Processing Hemp Fibre

At Avacal September Crown event in early September I took a class on how to process hemp for fibre. The same techniques work for flax (linen) and nettle. The class was taught by Mistress Kataryna Tkach (her SCA name), who in her mundane life works with legal, licenced hemp for scientific study. Luckily, she has access to the “waste” plant material for fibre production and experimentation!

Our instructor started off by demonstrating the difference between fresh, green hemp, dried but not retted hemp, and retted hemp. The retted hemp allows the woody inner material to break away easily from the skin and the inner fibre of the hemp. The fiber stays in long strands for use in fibre production (spinning, etc). The green and dried but not retted hemp doesn’t break apart giving the strands of fibre. (The video above explains this as well.)

Before the class, our instructor harvested the hemp, rippled it to remove the seed heads, retted the flax in a field (dew method), and bundled it into about 5 foot tall sheaves.

Breaking

Breaking the hemp stalks with a lever-style tool.

Breaking the hemp

The first step we got to participate in was breaking. This is the first of three steps that separates the fibres from the stalks. Breaking smashes the woody core of the dried and retted plant into tiny fragments which then can fall away from the stem.

Our instructor showed us how to pull the plant through a breaking device, chopping the stems while turning the bundle back and forth. Without the breaking device, a mallet on a smooth stone surface can also be used, but the device doubtlessly makes the task easier – though still, this is a good “arm day” exercise!

To the left, one of my fellow classmates is breaking her hemp, while in the photo below she waits her turn while our instructor showed us how to use the device.

Breaking the hemp stalks with a lever-style tool.

Breaking the hemp

Scutching

Scutching board and knife with hemp fibre from a SCA class in the kingdom of Avacal

Scutching board and knife with hemp fibre

The second step that separates the fibres from the stalks is scutching. With flax (linen) a wooden blade needs to be used, but for hemp, the smooth side of a metal knife is sufficient. The fiber is laid over a wooden board, and the knife is used to scrape the woody portions away from the fibre.

As much as I found the breaking to be incredibly hard arm work… I did a lot of it to avoid having to do a lot of scutching… which seemed rather monotonous to me in comparison.

Hackling

Heckling the hemp with nails through a board clamped to a table.

Heckling the hemp

The third step to separate the fibres from the stalks is hackling, or heckling. This is done with “combs” made of spikes or nails. There are multiple sizes of hackles, with the most course one used first, down to finer ones. For the final one, our instructor uses a small floral arranging “frog” which has short, dense spikes in a tool that sits in the palm of the hand.

The hackle separates, smoothes, and splits the fibre into finer and finer filaments. The long strands are the “line”, while the shorter, coarser bits left behind are called tow. Tow can still be spun into yarn, though it is more coarse than the finer line fibre.

 

Spinning….

So, after all of the separating steps, I went from a sheave of hemp stalks to a small bundle of hemp fibre for spinning. I left the tow behind because… well honestly I was getting just too tired (and needed to pack up to head home after the weekend) and I couldn’t really figure out how I’d spin the tow into yarn that I would be able to use for something.

I didn’t get around to spinning the hemp yet – but come back when I do!

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Follow me on Instagram for a few more videos from the class!

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