Flax has been a part of the Slovak village for centuries. Today it has almost completely disappeared from it. Vladimira from Story of Linen tells us about how we can still find its presence in our grandmother’s kitchens and why it is important to find it within us too.
How did you start working with flax?
It all started because of my great-grandmother Maria Balážová. I come from the small village of Babiná in Central Slovakia. Right next to the house I grew up in, only a century ago, my great-grandmother used to grow flax and hemp. There is a long tradition of flax cultivation in Slovakia therefore it was nothing unusual for that time. When I later started talking to friends about the project, many of them told me that their grandparents also grew spun or weaved this crop. We carry this heritage within us, we just forgot about it.
And so did I. But about three years ago, it all “clicked” for me. I remember sitting with my grandparents in their room looking at the dishcloth that my grandmother was using. All of a sudden everything started to make sense. The cloth was made by my great-grandmother. But from its very beginning. From planting flax, through its extraction, spinning, weaving, and sewing. My great-grandmother was very skillful as she made folk costumes and basically weaved for “the whole village”. However, what was important at that moment three years ago was that my grandmother was still using the same cloth, even after 60 years. She knew the story behind it, the hands which created it. She knew that the cloth is indestructible, functional like new. She saw my great grandmother at work so she can’t imagine throwing it away. Here I’m still talking about a “simple dishcloth” but it can be applied to any product around us. That’s why I started working with flax, I wanted to carry on with the legacy of my great-grandmother.
You invented a new “tool” that is more efficient in processing flax and easier to use than the traditional spinning wheel. What was its design and production process like?
As a product designer, I decided to look at the process the same way as my great grandmother did, from its very beginning. To experience the story of flax from its seed to the final product. I also looked at the problem from another angle. The whole system in Slovakia around flax processing seems to be preserved in the past. I wanted to change that, and I saw the opportunity in redesigning the products for the manual processing of this crop.
The system of processing flax is very complex. Until we have tried it ourselves, we can’t even imagine what is hidden behind the linen fabric. Even I could only vaguely imagine how spinning works and I only understood weaving on a very superficial level. I believe that the fact that I was not an expert in the field from the beginning was a big plus. I could create freely without my hands being tied.
People who process flax in Slovakia to this day can be counted on the fingers of one hand. There are almost none doing such a thing in the design sphere worldwide. All of this worked as a driving force for me. Since I love research, I spent hours in the library, in the archives, and on the Internet, just browsing through old photographs and descriptions of how machines used to work. I had no idea how a spinning wheel works. I found it magical, to learn such new things. Also, I am very thankful for Miška Lipková, my diploma thesis consultant. It’s great to have somebody with such an open mind helping you during your studies.
Every single designed product was in terms of functionality at a much higher level of complexity than I had imagined at the beginning. I still call my products prototypes. To be exactly how I imagine them, they will have to go through a couple more variations. Today, however, they are functional enough to process the flax from stem to fabric.
With your project Story of linen you educate people about the properties of flax and its processing. What is important for you to communicate?
I think it’s important to communicate the reality of the process. The value that is hidden in our work. If something goes wrong, it’s okay, there is no such thing as perfect harvest every year. However, the same amount of work is required in its care and processing. Nothing will change that. The reality of the flax processing is also hidden in its complexity and that’s very difficult to show to people remotely, through social media. Therefore, I’ve began giving away flax seeds to those interested, free of charge. This year we are growing flax in more than 20 places in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. It’s amazing such community emerge.
What are your plans for this project in the future?
There are many dreams. It would be great to create a community of people who grow, process, or just simply are interested in flax. I would very much like to start growing flax on a larger scale. At this point, however, I can understand how demanding the process of growing flax on a few square meters is. Therefore, growing on a larger scale will require much more research and testing.
In addition, I would like to produce and sell products for manual extraction, spinning, and weaving of flax. Besides the products used for creating linen material, I am also thinking about a collection of final products, such as jewelry or home décor. Because of the complex process that would lead to its final form and real price for the hours spent working on it they would become a luxury good. Therefore it is necessary to really consider what type of products they will be.
How does the current use of flax in Slovakia look like? What are its benefits? Can we find linen fabric made in Slovakia?
Flax, which fibers would be suitable for the linen fabric, is currently not grown in Slovakia. It’s been like that since about World War II. Today, only oil flaxseed is grown to a small extent in Slovakia.
At the same time, the entire production of processing of flax shifted east, due to price. It turned out to be very costly. The only European countries flaxseed is grown in today are Belgium, France, and Lithuania. A common issue with such crops is that even though grown in Europe it still travels to Asia, where the fiber is extracted, spun, and woven. When we buy linen clothes these days, it is very difficult to trace their exact path. If we are able to find such exceptions, it is something to cherish.
But on a positive note, flax continues to be processed in Poland where it is also spun. The weaving of flaxseed fiber is less problematic. Weaving mills can still be found in the Czech republic. We used to have such mills in Slovakia too, but unfortunately, they are all closed now.
How do you perceive the importance of the craft today?
I see craft as a necessary and inseparable part of design work. In today’s world, however, I lack the reflection of the craft of our ancestors. Slovakia is an exceptional country filled with brilliant minds, but sometimes we are way too modest. As if we did not believe that we can create beautiful things, that we can magnify the knowledge we have even more and reflect them into fine art pieces.