Madder

Madder is one of those incredibly historic dyes that shows up in samples from many archaeological digs all over the world in some form or other,  from Peru in  South America  to Cairo in Egypt to Gujarat in India. It’s often thought to be one of the oldest plant dyes known

Rubia tinctorium and Rubia cordifolia  are the usual botanical names but various species are known by lots of different names, and  they are related to plants such as Lady’s Bedstraw and Cleavers which contain the same colourings although in a much lesser quantity.

Madder leaves

I’ve been fascinated to learn more about this precious resource and find out more about the range of colours/shades/tones that can be produced from this rather uninspiring creeping plant, or at least its roots

Freshly dug roots

It takes about three years for the roots to grow to a good size and are harvested carefully, they break easily and each small piece is capable or growing again, so it is considered a bit of a weed in many places although perhaps in agricultural terms a boon.
The leaves and stalks are full of tiny prickles and can cause allergic reactions in some people. Uprooting can happen at almost anytime, but early autumn is popular as the leaves die back and allow easier access to the roots.

The fine roots are left to dry a few days, then the soil is brushed off and then the roots are washed to remove as much remaining debris as possible

I’ve found it best to cut the roots into small pieces at this stage as when properly dry they become very hard. Madder  has a tendency to go mouldy quite easily so the  root pieces should be dried  as soon as possible, in the sun would be ideal, but in a very low temperature fan oven works very well, turning the pieces often, and when cool stored in a jar where they should keep many years. There is  an understanding that  well aged madder gives better reds, but I’ve obtained great colours from fairly fresh harvests

But now it’s time to dye, Madder contains a range of active ingredients but the chief one is alizarin and can with careful dyeing produce colours from pale pinks and peaches through tans and oranges to tomato reds and bright reds to almost dark maroons and grey purples.
It can be very temperamental to work with  with many factors affecting the colour responses, for example , pH values  – acid to alkali,  to heating for too long or too high,  for hard or soft water, for short or long soaking, for fast work or long slow fermentation. That is part of the frustration but also the magic with many natural dyes, I suspect the charm is in the challenge for the dyer, certainly for me.

I’ve worked with madder on wool in lots of different ways, but a usual ( and almost guaranteed to get some good colours) method  follows.

The wool should be mordanted first using about 15% – 20% potash alum to weight of dry fibre  this is a little higher than for usual mordanting, but the madder needs it to get a full depth of colour. Dissolve the alum in some hot water, add to the pot with plenty of extra water, add the scoured  and skeined yarn and simmer gently for about an hour or so, leave to cool in the pot overnight, I’ve found that removing the skein and allowing it to dry for a few days, or weeks if possible works well, but remember to rinse and soak the skein before any dyeing.
Use about 150% dried root to dry weight of yarn and about  5% Calcium carbonate, madder appreciates hard water.
Soak the wool in clean water for a least an hour or overnight is ideal
Scald the madder roots  and let sit a minute, drain the liquid, and repeat.This liquid will be quite orange, it can be used  to make peaches and light colours, but it is worthwhile to remove the “orange”  dye if you are trying to get  a “redder” colour range. 
This stage isn’t essential but it does seem to speed up the dyeing process.
Put the roots in a large pan with the calcium carbonate and plenty of water, heat very gently for about 30  mins and  the colour will start to bleed out. I add the yarn at this stage, but some prefer to strain the roots off, put them in a net and then replace in the pan, but I find that the pieces of root  don’t tend to stick to the yarn and are easily removed at the end of the dyeing.
Allow to  stay warm for a few hours, very gentle heat is better, but don’t let it get above a simmer and below is ideal. Higher temperatures kill the red and  give browns, perfectly good colours but not the sought after madder oranges and reds.
  I let the yarn sit in the pot overnight, making sure that it is well covered with extra water if needed.
Check the colour next day, if  not deep enough  you can warm for another 3 – 5 hours, this can be repeated for many days and the colour will gradually increase. It is also possible just to let the pot sit for a few weeks without heat , to allow the madder to ferment, this is a good way to get decent reds in a very economic way.
If the yarn still has an orange tint you can rinse the skein in a low alkali solution – I use ammonia or washing soda, but be careful to limit this as it will begin to breakdown the wool if exposed to a strong  solution or for too long, and always make sure it will well rinsed. If things go to plan you should see a gentle change of tone to a cleaner red and less yellow colour.
Conversely  if you give the skein an acid rinse  – vinegar to citric acid – more yellow will show.
You can put the  skein back in the dye pot for deeper colours if wished.
Allow the skein to dry overnight or longer, without rinsing , this seems to help the madder to set properly on the fibres.

