The journey from flax crop in the field to finished linen cloth (even before washing and bleaching) has many steps.

Linen cloth
Linen fabric (unbleached)

And, the transformation from this……..

Retted flax

to this…………

Flax fibres

is remarkable. From scratchy and straw-like, to floppy and silky. I’m a fan of wool, but it’s quite a transformation, nevertheless. The fibres can be hard to handle, which is, I guess, why flax has traditionally been artfully attached to and spun from a stick (distaff), at least in this part of the world.

I have spun flax from a hank of fibres and managed fine, but the fibres easily get matted in the hand. The hank of fibres in the photo above has been handed round school groups as part of only three ‘outreach’ events for work so far, and it is already looking a little roughed up. Like wool, the fibres need to be organised and teased apart. So, over to Shirley to show us how.

Preparing fibres from the distaff
Dressing a distaff
Dressing the distaff

The fibres need to be secured at one end then fanned out, and there’s a knack to it. With our distaffs ‘dressed’, when stood up, they looked like white witches on sticks.

Flax on the distaff
Flax on the distaff

Then we could spin the fibres from the distaff:

Spinning flax
Spinning flax from the distaff

I would like to say ‘and then with our yards of hand-spun yarn we turned to weaving’, but no, our novice attempts would never have produced enough yarn for a piece of cloth in that time. The warp-weighed loom takes a lot of yarn.

From decorated pots and vases of Bronze Age Greece we know that they have been around for a long time, and we know what they looked like. They looked more or less like this, although rather than free-standing like this loom (made for transporting round to workshops), the posts would have been set into the ground.

Warp-weighted loom

Judging by loom weights surviving in the murky depths of lake sites in Switzerland, associated with Neolithic lakeside villages, we know that the warp-weighted loom has been around elsewhere for even longer (that’s over 3000 years BC). Fragments of linen cloth have been dredged up from the lake silts, soggy and dark brown, but revealing quite complex weaving techniques. We’ve been that clever for that long.

So here we were: a bunch of people (workshop attendees) with nowhere near the skill and knowledge of those Swiss lakeside people living thousands of years ago….making lumpy flax yarn and being clueless as to how to set this loom up.

We began by measuring out the warps on a warping board.

Removing warp from a warping board

Then we hung the warp on the loom, onto which loom weights were attached. We were using hand-made replicas of Minoan loom weights, made by Shirley.

Minoan style loom weights

This pyramidal style of loom weight has been found all over Europe during the prehistoric period, and locally we have found a similar pyramidal style (amongst other shapes) from a Late Bronze Age settlement at Huntsman’s Quarry, Kemerton, Worcestershire.

Loom weights
Loom weights from Huntsman’s Quarry, Kemerton, Worcestershire. Photo by Neil Woolford; courtesy of Worcestershire Archaeology

Tying on the weights and leash strings to a heddle bar was a fiddly job, but finally we got there. We had practised weaving on a loom set up the previous day, and now had our second loom set up, having learnt the steps along the way. And, here’s some of our weaving – a little wonky at the edges, but not bad for a first group effort:

Linen on a warp-weighted loom
Linen weaving on the warp-weighted loom

It seemed to take some work to set up the loom, but I suppose once you have the warp set up, half the work is completed. Weaving in the weft completes the job. I think it is quite an attractive piece of equipment. A rustic piece, like the loom above, should be fairly simple to make from small poles of wood. I’m waiting to have the space to set one up, and, meanwhile, am eyeing up a scrubby, abandoned plot next to the Young Archaeologist’s allotment for materials. Hmmm, that tree there could be pruned to make a heddle bar and a cloth beam. The willow is getting a bit out of control. Surely a prune wouldn’t go amiss?

After a wet weekend, I woke on the Monday morning to a bright sunny day at Old Chapel Farm, and took the scenic route home.

Old Chapel Farm, Llanidloes, Wales: Home of Cambrian Archaeological Projects