Over the last few months I’ve been working with textile artist Stella Adams Schofield on the Flax to Linen project at Heron Corn Mill, Beetham in Cumbria. https://www.facebook.com/groups/theflaxproject/
Heron Corn Mill is celebrating 800 years (1220-2020) of milling with a Heritage Lottery Funded project, which will explore and celebrate the mill’s historical past focusing on the medieval origins of the mill.
The Flax to Linen project is part of the celebrations by bringing small-scale flax growing and fibre production back to the Cumbrian area. Flax is being grown and will be processed into linen cloth and the project will culminate in a piece of artwork during 2020. http://www.heronmill.org/projects/1220-2020-800-years-of-milling/
With growing my own Kombucha fabric from microorganisms, it seemed a logical step for me to get involved with the project to grow my own fabric again. I am excited to be growing my own flax, to then harvest, process and spin into yarn to weave into linen.
In May this year I prepared my little plot at home by raking the soil until it was fine with very few pebbles and stones, then I added poultry manure pellets to make it more fertile. I used the rake to draw lines across the plot in an effort to sow the seeds in straight lines and I worked out that 65g between the 22 lines was roughly 3gms of seed for each row. I started sowing the flax seeds within these marked lines only to find I had many seeds left over so I resorted to sowing the seeds in between the lines as well. Having started in a measured, methodical way, the seed sowing ended up irregular and many were broadcast. It wasn’t crucial as I believe flax needs to be grown close together to produce good fibre and to help support each other. I covered the plot with wire mesh to deter the hungry local birds!
The linen variety of flax seed produces tall straight plants that are good for spinning. However, linseed (which is sold in health food shops), produces plants that are shorter and which produce lots of seeds but very poor quality fibre, which is not suitable for spinning.
I hope to work through every stage of the growing, harvesting and the processing of the flax by making and using medieval tools and then to spin and weave it. I’ve been informed that the plot I’m growing might eventually make a piece of linen the size of a large handkerchief! An extremely valuable piece of linen I might add!
The more I learn about flax, the more exciting the project becomes. Flax was grown for thousands of years and was a common sight in this country. It’s hard to comprehend that every household used to grow fields of flax and harvest and process it by hand, to spin and weave their own garments. All parts of the plant can be used, so there is no waste. Linum Usitatissimum translates from Latin as “most useful.” In naming this species, botanists must have recognised the inherent value of this humble plant. Flax growing unfortunately went into decline because of cheaper cottons being imported from America.
I believe flax grows best in maritime climates where fields would transform into a beautiful blue sea of flowers. Although each flax flower only blooms for a day, each stem produces dozens of them over the period of a month.
I support the idea of returning to natural fibres and linen fabric is 100% biodegradable and recyclable. I’m looking forward to sharing with you each stage of the project as the year progresses.
What has come to light is the fascinating language of the different stages in the process after the flax has been grown and harvested…starting with ‘rippling’, ‘retting’, ‘stooking’, ‘breaking’, ‘scutching’, ‘hackling’ and then going onto the spinning, weaving, and ‘beetling’ stages. I’m looking forward to describing my actions as the project develops!
I’ve learned that the flax plant is really versatile, making the finest linen to the thickest rope. As a by-product of processing the flax fibre, paper was made from the discarded shorter fibres and also from old linen rags. This is an area I’m interested in pursuing further alongside the linen production. Flax fibres have been used for textiles, paper, matting, oil, linoleum, insulation and animal bedding, utilising every part of the plant. Today, it’s being developed in the form of bio-composites for the construction, automotive and sports industries, valued for its lightness, strength and shock absorption. Can this be the forgotten fabric of the future?
Running parallel with the research I’ve been doing for the Flax to Linen project, I’ve also been doing some printmaking. These are based on my coastal drawings I did whilst in Cornwall.
As well as some etching, I had the opportunity to try out screen-printing, which has intrigued me for some time. I was particularly interested in creating the positives by drawing directly onto mark resistant film. I liked the idea of building up layers but I learned there was a lot of preparation and a lot of cleaning up with screen printing! Once you had your positives exposed, the screen and inks prepared, the printing aspect was fairly straight forward. What hadn’t dawned on me was the sheer volume of work that could be created in producing an image multiple times.
I think screen printing can be an effective way to produce editions of an image although I still have very much to learn. I think my heart will always remain with the technique of mono-printing, although I believe you can paint directly onto the open mesh screen which I might explore in the future.