Madder is Magic

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String – to quote Spike Milligan – is a Very Important Thing

2013-02-19 String

It may not look like much, a hairy bit of nothing, but that is the result of months of plant growth and hours of human endeavour.  It  is string made from flax grown in the garden last year.  If it were priced by person or plant hours expended, it would be probably worth more than, oh, the annual salary of a dentist but if we were to sell it, we might get 30p.

Anyway, this is how we did it.  Last spring I sowed about a square metre of flax – a very forgiving plant which will grow pretty much anywhere.  Ours was in a spot shaded by lime trees and it didn’t seem to mind.

Flax seems to be able to grow anywhere.
Flax in flower in July.  It was in partial shade.

Once the flax had gone to seed I pulled it up and dried it, then in the autumn we rippled it – combed it to take the seeds off.

Using an improvised rippler (a bit of scaffolding plank and nails), we separated the seeds.
Using an improvised rippler (a bit of scaffolding plank and nails), we separated the seeds.

Rippling in action last October.
Rippling in action last October.

I then retted the flax in a tub of water for about of week and dried it again for a couple of months.

Retting.  This can get a bit smelly.
Retting. This can get a bit smelly.

So now we come to a bright but chilly day in February.  Aided by two keen and able assistants, Akane and Susie, we first beat the straw with wooden plant labels (improvising again).  There is one video I’ve found on YouTube which reconstructs the whole process and they had a mechanical wooden breaker ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZeCXLiwWqKw).  We just used bits of wood and it took a while and irritated the neighbours – all that banging.  The point is to break the outer and inner husk so that you’re left, magically, with silky strands.

Breaking the fibre using the edge of a table and a bit of flat wood.
Breaking the fibre using the edge of a table and a bit of flat wood.
Bash till the fibres appear.
Bash till the fibres appear.

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It’s important to remove the shives (the broken bits of husk) before spinning.  We didn’t do this very well.  The spinning was quite difficult, but we got better as we did more.  We used a hand drill to twist the fibre, kept it taut and kept adding more fibres to increase the length.

A hand drill substitutes for a spinning wheel.
A hand drill substitutes for a spinning wheel.
It's important to keep the tension.
It’s important to keep the tension.

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The ‘feeder’ and the drill-holder move apart as more fibre is added and once you’ve reached the length of your room, double the string and let it twist around itself to make 2 ply.  This is tricky.

Voila!  String.
Voila! String.

String is very important and to be able to make it yourself from seed to thread is immensely satisfying.  We won’t be making many balls, but we have enough to tie up our tomatoes, play with the cat,  tie our hair in pigtails, replace shoe laces and keep our trousers up.