We didn’t really think it through before embarking on a project to grow a piece of clothing entirely in London. If we had thought it through, we might not have started as it was a year-long labour of love and faith. But we were inspired by the idea of the threads that bind us together in the city. We wanted to show, through a piece of material, that individually we can come together to make something that we can’t do on our own.
Until the introduction of cotton and the industrial revolution, linen production was widespread in Britain and Ireland. Indeed, it was the first textile crop grown by man – 10,000 or so years ago. Its peak here was probably in the 17th and 18th centuries. People would have grown it for their own needs and it was also raised and processed on a large scale. But it takes a lot of work – and expertise. All those centuries of flax production being commonplace and domestic made everyone an expert – or at least aware of the plant and its uses. No longer. We had to start from the beginning. We had to learn about the plant’s many properties and work out ideal growing conditions, to dew or water ret, the best way of heckling, do we need a distaff for spinning? What is a distaff? Would this toy giraffe do?
We made mistakes and wasted a lot of time and flax getting it wrong and lost people and plants on the way, but we had some great days. A memorable one was sowing a patch next to the River Lea in Hackney. On a sunny morning we met river dwellers and land lubbers who spoke to each other about common concerns. We talked over cups of tea to small children, dog walkers, curious passers-by and the odd loiterer. Already the flax was bringing us together.
And the school workshops were full of excitement and energy – as well as learning. We worked with five Hackney and Tower Hamlets primary schools (300+ noisy children!) thanks to the local school gardener’s (Cassie Liversidge’s) own enthusiasm. They rippled, retted, broke, scutched, heckled and even spun the flax. If nothing else, they learned that thread comes from plants and takes a lot of effort. They fitted flax production into their lessons – from science to the Iron Age. Cassie said it was a “fantastic ‘living history’ lesson for the pupils and they have loved to be involved in it”.
This project brought a huge number of (sometimes surprising) people together – from those children in London to Hebrew Bible publishers in Jerusalem and a weaver in Crete. In between were community gardens, housing estates, city farms, Children’s Centres, Permaculturalists, fashion students, knitters, weavers and, thanks to the Guild of Spinners, Weavers and Dyers and Twitter, two spinners (Christine Rowe and Aaron Fletcher) who were willing to learn about the demands of turning hanks of hair-like fibre into thread.
Throughout the project we were tugged back into our pasts and our fairy tale memories – from the ancient boredom and sociability of harvesting, to gazing at the huge pile of flax straw and wishing Rumpelstiltskin was nearby. Similarly, there was a fairy tale quality to our own spinning. It didn’t matter how much we processed, our pile of thread never seemed to grow any bigger. But eventually we handed our yarn (about 400g) over to knitters at the London College of Fashion. They made a top designed to bring out the great variability of the thread – made by so many people.
But it wasn’t really about the final product; it was about the threads that bind us.
If you’d like to find out more, or to take part in our slightly less ambitious project this year – to grow string – email firstname.lastname@example.org