Linen

Linen to me is teatowels and 1980s dresses and suits. It’s so synonymous with domestic fabric that we call our storage space for it a ‘linen closet’.

Pick-up binder in flax at Drouin

Pick-up binder in flax at Drouin, Victoria. Machine from Drouin flax mills: Feb 1945 Source: Museum Victoria

Linen’s lineage

Linen comes from the inner fibres of flax plants. It is the strongest of all plant fibres. Like sheep, linen was first domesticated in Mesopotamia. The oldest known piece of clothing is made of linen. We’ve been using this fibre for so long, it’s embedded itself deep into the English language. Line, lingerie, lining all have historical roots in linen.

What I’ve discovered is that Victoria has a special history with linen. In WWII, the British lost access to their normal sources of flax in Russia, Belgium and Ireland. Flax was used in coats and parachute harnesses, ropes, tarpaulins and glider covers. All important things for the war effort. The Brits told Australians to step up and gave Australia a quota. By 1942 that quota was 32,000 acres. Victoria’s share of that quota was 28,000 acres (a big jump from the 2,000 acres grown in 1930). Farms in places like Hamilton, Colac, Berwick and Drouin contributed flax. There were 10 mills and six deseeding depots at places like Drouin, Lake Bolac and Myrtleford. The Australian Women’s Land Army helped grow and harvest the crop. Sheep helped too, eating weeds in flax fields.

Land girls hand spreading flax for retting.

Land girls hand spreading flax for retting. Source: Museum Victoria

Farming flax

There are at least two varieties of flax plant: one grown for seed, the other for fibre. The varieties are specialised because growing for seeds reduces the fibre quality that is harvested. A 1.5 x 5m patch of flax will yield about 350gm of fibre.

Flax harvesting is a labour intensive process with amazing terminology. The entire plant is pulled up, or cut close to ground to maintain the length of the fibre. Plants are dried, then retted with water, dew, or chemicals (an alkali or oxalic acid) to loosen the outer stalk. Scutching removes the stalks. Tow is a byproduct of scutching, which can be used as upholstery stuffing. Heckling then combs the fibres ready for spinning. Flax can also be processed faster by ‘cottonising’, which uses cotton machinery. The resulting linen looses its characteristic look.

There is an environmental impact to flax. Growing it can involve pesticides, because flax won’t grow well with weedy company. The production of linen can include chemicals.

Land Army girls employed at the Drouin flax mill, Drouin, Victoria

Land Army girls employed at the Drouin flax mill, Drouin, Victoria. Source: National Library of Australia

Linen is like…

Light weight and cool, linen is also soft against the skin. It can be machine washed, dried and take hot temperatures. Linen has only moderate initial shrinkage. It improves with washing and age.

The natural colours of linen range from creamy beiges to light blue-greys. (Remember the girl with the flaxen hair?) It is not naturally white, this comes from bleaching.  The finest linen fibres are smooth with high lustre; lower grades can be wrinkly and slubby. Linen doesn’t take colour as well as cotton, but its lustre boosts the dye that does take.

Linen fibres measure around 25-150mm in length so it doesn’t pill. The fibre averages 12-15 microns. Linen wrinkles easily. If it is creased regularly along the same fold, the fibre will weaken in that area. Linen has no crimp which gives it a lovely drape that doesn’t sag. It breathes well and conducts heat away from the body. Linen absorbs and then looses moisture quickly, so it doesn’t tend to feel clammy when wet. It is anti-static and hypoallergenic. Linen is damaged by perspiration and bleach. It is resistent to moths, carpet beetles, dirt and stains. I’ve seen conflicting claims of mould-resistance and susceptibility to damage from mould.

Land Army girl winnowing flax at the Drouin flax mill, Drouin, Victoria

Land Army girl winnowing flax at the Drouin flax mill, Drouin, Victoria. Source: National Library of Australia

Linen letdowns

Linen is an expensive fibre, so it is often blended with other fibres to lower its price. It’s not a warm yarn, but it can be blended with wool or alpaca to make it suitable for inter-season garments.

The biggest downside for our local Fibreshed is that I cannot find anyone growing this fibre commercially. I have learnt that Stoney Creek Oil do grow the fibre variety of flax. They grow for seed, so it isn’t suitable for clothing.

Where to see flax locally

Stoney Creek Oil – Goldfields (n.b. their flax plants are grown for seed, not fibre)


Carding, Combing and Spinning

It’s been hard to twist my head around how scoured fibres are transformed into yarn (pun intended). I knew little at the start of this Fibreshed project. Everyone seemed to have slightly different definitions of the same terms, which confused me further. In retrospect, I think each person I met taught me different parts of the process. I couldn’t see the big picture. It’s not until I came to write this post that it started to come together. Please forgive me if I’m wrong on some points and point me in the right direction please!

What’s in a name?

It’s a bit backwards, but I found spinning easier to understand when I sorted out which yarn type was which:

Woollen – this isn’t just fibre from a sheep, but also a style of yarn spinning. Woollen yarns are warm, airy and soft. They often have a fuzzy appearance. While they’re not hard wearing, they’re perfect for scarves, hats, sweaters and felted knits. Their short fibres align in different directions, making air pockets that insulate.

