Spinning Straw into Gold: Creating Linen Thread

There is a lot of preparation necessary before flax fiber is ready to be spun – the breaking, scraping, and hackling are all designed to give you long, straight fibers that are neatly arranged into a bundle and ready to be spun into thin, beautiful thread. Once you reach the stage of spinning, though, the only real consideration is keeping those fibers carefully arranged, so that they are easy to pull out and spin, and keeping the fibers moist while you spin, so that the threads stay smooth and easy to manage.

The Distaff and Why You want to Use One

Preparing flax for spinning is *all* about getting the fibers clean and aligned. The challenge with spinning is to pull the fibers from the strick, the bundle of organized fibers, without tangling them. Tying them on a distaff makes it much easier to pull just a few strands at a time, in order to spin a fine, smooth thread. There are a multitude of different types of distaffs, so it is often just a matter of finding the type you find most comfortable to use, as you sit down (or not – some people prefer to spin as they are moving around) to spin. Here is a brief survey of the types of distaffs available, so that you can make a preliminary decision.

Freestanding Distaffs

Freestanding distaffs can range anywhere from a simple pole with feet at the base to a cone or large basket mounted on a pole. One of their advantages is that they can be placed as close to or far from the spinner as might be needed to allow for drafting out the full staple of the flax before more is pulled out, making the resulting thread much easier to spin smoothly. One of the disadvantages of a freestanding distaff on the other hand, is that it limits the ability of the spinner to move around and adds to the footprint needed by the spinner for spinning.

Wheel-mounted Distaffs

A wheel-mounted distaff is usually rather short, and attached to one side of the flyer arm. It is designed to put the fiber off to one side, and slightly above, the wheel’s orifice. This arrangement is good at limiting the space a spinner will occupy, but it has the disadvantage of not moving the fiber far enough away from the wheel. Drafting out fiber can be challenging, as the spinner is too close to the wheel orifice to make it possible to draft out the full length of the fiber’s staple.

Belt Distaffs

These distaffs are great for those who like to spin while they are moving around. The distaff’s lower end (~5-7 inches) is inserted through a belt at the waist and rests against the hipbone, so that the upper part of the distaff leans against the non-dominant shoulder with the bulk of the fiber above the spinner’s head. This allows the spinner to draft out fiber easily, while walking, bending or working on chores that don’t require constant use of the hands.

Handheld Distaffs

These distaffs (often 18″ – 22″ long) are useful for shorter line flax — line flax that might be less than 36″ long — as well as for rovings of tow flax. The hand holding the distaff also helps manage the drafting zone of the thread from time to time.

Other Ways to Manage Flax for Spinning

Using a distaff, as such, is not strictly necessary for spinning flax, so long as the organized flax fibers can be easily controlled and drafted into the thread while spinning. This can also be accomplished by laying a towel in your lap, and wrapping the strick in the towel, leaving the last few inches exposed. Alternatively, you can tie the hackled strick at your back waist, and draw the fibers over your shoulder, using your body as a distaff, as it were. There are even wrist distaffs that allow you to wrap the fiber around the wrist of your non-dominant hand and draft out the fiber you need as you spin with the dominant hand. Any way that lets you comfortably control the flax is viable in the end.

Dressing the Distaff

To “dress” the distaff is to attach the flax to the distaff in a way that secures it for drafting and spinning. There are as many different types of tops available to put at the top of a distaff as there are styles of distaff.

Straight Distaffs

A straight distaff requires some sort of smooth ribbon — approximately 2 to 3 yards — with a loop slipknot in the center. Use this slipknot to loop over the bundle of flax and the upper end of the distaff (often a knob) and tighten it enough so that the flax will slide out as it is gently tugged on. Criss-cross the ribbon back and forth around the flax and distaff, down to the lower end of the mass, then tie the ribbons so that the lower 4″-6″ of the fibers are easily reached for adding to the thread while spinning.

Comb Distaffs

These distaffs spread out the bundle of flax — a good way to ad-lib a comb distaff would be to insert s broom into a Christmas tree stand so that it stands with the broom end upright. Again, using a smooth ribbon, loop around the top mass, leaving some space below the broad part of the distaff, before criss-crossing the ribbon around the lower part of the flax and distaff. Once again, tie at the bottom leaving 4″-6″ of fiber free for incorporating into the spinning. Yet another type of distaff, the Cage Distaff, looks much like a small birdcage stuck onto the end of a pole, and have much the same intent as a comb distaff – spreading the fibers out for easy drawing from the strick into the spinning.

Short Fibers

Often you will have fibers that are shorter than full line flax that need organizing and spinning. These fibers can still be spun from a distaff, but may take a bit more organizing than those on the other styles of distaff mentioned. One way is to rehackle the bundles of shorter fibers, then lay them side-by-side on a towel. Wrap this towel onto a shorter distaff, such as a belt or hand distaff, tie on gently but firmly, and use like any longer fibers from other distaffs.

