A Flaxen journey to Scotland

I managed to find a little time to have a break to Scotland, to see the Burrell collection in Glasgow and also a rather special exhibition at the V&A in Dundee.
I almost always take a spindle with me when travelling and this time I decided to take a strick of 90 year old flax from Austria just to see how much I could use up, and whatever I made would be used within my teaching in the London Schools. I spun whenever I was travelling or waiting, but it was a holiday as well, so it wasn’t an intensive spinning marathon. I had many, many very interesting conversations, quite a few surreptitious photographs, and even a video, but it was all good and never a problem.

A very memorable moment, I was spinning the train, sitting in an aisle seat, and a small boy saw me and virtually came to a standstill, mouth open and transfixed, I caught the glance of his mother who was delighted, we had a quick chat about the yarn and he returned to his seat. I suspect he might have been 5 or 6 years old, but it is the first time that I’ve managed to cause anyone to freeze.

A very interesting discussion on board the last ocean going steam paddle ship with a New Zealand lady whose grandfather, an entrepreneur I was told, used to have a flax farm over there, it transpired that it was actually New Zealand flax/Phormium and he mainly made ropes and she was unaware that there was a difference with the true flax that I was using, or indeed that it is considered an heritage source of fibre by the Maori. She was fascinated an delighted to find out a little more about her history, and it was lovely way for me to while away some time with her.

Whilst visiting the Burrell Collection, a first for me, to see a wonderful collection of a somewhat eclectic man spanning thousands of years, I saw a tapestry which called out to me, a woman ridding a donkey through a woodland, holding a child, carrying cooking pots, all whilst spinning on a hand spindle with distaff, wearing a hackle from her belt, leading the domestic animals, all while riding side saddle, with her dog running behind her. There are several interpretations of this, perhaps a woman is good at multitasking, or perhaps doing too much of anything is a bad thing, either way it was a wonderful image from 1470, woven with naturally dyed wool and fine white linen yarns, in remarkably good condition, it might have been the one object I might have taken away with me.

It was a lovely break of just a week but got to see a lot of different things, a lot of travelling on public transport which worked very well, and a lot of spinning achieved, not onto the next part of the job – weaving

North Ronaldsay wool

Recently there was the unveiling of a rather special piece of tartan, dating between 1500 and 1600, it’s a twill weave with a complicated 4 colour sett, and is the earliest piece of true tartan found in Scotland, it’s all been rather exciting and I look forward to seeing it later in the year.

photo: Alan Richardson V&A Dundee

For some time I’ve been thinking of spinning and weaving a little sample of an early tartan and this discovery has spurred me on, whether I do a copy of “it” or something along the lines I haven’t yet decided, but it is the current source of inspiration. Obviously hand spun using drop spindles – the wheel hadn’t made it to Scotland at that time, and as drop spinning is a particular favourite of mine I’m more than happy to start making metres of yarn. The type of sheep used is important, the likely original one was most likely the Scottish Dunface, it no longer exists, but the North Ronaldsay is similar, it’s still available although classed as a rare breed. They are unusual as they live on the beach, surviving on seaweed as opposed to grass, so rather special. They aren’t a large sheep, and are often tan or cream, with darker areas, but can give a reasonably white yarn once finished. I’ve always been keen on processing my own wool, and that means starting with a fleece, I haven’t (yet) sheared any, but it might still happen.

I’m going through the entire process from fleece to yarn, it’s much the same for any fleece really, it’s my usual way of cleaning and preparing almost any yarn from a single fleece – for multiple fleeces I often choose a slower but much more eco way, but more of that for another time.

The fleece is generally rolled into a nice tight bundle, it has already been skirted to remove the worst of the daggy bits and rough or torn edges, so after checking it over, it’s time for a soak. This fleece was just under a kilogramme so not difficult to manage. I’ve learnt over the years that an overnight soak in a large bucket of cold water does such a lot of good, it softens any mud or debris, and helps to loosen up the fibres.

It doesn’t get agitated too much , just to make sure it is all under the surface, sometime I confess that it takes a few days to work on all of any fleece, but there isn’t any harm in letting it sit a bit longer. The next day I take a large handful, drain or squeeze it to remove as much dirty water as I can, then using a smaller bucket with a little cheap detergent dissolved in some just warm water, I put the fleece in and very gently move it around, I’m feeling for any bits of vegetable matter – or similar and remove them and also any hardened clumps of wool or obvious short cuts. Often I will then do a fairly hot wash with a little more soap, a little hotter than hand heat to remove some of the lanolin, each fleece is different and each spinner prefers a different level of the grease. The North Ronaldsay has a reasonable level of lanolin already so I want to leave just enough in to make the spinning pleasant. Several rinses later and all at similar temperatures as you don’t want the lanolin to redeposit, it is taken out, drained and left to dry which can sometimes take a few days depending on the weather. A lot of this processing is best done outside, it’s a fairly wet and messy job but the garden does appreciate the enriched soaking water.

Once dry the fleece may well have clumped together a little, so it needs to be teased or picked apart to make the next process easier, basically just pulled to open up the fleece so it begins to look fluffier.

