Grandma Knitty Home
Knitty®: little purls of wisdom
what's the editor up to lately?feature articlesKnitty's generous selection of patternsKnittyspinşarchive of previous issuesMeet other Knitty readers and chat in our coffeeshop!sign up for the free Knitty newsletterLooking for an ad fromone of our advertisers? Click here!Our tiny, perfect online shopping mallGet yourself a little Knitty treat!read the behind-the-scenes news at Knitty

Find exactly what you're looking for

The answer to your question about Knitty is probably here!

Take home something Knitty today

Advertise with Knitty

Get your cool stuff reviewed in Knitty

Full information about how  to get published in Knitty

Read exactly what FREE PATTERNS really means...respect our designers and authors rights [and thank you]

Knitty is produced in a pro-rabbit environment

© Knitty 2002-2008. All rights reserved. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited. This means you.


< click for more!

[in which we learn how to spin line flax without a distaff]

As the weather warms up, my fibers of choice undergo a seasonal change, away from the woolies and toward the veggies. It seems natural to want to spin the same fibers that I most enjoy wearing in warm weather: cotton, hemp, and, my personal favorite, flax. Many spinners, even those who are quite experienced, shy away from flax, thinking that it is complicated and requires a distaff. Flax is actually no more difficult to spin than wool, and even line flax can be spun without a distaff.


Even if you have no desire to ever plant a patch of flax, spinners will find it helpful to understand the basic process so you’ll know what you are buying. Flax fiber is harvested from the stems of the flax plant, Linum usitatissimum, an annual that grows about two to three feet high. Strong, silky fibers run the length of the stem, underneath the woody outer bark. Freeing those fibers is a time- and labor-intensive process that requires lots of skill.

The preindustrial method of turning flax stems into linen yarn has not changed in centuries. Plants need to be pulled, not cut, because the fibers extend into the roots, and they need to be harvested at just the right time and dried. The stems are then rippled through a coarse metal comb to remove the seed pods and retted (literally, rotted) to dissolve the outer bark. Retting is a rather stinky and tricky process and can be accomplished by laying flax on the ground and exposing it to the sun, dew, and rain (called “dew-retting”) or by soaking the flax in a stream or pool of water (“water-retting” or sometimes more specifically “pond” or “stream-retting”). Each method has its proponents. Ret a bit too long and you’ll end up with a mushy mess; underret and you won’t be able to get the gummy sap off the fibers. After being dried again, the fibers are then “broken” with a huge wooden flax brake (or pounded with mallets called beatles) and “scutched” (or “swingled”) with a wooden knife to remove the woody outer material. Finally, the fibers are hackled: drawn through progressively finer metal combs to separate the “line,” or longest fibers, from the shorter, coarser “tow.”

The textile industry has developed ways of mechanizing certain steps of the process: chemicals can replace water and dew for retting and machines can harvest, ripple, break, and scutch. Yet the industrial production of linen requires much more handwork and specialized equipment than that of cotton, and in many areas of the world, the traditional ways are still used. Spinners who are concerned about the environmental impact of their fiber can look for flax retted with dew or water rather than chemicals, although so little of the world’s flax production is geared toward handspinners that you may not always have a choice. For the ultimate DIY experience, you can try growing your own, but be sure the seeds are those of Linum usitatissimum, which yields fiber for spinning, and not Linum perenne, a blue-flowered garden annual (see for seeds and Rita Buchanan’s A Weaver’s Garden [New York: Dover Publications, 1999]for answers to fiber-related gardening questions you didn’t even know you had).

I will admit that I grew a nice large plot of flax about ten years ago, dried the plants, and left them in my father-in-law’s shed, where they are still waiting for me. Luckily for those of us who take a long time to finish things, flax does not mind being stashed in any form. Those dried plants will be happy when I finally ret them, and flax spinning fiber or yarn can be stored—if kept dry—indefinitely. Moths do not attack the cellulose fibers of flax, so you can accumulate with abandon!

Ready-to-spin flax is usually available as top or roving (these terms are often used interchangeably when plant fibers are involved), basically a combed preparation made from shorter tow fibers, or as a strick of line flax, the very long fibers.

Symeon North’s tips for wheel settings and twist for spinning hemp top can be applied to flax as well. (Preindustrial processing of hemp was pretty much identical to that of flax, so if you were able to find line hemp, you would treat it just like line flax. Unfortunately, I have never seen a commercial source for line hemp for handspinners, only top.)

My favorite way to spin flax top is to pull off a piece about six inches long, fold it over my left index finger, move the fibers backward in a long draw, and control twist with my right hand. I like to make a two-ply sport-weight from top to use in knitting.

Line flax is traditionally spun from a distaff, which is really nothing more than a way of organizing these very long (sometimes three feet long!) fibers and keeping them from becoming a tangled mess. While a dressed distaff is certainly a thing of beauty, there are numerous other ways of taming line flax. The key thing to remember is that a distaff organizes a quantity of flax in a format that allows the spinner to stop spinning and leave her set-up for later. When you are improvising ways to spin without a distaff, you need to think about using much smaller quantities of fiber, and you may end up not being able to step away from your wheel (at least, in theory!) until you complete your handful.

