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Flax, Wool and an Actual Fiber Shed

Flax fiber creation in New England depends upon hand-processing the plant. I visit a New Hampshire farm producing flax fiber and wool yarns for sale online and on location.

flax fiber and raw dried flax
Flax fiber and raw flax shafts dried but unprocessed

I met Patty of Aker Farm in Enfield, NH for an introduction to #flax processing and to get my eyes on her fibers in person. It was no disappointment! She has a wealth of knowledge on spinning and fiber processing. I drove up via the back roads from Keene on a rainy July day. The roads are mostly clear, and the small towns I pass exactly what you expect from rural New Hampshire, the essence of quaint.

The farm is unassuming, Patty tells me of plans for expansion that she and her husband are preparing for soon. I am not able to walk the grounds with the rain but notice her sheep hanging out by the barn. I venture to the small "fiber" shed that is set up as a private studio and get to see and touch her wool and flax fibers. Her Corriedale sheep create nice soft fiber that she sends to Green Mountain Spinnery in Putney for processing. The fingering weight is just right for underwear I am crocheting for myself. I pick up a few skeins while I am there.

distaffs for flax weaving + flax fibers
Three different styles of distaffs, dyed flax fiber ready to be spun underneath

We sit down and she begins to explain flax processing. Rule #1 - forget everything you know about wool processing - flax is totally different. This makes sense as flax is a plant that grows tall like wheat, and wool comes from an animal’s sheared fleece. I settle in and she begins to bring out the flax processing implements. They appear to be a mix of long paddles, a torture instrument, and a divining rod. Maybe divining rods started out as flax processors that lost a couple of limbs - my mind spins some more as she goes through the process of creating fibers from the dried flax shalks.

Retting is the first step in processing after the seeds have been removed from the fiber stalks. Patty completes the retting process in various ways - dew retting, snow retting, and water retting. All these rely on letting the stalks rot in moisture. Doesn’t really sound like something you want to wear, but the stalks have stiff shafts that need to be broken down and removed to expose the fine flax fibers that are spun. As the stalks rot by the introduction of wild microbes in the moisture (dew, snow, water), the woody parts of the stalk are weakened and separate from the silky fibers. Each type of retting produces a different golden shade of the finished undyed flax fiber.

After sufficient time elapses, the microbes have done their work and the stalks are ready to be thrashed. This will break up the woody sections of the stalk that have been weakened by rotting. Had a bad day? Just go out and thrash that flax and improve your mood! Or, rely on implements created to break apart the weakened woody shafts. Maybe not as fun, but likely more efficient. One such device looks like a large wooden stapler without the staples - just push down on the hinged top to break up the tougher outer stalks.

Once the tougher bits are broken apart you can scrape them off in a process called scutching - no, I am not making up these words! You drape the now more flexible stalks over an upright board and scrape them with a smooth wooden paddle-like implement (image here). When all the woody parts are removed, the silky fibers are left to be processed further by hackling (also called hetcheling or hatcheling). The hackle looks like a bed of nails and helps separate fibers into the line and the tow. The line fibers are the long fine fibers used to create flax yarn, the tow fibers are shorter coarser fibers that can be collected and used for rope making. The tow is an almost white golden shade - where the word towhead originated, Patty tells me.

hackling devise for flax processing
Hackling device to separate the line from the tow

The line is now ready for spinning. If you have ever worn linen, which is woven flax fibers, you know it has no stretch. Thus, spinning this fiber is different from spinning wool, which has stretch and bounce. Traditionally flax fibers are layered in a crosswise fashion to create a mesh, loaded onto a distaff (shown in image above) and then spun. The spinning process is different than wool. During the spinning of flax fibers, the twist travels up to the fibers on the distaff rod. Check out the video to see how the spin moves up the distaff rod and hear a cute story about licking your thumb while spinning flax. Why? Flax fibers have a gluey-like substance that is activated by the light moisture and creates smoother yarn.

I am excited to try my hand at flax processing. Patty offers individual or group classes. I am also thankful that a flax processing mill has opened in Nova Scotia, TapRoot Fibre Lab. It is about 450 miles away, well outside my declared bounds of 150 miles, but in the rural part of the country that we live in, it enables us to have both hand processed and machine-processed flax now. This mill is also soon allowing local flax growers the opportunity to process their retted flax and return the fine line flax fiber but keep the tow to create batting, roving, and tow yarn. I will be creating pieces from both locally hand-processed fiber and fiber I acquire from Taproot. Look out for future posts on Instagram and Facebook with images!

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