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Thread laid bare
A VANISHED industry came back to life in West Dorset as flax became fibre for the first time in more than 60 years.
The ancient craft of hand-processing flax, once a mainstay of the local economy, returned to Beaminster as part of the town museum’s Heritage Lottery-funded Hanging by a Thread project.
Almost forgotten skills of rippling, breaking, scutching, swingling and hackling were used to transform the locally grown plants into fibre, traditionally used in rope-making.
Children and other visitors enjoyed a hands-on experience, inspired by seeing the growers performing the magical transformation of dull dry stalks into silky soft hanks of dressed flax.
Local ‘flax pioneers’ who had accepted the challenge of growing the first flax for fibre in the Beaminster area for more than half a century arrived at a local barn on Clandon Hill clutching the fruits of their labours.
They had sown trial plots in April and their flax plants had been ‘pulled’ some weeks ago and ‘retted’ – a process of controlled rotting by exposure to sun, wind and rain – then carefully dried.
Between pulling and drying the crop lost half its weight. Using replica equipment specially made for the event, the growers used a ‘rippler’ to remove the seed boll.
They then used a ‘flax break’ or the more primitive heavy mallet to bruise and crush the stems’ woody outer layers and cores.
‘Scutching’ or ‘swingling’ came next using a wooden scutching board and blade to remove the woody waste, the ‘shive’.
Finally the flax fibres were drawn through ‘hackles’ or ‘heckles’, metal combs of different sizes, until the tangled, short fibres called ‘tow’ had been removed.
Now project leaders have put out a call for anyone with experience of spinning flax to come forward to lend their skills.
One of the leaders Jenny Cuthbert said: “This journey through our local history will continue when the growers attempt to spin their fibre into yarn.
“And if there is anybody out there who has experience of hand-spinning flax with a wheel or drop spindle, Beaminster Museum would love to hear from you.”
The museum can be contacted on 01308 863623.