Worsted – a smooth yarn that is hard wearing and drapes well. The tightly twisted fibres of worsted yarns often have a sheen. They’re used for suits, socks and sportswear. Their long fibres all face the same direction, making them very strong.

Wool skeins

Worsted wool skeins in the Tarndwarncoort wool shop

Simple, right? Until you realise that there’s a subset of yarns, known as semi-worsted. This is the yarn that slunk silently in my spinning conversations, waiting for me to discover its meaning! This is yarn that has been prepared with in a woollen style, but spun with a worsted method. It combines qualities of both yarn types. There’s also a semi-woollen which is worsted processed but woollen spun. This seems to be less common.

n.b. when getting this article proof read by actual spinners, I discovered that the definitions of semi-worsted and semi-woollen are different depending on which spinner you ask. I’ve gone with the definition used by a grower and processor in my local Fibreshed.

Alpaca yarn

Semi-worsted yarns from Wool 2 Yarn

Step by step

So now we’ve sorted out where we’re heading, let’s go back to the beginning. After scouring, fibre may be carded, combed and spun. Which of these steps are taken depends on whether you want to felt, knit or weave with the fibre.

Plant fibres like cotton and hemp have a similar but slightly different process to what I outline below. There is equipment to do this with the Melbourne Fibreshed, but I haven’t been able to see these in action yet. I’ll update this post when I know more.

flow diagram of the carding, combing and spinning process

The carding, combing and spinning process

Some processers add water and/or anti-static before starting. The water relaxes the fibre and reduces dust. The anti-static goes a step further to reduce the build up of static during the process, which can break the fibres.

Dehairing – Alpaca, goat mohair and cashmere all have long scratchy fibres mixed in with the softer fibres we prefer to use for clothing. They can be removed by hand, but most people use dehairing machines instead. Unfortunately this ends up as a waste product in the process, because the result is usually mixed with grass seeds. If you can think of a use for it, there’s a lot of fibre processors who’d like to hear your ideas.

The dehairing machine

A dehairing machine: the bin at the front holds the smooth fibre that comes out at the end of the process

Mixing – if the yarn is made from a blend of different fibres, it’s often mixed at this stage. Mills work to ‘recipes’ where fibres are measured by weight, then spread out on top of each other in layers. Chunks of this mix are separated out for processing, helping to keep the ratio mix consistent. With hand processing, staples of fibre are spread out in even layers on a hand or drum carder.

Carding – fibres are often a bit clumped after scouring, so this step opens the fibres up. Carding also removes a little bit of vegetable matter. This is where the process begins to split according to what you’re aiming for. There are woollen carders and worsted carders. The slivers that come off the woollen cards are ready for spinning. Worsted cards begin to align the fibres a little bit before moving on to gilling. 

Carding machines look super cool, with their rotating drums with wires at different lengths. This part of the process seems to be proprietary, so I can’t show you any photos of a carding machine in action. Luckily, hard carders are less shy of paparazzi.

Gilling – carding shakes things up a bit, so the fibre is usually gilled several times. Gilling machines ensure the worsted sliver is a uniform weight throughout. They also further align the fibres.

Gilling machines are the swans of the process – they take the slivers up gracefully. All the work happens where you can’t see it inside the machine, so it looks like magic.

Combing – this is the slowest part. Combing straightens out the fibres, and removes the shortest ones (the waste from this process is fed back into the woollen process, which uses short fibres). After combing, all the fibres are well aligned with each other, and more vegetable matter has been removed. It’s gilled one last time, then passed to felters or spinners as a finished top.

Exiting the combing machine

Fibres exiting the combing machine

Spinning – The woollen sliver or worsted top is condensed into thin roving. This is drawn out and twisted to create a single ply of yarn. To hand spin woollen yarn, the roving is rolled into rolags. It’s then drawn out and spun using a longdraw drafting technique. To hand spin worsted yarn, the roving is drawn out and spun using a short drafting movement. A man’s jumper requires about 1kg of roving. I’ve been told that this would take most hand spinners about 6 days to spin.

A single ply yarn can be used as is, but it is often plyed to increase its strength and stop it twisting in on itself. Spinning creates tension in the fibres, so the yarn is steamed or rested to release that energy.

The state of the industry

The majority of large mills in the Melbourne fibreshed don’t produce local yarn anymore. There are several mini mills that produce semi-worsted yarns for hand knitting and crochet.

Weaving requires a thinner yarn. Waverley Woollen Mills in Launceston produces woven products from carded fleece, spinning fine yarn in the process. The only processors spinning fine yarn in Australia that I know of are Paddock to Ply in Queensland and Certton in Sydney. 

Where does spinning happen in Melbourne?

Cashmere connections, Western district

Fibre Naturally, Dandenong ranges

Velieris, Melbourne

Wool 2 Yarn, Mornington Peninsula

Great Ocean Road Mill, Warnambool

 

Boston Fine Fibres, Queanbeyan

Echo Beach, Mount Barker

Bendigo Woollen Mills, Bendigo

Australian Country Spinners, Wangaratta

Creswick Woollen Mills

First Edition Fibre and Yarns, Euroa

Goldfeilds Mohair Farm, Bookham