Madelaine Walker has been spinning and weaving for over 35 years, but her experiences took on a new dimension when she was asked to conduct demonstrations for the Flax Commission’s first Fibre in Demand Show in Saskatoon several years ago.
“I had spun a little with linen before, but not very much. So I had to do quite a bit of studying to learn how to handle flax.
“Flax is probably one of the oldest fibres in the world. Remnants of linen have been found dating back to the Stone Age. It was also used by the ancient Egyptians — the linen they used to wrap mummies has been found to be still in one piece. Flax fibre doesn’t rot, bugs don’t like it and enzymes won’t break it down. It’s a strong fibre that has been valued for centuries,” Walker says.
Extracting the fibre from flax is quite a process, Walker explains. The plant has to be harvested with the root intact so that the full length of the fibre is preserved. Nowadays there is harvesting equipment which can lift the plants out and lay them in rows to ret. Retting (or rotting) by a combination of dew, sun and rain or immersing the stalks in water helps to break down the pectin which holds the fibre bundles together. The long, silky fibres are found underneath the woody outer bark. Care has to be taken to leave the stalks out for the right length of time so only the outer layer breaks down.
After retting and drying, the stalks are put through a flax break to crush and break up the woody core. Most of this falls away. Next, it is scutched with a wooden blade which causes the remainder of the woody outer layer (shives) to fall away. The flax is then hackled (put through metal combs to separate the long fibres from the short ones). Hackling also aligns the fibres ready for spinning. The shorter fibre that is combed out in the process is called tow. This tow can be spun into a coarser, rougher thread useful for weaving absorbent towelling or other rough fabrics.
The resulting flax fibres look somewhat like blond human hair — hence the term “flaxen.” Because of its strength, flax fibre is used for high-quality paper, money and cigarette paper.
“Flax fibre is very strong, but doesn’t have the elasticity of other fibres such as cotton or wool, for example. Weavers are often apprehensive to use for that reason. I’ve made tea towels, runners and placemats to name a few. I’ve worked with pretty well all fibres including alpaca, llama, wool, rayon, silk and tencel, (a fabric made from wood),” Walker says.
Flax fibre needs to be kept moist when spinning. “I make a solution where I combine a spoonful of flaxseed with a cup of water. I simmer the mixture for about 10 minutes, then strain and pour it into a jar. I hang a dish on my spinning wheel with a sponge dipped in the solution and by keeping my fingers damp while spinning, a strong, smooth yarn can be produced. This makes it much easier to spin a finer thread if desired. Flax likes humidity,” she says.
Walker has several looms in the basement of her Saskatoon home, some of which she uses at demonstrations, others are workhorses on which she creates an endless array of items.
“My first loom was a four-harness counterbalance loom. I still like it because it’s quiet and easy to work with. I use it for weaving my blankets or any wider items.
“My sturdy 36-inch Clement loom is for production work such as mug rugs and placemats, for example. I also have a small table loom with just four harnesses which is very handy for demonstrations because it is easily moved about.”
Her most recent acquisition is an eight-harness 60-inch loom which will allow her to weave more intricate patterns.
Walker also hand-knits and has a couple of spinning wheels. She’s been attending craft sales across the province for over 25 years and has demonstrated weaving and spinning using a number of different types of fibres at Heritage Days in Hudson Bay, the Parkland Artisan tour and several other festivals. In 2008 she was asked to weave gifts for delegates attending the International Flax Conference in Saskatoon. “Incorporating the blue and yellow colours of Crop Fibres Canada and the Saskatchewan Flax Commission, I designed and wove 200 mug rugs using linen for that purpose.
“Fibre is a part of my soul — it’s who I am. Even as a young girl, I liked to have bits of cloth to sew doll clothes, or a bit of wool to knit or to weave on my two-inch Weave-It Loom.”
Madelaine Walker can be reached at her home-based business, called Fibrelaine, at (306) 955-8059 or email [email protected]