Processing flax to fibre


There is a lot of work involved in the processing of flax to linen. After the retting and the flax is totally dry then you start by breaking, then on to scutching and hackling before you can spin any thread.

2012 06 16 breaking flax

 Our demonstration at Saanich Historical Artifact Society (SHAS). Good picture of the breaks. The larger heavier one nearest the road was on loan.  We still have the lighter one which is fine for us as we now have a home made rotary break to work with.

2013 08 10 from JBM post
   Another picture of Ken breaking the flax - also at James Bay Market. You can see the fluffy tow under the sawhorses. This is the waste from the bundle of flax that is being pulled through the hackles. It gets picked clean of straw and carded on a drum carder then is ready for spinning. There is quite a difference between long line spinning and spinning tow, but it's all good.

This picture also shows the two different breaks. The hand break which Ken is using and beside him our new rotary break. We are finding that the flax needs to be crushed a bit in the hand break then put through the rotary break to get a lot more of the boon off. Some of our friends made this rotary break from a pattern on the internet.
2013 05 01 new rotary break

Newly made rotary break by one of our members, John, and a couple of his friends. It was difficult to make the wooden gears and have them mesh properly but between the three men it works fine now.   John came up with a neat solution to fasten the break to a sturdy workmate.  He fastened a piece of 2/4 to the bottom of the break then clamped into the workmate. Makes it easier to load into a truck without the break being attached to it's own stand. Also a lot lighter. The break is really heavy and demands a really heavy duty work mate to clamp it onto. The two fellows who were a great help with this project are:
Jim Aalder (Architect) he helped with the drawings and program for the gears needed.
Ken Guenter (Teacher/Custom Furniture maker) he did the cutting of the gears on the cnc machine at Camosun.  Our John made everything else.
Many thanks guys.
2013 05 01 new rotary break

The flax is put into the gears by turning the handle on the side.  The flax is pulled through by the gears and the gears break the straw.  We have found that if you put the flax in a little way then roll it back and forth and keep moving the bundle in a bit at a time, continuing with the back and forth motion, is the best way to work it.  Also helps to break the untied bundle on the old break just a bit before putting it through the rotary gears. That makes it a little easier to turn the handle on the hard straw.  The gears were a problem getting them to line up properly so they would do the job of breaking the flax efficiently. Work fine now.


2012 06 16 SHAS Ken scutching

 Scutching or skutching  (scraping the straw bits off).
This was before we got our rotary scutcher, and we still use this method a lot when we don't have room for the rotary scutcher in my car along with everything else.

rotary scutcher by John

 This is the new rotary scutcher   The treadle set up powers the wheel with the wooden blades that beat the broken flax straw a person flips into the blades & an adjustable board on the left side of the machine.  The blades turn and scrape the straw off the broken flax bundle. It takes a bit of getting used to and you've got to watch your fingers.  The other problem is the size. Difficult to fit in with every thing else for transport to demonstrations.  We are very lucky now to have two ladies with pickups so if one of the them is coming to a demonstration we can maybe bring the bigger tools like the rotary break and rotary scutcher.
There has been a change in the design of the treadle but I haven't a picture of it yet.

 2012 08 19 Hackling at Fibrations
Shows three different size hackles.  The fibre, combed out of the previously scutched bundles is now tow. This can be picked clean of boon (straw) and spun into a lesser quality thread.  Tow also was used to make tow ropes, coarser quality fabric for shirts, skirts & trousers which are a bit scratchy until worn and washed many times.  It's also not as strong as a long line thread with its longer fibres. This tow is a byproduct of the long line fibre (strick) for fine spinning.

2012 line flax fingerlings

 Shows some of the little stricks from the processing at a demonstration.  Each strick represents a bundle of flax minus it's tow.  When I'm ready to spin this long fibre, I take a mini hackle, which is a spiky round flower frog (used to keep flowers in their place in a vase), and comb out the strick to get the rest of the boon that didn't comb out in the hackles. It's much drier now and comes off fairly easily for the most part.  There seems to always be a section in the middle that has boon stuck a little harder and doesn't come off as easily.
2013 01 drum carded tow

This tow will be spun into linen thread which will not be as strong as a long line fibre but will be just fine for a lot of things. Back in the day it was the Lord of the manor that got the fine linen and the peasants who wore the spun tow shirts. They were pretty scratchy until they got washed a few times and worn a lot.

2013 01 Laurie's carded tow for spinning

This tow was washed first then carded. Very nice.  Tow can also be blended with wool to make a beautiful blended fibre to spin.

Now the flax is ready to spin and at that point in the process the flax becomes linen thread.
Bea and Rita at Dickens Christmas Fair
Sometimes the only time we can get to spin for any length of time is at a demonstration.
Wrapping flax fibre to spin
If you have no distaff to hold the flax fibre while spinning, a cloth (small towel or pillow case size) can be used to wrap the strick tightly which keeps it together while spinning.  Get it all rolled up with a couple or three inches sticking out and tuck in under your arm and draw the fibre from the end into the spinning wheel.


  1. I did a little video of that day. It is this