Spinning fibers

There are several different types of spinning fibers available from flax, each with its own characteristics for spinning. One feature is fairly universal: keeping the fibers damp while spinning helps you to get a smoother thread, as there is a natural gum or glue that will help stick the individual fibers together more securely if they are spun damp.

Here is a short overview of the fiber possibilities.

Line flax

Line flax fibers are the long, smooth fibers that you have processed through your break and hackles. These are the fibers on your distaff, and they are likely to average 30″ or so in length. This is easy to spin, so long as you account for that length. Line flax doesn’t need much twist to hold the thread together, and it can be taken up quickly on a wheel. If you spin it on a spindle, it will need more weight than you might be used to with a wool thread of a comparable size, and it will need a long shaft, thicker than normal, to keep the spindle stable for any sort of extended spinning. Flax fiber is stiffer than wool, and will need a firmer twist and more speed to keep the spindle spinning than you might be used to. You may find rolling the shaft of your spindle down your leg is much more effective for getting a long spin from the spindle.

Tow flax

Tow flax is the dregs and noils of your processing, the pieces that are left in the hackles when you have the line flax finished. Tow, by its very nature, has an irregular staple length and is of variable quality, to put it kindly. It’s usually coarse and stiff, but if you can sort out the fibers by length, you can card it into rolags and spin quite nice, attractive thread from it. You will want to spin thin threads — thicker yarns will be tricky, given the texture of the fibers. Spinning it damp, as with all flax, makes the fibers much easier to smooth out and control. If you don’t want to spin directly from the rolag, you can roll several into a towel and tie that to a distaff. This is an easy way to control the rolags, and keep them from getting damp before you actually spin from them.

Flax sliver

Flax sliver usually comes in a staple length of 3″ to 7″ — there is a shorter form that has a staple of only 1″, but that is rarely available to the hand spinner, as it is intended for the mechanized spinning market, and is processed on machines originally used for spinning cotton. The 3″ to 7″ sliver, by contrast, is processed on carding and spinning machines that are usually used for wool fibers. If the fibers have been combed and have a smooth, consistent staple, this type of fiber is called “top”. If it is more random, and has a variable staple, it is sliver. Spinning, it resembles wool in some ways due to the staple length, but the texture will be stiffer, and it is best spun as a thin thread. Treat it as a worsted thread, and keep all of the twist ahead of the hand you are using to control the twist.

Spinning tools

Just as there are many different distaffs and several different forms of fiber that you might find yourself playing with, there are also different tools you might use when you are spinning. The normal choice is between a spinning wheel and a spindle, but there are differences between what you may be used to from spinning wool and what you will use when spinning flax.

Spinning on Wheels

All for forms of flax can be spun on wheels, but each will require a different set-up on the wheel. Line flax requires little twist on the fiber, and will need to have a faster take-up. Tow will need more twist, due to its shorter staple, and is best spun with a short, worsted draft. Be careful to keep the thread smooth, as the loops that might form with a longer, woolen draft will have a tendency to snag. Sliver, too, needs a short worsted draw, and careful attention to keep the thread smooth. All three types should be spun damp — more on that, below.

Spinning with hand spindles

Flax can easily be spun on a hand spindle, but the stiffness of the fiber resists twisting, so a heavier spindle is usually needed than what you would normally expect for the size of the thread. You will also want to use a longer spindle than you might with wool, as you will need the extra length to produce a stable (i.e. non-wobbly) spin with the spindle. You may even find that having two whorls are needed to give you the weight you want.

Wet Spinning

No matter what you are spinning with, you will probably find that you will get a smoother, better thread if you keep the fibers moist, so that they are more likely to stick together. With long fibers on a wheel, you will probably want to have a small bowl of water nearby, so that you can regularly dip your fingers into it.  With shorter fibers, you may need to work out the best arrangement for controlling how damp the fibers get before you actually incorporate them into your spinning. Allowing them to get damp too quickly may result in a thick, lumpy thread.

This is just a brief overview of all of the details you need to consider as you start to spin flax. Even an experienced wool spinner will find switching to flax to be a challenge at first. However, keep practicing and you will find it gets easier and easier to control every time.

A good book to consult, in addition to the ones listed on the Flax Preparation page is :

Gaustad, Stephanie (2014), The Practical Spinner’s Guide: Cotton, Flax, Hemp, Loveland, CO: Interweave Press, 159 pp., ISBN: 978-1-59688-669-4. An excellent overview of spinning flax by an experienced and well-regarded spinner. I have learned a lot from this book, and have based many of my comments here on what I learned there.

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