Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Spinning flax

Before I got distracted by botany and Helios' journey across the sky, I was telling you about the flax sample I spun.

I spun some water retted flax top for my first attempt as it was the most affordable flax I got from Fun Knits when she was in town last month. I believe this is what is called tow flax, in that is a combed or carded left overs from making flax sticks (which are the long fibres you traditionally see dressed on a distaff). These fibres are arranged in something like a pencil roving. The individual fibres are about two to five inches long and are all aligned the same direction ready for spinning.

In a way, it was like spinning wool because the fibres were prepared very much like how wool is. But it was also very different from spinning wool as well. Hum, how do I describe this? Wool fibres feel soft and squishy so that you can bend them to you will quite easily, but flax fibres feel very firm and unyielding. Flax feels as if it should be brittle and that if you bend them even the slightest bit they will crumble; however, the fibres behave quite the opposite.

I had two sources of reference for spinning flax, of course I referred to knitty, specifically Spinning Line Flax (even though I wasn't spinning line flax, the article proved to be very helpful) and I also found an article in an old Spin Off magazine: "Spinner's Question; On wet-spinning flax", Summer 1999.

To spin the flax I had my Quebec wheel, a towel on my lap, a little jar of water, and some fibre.

Despite first appearance, the fibre was quite flexible and very strong. It does not have the springiness that wool does, but I was more than pleased with it. Flax fibres are very forgiving and after only a few minutes I was spinning a relatively even yarn. I found that this particular fibre spun better from the fold than it did when I tried to spin it from one end. I've never spun fibre successfully from the fold before, so I was quite surprised that I had so much success with this method. But that is what the flax wanted, and who am I to argue.

I spun the single S (counter clockwise) and plied it Z (clockwise) which is opposite to how I spin wool. I don't think there was much advantage to this as it was only short bits of fibre and not the long stems (a meter or so each) which would have a definite natural twist to it. But I'm not one to argue with tradition (well, not on this point anyway), so I spun it the way it was recommended.

As you can see from the photo, I have one hand (the back hand) holding the fibre mass and one hand (the front hand) pinching and pulling the fibre towards the wheel. To make the flax into a smooth yarn, I moistened the finger and thumb of my front hand in the bowl of water every so often. This smoothed down the ends and made the yarn feel more soft. The Spin Off article I mentioned has a recipe for a concoction you can use instead of water, which creates an natural sizing agent. I think I'll try that next time I spin flax.

All in all, I love spinning flax. I think, however, I will keep this for summer spinning, as spinning wool in the summertime is not that enjoyable. This will make a great project to spin in warm weather.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Why spin flax counterclockwise?

As you may remember, I picked up some flax fibre recently. I decided to give it a whorl on my Quebec wheel as this wheel was originally used for spinning flax.

I spun up a few meters of water retted flax top counterclockwise and plied it clockwise using the Andean plying method (where you wrap it around your hand and ply from both ends).

Wool is traditionally spun clockwise, so why spin flax counterclockwise?

Have you ever seen a been plant grow up a pole? It wraps itself around the pole as it grows and it does this because it follows the sun as it makes its way across the sky. Combine the movement with the sun with all sorts of other factors that don't need exploring at this juncture, and you discover that plants are amazing.

All plants (well, land plants at least) have some tendency to follow the sun and the taller they get and the faster they grow influences how much twist this movement creates in the plant. Trees tend to have very little twist, perhaps a couple of turns for their entire length; whereas beans, have a tremendous amount of twist, almost one twist for every day they have been alive and growing above ground. The amount of twist (and it's direction) is also influenced by how far north or south the plant lives. If the plant grows near the equator (where the sun stays for the most part directly above the land - I'm being loose with the details here, but you don't want me to get too technical do you?) then there is relatively little distance for the plant to travel each day and therefore very little twist enters the plants. If the plant grows closer to the north or south pole (say at about 50 degrees latitude - for example in Canada or southern Chile). In the summers (aka. growing season), the sun remains in the sky longer and travels along a longer route (technically not true, but appearance is what counts here). What this means for the plant is that it follows the sun further as it travels from east to west (because the sun does not travel directly above the ground like it does at the equator, rather, depending on where you are, it travels slightly to the north or to the south). Because of this, the plant develops more twist.

That's not all. If you are in the northern hemisphere, the plant will twist one way, but if you are in the southern hemisphere, the plant twists the other way. How cool is that? Very cool. In the northern hemisphere the top of the plant moves clockwise. Think of a sunflower flower that twists around on the stock throughout the day so that the flower's face is always pointed towards the sun. It faces east-north-east when the sun gets up in the morning, twists and follows the sun as it moves more south at midday, then continues to twist to the west-north-west as the sun sets in the evening. The next day, as dawn begins on the eastern horizon, the sunflower flower twists along the shortest path (north) to greet the sun as it rises in the east-north-east thus completing the circle and starting it all over again. From our point of view, looking down on the sunflower it moves clockwise, but if you are the sunflower stalk looking up at the flower, it actually moves counterclockwise as you will see in a moment.

(image from: http://www.eso-garden.com/)

If you look at a plant grown north of the tropics the same way you would look at yarn, it has an S (counterclockwise) twist to it and in a plant grown south of the tropics will have a Z (clockwise) twist to it. But what does this have to do with spinning flax?

(image from: http://www.botanical.com/)

Flax is a plant that is usually grown in the temperate zones. It is fairly fast growing and somewhat tall, so it too develops a twist as it grows. The further from the equator it grows, the more twist it develops. As we all know, twist is a vital component when it comes to making yarn. So when spinning flax, or any other natural plant fibre one should work with the twist that is already inherent in the fibre. (I'm suspect about the chemically extracted plant fibres such as soy silk or bamboo silk as they are not fibres derived from the plant itself, rather they are fibres created from the plant's proteins through a chemical method and any twist in the unspun fibres would not be from the way the plant grows; but rather, from the way the fibres were drawn from the protein bath and the molecular structure of how the proteins are combined)

(image from: http://www.botanical.com/)

Traditionally, in the northern hemisphere, flax is spun counterclockwise (with an S twist). I'm not certain how this takes advantage of the S twist already in the fibre, but I haven't found any books or sources that specify how exactly it works.

ETA: I took some liberties with the technical aspects here. I just wanted to give a basic explanation of how plants grow and what that has to do with spinning flax. My aim was not to give an in-depth overview of astrophysics or botany, &c.. Please keep in mind that the prevailing theory of how the solar-system works (don't even think about arguing on whether or not it should be called a theory; remember, I'm a philosophy major and I will whip the floor with you on this one) does not have the sun moving across the sky, but if you are a plant stuck in one place, it certainly appears as if that is what the sun does all day. Also the sun's apparent trajectory in the sky is dependent on the time of year and your latitude &c.. There are several details I didn't go into. If you know (or care) what they are, please don't hold my omissions against me. I just wanted to keep things simple so that everyone could enjoy this post.