Urban Flax

A community garden in London grows flax and turns it into thread

From spring 2014 to winter 2015 groups of gardeners, school children, students, knitters, spinners, environmentalists, craftspeople and individuals just keen to learn, took part in a unique project to grow, process, design and make a linen garment entirely in London.  It took more than 300 people, countless hours and 70 square meters of land to make a tee shirt.  

I co-founded and run, with Natalie Mady, a community garden in London.  We are interested in the different uses of plants (we have medicinal and dye beds) but also think that the process of learning and doing brings our community together – and that we can do more as a group than as individuals. 

We’d grown flax for a couple of years but it was such a small patch, we could only get a tiny amount of thread, so I knew that to make good use of our crop, we needed to combine it with other people.  Coincidentally I met, through the Slow Textiles Group, Zoë Burt who was also experimenting with turning flax into fibre. 

Flax was the first textile crop grown by man – 10,000 or so years ago. Until the introduction of cotton and the industrial revolution, linen production was widespread in Britain and Ireland.  People grew it for their own needs and it was also raised and processed on a large scale.  Its peak in production here was probably in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Although there is still some linen processing in Northern Ireland, it has mostly disappeared elsewhere in the UK and we don’t think any flax has been grown in London for more than a century.  

It takes a lot of work and skill to turn the plant into fibre.  All those centuries of flax production being commonplace made everyone an expert.  No longer.  We had to start from scratch.  We had to learn about the plant’s many properties and work out ideal growing and processing conditions. We made mistakes and lost flax and people on the way.

Sowing and growing went from March to mid-summer around London in patches from 1m square to a 30 meter stretch. Then we harvested the crops. Traditionally flax  would have been dried in the fields but with lack of space, dogs, drunks, foxes and other urban hazards we couldn’t leave it out so lay it on our shed floor or hung it up.  We then rippled - that is, removed the seeds (for sowing, eating or, in one case, turning into flour).  The stalks then needed to be retted (or rotted) by laying them on grass so that the dew and rain encouraged the bacteria to break down the outside of the stalks to expose the fibre.  Some of the harvests were submerged in barrels of water.  This produced paler fibre. We then dried it again until we were ready to process. 

We organized school, community and garden workshops to turn the stalks into thread. This involved breaking the inner core and removing (scutching) it.  We then heckled (or hackled) the strands to comb it until the short fibres (tow) were removed leaving the long line for spinning.  We found two excellent spinners who, however, had not spun flax before so they needed to learn about its qualities (tougher than cotton or wool but more inflexible – hence the wrinkles). The more it is handled, though, the softer – and stronger – it gets.  We boiled it and even burnt it (by mistake) and it just improved.  

Our spinners, Christine and Aaron, used wheels but we also used drop spindles and improvised with a hand drill and even a manhole cover key. Improvisation was a big feature of the project as most bespoke tools do not exist any more.  We used mallets and meat tenderisers (for breaking), dog and nit combs for heckling and nails hammered into scaffolding board for rippling. Often our hands proved to be the best tools.

Working with so many people with different levels of aptitude for the tasks produced a range of thickness and quality of spun fibre.  I dyed some with madder grown at the garden but we wanted to show the variations of colour, too, so left most of it natural. This is what we handed over to students and knitting technicians at the London College of Fashion who, again, had to learn how it behaved and turn it into something wearable but also reflecting, through its variability, the many differences of the people who made it.

For more  information, please visit: cordwainersgarden.wordpress.com.

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