Yesterday I pulled up the flax plants that I showed growing at the allotment in my last post. They will now dry and then be retted and processed. Last week I finally got round to processing the small amount of flax that I had grown last year in a couple of pots at home. Because they were grown in less than ideal circumstances the fibres turned out to be pretty poor quality. However, I managed to get a handful of processed fibre, which was then spun.
Despite this being a very small amount of fibre and a great deal of work to get it to that stage, it was a very satisfying thing to do. The right hand spool shown below is the spun fibre. The small ball and the left spool are spun from the ‘tow’, which is the rougher fibre separated out during the combing, or ‘hackling’, as part of the processing.
These were added to a series of cordage samples I have made using a variety of different materials from my allotment plot. This series includes lots of different plant material (leaf, bark, stem and bast) as well as plastics, cloth and paper: things either growing on the plot or found in the sheds.
These form part of my submission for the third module of my MA in Creative Practice. I’ve really enjoyed the process of getting to know the properties of each material that I’ve worked with. To a certain extent I’m starting from scratch with each new fibre, but there is also a cumulative effect of the experience of working the materials. I’ve also been surprised by some that I had low expectations of and which turned out to be much more pleasing to work with than I’d expected.
I don’t have any plans yet for what I might do next with the different cordages, that may come later. For now, the process of working with each material and getting to know its possibilities and limitations have been very rewarding. Furthermore, tied up within each bundle of ‘string’ is the experience of the place they were made: the birdsong that surrounded the making, the smell of each fibre as it passes through the fingers and the slow accumulation of local knowledge about the plot of land where they are from.
Things are growing a-pace at the allotment, although it has been so very dry and warm that some plants are struggling. I sowed some flax back in early May (a bit later than intended but the spring was so cold). It has been good to see it grow and now bloom with its dainty blue flowers that only last less than a day each.
This is a very small patch of flax, which I know won’t result in much of a quantity of linen, once it has been retted, processed and spun. But it is an important part of my experiments in using gathered fibres for my MA project. Last year I grew an even smaller amount in large pots at home. I didn’t manage to process it over the autumn, so I left it dried until we had warm conditions. It has now been retted and is drying again in the green house before I can do the breaking, skutching etc. ready to hopefully spin some thread.
I have been gathering all sorts of plant fibres from my plot and using them to make cordage, including nettle fibres shown drying below. I’m really enjoying experimenting with these different materials and working at the plot when I can. You can see some of the cordage results on my instagram account here.
I spent most of last week on a workshop in Devon at the studio of Susie Gillespie. I do quite a lot of teaching now and I feel it is really important to be on the other side of that sometimes too. The workshop was all about growing, processing and spinning flax into yarn and then weaving with it. It was a really stimulating workshop in a lovely location and I felt very lucky indeed to have had the opportunity to be there.
There is a lovely vocabulary that goes with this activity: retting, rippling, combing, breaking, scutching…
It is quite an involved business to get this small hand full of fibres ready to spin. I quickly developed a huge respect for peoples of the past whose only way to have cloth was through this series of processes.
I’ve not done any spinning before, although I do have my Granny’s spinning wheel in the cellar. I’m hoping to use it now I’ve had an introduction. The linen yarn I spun was very hairy and more like rough string than beautiful linen thread, but it is a start and I am looking forward to improving my spinning skills.
It was also good to see a little of the surrounding landscape with walks along part of the River Dart and a windy bit of the coast at Man Sands.
We did some natural dyeing, ending up with a lovely colour palette of linen threads to play with and incorporate into our weaving. I was asked to lead a stitching session on one of the days: we used the dyed threads and a host of items we collected on our walks.
I will be teaching with Susie in April and August this year and I’m really looking forward to returning to this lovely pocket of Devon.