This is a  good basic way of dyeing with madder , but there are lots of variations possible and every dyer has their own pet methods.

A few key things to remember, madder doesn’t like to get too hot, it prefers a slightly alkali environment and  it’s quite happy to  sit for a long time, in fact one of the best reds I’ve got was from a skein that  I had forgotten in a dye pot for about 4 weeks, and some people even work with cold madder dyeing over a month or so with excellent results.

fermented madder skein

Other things to note, the smaller the madder is ground the faster the  colouring, I’ve used finely ground or  finely chopped orcomplete roots with satisfactory results, but I find the ground dust is a little harder to wash out.
There are different grades of madder, usually from different parts to the world, some of my most reliable results have been  from Iranian madder pieces, but  my recent tests from London grown madder in school playgrounds has restored my faith in local fresh sources as well.

Modifying rinses is a great way of adjusting tones or tints of madder dyed fibre.
A short soak in an iron rich bath will sadden the original colour making it greyer or duller, with an additional alkali rinse madder colours can turn towards the purples.
Alkalis will make colours cleaner and often accentuate  any red
Acids will tend to warm up colours to a lighter or more golden hue.
Tannins will tend to make thing browner and in the presence of iron  grey to black shades are possible.

With any dyeing it is possible to redye , or to dye several times to enhance or enrich the colour, madder  works well this way, sometimes there is no need to re mordant, but another few days in a fresh dye bath can work well

Madder is a wonderful resource and worth taking time to investigate the incredible range of colours possible, for me wool offers the greatest range, but silk, linen, and cotton is worth a look as well. Cotton with madder needed a curious and very long dyeing process with perhaps over 25 different and subsequent stages, including oil, blood and dung to make the famous Turkey red much loved in India, I’m prepared to give that a miss, for the moment at least.

What makes a tartan ?

There is often debate about what a tartan actually is, and how it differs from a check , and certainly in America there is usually a misunderstanding about plaids,  checks, and tartans. Of course there are grey areas but essentially there is nothing between different them. A tartan is often defined as a pattern or cloth that has multiple stripes of different colours which cross at right angles forming a grid or network of lines and squares. A tartan does not need to recognised or registered by any authority to be known as such, and although it is most easily achieved through weaving, doesn’t even have to be realised on cloth.

No one really knows exactly when weaving first began, certainly many thousands of years BC, in many different parts of the world, but  we can speculate that once the process was mastered it would have been fairly easy to vary the cloth by adding stripes of different wools or different colours, if this was done on the warp threads as well as the weft, then  a series of grids and squares would naturally appear. Some of the earliest examples of  repeating woven patterns come from the Tarim mummies  from central Asia, north of Tibet, dating from about 2000 BC, and these were so expertly done one must imagine that the skill of weaving was already well advanced.

At its simplest  you could have two colours with equal spacing and you have the  basic tartan pattern, seen  in many  places, but a well known tartan  one is the Rob Roy tartan. Known in America as the Buffalo plaid – said to have been created there by the   Woolrich Mill in central Pennsylvania around 1856  but the idea of a simple repeating unit started a very long time before that. Gingham , which has the same design  although usually smaller squares dates from the early 17th century in England. Going back much further one of the first checked or tartan fabrics found in the United Kingdom; the Falkirk tartan is a perfect example of fine weaving in just two colours, both undyed but a dark brown and a creamy white from different sheep.

Taking the idea of different coloured  stripes and repeating them  with different widths, broad and narrow a whole new range of possibilities opens up, even with just the two colours. With the crossing of the stripes a third colour, a 50% mix of both  original colours appears. This is an important part of any woven  design and sets it apart from other printed designs.

Adding a third colour and suddenly a whole realm of patterns is unlocked, with two colours the overlap creates a third, with three colours  there are six total  options and with four colours you the get ten .

