This is the key to a technique for flax spinning we learnt last night: dampen your knee. What’s great about our flax to thread sessions is that the people who come are so skilled and cover such a wide range of interests from sowing to… er… sewing. Last Thursday at the London College of Fashion we had growers from community gardens and allotments, spinners and knitters, technical innovators and fashion designers. We honed two methods of spinning; one using the drill method. I now know you must wet the fibre to help it bond to itself and that you must turn the drill anti-clockwise to make the magic really work. The other technique, which gardener, designer and teacher Dina demonstrated, used no equipment apart from the above-mentioned damp knee, and involved rolling the heckled fibre on a leg see our Knee-Spinning video. We also got an excellent new model for our garment – Benjamin. He wears it very well. Kellie also models the string she made – as a stylish belt.
To mark London Fashion Week, we present the story of a slow, unfashionable piece of clothing. Grow a Garment Press Release1
We’re getting ready for the RHS’s Secret Sunday on 1st March. They’ve asked us to display our London-grown garment. It will be its first public appearance since it was made. It’s actually being reknitted at the moment so we hope it will have sleeves! We’ll be giving a talk about the project at 10.45 so come and see (and even touch) it and ask us how we did it.
Throughout the day we’ll be running a drop-in dye workshop and we’ll be talking about our new project – to grow community string.
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
We’ve been doing a series of workshops to turn our flax into thread. Here’s a short blog by Antoinetta, who came along to our drop-in day last week.
“Before I went to the flax workshop, I had no idea that linen is made from the cellulose fibers that grow inside the stalks of the flax plant. When on Tuesday I arrived at the lovely garden in the heart of London, I found many volunteers helping with a project which tries to connect people and place through a greater awareness of the environment.
I did not know anybody but a warm atmosphere made me feel immediately comfortable.
It was a very good experience where I learnt about part of the processing of flax and where I met many interesting people to chat to.
Delicious refreshments included soup, bread and an amazing cake with tea and herbal tea were provided!
Thanks for everything”
We had our first Grow a London Garment workshop yesterday at Brockwell Park Community Greenhouses. It was a beautiful day so we moved a couple of tables outside and set up our new breaking/heckling machine. We also improvised breaking the stalks with mallets, meat tenderisers and bits of wood but, after experimenting in many ways, found that the machine did the job better and in much less time. Of course. If you’ve ever read Ridley Walker or other post catastrophe fiction, it felt a bit like that: trying to learn something from fragments of a greater knowledge lost to us but so familiar to our forebears. Quite soon we had a jumble of cake, tea, a variety of combs, drop spindles, bits of wood – and our precious tow and line on our tables. Diane Sullock showed us how to use the drop spindles so that we could spin some rough thread. And a further joy was that passers by could watch us – and join in. We might even have got some converts.
So we companionably turned the flax into spinning gold and then Aaron-the-spinner turned up – a kind of cavalier in cowboy boots – to put the wheel together and… spin. Turned out we ran out of time (a kind of Cinderella scenario with the meter on the hire car running out) but he’s taken our skeins away with him to spin his magic at home.
To quote from Zoe’s email this morning, “I read from Making is Connecting by David Gauntlett yesterday …’collaboration and social projects are good for happiness’ – so true! It was quite tiring though.
Next workshop: 11th October at the London College of Fashion, Mare St.