Remember this intriguing wheel? Well, when Shan sent me a new photo of it, I wanted to know more. So I started asking questions, and it got more and more interesting.
Shan: It’s an unplanned lockdown project, because of two unexpected events: a package of line flax arriving and our delta covid lockdown starting. I haven’t got a distaff. But of course, I always wanted a distaff!
My modifications on spinning wheels always come about because my mind drifts while the spinning comfortably settles in, and then my mind starts to wonder. And then one thing leads to another. Next thing, I’m tinkering in the garage.
I made the distaff from an old plunger handle and some Wisteria twigs. My son used the rubber part for his trumpet mute, and left me with the handle (I paid for the whole thing).
Mary: What will you do now if you get a blocked pipe in your house!
Shan: Ah, I knew you were going to ask that. I have another one dedicated to the sink.
Mary: How did you attach the wisteria twigs to the shaft?
Shan: I drilled multiple holes into the plunger holder at the top and the bottom. Then I went searching for the right wisteria twigs and made arcs by pushing the ends into the holes. With that I made a lantern distaff.
It looks a bit different from in the first photo. That’s because I didn’t like the wrapping paper I covered the pipe with in the first picture, so I changed it to a paper in the same shade as the plunger handle. The pipe itself is blah green, By the way, the container has water in it, for me to dip my fingers in. Flax is generally wet-spun: water activates the pectin, which helps the fibre stickng together.
Mary: Where did you get the flax?
Shan: The line flax came from Austria. It all started when I read the post by Christiane Seufferlei on the SpinOff website. (I read this and it’s fascinating – Mary) I ordered a bit from her in June. It arrived in early August, and quite took me by surprise. I stared at the stricks forlornly when we went into lockdown.
Then somehow one day the idea came to me that the broken table Rudhall would be perfect. I had thought I could order an Ashford distaff, but that’s been discontinued. Oh well, there’s no stopping now.
Mary: Please could you explain about different grades of flax? Does flax need carding? Presumably line is short for linen? I’ve never spun flax and am very ignorant about it.
(Note to New Zealand readers: one of the few things I do know about flax is that phormium, which we refer to as flax here (the harakeke so wonderfully used in Māori crafts) is a completely different plant from the linum usitatissimum whose stems provide linen fibre.)
Shan: A strick is a bunch of long line flax fibre. Line/strick is grade A and tow is grade B flax. The difference between line and tow is that line flax is the longer fibre after hackling the flax, while tow is the waste product from the hackling process. The tow I have is European, and bought from Anna Gratton many years ago. The line flax isn’t carded but the tow was carded into rovings.
Spinning flax is a rather slow process, particularly spinning tow. I did spin some tow on the broken table wheel before I rigged up the distaff. I needed to know if the wheel is all right for spinning flax (ratio, uptake etc). In that instance I just hold the tow in my hands.
Mary: How did you dress the distaff? And do you ply the yarn?
Shan: I fanned out the fibre into thin layers in a semi-circle shape, basically drafting out the dense bunch.
Mary: Does linen yarn have to be washed? And what do you plan to make with it?
Shan: I boil the linen yarn in soda and the yarn becomes silvery colour. Can you tell from the photo that the washed skein is silvery? The water ends up being tea colour, as the linen yarn sheds that yellowish look.
At the moment, I’m weaving with the yarn I spun. Here is a tea-towel I wove a while ago using handspun linen for the weft (in this photo the weft goes side to side). The towel gets softer after every wash.
Shan: I am planning to cut some branches from the garden and make a straight distaff, to go directly into the hole that holds the bobbin holder. Ultimately, it’s that hole in the table that drew me to this particular wheel. Originally I had expected that the hole would be for a distaff. It turned out to be for the bobbin-holder, but it could just as well hold a distaff. It’s a relief that the wheel suits spinning flax.
I’m still looking for a straight stick to fit the hole. That’ll come later. The stick needs to be long enough to clear the length of the line flax hanging down the distaff. Otherwise, the bobbin will catch the fibre inadvertently (it has happened!).
Mary: Thank you so much Shan. The range of fibres and techniques available to spinners is enormous. Any time we get a little bored, there are always more things to try!