Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Spinning Flax

For the past five years or so the guys in our reenacting group have put up a display of 17th century weapons at Dixon's Gunmaker's Fair in Kempton, PA. This year I wanted to demo spinning but had to come up with something that would relate to 17th century weapons. So I decided to try spinning tow to make match cord. Match cord is needed to provide the spark that ignites the gunpowder in the pan of a matchlock gun making it go BOOM. But how was match cord made in the 17th century and before? So far I have only found references to it being "twisted" and made of flax or hemp. I still haven't received the hemp I ordered 2 weeks ago but was lucky enough to get in touch with Johannes Zinzendorf from The Hermitage which is about an hour an a half from my house. He had tow, I just had to go get it. I was looking forward to seeing the hermitage again as I had taken my very first ever hearth cooking class there in the mid 1990s. The place has grown and I was thrilled to be able to see the spinning and weaving house. Two big barn looms and at least 10 tape/box looms were great to see, but their collection of spinning wheels was wonderful. They had a tow wheel! As we were walking out of the building I asked Johannes if he had a Picardy wheel. He wasn't familiar with the term but said he had a wheel that couldn't figure out.
My first thought was "cool old spindle wheel with a crank and treadle." I thought the cone on the end of the spindle was protection from the sharp point. Then I put on my glasses and realized it was an end piece to a picardy flyer! (pardon my really crappy phone pictures but I forgot my camera.)
Johannes had been trying to get the wheel to spin but was having no luck. He was thrilled to hear about the missing flyer part and how it would work. I was thrilled to actually see a Picardy wheel and get a sense of the scale of the orifice! It's an amazing little wheel and I hope they can now get it working. With tow, and some flax too, in hand I braved torrential downpours for the ride home.

Spinning tow went better than I thought it would
I am waiting for pictures of actual match cord from the 17th century then I can figure out how many strands to ply. After that the cord will be soaked in lye water (wood ashes and water) then saltpeter. Our group is getting quite a collection of matchlocks so it would be great to have authentic cord.

At the end of the day I tried spinning long line flax and what a treat it was after spinning tow. Tow is scratchy and coarse, flax is smooth and fine. I used Caroline, the Country Craftsman wheel, for the demo since I didn't want to take the antique wheel out in rough conditions (it was supposed to rain and even though we were under a canopy I didn't want to take any chances.) But I can't wait to try flax spinning on my 200 year old flax wheel.

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