The last couple of months have been a busy period. The flax I’ve been growing as part of the Flax to Linen project has transformed. Beautiful blue flowers were replaced by seedpods the size of peas that turned from green to gold as the seeds inside ripened.
After 119 days I harvested the flax by pulling handfuls from the roots, to get the fibres as long as possible, shaking off any soil. I then set about with the ‘dew retting’ process whereby the harvested flax was laid out for a month, exposed to whatever the British weather through at it.
Retting is a natural moulding process, rotting the outer and dissolving the cohesive gum (pectins) that holds the fibres together. This will make it easier to separate the flax fibres from the core. These fibres are positioned between the outer bark surface and the inner woody core. It is during the retting process that the fibre obtains its natural beige colour. Just like wine, the amount of sun and environmental factors influence the colour. I turned the flax regularly to make sure both sides were equally retted. For a whiter fibre, water retting is usually done where the flax is submerged but unfortunately the decaying stalks pollute the water and the unpleasant odour that would be created made this option less attractive!
I have now ‘stooked’ my retted flax into bundles to dry out before I start to process it into fibre ready for spinning and weaving. There is a certain satisfaction going through the whole process of seed to fabric and I’m looking forward to seeing just how much woven linen my little plot of grown flax will produce. It will certainly be a very valuable piece of linen in terms of time spent creating it!
Within the Flax to Linen project, I’ve been doing some research into making paper from the flax tow (the discarded shorter fibres) that will be left when the longer fibres are removed from the plant to make linen yarn. I’ve also been looking into making paper from linen rags as traditionally, old weathered linen clothes were used to make paper. I’ve done a bit of papermaking in the past from wood pulp and cotton rags by using a kitchen blender so I thought I would try the same method with cut up linen rag. How naive I was! Because the fibres are very long and strong, the blades of the blender couldn’t cut them up. The fibres tended to clog around the blender’s blades as well as the mould and deckle frame. It proved very challenging. Even when the fabric and fibres were cut up into tiny pieces, the blender seemed to join them back together into long unmanageable fibres.
I contacted a number of professional papermakers to ask for advice and I soon learned that the flax plant (and linen rag) is quite unique with its long fibres. I was advised to cook and soak the fibres to help break them down, so over the course of a couple of months I’ve been exploring various methods. These have included soaking the fibres for long periods of time and cooking them for hours with washing soda and soda ash, even trying an old pressure cooker to speed up the cooking time. All of my experiments proved inconclusive and the mistake I was making, was that the blender only cuts the fibres, it doesn’t macerate them. The fibres needed ‘beating’ as opposed to ‘blending’, ideally in a Hollander Beater or by spending days (even weeks) beating it to a pulp! I’m now presently liaising with Billerudkornas Paper Mill in Beetham, Cumbria to use their old Hollander Beater to produce enough pulp to experiment with.
Running alongside the Flax to Linen project, I’ve been doing quite a lot of coastal drawing work. I was fortunate to spend a week on the Northumbria coast this summer and also two weeks on the beautiful Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides.
I’m not a painter although deep down I wish I were! As you’ll notice from my previous printmaking and drawing work, I’ve tended to shy away from using colour so it was a massive challenge to myself to try and incorporate some colour into my work. Through the spontaneity of mark making, I tried to focus on the physical and emotional impact of the landscape on my senses. I wanted to create atmospheric drawings to express a sense of place and my relationship to it, rather than a visual representation.
Feeling the full force of wind and weather, I welcomed the addition of sand and sea spray on the work. The process of applying, removing and reapplying paint is similar to the way the landscape itself is laid down over time, eroded and rebuilt by natural forces.
I love being by the coast and to me it’s a restorative experience, being mesmerised by the incoming tide. Watching the North Atlantic swell on the Isle of Barra with 50mph winds certainly was spectacular. No drawing work could ever do justice to that experience, let alone trying to keep hold of any drawing materials. A Hebridean wind is not something to be taken lightly!
On the calmer days I decided to try and capture the whole water experience by drawing whilst in the water. I’ve just started open water swimming and it felt good to be completely immersed in the sea. The gentle incoming swell impacted on the marks that I made. I had some control but allowed the sea to be my collaborator.
I remember as a child my parents would often struggle to get me out of the water, whether it was from the sea, a lake or a swimming pool, I would spend hours in it. I’m at my happiest in and near water. It’s that primal, visceral experience which I love. The immediate relationship and connection with the environment. The liberation that comes with the weightlessness, entering a private world where it is just you and the water.