The idea that historically tartans were all named and represent families is  not true, the fabrics woven in Scotland were really produced from the local wools and dyes in each area and as the production of yarn and cloth was so labour intensive there would have been little choice other than to wear  the local fabric, which of course would most likely have been family based

Pictures and photos will follow

Local colours from local plants

Following on from an earlier post about collecting local plants and making dyes with them  for a Heritage Open Day, I’ve finished and created a show board

The finished hanging board

The list of plants used, I chose them because they could have been around 1000 years ago, there were dozens of others, but I have left them in the ground for another time

Alder bark Alnus 
Birch bark ‎Betula pendula
Coffee seeds Coffea
Hawthorn fruit Crataegus monogyna
Hawthorn bark Crataegus monogyna
Queen Annes Lace flower Daucus carota
Ash key Fraxinus excelsior
Ivy leaves leaves Hedera Helix
Lichen whole Lichen
Lichen and twigs whole Lichen
Cherry bark Prunus
Sloe fruit Prunus spinosa
Bracken brown leaves Pteridium
Oak galls Quercus
Oak wood Quercus
Bramble fruit Rubus
Bramble leaves Rubus
Dock brown seeds Rumex
Dock green seeds Rumex
Willow leaves Salix
Elder fruit Sambucus
Elder flower Sambucus
Comfrey leaves Symphytum officinale
Nettle leaves Urtica dioica

The blurb for the show board 

Wool comes in almost white, almost black, and a light brown, or combinations of, although they can be blended and mixed the colour range is very plain but with careful planing and design there are many permutations . Doubtless by chance the first stains and dyes were discovered which might have been nothing more than coloured earths, but it wasn’t long before leaves, flowers, and barks were used to create a great range of extra colours.

Northern
Europe doesn’t have a climate suitable for many of the plants of the
tropics,but even with the cooler climes a very worthwhile range of
shades and colours were found and used.

I’ve
chosen to work with some local plants within a small area roughly
centred on St. Johns and extending to the Hogsmill river, selecting
ones that are native and would have been known a thousand years ago,
and could well have been used to colour local wool. The wool sadly
isn’t local but a Shetland wool, and of a type which would have been
known then , spun thinly and plyed to make a fine yarn suitable for
weaving.

Some
of the wool was mordanted with “Alum”, a salt which helps dye
colours bind to the fibres leading to better longevity and fastness
but it’s not needed for every colour. Modifiers were also used
which alter the shade or tone of the colour. One modifier was simply
an iron cauldron, the iron acting to sadden the colour, generally
making it greyer, although only a small amount is needed as too much
can lead to degradation of the wool. The other modifier I used was
ammonia, this enhances the warmer colours, traditionally, aged urine
was used but I chose to use household cleaning grade instead.

This
means that for every plant there are at least three possible colour
variations. I’ve been careful about trying to use materials and
methods which would have been familiar to a Mediaeval dyer whose
sheep could even have been recorded in the Domesday book.

And I must add the watercolour painting that I first saw last year  in the display at the Church which gave me the idea of the dyeing project, just  and because  I noticed the sheep!

St Johns Church dated somewhere between 1847 and 1867, before the Victorian addition

Avocado dyeing

A year ago I saw some references to  avocados  giving a delicate pink colour without the use of any additional mordants, relying on the tannin  contained within the stone or skins, I was fascinated and  shortly gave it a test. There were several methods advocated , generally long soaks in water and ammonia mixes  perhaps for several months, or long simmering at low temperatures. I tried a few tests and was  a bit disappointed with the results, pale pinks but nothing that I thought I couldn’t have got with a little bit of exhaust cochineal, so the idea of using avocados didn’t last.

Fast forward about 9 months and I found an old large jar filled with avocado bits and  rather dark red liquid, so certainly worth  using with some yarn. I  made two small skeins of shetland wool, one alum mordanted and the other untreated, soaked them and pushed them into the jar making sure they were well covered and left them overnight, and indeed for a few days. The liquid didn’t feel soapy so I didn’t think there was much alkali left, but I didn’t check the pH.

By chance it was tricolore salad for supper, so I saved the skins and pits , washed to remove any flesh, smashed the pits, let them dry and the next day very slowly simmered them for about 8 hours or so, topping up with water as needed, and pleased to see a very strong colour appearing, almost as much as the 9 month jar.

Another day passed and  tests in the simmered dye bath proved positive for a good strong colour, and when put alongside the fermented bath showed a lot of similarities on the un mordanted skein , but the alum one was a much stronger colour  – not so much pink as a light brick red ( on the right of the picture)

With this revelation I decided it was certainly worth  using the  avocados for a little more research.

