I have been fascinated with the idea of growing fibre for spinning for a long time, but it is not a simple matter to process bast (stem) fibres. There are amazing YouTube videos of people (in Nepal, for example) spinning fibres which must have been hand prepared with the most basic of equipment and a corresponding maximum amount of skill, time and patience. There are also videos showing the process of linen production from start to finish, like this Irish film. Here is a re-enactment film using decent tools but with all steps done by hand (needless to say I lack the right tools and must improvise), and another showing how this was done in Germany (with an excellent rooster crowing in the backgound). Even with some parts of the process mechanised, the preparation of the fibres is backbreaking and dangerous work I’m glad I don’t depend on doing for my living.
The skills and tools needed for hand preparation of bast fibres were probably known to someone in my family tree, but at a guess, this must have been many generations back. I’ve decided to have another attempt. I have here the total outcome of my latest nettle harvest (left) and my first flax harvest (right), dried and saved. No, it isn’t impressive! I have pulled them, stripped the leaves and side stems and dried them. Next step, retting.
I put the stems into a bucket and covered them with rainwater on Labour Day. It’s important to celebrate the achievementof the 8 hour day by doing things you love, so I was washing fibre and mucking around in the garden, visiting friends for dinner and making treats for the week to come. And, putting these stems to soak.
The week turned out to be warm, so I changed the water several times. Part way through the week, Through the Eye of a Needle by John-Paul Flintoff arrived in the mail from dear friends in Denmark. They know me well! I have already read this book and just loved it. In fact, I set about this experiment after a long break from thinking about it because I followed a link to a YouTube video of Flintoff talking about nettle fibre. Needless to say it falls short of being a full instructional guide on how to rett nettle fibre. In fact, I have really struggled to find any instruction on how to decide when flax or nettle has retted long enough. Even Alden Amos’ Big Book of Handspinning (not normally a model of concision or falling short on the challenge of offering instructions) offers no real assistance. I am guessing that even a skilled person might struggle to describe how much decomposition of the woody parts of a stem is enough, but not too much! The most detailed account I’ve found is online here. So, I decided to leave the stems in the water for 5 days–based on the best advice I could find so far.
Nothing much to see at the end of the 5 day soaking. I dried the stems and set to work figuring out how to break the woody parts enough that I could detach them from the fibrous parts (traditionally, breaking, scutching and hackling, all with speciic tools). I tried stamping on them and rolling a metal pipe over them first. You can see some results from the rolling…
At this stage I delared the nettle unfit for further effort (shattered into pieces with little evidence of fibre). I am not sure why. I squashed the nettle stems as they were drying out the first time and maybe that was wrong, or maybe they were just too young.
Fibres were becoming more visible at each stage of flax bashing… and more chaff was falling away. I would say that means it was retted long enough. I tried my wool combs. Not great for the job, but some improvement. I really don’t have the tools (let alone skills) for breaking, scutching and hackling, and looking at the videos in the links above suggests my flax is very poor quality and short–no great suprises there either!
Next stage, laborious hand picking, I think.