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Spinning flax

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Wild Fibres natural fibres > plant fibres > flax > grow flax > spinning flax

Spinning Flax Fibre

a) Making a cone distaff (in preparation)
b) Dressing a flax distaff (opens a new page)
c) Spinning flax from a distaff (in preparation)

b) Dressing a flax distaff

You will find it much easier to spin flax from a well-dressed distaff but it takes time to dress the distaff properly. Depending on how much flax you are using, it can take from 20 to 40 minutes to dress the distaff, so make sure you are not going to be interrupted half-way through. Before you dress the distaff you need to prepare the strick and spread the flax. There are several ways of spreading the flax, and several shapes of distaff. Here you will find instructions for fanning the flax to dress a cone distaff. I learnt how to dress a distaff from Diane Wood and Ann Cooper.

i) Prepare the flax strick
ii) Choose the most suitable method
iii) Fan the flax
iv) Dress the distaff

i) Prepare the flax strick
Before you start, have a look at the strick. You will find that one end is thicker than the other. The root end is the thick end. If you cannot find the root end, don’t worry, it does not matter too much.

Do not use the whole strick at once, as it is too much. Instead, split a finger of flax (25 to 50 grams) from the strick.

It is best to gently hackle the finger of flax once more, just before dressing the distaff. If you don’t have a fine hackle you can comb it with a dog comb, starting close to one end and going towards the middle (a bit like untangling long hair), then starting at the other end and meeting in the middle. This final combing is very important, do not be tempted to miss this step.

ii) Choose the most suitable method (see A, B & C below)
Follow the instructions below carefully. You may find it useful to refer to the instructions every time you dress a distaff. You will need a long ribbon in a slippery material (about three metres long and 2.5 cm wide). Read the instructions below and then decide if you are going to fan the flax on a table, on the floor or on your lap.

A) On your lap
You will find it much easier to see the flax if you wear a dark coloured apron. Open your legs wide under the apron to provide a supporting surface for the flax. Fanning the flax on your lap is more professional and looks good at a demonstration however it can be a bit tricky to take the fanned flax from your lap to the distaff.

B) On a table
If you are a beginner you may find it easier to fan the flax on a large rectangular table and then just roll the distaff over the fanned flax.

C) On the floor
When there are no rectangular tables available you can fan the flax on the floor, however this can be hard on the back. You will need a cushion under your knees. Again, when you finish, you can roll the distaff over the fanned flax.

If you have decided to fan the flax on your lap or on a table, first tie the long ribbon round your waist by placing the centre of the ribbon against your stomach and the two ends at the back. Then pass the two ends round the back and bring them to the front. Tie the two ends in a bow knot. Use the loops of the bow to tie the root end of the strick (the thicker end) to your waist. The tie can be from 10 to 30 cm from the very end of the strick, depending on how well the strick was prepared. You will now look as if you have a horse’s tail coming from your front! Tuck the root end out of the way under the ribbon.

If you are fanning the flax on the floor, put a cushion on the floor and kneel on it. Instead of tying the ribbon to your waist, tie a ribbon to the end of your strick and tuck it under the cushion. Fan the flax as described below, but do it on the floor in front of you.

iii) Fan the flax
You will be spreading the flax fibres in a fan shape in front of you, but the fan-shape will be more than 180 degrees (up to 240 degrees).

1. Start with the strick on your left side and hold it loosely in the middle with your right hand.

2. Slowly move the strick in an arc to your right side, with your right hand leading the way. At the same time use your left hand to pull out a very fine layer of fibres (a few fibres at a time) as you move the strick with your right hand. Pat them down with the palm of your left hand. The hand that is patting down the strick creates resistance, which helps to pull fibres out of the strick. The trailing hand anchors the fibres as the leading hand drags the bundle around the arc.

3. When the strick reaches your right side, turn it over and hold it with the left hand.  The left hand then leads the way whilst the right hand pats down the anchored fibres. You always draw from the same edge (the trailing edge, not the leading edge as you might expect), this is why you turn the strick over at the end of the fan. To make it easier at change over time, lift the strick upwards, just before turning the strick round.

4. Make gossamer thin layers on each pass, adding layer upon layer. This is why it takes some time to fan the flax. You are aiming for a criss-crossing of the fibres; the flax should not form straight lines. This makes it much easier to spin as you will not encounter clumps of fibre when you draft. Fan slowly and carefully all the way along the strick, not just the ends.

5. Make sure you go all the way up and down the strick, leaving no ‘nests’. Your arms are probably not long enough to reach all the way to the tip of the strick, so gently flick the tip to tease the fibres apart. If the fibres clump, stop and open them up. Remove any knots.

6. When you have finished fanning the flax, undo the knot at your waist and on the flax, and then dress the distaff as explained below.

iv) Dress the distaff
Place the tip of distaff against the point in the fan where the ribbon was tied. Carefully arrange the fanned flax around the distaff like a wrap round skirt, with about 180 degrees of overlap. [If you were fanning the flax on your lap you will need to carry the fanned flax to the distaff, and wrap the flax around the distaff.]

Fold the ribbon in half, and make a slip knot through the middle. Tie the knot once or twice very close to the tip of the distaff. Criss-cross the ribbon first away, then towards you. Tie a bow knot at the end. The ribbon needs to be tight enough, but not too tight, if it is too tight the fibres will not slide easily. If your distaff is hollow, tuck the bottom of the flax skirt under it.

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Last updated on 31 January 2017
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