During my workshop in spinning, I had the opportunity to try spinning flax, both in strick form and in bleached, tow form, as well as a linen blend. The plant fibers all felt quite different from the animal fibers. The first difference was a sort of crunchy, crispy feel to the fiber, unspun and spun. It really became obvious when winding the single on a ball winder. Since the plant fibers have no elasticity, when one removes them from the ball winder, then center hole where the cone was remains as a hole instead of filling with with the fiber.
As I spun the sample skeins and played with them in the novelty yarns, my mind started going off in all sorts of tangents. I started thinking in terms of where could I use these yarns, and where could I use some of the novelty yarns as accents on simple pieces? And so, I started down another slippery path on the Internet, researching the fiber, the differences between tow linen and line linen, what the heck retting was, etc. So, today you get a Readers' Digest condensed version of all of this, just in case you were curious.
Flax is not cut when harvested, but pulled straight out of the ground about a month after initial blooming. The bundles are tied with the roots even and a slip knot that can be tightened as the stalks dry. They are kept standing upright until the entire plant is dry and the seeds are ripe. The seedheads are then removed by combing the stalks through a board with multiple nails in it. Once de-seeded, the flax can be stored for many months provided it is kept dry.
Retting is the process of rotting away the inner stalk while preserving the outer fibers. A water tight container of wood, concrete, earthenware or plastic works for this part of the process, but metal will not survive the assault of the acid produced when retting. The bundles of flax are placed upright in the container (i.e. trash can) and the container is then filled with warm water. After four hours, one needs to completely change the water. Eight hours after that, the scum (doesn't this sound lovely? It gets better!) should be washed off the top by the addition of more water. After that, the scum gets washed off every 12 hours until the retting is over. In warm climates (80 degrees) this process takes 4-5 days and in cooler temps, the process takes longer.
According to Wikipedia, when the retting is complete, the bundles should feel "soft and slimy" (I told you it got better) and fibers should be standing out from the stalks. When it is ready, a stalk wrapped around a finger should show the inner woody part springing away from the fibers.
Next, is dressing the flax, which refers to removing the fibers from the straw and cleaning it enough to be spun. Here is where we get into cool terms like "breaking", "scutching" and "hackling."
To break the flax, one takes handfuls of the plant and puts it in the beater machine. The beater is described as a large paper cutter type device with a blunt arm instead of a blade. One raises the arm and beats the stalks until they appear to be soft. The flax is moved a bit higher, and the process repeated until the full stalk is soft. About halfway, the beaten end is held while the unbeaten part is processed.
Scutching is done to remove the straw from the fiber. It is done with a wooden scutching knife, drug down the fibers while they hang vertically, scraping the edge of the knife along the fibers and pulling away pieces of the stalk. Some of the fiber is also lost this way.
Hackling is when the fiber, now beaten and scutched, is drawn through various sized hackles. A hackles is a bed of nails driven into wooden blocks at regular intervals. They progress from 4 pins per square inch to 12, then 25 then 48 and finally 80. The first three remove the straw, and the last two will split and polish the fibers. Some of the finer stuff that comes off in the last hackles can be carded like wool and spun. It will produce a coarser yarn than the fibers pulled through all the hackles because it will still have some straw in it. I believe this stuff is called tow linen from the broken fibers. The stuff that makes it through all the sizes of hackles I believe is what is referred to as "line" linen.
Next is dressing the distaff , or the flax can be laid on the spinner's lap. Wet spinning refers to the spinner keeping their fingers wet while spinning - this helps dissolve the pectin holding the fibers together, allowing them to draw more finely and prevent a fuzzy halo from forming on the spun yarn. Singles are recommended to be spun "S" or counterclockwise. After spinning, flax should be let to sit in a pot of boiling water for a couple of hours to set the twist and reduce the fuzziness.