May Speakers Report: Fabulous Flax with Riitta Sinkkonen Davies

RitaGiven Riitta Sinkkonen Davies’s reputation as one of the UK’s foremost experts on the preparation and weaving of flax, this presentation was eagerly anticipated and it was noticeable that, despite competition from minor events further south, there was good turnout at Murton to hear it.

Riitta’s interest in textiles and especially flax began with holidays spent with her grandparents in rural Finland, where there was a great tradition of home spinning and weaving. This interest led to formal qualifications in Textile Design. This base has been subsequently expanded by years of practical experience and world travel. The net result is the Riitta is now the ‘go-to’ person for decorative fabrics in flax  along and with other fibres.

In most years Riitta grows her own flax, and processes the flax plants into fibre using the traditional techniques of retting, breaking, scutching and hackling. The flax plants are pulled up while still slightly green and are then dried. Fibre separation begins with retting (corruption of rotting?) either by laying out on the ground to be wetted with dew, or by soaking in tanks of water. Her preferred method is to hold the dry plants until the following summer and use tank retting, when sunny days warm the water and speed the process.

riitta2Once the hard part of the plant stalks start to break down it is dried again before being put through the flax break. This process breaks up the woody core of the stem, but does not break the fibres. It is thought that the reference to spinning straw into gold in the folk tale Rumpelstiltskin originates.

After breaking the flax is pulled through the scutcher –  overlapping metal blades – to start stripping out the woody waste and then through pin hackles of increasing fineness to finish combing out the waste, leaving clean long fibres ready for spinning.

The time and conditions of the rett greatly influence the colour of the fibre, quick warm retting in summer produces light colours.

Having established her reputation as a first rank designer and producer of flax fabrics, Riitta now receives commissions from many sources, particularly where the client is trying to accurately recreate period clothing or other fabrics. The Jorvik centre wanted historically accurate cloths for their re-creators, with hand spun, hand woven cloths bleached in the old way by alkali boiling and laying out in the sun. Sadly tight deadlines and a requirement to produce the cloths in the depths of a Welsh winter meant that commercially spun yarns had to be used and resort was made to chemical bleaching, carefully moderated to avoid a ‘bright’ white, had to be used. For a later part of the order there was a requirement for a yellow dyed with weld; not an easy task on flax, using only alum mordant as tannic acid would have resulted in staining of the cloth. An initial intense yellow was washed back to the required primrose shade.

In a similar vein is the project to recreate Shakespeare’s bedspread for his Stratford house; all the ground yarn had to be handspun on her grandmothers wheel – 26 100g bobbins at around 9 hours per bobbin! Sadly Riitta was unable to weave this piece as she did not have a drawloom (or draw loom if preferred) to produce the intricate weft surfaced patterns. Ironically this historically accurate reproduction ended up being woven on a modern Jacquard loom.

Further commissions included the linen elements of the enthronement robes for Dr Rown Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury when the usual maker of ecclesiastical vestments declined to go anywhere near weaving flax. This was a job much plagued by indecision and delay, only being saved by private benefactors when the Welsh Assembly declined to fund it.

Further jobs included a backing for a church altar in Oxford to hide a large radiator. Wall hangings to complement a bare stone wall in a restaurant, part of a barn restoration holiday complex, woven on the now acquired draw loom which allows the creation of complex patterns by lifting small groups of ends separate to the ground yarn. The design idea was to create a forest over a winter sunset, using graded colours in the ground weft.

Next we head to Llandeilo South Wales and the National Trust’s Dinefwr Castle, where the old billiard room was being converted to a restaurant but it needed acoustic boards to help kill the echoes of the big high room. These were not aesthetically pleasing so Riitta got the call. Sessions photographing the estate produced a design of six different species of tree found on the estate, each with it’s name, in welsh, incorporated in the weave.


As with all of Riitta’s major designs she works with a full size ‘cartoon’ of the required image behind the cloth she s weaving. These are hand drawn; not and easy task for a 3m high hanging. Again woven on the draw loom using a thick textured wool yarn for the design to help absorb sound.

Riitta does produce table cloths and settings to order; it being not unknown for rooms to be re-decorated to match. Typically table settings are woven in relatively thick yarns to give the appropriate weight and drape.

She also produces small pieces for framing, using many sources of inspiration, but especially one particular beach that she drives past 100’s of time a year and she noticed it looked different every time. Many photographs later pieces began to emerge as distillations rather than exact copies of a single image.

Being a true Finn, she admits to an obsession with white as a result of long winters full of snow and ice. A fix which she renews annually with a midwinter trip to her home land. Inspiration flowed from pieces of leaf trapped in ice. The base cloth is woven with slits in it, through which are threaded strip of paper – made from flax fibre of course – and embroidered with the aforesaid leaf shapes.

Recently she has teamed up with a ceramic artist to produce pieces by soaking woven and other materials in liquid clay, once dried the piece is fired to burn out the flax and to fuse the clay into a ceramic. Some pieces are shown as a before and after pair.

Riitta confessed during questions that she  only hand spins what she has to because she cannot source it anywhere else.  Most of the yarn she uses is commercially produced. Trying to hand spin everything would be too time consuming and would seriously hamper here weaving programme.

She uses Procion col water reactive dyes for similar reasons and I suspect to get the fullness of shade she uses in much of her work.

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