 

 

Local dyeing

St John’s Old Malden

For a local Heritage Day event, the sort that buildings are open to visitors to look around and explore, perhaps with a guide and with extra historical explanation, I decided that I would contribute to the local church’s one. Parts of it date back to Saxon times, but the bulk of it was  rebuilt around 1611, enlarged in Victorian times, and further enhanced  in early 2000’s. It is situated in a very pleasant churchyard with old graves and a few tombs, surrounded by meadows and fields. The grounds are carefully managed in a conservation way  with a good sprinkling of unusual and special native flowers and fauna. It sits just above the Hogsmill, a tributary of the Thames, it’s largest claim to fame is that it was the inspiration for “Ophelia” by Holman Hunt.

I had the idea that I would create a selection of dyed skeins of wool, showing the range of colours possible even within a small area. I decided that I would have three skeins of each, one as normally, and then the others modified, either with iron or with ammonia. These choices were historically correct, the iron “saddens” colours, making them greyer or darker, and the ammonia helps to make some colour brighter and changes other very dramatically but increasing the pH.Iron could have been introduced by dyeing in an iron pot, it takes very little to have an effect, and the ammonia could have been nothing more complicated than aged urine.

The iron  rinse was made by  keeping iron nails in a light vinegar solution for several months, cooking it up every so often, admittedly not  terribly scientific but it works, and the ammonia was simply a standard household cleaning product rather diluted.

There are lots of other modifiers around but I wanted to keep it fairly simple and reasonably possible for a simple basic dyer of  perhaps 500 years ago.

The first collection, but many more to go, these are mostly spring leaves, but the autumn leaves and twigs will be a little different

I’ve completed the final display board which can be seen here

Tartan edges

Working almost everyday with woven cloth makes you very aware of the type of edge  that you have, ideally making kilts you want to have a finished edge at the bottom of the kilt, but one that isn’t actually hemmed. The  traditional shuttle weaving produced a selvedge ( self-edge),  a term that is widely and also a  little inaccurately used today. A selvedge  by actual definition is the  clean edge formed when the shuttle on the loom goes back and forwards with a continuous and unbroken thread ; this method when carefully managed produces a beautifully pure edge with no added weight of change of feel, it is the most desired edge for kiltmakers.

a traditional kilt selvedge

Of course it isn’t always quite that simple, over the years kilting cloth has been produced on different types of looms and most weavers today use high speed looms which no longer can make a true selvedge. These looms can weave in a few hours what a traditional hand weaver  would have woven in a week or more.  With the change of loom there has been a change of fabric edge.

 

 

a tuck edge

The most usual one for kilts is now called a tuck edge where  one thread is woven at a time and then folded back upon itself for about  a cm and then the next thread  is introduced and forms the next line of cloth,  working with a single length  of thread is very much faster and looms use a variety of high speed methods for shooting the thread across including compressed air  or even water, but the key thing is that a shuttle is no longer needed. This edge is slightly firmer and often a little more stable, but it has a little line of  cut threads about 1 cm from the actual edge, these are not terribly noticeable depending on which side of the cloth is used. Most tartan weavers now use this edge for the majority of their production.

 

leno edge with fringe

Another edge that is sometimes seen is a leno edge, which has a distinctive extra few twisted threads often  white at the edge and a fringe from the uncut weft threads,this is the possibly the faster weaving method but it does mean that any kilt fabric will have to be hemmed. One excellent Scottish weaver has worked out how to have a selvedge  on one side and a leno on the other, they use this on single width tartan and this means that a kiltmaker still has the  chance to use a good edge at the bottom of the kilt, and the leno edge is cut off and used for the waistband, and hidden from view.

 

 

 

While a selvedge is the favourite  it is not always the easiest to produce these days and is now more expensive with only a few weavers offering this. When it is well done it is excellent, but some weavers try  it and fail miserably, this is an example of a rushed and imperfect selvedge, however with a lot of ironing, steam and pulling and stretching it can be made a little better, and if it wasn’t for a special order it would have been returned, a kiltmaker has enough to do without trying to fix  a weaving problem. Often I’d rather have a tuck edge than having to spend time remedying a weaver’s  problems.

a rather poor and imperfect selvedge

Watching a weaver work is a wonderful experience, seeing the magic work of converting a mass of threads into a cloth is fascinating. Traditional looms for weaving tartan  haven’t changed very much in hundreds of years,  a strong wooden box like construction , but actually very simple, relying on the skill of the weaver and a flying shuttle ,it was the only way of producing any from of tartan until the beginning of the 19th century.

