26 April, 2009

"On with the Scutching."

Pictured above you can see the flax processing hand tools at the Frontier Culture museum’s German farm. From right to left: flax break, scutching board and knife dangling from the board, and hackles. You can see these tools used, in that order, in the museum’s Youtube video by Dave.

You want your own, don’t you! I intend to go back and take measurements.

Here's a close up of the museum's scutching knife, shown with optional chicken accessory:

You can see, below, the scutching knife my estimable father fashioned for me, with its nifty handle that fits my fingers. If you click to enlarge, you'll see that the curved blade follows the actual grain of the wood, which is arbutus. (Americans call the tree madrona.)

When I requested this scutching knife, I had only seen the Frontier Culture museum’s video and diagrams in Elsie G. Davenport’s Your Handspinning and Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s Prehistoric Textiles. Now that I’ve seen one in person, I would go a lot thinner all around, and flatten and bevel the blade.

The museum's German-style scutching knife blade is about two feet long and two inches wide, with a rounded blade edge. There are a couple others at the Irish farm exhibit which are much more hefty and crude looking.

The museum's flax break has metal bars under the handle, but you can just use wood like the flax break in the museum’s Irish farm. The top piece is quite heavy. Dave pointed out to me that the weight takes advantage of the force of gravity in breaking flax stems, but takes effort to operate. He also said that, ergonomically, the height of the scutching board suits him better than the lower board at the Irish farm.

Ergonomics are important because the whole process takes effort. Karen, at the museum, said that one handful of retted flax takes twenty minutes for a quality product, but most people don’t take that long. After seeing Karen’s beautiful result,

I felt my efforts at breaking, scutching, and hackling were pretty shabby.

You don’t get a lot to spin at the end either. Karen recalled ten pounds of stalks that produced just nine ounces of line flax for her, along with the shorter tow fibres and the coarse stuff suitable for rope.

Back to equipment, I was interested to see that Gene Logsdon, in his second edition of Small Scale Grain Raising, describes each tool in his section on flax. It would have been nice if he had mentioned that flax comes in different varieties, some of which grow taller. He does mention seeding close together for the tallest stalks with the fewest side branches.

Tall flax means a longer line, and a longer line gets you closer to recreating the Egyptian splicing method, which would let me skip having to draft from a distaff and that is all to the good since I failed at drafting flax so miserably yesterday. But my obsession with the Egyptian splicing method (as described in Barber’s Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years and Prehistoric Textiles) and my hopes of getting my multi-talented father to throw and fire me a flax-wetting bowl patterned after archealogical finds, ah, that will be a blog story for another day.

I first found reference to the tall variety of flax on Ravelry, where someone recommended the Landis Valley Museum as a source of seed. Dave told me that the Frontier Culture museum’s fields are planted with seed saved from an original purchase at Landis Valley.

I come from a country that grows flax commercially for oil and seed. The Flax Council of Canada’s Website states that flax stems are used for specialty paper, but could be used for bio-fuel, pulp sweeteners that increase the times wood fibre can be recycled in paper, geotextiles to combat soil erosion, building insulation, and plastic composites such as car dashboards. The Flax Council also mentions flax for textiles, as long line flax and cottonized flax. Cottonized flax is an interesting application because it takes advantage of the common industrial equipment for processing cotton fibres and applies it to flax beaten into its smallest consitutent fibres. Cottonized flax is not a do-it-yourself proposition, though.

Given my attachment to the 100 Mile Fibre Diet concept, I am both optimistic and apprehensive about the possibilities of growing flax for hand spinning on Vancouver Island. The cool climate should be a treat for flax. On the other hand, the only commercial supplier I know of that sells the variety of seed I want is located in the United States, so how am I going to get what I want above the border? Perhaps Agriculture Canada would let the seeds through, I don’t know. I’m also attached to a Vancouver Island free of invasive plants, so I support border restrictions.

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