The Return of Urban Flax

A slow textile and fashion garment grown in London

The idea to grow a London garment grew both from a love of nature, and the desire to critique our fashion industry. Our aim was to inspire people to get back in touch with where their clothes come from, and also to debate the issues of textile provenance and clothes miles. 

Flax sown, grown and processed in London by many people of all ages was handed to the students and knitting technicians at the London College of Fashion in order for them to design and make a London linen garment.  The brief was to reflect all the people who took part in the project, and the final garment was created by students and technicians at LCF in 2015.

The students designed and knitted a vest showing the lovely variations in the thread – like the infinite variations in the people who helped envision, grow and co-create this textile journey. LCF were excited to be part of the project, which enabled students to see and participate in the entire process of producing a fashion item, from seed to garment. Dr Rosemary Willatt and Rachel Clowes from LCF feels that the project was an excellent way to communicate the concept of sustainability: ‘Sustainability is one of our core values at London College of Fashion, and an essential part of this is giving our students the skills and experiences they need to change industry for the better. We think this is a unique opportunity for students to experience fibre production and processing and to appreciate the work that goes into a finished textile.’

The flax plants were grown at sites across London in 2014, and the harvest was then processed at participatory workshops that transformed the fibre into thread. This took place at community gardens and schools all over London, as well as at LCF itself. The LCF students then responded to a brief asking them to design a garment that was innovative, utilitarian, wearable and unisex. It was crucial that the designs celebrated the unique qualities of the linen thread, which varied hugely in texture and thickness as a result of the skills and experience of those involved in its production. There were also natural variations in the colour of the linen (blonde to brown/grey), and a small quantity dyed with madder (also grown in London). There was to be no waste, since the lovingly grown and hand-processed flax was so precious. No other yarns were to be used. The brief also encouraged students to be inspired by workwear, and by the rich and varied tradition of flax growing in UK  - including the flax shop in operation during the 1750s at Homerton workhouse, near to LCF’s Mare Street site.

Emily Jackson was one of the students who responded to the brief. Emily had also previously taken part in the flax processing workshops  at LCF, and being part of the whole process inspired her design ideas, leading her to consider every detail that would be made of the unique linen thread. Rajul Jain, another LCF student, is proud to have been involved with a project which, although small-scale, emphasized the need for a holistic view on garment making and infused responsible practices within the textile and garment supply chain: “It presents fashion in its true ethos by depicting a cross-pollination of nature and style. Another admirable thing about the project is that it allowed the practitioners involved to play to their strengths and work in a collaborative model. Collaborative practice brings a multifaceted view to the project and creates solutions that are human-centered, ecologically sustainable and fashionably trendy, representing the future paradigm of fashion."

The knitters were restricted by the amount and quality of the linen available, so opted to make a cropped sleeveless top for the photoshoot. It was challenging to knit with linen as it has very little stretch, was inconsistent in quality (reflecting the fact that lots of different people had tried spinning), was in fairly short lengths, and hadn’t been treated prior to knitting. 

The resulting garment successfully exploits the complex variations of thickness and colour within the linen thread, representing and celebrating our hard-won rediscovery of the ancient techniques involved and re-connecting us to those for whom the processes involved were an everyday part of life. Reflecting the diversity of its makers, this is a garment that could belong to a child or an adult - or be as at home in the wardrobe of someone who works at a desk or in the open air.

The top was re-knitted for the event held at the Royal Horticultural Society in London, as the knitters learnt from the initial knitting process and thought that a longer garment with sleeves would be easier for people to imagine wearing than the initial ‘fashion garment’. Again, the knitters kept the garment simple to highlight the beautiful variety of colours and thicknesses of the flax.

Next year LCF will carry on growing flax, as will other UK sites. We are proud that this project has contributed to a groundswell of support for ideas of sustainability in textiles and fashion, and helped us to reconnect with the techniques and experiences that are a key part of our heritage. 

For more information, please visit: www.seedsoffashion.co.uk

Photo credits for LCF students: Ryan Saradjola - photographer, Quentin Hubert - stylist and Ka Hei Law - hair and make-up artist. Model - Laurel Fish.

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