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:

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:

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:

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.


carla said...

Very informative! You've kind of got me yearning for some flax now :)

JustApril said...


I'm pretty sure I would have NEVER considered that, though I enjoy watching time lapse photography of flowers whipping around and around keeping their faces towards the sun =)

Josiane said...

Thank you for that very interesting post!

TinkingBell said...

What a great post this one is and the one about Cowichan!! How interesting and now I really must learn how to spin - just so I can try spinning southern hemisphere flax clockwise!

Anonymous said...

This was very interesting indeed - thank you. I wondered if you could answer this question (its connected with a local history project I'm involved in, featuring linen handloom weavers in 19th century Scotland who may or may not have grown their own flax): how much linen thread can be spun from how many flax plants - ie what's the ration of plants, or acreage/hectarage, to spun thread?

raven said...

What a great question: How much linen thread per so many plants?

There are many veritable including weather, hours of sunshine, how much rain fall, fertility of the soil, how the plant is processed, how thick you make the thread...&c.

I wouldn't venture to make a guess myself but I think there are a few books that touch on this. The Big Book of Handspinning < > mentions something about this. I think The Linen Project would be more helpful.

Inge Leonora-den Ouden said...

Hi from the Netherlands. I am going to share this information with the FB group 'Permanet (NL)'. We're all very interested in how to use natural materials.