Flaxperiments part 1


For the last month or so, much of my fibre conversation has been about flax. This is partly due to a friend spinning and weaving some wonderful linen fabric, partly due to Berta’s Flax, and partly due to me buying flax seeds on a semi-whim last year and planting them this year. With all this talk of flax, I thought I’d better learn to spin it.

I have spun a little flax in the past, but not really enough to fully understand how it works. I read the flax issue of the excellent PLY magazine, and as much as I could find in the Berta’s Flax facebook group and elsewhere online. In my reading I came across lots of rules, lots of ‘you must’s and ‘you should’s. Now 99% of the time someone says ‘you must’ when talking about something to do with spinning, they are wrong and I ignore them. Sure, there are some things that are highly advisable due to ergonomics/body posture/injury prevention, and some that are recommended for practical reasons, for example spinning short fibres using a longdraw method…while a short forward draw might be possible, it would be incredibly slow and tedious. These sorts of things, explained with a clear reason as to why you ‘should’ do something a certain way are fine. The rest of the time though? Telling me I ‘should’ or ‘must’ do something without any reason? This will normally result in me saying ‘why? why can’t I do it any other way? what will happen? well I’m gonna do it that way anyway and you can’t stop me.’ With flax there seem to be lots of ‘rules’ with either no explanation, or very suspicious sounding explanations, so I decided to spin some samples to try and find out whether they are simply old wives tales or whether there’s any truth at all in them.

Direction of twist

This is probably the most common, and most varied rule I’ve come across. When spinning there are two possible directions in which you can twist the fibres, either clockwise (Z), or anticlockwise (S). In the modern western world the tradition is generally to spin Z and ply S, although yarn for crochet is sometimes done the opposite way. When referring to flax I’ve seen the ‘rule’ variously stated as:

– flax needs to be spun S
– all bast fibres need to be spun S
– all plant fibres need to be spun S
– flax needs to be spun S and hemp needs to be spun Z
– flax grown in the northern hemisphere needs to be spun S, southern hemisphere Z

The reasoning behind this is apparently that as it grows the plant twists to follow the path of the sun, and thus the fibres end up with a natural spiral in the S direction. Spinning should therefore be done in this direction because… and this is where the explanations are never hugely clear. Perhaps the fibres are meant to mesh together better? or maybe it’s just a waste of twist energy to remove it before spinning the other way? I do know that many archaeological finds and museum pieces of linen dating back over the centuries have Z spun yarns, so it’s clearly not essential for an item’s longevity. Upon examining flax fibres under my own microscope, and looking at better quality pictures online I cannot make out any twist (unlike with cotton, whose fibres are noticeably flat and spirally). Perhaps the twist is at a macroscopic level, but it is not evident in the strick or top I have, and I am not sure that a very slight spiralling would make any difference to which way the fibres should be spun. The few experienced flax spinners I’ve spoken to have all said that in their experience it makes no difference which way flax is spun. As for the different spiralling direction in the northern and southern hemispheres? I am afraid I’m unable to visualise the difference in the sun’s path across the sky to figure out whether it’s even possible that this is true.

Using water

Almost all sources agree that flax should be spun wet for a smooth yarn, and this has certainly been done historically at least since the invention of the spinning wheel, as flax wheels often have a little bowl for the spinner to put water in so she can wet her fingers as she works. There is some evidence that flax was spun wet as far back as ancient Egpyt. There is a little debate about exactly where the water should be introduced. Some sources say simply wrapping the fibre in a damp towel is sufficient, whereas others say the water needs to be added exactly at the point of twist, and if added after this point any smoothness is only temporary and will go away upon wet finishing, leaving a yarn as hairy as if no water had been used at all. If water is introduced too early, it makes drafting difficult. The reasoning behind this rule is often omitted, I’ve seen it claimed that flax has a natural ‘glue’ on it which this water awakens, I’ve seen people say this ‘glue’ is pectin, but I thought the pectin was all removed during the retting process. I’ve also seen people say that it just helps bring the fibres together to allow the loose ends to be incorporated into the yarn, which makes most sense if the exact point of water addition is critical; I’d have thought if some sort of glueing was going on then it would care less about where the twist was, and any effects would be negated after the long boiling process that is normally done while wet finishing.

The sampling
(click any of the images to bring up a hi-res version)

I have some of the beautiful flax stricks from Berta’s Flax, from a woman named Maria who is 90 years old.


She has carefully looked after this flax from her dowry chest for decades, and while I do want to spin it and not just hoard it away for decades more, I want to do it justice, so my experiments are on readily available commercially processed flax top. While the base fibre is the same, flax top and line flax (strick) are very different. Line flax has a very long staple length of a foot or more, all the seconds (tow) have been removed during the processing, leaving only the longest fibres. Flax top is processed on the same machines that are used to process wool, and while some of the tow is removed, all the fibres are far shorter, in the range of 3 inches. This makes it both easier to spin for beginners as you don’t need to wrangle a distaff to control the very long staple length, and can work with your hands close together like for wool, but harder to get a fine even yarn as there are lots of shorter parts and clumpy bits, and it’s slow going. The stuff I have also happens to have been bleached.

In spinning my samples I decided to not worry too much about consistency. I pulled out any really large clumps from the top, but if the odd one got through, or if a part got thinner than I expected I didn’t worry about fixing it.

My samples are as follows.

1) Spun dry, Z twist

This yarn was spun with a modified short forward draw, allowing a little twist into the drafting zone to allow for a longer and faster draft. The yarn is very hairy, and fairly weak. I was able to wind it onto a niddy noddy without breaks, but had a couple when I tried to unwind a strand for my records without undoing the skein ties. None of the other samples broke when I did this.

2) Water added after point of twist, Z twist

This yarn was spun with a shorter draw and less twist in the drafting zone than the first yarn, with the fingertips of my drafting hand wetted. The twist was introduced to the yarn in the drafting zone, and water just beyond this. Every few inches I also ran my hand up and down the yarn to ensure it was evenly dampened.

3) Water added at point of twist, Z twist

This yarn was spun using a traditional short forward draw with no twist in the drafting zone, and wetted fingertips of the drafting hand introducing water at the point of twist. It was a very slow process due to the short staple length of the top.

4) Water added at point of twist, S twist

This yarn was spun exactly the same as above, except with twist in the opposite direction

5) commercial linen yarn

13nm bleached linen thread, no idea of supplier I’m afraid!

Thoughts so far

I’m not ready for conclusions yet, as the yarns have not been wet finished. I plan to boil them for an hour, and if the water is dirty after that, to add washing soda and boil some more.

So far though the dry spun yarn is far far fluffier and weaker than the other three. The ones with water added at point of twist seem slightly smoother than the other, but this may not be a fair comparison as the other was finished a few days before so has been subject to more abrasion being dumped in my knitting basket and played with from time to time.

And wow! the microscope makes even smooth-seeming yarns look fluffy!

There is no noticeable difference between the S and Z spun yarns.

Clicky for part 2

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