From rippling to hackling

Local group grows and processes flax into Chico Cloth

Sandy Fisher demonstrates hackling. Finished yarn, ready to be woven.

Sandy Fisher demonstrates hackling. Finished yarn, ready to be woven.

photo by claire hutkins-seda

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What makes a textile artist want to become a farmer? For local weaver Sandy Fisher, it was a desire to get closer to the source of her final product. Fisher, the co-founder of Organizing for Fiber: Chico Cloth, with fellow fiber artist Wendy Ardell, spent the past year with a team of over 30 regular volunteers to grow and process flax into linen, which can then be spun into yarn and woven into cloth.

“I’ve been weaving for 33 years—my background is textile arts—and now, I’ve gone from being a home gardener to becoming a farmer,” Fisher said with a smile.

At the recent Fiber Fusion event at Patrick Ranch, Fisher and other volunteers demonstrated each step of the process that transforms flax into cloth, starting with the beautiful delicate-looking plant itself, which grew in green clumps in makeshift pots at the edges of the display. The plant grows to about 3 feet tall, and has tiny purple-blue flowers. When the base of the stems start to brown, it is time to harvest within one to two days, Fisher explained. In April, farmers and gardeners in and around Chico planted test plots of flax, and 20 volunteers chipped in to harvest it in early June.

After allowing the plant to dry for about a week, the first of a series of homemade tools came into play: a few boards nailed together, with a row of thick, long nails sticking out from its center, sharp points protruding from the wood. During the demonstration, a volunteer took a stand of dried flax and ran it through the nails. “Rippling,” as the process is called, gets the seeds out, Fisher explained. Sure enough, tiny light brown seeds fell out of the seedpods as the flax was rippled, a reminder that it is indeed the same plant that provides the flax seeds available at Chico Natural Foods and elsewhere as a health food.

Flax fibers.

photo by claire hutkins-seda

The next step is retting the plant—soaking it in water until it ferments and gets really stinky. “You literally let it rot. This is really, really hard,” said Fisher, pointing to the outer portion of the stem. The water breaks it down so that it can be removed to expose the finer fibrous threads within, she said. This year, the group soaked the flax in a 100-gallon tub, changing the water every 24 hours. “The other way you do it is you lay it out in a field—called dew-retting. I think for our climate in the spring, dew-retting would be great. You won’t have to use water,” she said. She trial-ran some dew-retted flax by laying some flax out on her lawn, where it got watered regularly by the sprinklers. The process does alter the color; dew-retted flax is slightly more gray, whereas water-retted flax is more golden.

After allowing the partially rotted plant to dry, it goes to the flax brake, a wooden tool the volunteers built to break up the woody outer stem and expose the fibrous core. The tool is basically two boards with a gap between, and a third board on a hinge that fits perfectly between the two. The hinged board is lifted, the flax is placed across the gap, and the center board is forced onto the flax, which breaks off the outer stem. At Patrick Ranch, volunteers called for passers-by who were willing to get their aggression out by pounding down on the tool, while bits of broken-off stem—called boon—went flying in all directions.

To remove any remaining bits of boon, the now-exposed flax fibers are draped over a board, and a wooden blade is run down it. This is called scutching. “It doesn’t look like it’s doing much, but it really is,” Fisher said.

The flax fibers are then combed out, in a process called hackling. A few black plastic combs were rigged between wooden blocks for easy combing. “Cat or flea combs work really well, too,” Fisher said. “There’s a lot of waste. Out of the plant, you only get about 10 percent—because you keep combing it,” to retain only the finest fibers. She pulled out a clump of waste stuck to the comb after hackling: “this is called tow,” used for stuffing or “poor man’s clothes.”

After the hackling, the flax goes to the spinning wheel. When the flax fibers are spun into a skein of yarn, it is considered, at long last, linen.

Flax fibers after scutching

photo by claire hutkins-seda

“This is actually our first attempt—from rippling to hackling and everything else we did,” Fisher said.

As the process is ongoing and the output was small, Fisher and Ardell worked with purchased linen yarn to create their prototype panel of Chico Cloth, with a delicate weave and colorful stripes (Ardell dyed the linen with natural dyes, including the bark of toyon, which is native to Chico). But they are looking forward to starting the process again—with this year’s experience to draw from—to weave linen from flax grown in Chico.

The group has started growing flax on more plots of land, and they’re looking for more community members to join in the planting effort. They are also working to sync the process with Chico’s climate, so planting will take place in November and January, instead of in March this time around. By planting earlier and taking advantage of the dewy winter months, Fisher will be able to focus on dew-retting to avoid using a lot of water. She’ll also avoid some of the warm-weather weeds like bindweed that diverted a lot of volunteer hours to hand-pulling.

All along, Fisher has been impressed by the ongoing dedication of the project’s large group of volunteers, many of whom are not textile artists. Organizing for Fiber is a community partnership of the Chico Peace and Justice Center, and Fisher believes many of the volunteers are interested in the sustainability element of the project over the artistic side.

Next year, in addition to finally producing enough linen yarn to complete a number of panels of Chico Cloth, Fisher and Ardell are hoping to make kits to bring into schools, to help them learn the process.

“The kids have always been the most interested,” Fisher said. “They have the enthusiasm for it.”