Flax to Linen: Hackling

Reader Contribution by Cindy Conner and Homeplace Earth

Growing flax and turning it into linen for clothes requires growing a variety suitable for fiber to spin. You plant it in early spring and harvest it about 100 days later, Next it is retted, broken, and scutched. There is no hurry to go from harvest to retting and from retting to breaking, however, breaking, scutching, and hackling generally happen at the same time. Hackling is done with a tool (hackle) that is full of sharp tines. After it is broken and scutched, the flax is drawn through hackles to clean it, resulting in a long ponytail of flax fiber ready to spin.

Unless you are lucky enough to find one at an antique mall, you will most likely have to make your own hackles. I have purchased two antique flax hackles—one was $60 and the other was $40. Wigmaking requires the use of hackles and you might find a new one made for that purpose. Although not as much fun as using an antique flax hackle, you can make a new one out of a board and nails. You will find the specifications of my homemade flax hackles at Homeplace Earth.

Some hackles are on a long board with, what looks like, hand holds at each end. One of those holes is actually for your foot to go through, holding it to the ground. You use the hole at the other end to hold the hackle upright, parallel to your body. I prefer to have hackles that are clamped to a table. Since this is an outdoor activity, the picnic table is usually the recipient of the hackles. I use c-clamps to hold them in place.

Hackles are sharp, so take care when using them or else you will draw blood. It is wise to keep up-to-date on your tetanus shot. To protect yourself when they are not in use, you can make covers for your hackles. My husband made a wonderful wooden cover that fits over the first hackle I bought. For the two I made, I have fashioned a cover for each from cardboard boxes. I haven’t taken the time to make a cover yet for the second antique hackle that I acquired in May.

You will find flax hackles with varied spacing of the tines. One guideline to use for spacing the tines on a hackle is to put them 1” apart for a coarse hackle, ½” apart for a medium hackle, and ¼” apart for a fine hackle.  If you only have one hackle, make it a medium with half inch spacing. In her book, Home Life in Colonial Days, written in 1898, Alice Morse Earle says that the fineness of fiber after hackling depended on the number of hackles used, their fineness, and the person doing the hackling. She writes that after the first coarse hackle, six other hackles were used, in varying degrees of fineness. If you have three hackles, coarse, medium, and fine, you will be doing well.

You will end up with more tow than line fiber when you hackle flax. You can still use it by hackling it again. The shorter tow fibers may have to be carded with wool cards kept just for that purpose. When processing the flax of my own harvest from an 80 sq. ft. bed, I started with 5.6 pounds of retted flax, which yielded 6 ounces of line fiber ready to spin and 19 ounces of tow. Of that amount of tow, 12 ounces was pulled out with the coarse hackle, 4 ounces with the medium, and 3 ounces was left behind in the fine hackle. That harvest also included 6 ounces of seeds.

Once you know how to do it and have acquired the tools, growing your own linen clothes isn’t so hard. The next step is spinning, which I have talked about here, then weaving and sewing. So far I have used the linen I have spun with handspun cotton on the loom—cotton warp and linen weft. I have also designed the patterns for the clothes I have made from my handspun fiber. If you do not already have skills in any of these areas, thinking of growing your own clothes can be daunting, but don’t let that stop you. Concentrate on learning one thing at a time and remember that life is a journey, not a destination. Enjoy the journey!

Photo by Stephanie Conner.

Cindy Conner is the author of Seed Libraries and Grow a Sustainable Diet and has produced DVDs about garden planning and managing cover crops with hand tools. Learn more about what she is up to at Homeplace Earth.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.