The Linen Journey

Sonja Bargielowska's picture
19 July, 2017 - 14:00 | Sonja Bargielowska

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Lyonesse DK in Serpentine, Citrine and Aquamarine

We use linen in our Lyonesse yarn range – it adds great drape, crispness and strength to a yarn, but have you ever wondered how linen comes into being?

Linen comes from the flax plant (Linum usitatissimumi), which is one of the oldest cultivated plants in human history – currently thought to have been used for the past 9,000 years! Growing annually, flax is ready to harvest around one hundred days after planting, sprouting up to three feet tall. The pale blue flowers are visible for one day only, causing a flourish in May/June. The variety used for fibre production is taller, making longer fibres for yarn production.

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Flax flowers, courtsey of Deltracon

Linen is a bast fibre, which is a fibre collected from the phloem or inner bark of a plant. Other bast fibres include jute, nettle and ramie. The phloem surrounds the core of the stem and carries nutrients to all parts of the plant, while also providing strength.

Linen is a very strong fibre and slightly silky in appearance, due to the smooth, flat-surfaced nature of the phloem. Linen tends to be lint free, due to the length of the fibre.

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Linen cross section, courtsey of NPTEL

There are five stages between pulled up fibres and linen ready to be spun: Rippling, Retting, Breaking, Scutching and Hackling. Below I will discuss how each of these processes are carried out when done by hand.

 

Rippling / Threshing – de-seeding the fibre

Maximising the fibre length is crucial – to do this the stem is pulled up from the root. The flax is then left to dry, before the seeds are removed in a process called rippling/threshing. Small bunches are pulled through a rippling comb – which itself looks like some kind of torture device! The stems are pulled through the rake-like comb while the seedheads remain caught. This process is repeated until all the seeds have been removed – the seeds have been “threshed” out.

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Image courtsey of Alice Rose Newton

Retting – rotting the fibre to break down

To get to the phloem we need to break down some of the biological glue that holds the stem together (mostly pectins and lignins).  To ‘ret’ means to rot – warmth, moisture and subsequently mould break down the pectins and lignins, loosening the fibre from its surrounding woody stem (also known as boom).

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Images courtsey of NRCC and Botany

There are two types of retting, dew retting and water retting. Dew retting relies on nature’s dew to provide the right conditions for the break down. The flax is left outside, spread thinly on grass and needs to be turned once a week so it rets evenly. This process takes 3 to 6 weeks depending on weather conditions.

Water retting involves submerging the flax in water (often in an old bath tub!). This rets the fibre in about 5 days.

You can tell the fibre is ready to move on to the next stage when the woody fibre is breakable by hand and can be wiggled out of the long linen fibres. They should separate easily from the woody core.

 

Breaking - break the woody part

The boon needs to be removed from the linen fibre – to do this it first needs to be broken up for easier removal from the fibre itself. The stems need to be dry before this process can begin, making the fibre brittle and easier to remove. A properly retted and dry boon will snap and not bend.

Flax is broken in a piece of equipment called a flax break. A flax break is a wooden apparatus, in which a handful of stems are placed between the arms and a scissor-like motion forces the flax into a “w” shape, snapping the boon. The stems are re-positioned further down the fibre and the process is repeated until the fibre is limp and most of the boon has fallen away from the linen fibres.

 

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Image courtsey of Alice Rose Newton

Scutching - scraping

Even though (hopefully) most of the boon has been removed in breaking, some woody parts will still remain. To remove the rest of these a wooden knife is scraped down the length of the fibre, against a wooden board. The removed woody boon is called the shive, which can be used for plastic composites, insulation and livestock bedding.

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Image courtsey of Alice Rose Newton

Hackling - combing to separate fibres

Once the boon has been removed, the remaining linen fibres need to be hackled, or combed. Another torture-style device is used here – multiple metal combs becoming finer and finer to remove any tow (shorter fibres). The difference between combed long fibres and the shorter tow fibres can be seen below.

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Image courtsey of Alice Rose Newton

Linen and flax quality

Good quality fibre is determined by the retting process (please see above). Over-retting causes the fibre itself to begin to break down, resulting in a pulpy, weak fibre. Under-retting means removing the woody parts can be difficult, as the pectins haven’t been broken down enough.  

Our Linen

We pride ourselves on our Belgian Linen – renowned for its high quality. This is as close to the UK as we could get geographically without sacrificing quality. 

 

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Lyonesse DK in Peridot, Tourmaline and Onyx

Comments

Submitted by Peggy on
Thank you for putting this together for us, so informative, the photos really help me understand!

Submitted by Margaret Deady ... on
This is such a well written and informative post. My husband, Edwin, and I (Ancient Days and Ways on Facebook) present an Iron Age 'hands on' table every year at Chysauster Iron Age Village (English Heritage property near Penzance). On the table we have flax (from Flaxland) and I wear a long dress made from 100% linen. We also have wool samples, including a tiny amount we obtained ourselves deposited by the Iron Age herd at Danebury Hill Fort. We love to encourage both adults and children to talk and ask questions about how clothing was made during this period. I would be grateful if you would allow me to take a print of this lovely blog and add it to our reference file.

Submitted by Susan on
That was great. I spin with flax and this was a good introduction...am passing it on! thanks.

Submitted by Marilee on
Thank you for providing so much detail and such excellent photos. I'll be sharing this with my friends.

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