close together to discourage the plant from branching. Conversely if it’s the oil-rich seeds that are desired, give em a little more space. After around 100 days the plant begins to yellow (round mid-July) and the plants are pulled, by hand, with root and all to maximize the fiber length.
The stalks are laid out to dry for a few weeks (after which threshing can occur to save or obtain the little flax seeds by carefully whacking the stalks). And now things start getting good and rotten.
Next comes the stage of retting. Linen is a bast fiber meaning that the fibers are collected at the phloem, or inner bark, part of the stem. Incidentally the xylem (outer woody part) and phloem are bundled together by pectin which need broken down to separate out the desired fibers.
The word retting is thought to originate from rot, our dear friend to fermentation. A prolonged saturation of the plant causes the cells around the phloem to burst which in turn invites microbes to come and work on the carbohydrate-based pectin, and this action frees the cellulose fibers from its woody stalk.
Attention must be taken at this stage as under-retting won’t cause proper separation, and over-retting can disintegrate the fibers. Verifying success comes through testing to see if when you break the stalk you see the fibers separated.
There are several methods to ret. The first is dew retting where the flax is simply laid in thin layers on the grass to rot with the accumulated morning dew, dry out during the day, and repeat. This can take a while, upwards of a few months and produces a darker gray color.
Another way is to submerge the dried flax plants in a pond or stream weighed down possibly by rocks. On a large enough scale this method has been trouble for fish and has led to various bans of it overtime. It’s much quicker, taking maybe a week and a half or so and produces a more blonde color.
The way we chose for our trials, and by far the stinkiest is by submerging the fibers into a stagnant pool. This was done in a large tub. And since we used just hose water, we also dumped a cupful of pond water in as a sort of starter culture to ensure some microbial activity. With a lid on top to keep the water from evaporating in the summer sun the smell was horrendous and beautiful. It took about a week and then the stalks were taken out and dried again.
At this point the dried stalks are ready to be broken and shattered which should free the long thin fibers from the woody parts of the plant. It’s quite magical to watch the beautiful blonde fibers released from the bondage of their wooden cell. This is also a step we might save for another time, and instead shove the prepared stalks into the basement to await a winter day when there’s more free time to complete the process.
All the steps to processing hereafter are involved enough themselves and perhaps too much to go into here. We took on flax growing a few years ago and tackle it as a project to gradually develop. A couple years later and finally this winter we got to find out what spinning was all about. For that we took a handmade ceramic fermentation weight that happened to have a hole through the middle and jammed a dowel rod into it, then bent a nail at the one end to act as a hook. The pros recommend a cd and dowel rod to get started. And clumsily off we go to spin, spin, and spin, to cherish the perspective replaced by a now automated process that is mostly taken for granted.