...or perhaps never even thought about?
This past Saturday, Kevin, Emma and I went to the Stahlstown Flax Scutching Festival. Kevin's been to this one before with his antique farm equipment group, but I'd never gone, as it always falls on the same weekend as the Pittsburgh Irish Festival, and that's where Emma and I usually go to get our annual Gaelic Storm fix. This year, we opted out of the Irish Festival and headed out early Saturday to check out the festival of flax. It's a small festival, easy to see all there is to see in just a couple of hours, but it was pretty neat. In addition to being a beautiful day to be up in the mountains, there were buckwheat pancakes & sausage to be had, as well as several vendors selling all sorts of crafts, as well as some selling honey and maple products. (Mmm...maple candy. I love maple candy. Reminds me of my childhood.)
The centerpiece of the festival, however, is the flax demonstration. Apparently it is a very well known festival for this very reason, attracting people from all over the country and beyond, which seems odd considering how small Stahlstown is.
I admit, I was curious about how flax was historically processed into thread and then fabric. I knew very little about spinning plant fibers, and nothing about flax. I can't say that now, though! And I have a little pictorial essay to share my new found knowledge with you!
The gentleman who gave the presentation here is holding the flax as it appears when it is harvested, which is done by pulling it from the ground by its roots. The roots contain some of the finest flax fibers, so to cut it off above the ground would mean losing valuable fiber.
The first step in processing the flax then takes place out in the field where it is retted, or laid in the sun and turned over periodically so that bacteria that live inside the flax can begin to break down the woody part of the plant, thus helping to free the flax fibers.
The second step is breaking, which I didn't get to photograph. It's done on large frame-like tool with long wooden teeth between which the flax stalks are beaten. That breaks up the woody part of the flax even further and removes it from the flax fibers.
Once the fibers are free of the woody part of the plant, the third step is the scutching, which is what this girl is doing. It's basically beating the flax with that paddle to remove the more coarse fibers. This results in a tangle of the coarse fibers, which are called "tow," resembling the hair of small blond children, hence the term "tow-headed." The tow was used for a variety of things, including cleaning gun barrels and for insulation in homes.The tow could also be spun and made into coarse fabric used for sacks and other non-garments.
The next step before the flax can be spun is to remove even more of the coarse fibers by hackling (or heckling...depending on whether you are using the German or Scottish version of the word, I think). Hackles, or heckles, are those iron teeth sticking up like a big brush and the fibers are combed through it, producing more tow.
Finally, the spinning! Unlike spinning wool, in which you generally hold the fiber in your hand, the flax fibers are held on a distaff while they are being spun.
Also unlike wool, flax fibers do not have scales, therefore in order to get the fibers to hold together as they are being spun, the spinner must wet his or her fingers and the moisture then helps form the spun strand. That's what the little suspended water bowl on the side of the spinning wheel is for.
The ultimate goal for the fiber is to be spun into linen thread, which can then be woven into fiber. Initially it is spun onto a bobbin on the spinning wheel, then the thread is transferred from that bobbin to a longer bobbin that goes inside the shuttle used in weaving on the loom. This is accomplished by use of a much larger wheel, the walking wheel. Apparently it was possible to spin directly using the walking wheel, but it looked like that would have been a major pain, considering how often the drive band slipped off!
Thread being transferred to the longer spindle for the shuttle.
Finally the thread is used for both warp and weft on the loom and woven into linen cloth. Sometimes they would warp the loom with linen thread and weave with wool, resulting in a rather coarse fabric they termed linsey-woolsey. The very last step was for the fabric to be put through a linen press, but I wasn't able to get a picture of that, either.
So...cool, eh? They were selling various flax/linen souvenirs, and I asked if they had any of the prepared flax fiber for sale, as I'd have liked to have brought some home to try and spin it. Alas, they did not. It's hard to come by and they only have enough on hand for the demonstrations. I wasn't the only person who asked about it, though, I was told...so maybe in the future I'll get lucky?
Interestingly, when I was a kid, my mother's aunt gave me a bundle of flax fiber. It looked and felt much like a long, golden pony tail that got lopped off of someone's head. That both fascinated me and kind of creeped me out. I had that flax for many years, but my mom finally decided it should be thrown out because she was afraid it would attract bugs. I don't know if it would have or not, but I really kind of wish I still had it now. :}