Mechanisation happened and the introduction of power looms  made the mass production of tartan possible, dobby looms which followed around the 1850’s  revolutionised the speed  of weaving and the possibility of more complex designs.

It also meant that some weaving could be done at home or outbuildings which is largely how the Harris tweed industry came about, with a benevolent investor many looms were bought and  the local community began to change what was already a low level cottage  occupation into a world wide industry. The looms most associated with Harris tweed are the Hattersley single width looms  many of which are still working nearly one hundred years later. They are wonderful work horses   excellent for the substantial tweeds. These looms do produce a selvedge  but realistically with the heavy yarn it’s not  often usable without a hem for kilts. One edge will be smoothish and the other will have all the carried threads, but as  the tweed is generally for pattern based clothing this presents no problems

traditional Harris tartan tweed with a loopy edge

One last little nugget; occasionally  I see a thread that has been attached to a length of cloth this tells me that there is a fault of some sort, the thread is always at the edge ( this time a tuck edge)  and the flaw will be roughly in line with it, when the cloth is rolled up it is easy to see how many threads to judge what sort of quality to expect, this is supposed to be the origin of the phrase “no strings attached” meaning that the cloth was good quality and that no extra work was needed to  put it right!

definitely a case of strings attached

nettles

There is a long history of harvesting plants to  extract fibre, the well known ones are  cotton and linen, perhaps hemp, jute, and  sisal , but nettle was very well known and there evidence that it has been used at least for the last 3000 years, and possibly much longer, everywhere from Denmark to Ancient Egypt.

Nettles grow wild and don’t need any special  treatment and survive in almost any soil. They grow tall, up to 5′ and are perennial and self seed  very readily.

 

 

Harvesting often takes place in the autumn, stems are cut near the ground and the leaves rubbed off. Gloves are really needed – they are called stinging nettles for a good reason.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The stems are gathered together and left to rett on the ground for a few weeks allowing bacteria to start breaking down the woody parts of the stalks to reveal the valued fibre. The stems are then gently broken and the outer skin can be peeled off and the inner core   removed and disposed of.

It will look like a mass of straw, but this is the important fibre, by scraping, flexing, rubbing between hands, and combing the fine fibres will be revealed, and can then be spun. If there are a lot of shorter lengths carding is probably a better idea, in the same way that rolags are created with wool.

There will still be a very definite green colour on the fibre during spinning and also  shorter random bits of stem, it’s usually easier just to carry on than waste extra time with more processing, as the  little bits will fall out either in the spinning or in the final washing. My favoured spinning is with a drop spindle, it’s easy to control especially for small quantities of fibre.

The fibre is fairly strong, but creating a 2 ply evens out any variations and makes a much more balanced final yarn. It will look fairly coarse with lots of small stem pieces, but they will disappear with the next step.

The skein needs to be washed before it is properly ready to use, it is boiled in a  weak solution of washing soda for  about hour, it’s easy to check on the progress, the yarn will lighten in colour, lots of the stray bits of stem will vanish, and  yarn itself will become much softer. It will need to be washed at the end  with some normal washing liquid and well rinsed, after it is dry , it’s ready to use.

There is a lot of work needed to  gain a small amount of fibre,there is a huge amount of waste, but on the plus side it is essentially free to harvest,needs no special tools to convert the raw stems into fibre and it makes a very strong yarn, being very similar to  flax and linen. I’d  be very happy to make more given enough time, it’s certainly been a very useful project.

pulled stem,  rough fibre,  prepared fibre,  2 ply spun,  final bleached 2 ply

 

 

 

 

Safflower

Safflower is  often called false saffron, it looks a little like true saffron, and does impart colour in cooking, but little else than that, certainly none of the wonderful saffron  taste. I know that it produces oil from the seeds and can also be used as a dye, but that it is fairly fugitive, so in many ways  really only for something temporary. Another of it’s unusual properties is that with careful pH manipulation it can go from a rather nondescript yellow on wool, to wonderful bright pinks on silk, linen, and cotton. In fact when cotton tape is dyed with safflower the result is “red tape” that wonderful legal  item, that binds important and pressing documents together.

