Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Harvesting fibers in New Hampshire

Details of in process weaving by Diane Homes

Antique hand carved shuttles
Heckling, retting, swingling, breaking, spinning and weaving- hang out with the Flax Girls and these are some of the things you’re in for.

Gina Gerhard moved to NH as a young girl from NY and soon took up fiber arts as a way to pass the winter months. As a girl she thought, “wool is boring, I want to do something different." Piecing together information from craft books, journals, and store ledgers she taught herself how to process flax including harvesting, retting, drying, breaking, swingling, heckling and eventually spinning and weaving. Gina is now very knowledgeable about the process, the tools, and the history of this art form that was essential to New England farm life prior to the invention of the cotton gin. Despite all of her research however she would tell you that there are only so many things you can learn from a book. Most written accounts and instructions assume a degree of familiarity with the flax crop and the process of turning it into a fiber. Some steps you need to learn by repeated experience – like how brown and moldy should your flax look when it is ready to stop the retting process? Why is retting flax in a pond more efficient than dew retting? Just how hard to you have to whack the flax when you’re swingling it?

Cathy Goodmen spinning 
flax fiber into linen thread

Gina was joined by two other dedicated fiber artists from New Hampshire, Cathy Goodmen a spinner and dyer from Franklin, and Diane Howes a Master weaver from Danville. The women jokingly refer to themselves as the “Flax Girls” as they have been demonstrating together across the state for years. Gina prepares the flax from straw to fiber, Cathy spins the fiber into thread, and Cathy was nearby weaving checked linen towels on an antique 4 shaft counterbalance loom. All three women were deeply interested not only in the process of working with the fiber but also the craftsmanship and history of the handmade tools. The flax to fiber process can be traced to the middle ages, and Gina highlighted how the tools are the distillation of hundreds of years of refinement. That’s not exactly the first thought you might have when looking at the wrought iron spikes sticking up from a board to form the heckle, or comb used to thin the flax. On Diane’s antique loom, there are 516 hand tied string heddles which have been replaced by metal on more modern looms. “This loom is so quiet”, Diane and Cathy both remarked. There was no metal slamming up and down only hand tied string knots, and hand carved wooden shuttles. Processing and weaving of flax by the individual New England family declined with the popularization of mills like those in Exeter, Meredith, and Manchester. 

Gina Gerhard demonstrating the flax to fiber process. Flax is still grown near the site of the retting pond in Gilmanton, NH

The demonstration took place in Gilmanton near one of the only known flax retting ponds in New Hampshire. The pond has been undergoing restoration by the Gilmanton Historical Society, and the organization has invited Gina, Cathy, and Diane to demonstrate at the pond for the past two years. The flax retting pond is man made with the bottom lined with rocks so the flax could be laid out on the rocks, and then weighted down with clumps of sod to prevent the straw from floating to the surface. The natural microorganisms in the pond create the perfect environment for a retting process that can take 4-6 days- which is much quicker than the month it usually takes for dew retting out in a field.  The land has recently been purchased with community donations to the Gilmanton Land Trust, and will be placed in conservation permanently with the town.