The Practical Magic of Plant Fibers

The Practical Magic of Plant Fibers


Like flax, hemp may be best spun with a distaff.

Spinning can be so unexpected.

I still can't help wondering what possessed the first flax or hemp or ramie spinner to try making yarn from long stringy plant fibers, let alone what possessed the first person to seize a handful of nettles and brave their stings to twist strands together.

Yet I watched with my own eyes as Norman Kennedy took handfuls of retted, dried flax and put them through a series of antique devices that looked like instruments of torture: a flax brake, a set of pointy and treacherous-looking hackles.

What emerged was golden and fine, with an appearance a little like muga silk, though not as soft a feel. Dressing a distaff, Norman began the process of spinning the flax into strong singles-even spinning with two hands and two orifices on the same spinning wheel. After demonstrating, he pulled out a shirt that he had spun and woven; the golden thread was transformed into snow-white, soft fabric.

Flax and hemp have a number of traits in common, but flax quite literally can't measure up to hemp. Hemp grows to as much as 15 feet tall, Stephenie Gaustad tells us in her book The Practical Spinner's Guide to Cotton, Flax, and Hemp. The Practical Spinner's Guide to Cotton, Flax, and Hemp. Yet it's spun in much the same way, by dressing a distaff and using both hands.


Norman Kennedy demonstrates his method for bowing cotton in the Spin Flax and Cotton video.

Cotton Bolls of Wonder

When Europeans first saw cotton, the story goes, they invented a natural history for it: The fiber must come, they said, from a "Tartary Vegetable Lamb," which grew in plants that bent down to allow the lambs to graze.

So what would those Europeans think of bowing or willowing cotton, twanging away at a pile of fibers as though plucking a bowstring or beating it smartly with a pair of sticks? It may appear as violent as linen processing, but where processed linen is smooth and crisp, the cotton is fluffy and cloud-like.

My biggest surprise came recently when I was taking a spinning class. After I struggled with some combed cotton fibers, the instructor handed me a lumpy-looking cotton seed covered in hairs. When I attached it to my leader and began spinning, the tiny fibers zipped off the seed, drafting themselves easily. Like most spinners, I hear over and over that spinning cotton is hard, and I guess I'd begun to believe them. With carded cotton roving in my hand, low tension and a fast pulley on my wheel, and a spirit of adventure, I attached the cotton and began to spin long-draw. The fibers slipped through my hands alarmingly, but as the twist ran up and began to hold, the most amazing thing happened . . . .

Yarn.

Happy spinning,

 

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