It has certainly been an unusual, surreal few months and I’ve struggled at times to adjust to a new way of life and new ways of working. It’s felt like a rollercoaster of emotions, trying to make sense of this pandemic situation. It’s been a period of uncertainty and self-reflection. Aside from baking, cooking and gardening I’ve found it hard to think creatively or focus on my own work and my professional life has become digital, having to embrace webinars, online meetings and conferences. So it’s really lovely to escape the computer screen and I’m so grateful to live where I do, to be able to take long walks from my house to connect with the natural environment.
On my daily walks I’ve been taking photographs, which have now prompted some quick on-site sketches of the views, coastal rocks and sand banks. I’ve become even more conscious of time as I observe nature change before my eyes. The coastal landscape transforms every day and the sand banks move and alter in appearance. Things washed up become displaced and it’s interesting to observe how far they travel along the estuary. I tend to walk early, around the same time each day, when the sun is low and it’s still cool. The state of the tide is always different with new gullies forming and old ones disappearing or changing route. The sand banks are sometimes dry to walk on and sometimes covered with the tide. It’s mesmerising watching the tide race in and out, creating rapids and tiny whirl pools. The colours change from greys to blues depending on the weather. It’s never the same on any two days and that’s what I love.
During this period of social isolation, I’ve often only had my shadow for company on my daily walks and without seeming narcissistic, I’ve started to photograph them. Even the presence of my own shadow, less than 2 metres away has started to unnerve me! I wonder if we will ever recover or things will ever quite be the same again.
One of the many positives to come out of lockdown is that my old fashioned mangle in my studio has been converted to a printing press, courtesy of my wonderful husband and I love it! Now I have no excuse not to be creative!
Before the lockdown I was pleased to have had one of my prints selected for the exhibition ‘Black and White’ at the Storey Gallery in Lancaster. This was a drypoint monoprint, based on the dynamic wild weather of North West Scotland.
The Coronavirus outbreak has significantly impacted on the The Flax Project but things are still happening in the background albeit at a much slower pace. Over the winter months I managed to process the flax I’d grown. In my previous posting I had ‘stooked’ my retted flax into bundles to dry out before processing it and what followed was a fabulous vocabulary of different stages namely Breaking, Scutching, and Hackling.
The fibres you need for making linen are located between the skin and the inner woody core (i.e. shive) of the flax stems.
Breaking is where the inner core is pounded, breaking it and leaving the fibres. Breaking the flax can be done by hand using the sharpened edge of a wooden block or by using a custom breaking machine.
I started ‘breaking’ by hand using a wooden hand tool but found the breaking machine (courtesy of Heron Corn Mill in Beetham) much more efficient and productive. This is similar to a blunt wooden guillotine where the flax is put between the 2 pieces of wood. This is the first stage of the processing and probably every cottage in medieval times would have had one of these (see video).
Scutching is the next stage in the processing to discard the broken inner woody shive. A scutching knife is used to scrape away and remove the broken bits, leaving the longer silky fibres. The shive left behind was often burned as fuel or used as animal bedding. These days it is used as a composite in the building trade and also used to make eco friendly bioplastic.
I found that some of my fibres broke during the scutching stage suggesting that I might have over-retted some of my flax after harvesting it. The act of retting removes the pectins that bind the fibres to the stalk and each other. If the flax is under-retted, it is harder to separate the fibre from the stalk whereas over-retting causes the fibres to deteriorate and break.
Hackling is the final stage of processing the flax where the shorter ‘tow’ fibres are separated from the longer ‘line’ fibres.The flax fibre is pulled through various sized heckling combs or hackles. Different sized heckling combs are used, progressing from coarser combs with only a few prongs (or nails) per inch, to finer combs. The finer the final heckling comb, the finer the flax yarn.
I would hold a bundle of flax firmly at one end and pull it through the prongs starting with the tips and progressing further into the bundle with each draw. The sharp pins clean and divide the bundles of flax and separate the long from the short fibres. The resulting strick of flax is shiny and all the fibres lie straight, parallel to each other. I can now see how the term ‘flaxen’ was used to describe hair.
The tangled shorter ‘tow’ fibres left in the hackles are not wasted but can be collected for spinning into a coarser yarn, then made into sacking or cord and rope. It is also used in the papermaking industries and has been used as upholstery stuffing in the furniture industry. When processing flax, it is normal to end up with more short tow fibres than the longer line fibres but the whole flax plant can be used, leaving no waste.
This whole project is an experiential learning process. Knowledge is gained through experience and by reflecting on that experience. The experiential learning cycle continues as I’ve just sown more flax seeds and they seem to be growing well. In 100 days I will be harvesting this flax and going through the whole process again!
If you recall I had been researching into making paper from flax tow and linen rags and I had started to experiment, initially using linen rag. I learned that the food blender I was using only cuts the fibres, it doesn’t macerate them and what was needed was a Hollander Beater. I have since been in touch with Billerudkornas Paper Mill in Beetham, Cumbria and they kindly invited me to use their old Hollander Beater.
When used with linen rag the Hollander Beater is designed to untwist and pull apart the threads in the cloth, destroying the warp and weft whilst also fraying the fibres in a process known as ‘fibrillation’.This helps the fibres to link onto one another when pulled out of the papermakers vat. The Hollander Beater scrapes, crushes, cuts and splits the fibre. In other words macerates it (noisily!). I videoed the process which you can watch here.
The more I used the beater the more I realised just how much I was out of my depth. I soon learned that this was not going to be straight forward and it was far more complex than I ever imagined as there were so many variables to consider. For example, the ratio of fibre to water (i.e. the density of the pulp); the beating time and how and when one manipulates the pressure of the roller against the bedplate. Only by spending time and gaining experience in using the Hollander Beater would I start to understand what it was I wanted. Many papermakers using a Hollander Beater spend years before they learn what quality of pulp they require.
I learned that generally, the longer the fibre is beaten, the more water attaches to the cellulose, and the slower the pulp drains when a sheet of paper is created. The resulting paper is crisp and strong, with high shrinkage. Paper made from pulp beaten for a shorter time is softer and more flexible. This pulp drains freely when a sheet is made, and there is little shrinkage. But where to start? Did I need to cook the linen rags and tow fibres prior to putting it in the Hollander Beater? Did I need to soak the rags and tow fibres overnight? I decided to work methodically and try various approaches….uncooked, cooked, unsoaked, soaked. In my research I’d read that I should cook the rags or tow in soda ash…but how much soda ash and for how long? Some research suggested 3hrs…4hrs…5hrs.
I believe soda ash helps separate out the cellulose fibres from the plant material and breaks down and dissolves the non-cellulose parts.The liquid turns a dark brown as the non-cellulose parts are dissolved during the cooking process.When more of the non-cellulose parts are dissolved, it results in a softer paper. As my practice always seems to relate to the coast, I was intrigued to learn that in the 18th century, soda ash was derived from kelp, a large brown seaweed harvested along the western coast of Scotland.
When the paper I created from the Hollander Beater dried, it shrank and funnily resembled a poppadum. Even when I ironed it flat, it still had a crispiness which I wasn’t that keen on.
Needless to say, I continue to explore the humble food blender as this gives a much softer paper more akin to textiles. There is still certainly much to learn and explore with this ‘liquid cloth’.