The next decisions are to whether to card or comb it and how to spin it , all the options give a different final result. There are two main ways to prepare wool fibre for spinning, each has advantages and disadvantages, and they go towards different types of finished yarn – carding or combing.

Carding uses a board with fine metal wires and aligns the fibres , it uses all the fibre – shorter and longer ones but is best for fibres no longer than 4″-5″, this mat of fibres is used rolled up across the direction of the alignment, so that all the direction is cylindrical and generally fairly loosely wrappt, the resulting sausage of fibre is now called a rolag. This is then spun from the end and is known as a woollen preparation. This uses almost every bit of the fibre with virtually no waste and is ideal for knitting, it makes a softer, fluffier,lighter, and warmer yarn.

The other preparation is combed, two sets of sharp fine angled nails arranged in pairs, the fibre is laced in one fixed comb and the other comb is swipped against the tines ( but not touching) picking up the longer fibres, this is continued until the first comb no longer gives up any more fibre it is then emptied and then swapped and the process repeated several times, the fully loaded comb is then locked down and the fibre is pulled off in a long strip, now known as top. This has all the best fibres arranged in parallel and the shorter ones have been left behind. Combing is the perfect preparation for weaving finer cloth, it does however leave a lot, perhaps 50% of fibre behind, but that can then be carded for woollen use, but tends to be a little chunkier or fuzzier than the rolags prepared from the original fibre.

We now have two different preparations of fibre, carded rolags, combed tops, and also the carded waste from the combings. Each of these can be spun either with a drop spindle or a wheel, and can be spun with a tight twist or a looser twist on either, so lots of possibilities for different yarns.

Samples of the different preparations with drop spindle spun single yarns
Left – Combed-almost white fine hard yarn
Centre – carded- ecru soft open yarn
Right – Carded from combed waste- dark ecru slightly neppy hairy yarn

So the decision in this case would be the combed prep, it’s almost white, which is important as there will be several colours to be dyed, and it’s smoother for weaving. The carder version with the complete fleece might work but when dyed will take the colour differently, interestingly perhaps but for this project the colours need to be purer. The re-carded version is fluffier and hairier so perhaps more suited to outer wear rather than skin soft, or perhaps even felted and used for rugs or blankets.

For this project I’ll be spinning on a simple drop spindle with a tight twist as it needs to be strong and fine.
The drop spindle would have been used up to the 1500’s, perhaps even later in Scotland. The treadle spinning wheel didn’t appear much before 1200 in the rest of the world, and it was slow to be adopted. Various thoughts that the spinning wheel is faster than the spindle are correct – if the spinner is seated and working, but the spindle is portable, light and easy to carry, and can be used almost anywhere, so over the course of a week there might not be much between the two. In the early years where a “great wheel”, a simple hand turned large wheel, was used it was actually forbidden by law to use that yarn as warp, only as weft where strength wasn’t so important, so drop spinning was very important at that point, of course things changed with the invention of spinning machinery.

drop spun complete carded fibre, slightly cream
drop spun from combed fibre, almost white

The yarn is being spun as a single as was the original sample tartan, indeed quite often plying wasn’t done, if the single yarn is stong enough then it’s almost a waste to have to spin twice the quantity to ply, albeit you get a more balanced and thicker yarn, but time and effort was very much a consideration. It can take 8 – 10 spinners to keep on weaver busy, so it’s really a valid consideration.

After spinning the spindle is unwound onto a niddy-noddy, tied in 4 or more places and then washed to remove any grease and dirt before dyeing, but also to help to “wet finish” or set the twist.
The niddy-noddy is simply a tool to help organise the yarn by creating a series continuous loops carefully curated into an organised skein but also helps to roughly measure the yardage or meterage, it creates a series of loops carefully curated into an organised skein. Once off the niddy-noddy the yarn curls up because of the spinning twist, but once washed and soaked it relaxes into the well known form of skein or hank.

300 metres singles on Niddy-Noddy with figure of 8 ties to prevent tangles
washed and finished yarn, lovely and smooth and straight with freshly skeined yarn twisted and tight

The yarn is now finished, until the next process, either dyeing and weaving, it’s generally better to keep yarn in skeins until it is ready for use, there is less stress on the fibres and easier to see what the yarn feels like and responds to handling.

Processing a raw fleece is a lot of extra work but it is something important for me to feel and touch the fibre, and gives a better understanding of the wool, and every breed is different, and there is a lot of variation even within a single fleece. With careful work it is possible to create a yarn that fits the right criteria for a project. This one I’m only getting about 30% of usable combed fibre yarn for my project, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the wool is wasted, simply it will find a use for another project.

The raw fibre and the finished singles yarn

The remaining fibre will be spun up and then used to create 2 ply yarn, both spinning and plying on the same wheel it’s a perfectly good knitting yarn, it will be a chunky lighter weight perfect for hats and scarves, but I don’t yet have a use for it!

Background are the singles on the bobbin, foreground 2 ply washed and ready to knit, the colour is much closer to the original fleece, a nice light grey brown marl. I will be creating quite a quantity of this one, but every spinner has a healthy stash of finished yarns – just in case the right project comes along, but there is a lot of work to complete on the proper spinning first.


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





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!