I was given a large pot of  it from a friends travels so it seemed a perfect time to give it a try.

First the petals need to be soaked and rinsed a few times to remove most of the yellow colouring, this can be kept and used, but with so many other far more satisfying  yellows from a huge range of other plants, I’m not sure why you would!

With the washed petals the pH needs to be increased dramatically to pH 10 -11 with washing soda, or any strong alkali, and left in solution for  about an hour or so, the petals will all turn soft and brown, but keep stirring every so often to convert as much as possible. Strain the solution and then add vinegar or citric acid to neutralise  and in fact turn it slightly acid as well  to something like pH 6

The magic now happens, simply use the dye solution cold, no heating required and soak silk, linen or cotton for at least an hour, or perhaps even overnight. No mordant is needed, stirring when you can, or when you remember

The cotton and linen will take on a wonderful clean pink, and the silk a slightly more coral version, wool however barely colours, perhaps if you are lucky a very delicate baby pink.

There is a technique where you  use cotton fabric as a sacrificial /interim method, where after you have got pink cotton, you then re soak it in alkali to remove the pink, remove the cotton, re acidify the bath and then dye silk to get pink. I can’t say if it works, but it’s a clever idea, however  a little bit of cochineal to my mind seems a much easier way of going about getting pink silk, and although it might be a little more expensive there is very little procedure and messing about, and not least the cochineal is permanent as well!

flax to linen

I’ve been involved in a project in London Primary Schools, going in to talk, demonstrate and teach a little bit about drop spinning, using flax that they have grown and processed themselves. It’s part of an initiative by Cassie Liversidge ( http://growyourownplayground.com)  to introduce school children to gardening, growing their own food and generally understanding a little about where food comes from. It’s a wonderful scheme, she has 8 schools under her wing and I think that everyone should look to supporting similar projects in every school.

It’s made me think about the process much more intently, having to work out the best way to cope with  multiple groups of 6 or 7 children all wanting to learn at the same time , and indeed coping with dozens of sometimes random questions, and of course a little bit of crowd control as well. The key really was preparation , everything was ready and a few  ideas in reserve if things didn’t go quite to plan. I was also giving a very quick potted history of spinning from the beginning until now, the small potato on a stick certainly worked well, but of course time and concentration span was short.

I had spun flax before, but it had never had as much attraction for me as wool, but  it was something that I wanted to add to the armoury, and has certainly proved useful not least  in spinning my own bookbinding threads.  However spinning the line flax  proved another challenge, and actually I think I might even have a  not so secret fondness for it now.

For those who are a little uncertain about the  way that flax is grown and processed read on, for others you can skip quite a bit.

Flax is an incredibly old crop, evidence has been found of  cultivation and use for over 30,000 years, from Russia it spread across all of Northern Europe and to India and China. Growing, it generally prefers slightly cooler climates with reasonable rainfall. In Ancient Egypt most of the prestige cloth was linen and was specially chosen for the elite and the pure. It was very well regarded by the Romans and throughout the Middle Ages was one of the most hard wearing fabrics available. It was the Low Countries that became very well known for the growing and production of flax and in time North America also took to the crop. However once cotton  growing and production  in the 1800’s became widespread the use of linen decreased and by the  twentieth century it had a considerably smaller market share. Today there are still some small scale  flax growers but most of the raw flax now comes from Russia. Flax can grow to about 3′-4′ high and the flowers are a wonderful pale blue, it has a strong single stem which is the essential part of the plant. Harvested at about 3 -4 months after planting, usually  when the seeds are setting, by pulling the entire plant rather than cutting in order not to lose any precious fibre. Leaving the plants to grow for longer causes the fibre to be coarser, but still useful.

The stems are allowed to dry for  a few weeks and then the seeds removed using a metal comb or rake ( rippling) and saved either for replanting or for use as  food stuff or linseed oil

The stems are then  rotted (retted) to help expose the bast fibre,this process normally takes a few weeks and works as bacteria breaks down the outer stem. There are several ways of doing this , but usually  the bundles are left in a pond or a large tub of water, or on wet grass  to dew rett, either way the process is very similar.

Once the stems are completely dry, after days, weeks, or longer the stems are then broken  by squashing, hammering, or  actually breaking and bending the stem (scutching) and the inner fibre is then exposed, the broken stem and core  bits (boon) are waste and the precious fibre  (line) is kept long and straight.