Line flax usually comes twisted into a neat little bundle with the ends wrapped around themselves.

I use Euroflax long line flax, which is the most widely available. Carefully unwrap the ends and untwist the bundle, gently shaking the fibers free without tangling them.

Old-timey spinning authors tend to tell you to spin from the “root end,” but I’ve also seen recommendations to spin from the “blossom end,” and after trying each, I don’t think it makes much of a difference. If you want to experiment, the root end is supposed to be more crimped and a bit coarser, while the blossom end tapers to a point.

Set up a small table or chair next to your wheel with a small bowl of water on it. You’ll need to see which side you prefer to have it on—I like mine on the right. Of course, spinners have argued for ages about whether flax should be wet spun or not. I have found that after washing and drying the finished items, you can’t really see much of a difference, but I prefer to dampen the fingers of my right hand (the one closer to the orifice) regularly as I spin anyway. I like the way the water tames the little flyaway fibers, and wet-spun yarn looks smoother off the bobbin. But don’t soak the flax itself; you will end up with a tangled mess that won’t draft. And keep a dish towel handy for covering your lap or mopping up drips.

In general, flax likes to be spun finely, especially the long fibers of line flax. To create a thicker yarn for knitting, plan on plying. A three-ply makes an especially nice yarn for knitting, and it’s well worth the extra work. You’ll want to spin the singles with enough extra twist to compensate for plying, but overtwisting will make the finished yarn hard and brittle. Be sure joins are secure and that the fibers actually mesh rather than just wrapping around each other or the yarn may drift apart when you ply it. Loosen the take-up on your wheel if the fibers slip out of your hands too quickly at first.

There are probably dozens of ways to spin line flax without a distaff but here are the four that I’ve tried.

Separate a thin (index finger width) bunch from the strick and sit down at your wheel. You can predraft from the end as you would with wool top, attenuating the strick without letting it drift into pieces. To keep things manageable, don’t predraft too much at once. I find that I have better luck with this method when I limit myself to predrafting only one section at a time. When I’ve tried to prepare several predrafted rovings at once and then coil them, the way I would normally prep a little basket of wool top, I’ve ended up with too many tangles. Create a long airy roving and begin spinning from one end. Personally, I find that I can’t get a good rhythm with this method since you need to stop and predraft after finishing each section, but I offer the idea for your experimentation.

A more satisfactory approach is to lay a towel across your lap and, taking a half-inch wide bunch from your strick, fan a thin layer of flax over the towel, keeping the fibers at a right angle to your wheel. Draw from the center of this mass to spin.

Alternately, you can fold the little bunch of flax over your index finger and spin from the fold. It’s a much longer fold than you’ll have when you spin flax roving, but it works in basically the same way. Keep the hand holding the fiber relaxed so the flax will draft freely.

Last, but not least, you can spin line flax from a towel. This method is generally attributed to the venerable Olive and Harry Linder, authors of the classic Handspinning Flax, now out of print. This works like a charm! It also has the advantage of being portable—you can stop spinning at any time and fold up your little bundle for easy transport or storage.

To begin, place a large hand towel (or small bath towel) on a flat surface. Uncoil your strick and gently shake it to straighten and open the fibers. Place the fibers lengthwise in the center of the towel with one end of the strick visible and fold each long end of the towel over the fibers to create a loose bundle. I prefer not to tie the bundle.

I prefer not to tie the bundle because I find that it prevents the fibers from flowing freely. Place the bundle on a low table at your side or on your lap.

Begin by drafting a few fibers from the end.

A modified short draw comes in handy here because there isn’t much room between fiber source and orifice. As you continue spinning, you’ll need to reposition the strick within the towel so that enough peeks out of the end. Eventually, the towel will be empty and your bobbin will be full.

Whichever method you choose, be sure to wind your yarn off of the bobbin as soon as you are finished filling it if you wet your fingers as you spin. Damp linen yarn can mildew or warp your bobbins if left to sit.

There are several options for finishing your linen yarn. You can simply begin knitting, or you can wash it in warm, soapy water, rinse, and hang it to dry. Older spinning manuals often suggest that linen yarn should be boiled on PVC bobbins to keep it under tension, but I have not found this to be necessary for knitting. I prefer to boil the well-tied skeins in a big pot of water with a little dish soap. You can let them boil for hours without hurting them, but fifteen minutes will work too, and then shut off the heat. My rule of thumb is the worse the yarn looks (or feels) right off the bobbin, the longer I boil it!

When the water is cool, I rinse the skeins and hang them to dry (without weights). They emerge clean, a bit lighter, and softer, if not actually soft. The yarn also develops a lovely shine as it boils. Linen yarn has little elasticity and is very stiff at first, which makes it more challenging to knit. But completed items can be machine washed and dried and will get softer and more lustrous over time. Because linen has a lot of body, lace patterns show beautifully.

When the temperature soars this summer and you find yourself wanting to spin, give flax a try!


Schacht Matchless Double Treadle
Hackle: Indigo Hound wool hackle (double row)
After many discouraging experiments with homemade spindles (potatoes and knitting needles!), Lee Wood Juvan learned to spin when she was twelve in a summer workshop at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. She didn’t get her own wheel until 1990, but she’s been at it since then. Her work has also appeared in Spin-Off.