The retted stems look rather dirty and useless , but when broken and the bast fibre is revealed  all the hard work seems worth while.

The fibres are then combed (hackled) to even out all the fibre and to help to remove shorter lengths (tow),  which can be re used to make slightly less perfect yarn, but perfect for coarse cloth or ropes.

The newly combed hank has a look of horsehair about it, depending on the retting method it can be  grey or golden, indeed flaxen hair is a very appropriate description.

Harvesting the fibre takes a long time and it is hard, messy, and dusty work, it was however fascinating to watch the children working together as teams to obtain as much fibre as they did.

There is always a lot of wastage,about half the weight of the stalk infact, although this can be picked through a second time and the shorter fibres  rescued and used as second best fibre and the remains can still serve as animal bedding, as a mulch, or just to add to the compost heap.

Now comes the  ultimate task, the actual spinning, the bit which I think the pupils found the most demanding. I choose a simple wooden top whorl as I find that is the easiest way to learn to spin, but there is an important sequence to learn.

Making sure that everyone knew their left from right, and which way was clockwise took a few moments, and they did need reminding, and generally with  embarrassed good humour. It was important to me that they could  see that spinning was an interesting and fun thing to try, although each session was all about learning, there is a greater chance that some of the information will stick if it is enjoyable.

Some of the children did actually seem to “get” the idea, and if I had had  a longer session with them I’m sure that many would have proved very successful. A drop spindle is perhaps one the simplest  and oldest fibre tools and yet capable of creating  fine and coarse threads, they are cheap to make or buy and they can have an indefinite life, they need virtually no maintenance, and seldom go wrong, it is  the spinner who controls the tool, not the other way around.

It was wonderful to watch their faces when the soft fibres were turned into fairly hard and strong string like yarn, mouths dropped open in amazement part of the magic that still fascinates me, watching the twist rise up from the drop spindle. Spindles fell many times, breaks in the yarn were mended, but most of them persevered  and they did actually create some linen yarn, and the challenge of turning flax in linen was almost completed.

Of course they didn’t produce huge quantities of yarn , but I added to the school production and then plied  two strands together to make a stronger and more even yarn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once  spun the yarn needed to be finished, this meant boiling for an hour with a little washing soda,  which served to  set the twist, remove grease and dirt and soften the yarn, also it did make the yarn a lot lighter in colour as well.

 

 

 

 

 

Ultimately the goal was to produce enough yarn from each school to be able to knit a little jumper to display in the school corridors, so with all the extra lumps and bumps in the yarn the children now have something very real to admire, that they have largely been responsible for making.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The whole project has been a wonderful experience, tiring  and demanding, but I’d do it all next year I hope!

 

School children and spinning flax

A few months ago I responded to an online post that was looking for someone who could spin flax into linen for a London school visit, I thought for a moment and decided I’d follow it up. I had done some flax work a few years ago,, mainly to make bookbinding thread, but rather left it behind when wool work took over much of my time. I’m generally happy demonstrating in front of people and  I figured that I wouldn’t get picked as there was bound to be many others  more experienced than I. Much to  my surprise and delight I received a very  positive email, as several exchanges we met up to discuss the details. It was to visit 8 different primary schools in East London , talking and demonstrating about flax and  showing how to spin, it might have been because I use drop spindles that I was picked! The project is one which has been running for a few years enabling school children to grow  vegetables in the school garden, which they tend  and ultimately enjoy a meal or two from their labours, a thoroughly worthwhile project which was developed into growing and processing flax as well : which is where I come in.

I’ve been working on getting a selection of teaching materials together to show the various stages of the process of spinning.

spinning in progress, with both bleached and unbleached flax, on top whorl spindles

I know that there is only enough time to introduce it to the children, and barely enough time to let them have a play as well, but if I have enough samples they will, hopefully,  have an idea of how fascinating the whole spinning process is.

Hand made wooden spindles, all traditional styles made from sticks and twigs, a few stones and even a potato…

I’ll take a few of these spindles as well, jut to show that no magical equipment is needed, in fact the simple things are often best.

from ultra fine singles to heavy 4 ply yarn

I’m not entirely sure what we will end up , but I thought it would be a good idea to have a few samples available so that they can see that a whole range of threads are possible, and suited for lots of different jobs.