After my visit to Michel Garcia’s dye garden in Provence I was inspired to make inks so we ran a small workshop in our office/studio on Well St using ingredients I bought there. We used cochineal beetles, insects that live on the nopal cactus. Cochineal beetles have been used across Europe to colour textiles and to make pigment for paints and inks. Today in Mexico and Peru they cultivate the cactus to harvest cochineals to make the colour additive E120. We also ground up oak galls (for brown and added iron for black), buckthorn + alum for green), sophora flowers from China for yellow and logwood for violet.
It’s long been my ambition to make a record of all the ‘weeds’ growing along Mare St. I say ‘weeds’ but really I want to rehabilitate them and rename them as wild plants. Finally we got round to it. We roped Annie Chipchase, a local urban ecologist, in to lead a group of us to look at, identify and draw what we found. We started at a short stretch of unprepossessing road round the corner from the garden: Weston Walk. It’s more of an alley — often strewn with hair from the salon that backs onto it, as well as chicken bones from the chicken shop, dumped rubbish bags and occasionally furniture. I’d noticed, though, that a leaking pipe had provided an environment for moss to grow so I thought it would be a good place to begin our hunt. In this short road we found 23 varieties of plants growing in the cracks and up the walls. We were so absorbed, we hardly had time to explore or record what was growing on Mare St. We wondered at the resilience of these plants growing in the most hostile environment – and will never look at the cracks in the pavement in the same way again.
There are several ways of getting warm. We tried three. The first was to make a small fire.
The second was to eat cake.
And the third was to go into the shed and lick a chilli seed or two and learn a lot more. For our second Grow A Gardener workshop this year, we ran a session on basic seed-sowing followed by a master class by the knowledgeable, interesting and resourceful Raul Couselo. He grows chillies indoors but it is also possible to grow outdoor varieties in London (bring them in in the winter). Chillies are often difficult to germinate. They need a long period of warmth with a soil temperature of at least 18 degrees C. Raul has designed a fail-safe seed propagator using a bit of folded cardboard in which you put your seeds, wrap it in a plastic bag and put on somewhere warm. He gets 100% germination (as opposed to my rate which is about 30%).
Once the seeds have germinated, transplant them to pots and place them on damp cardboard in a mini greenhouse made from a croissant box placed on an electric blanket.
Raul gave us some brilliant tips.
Once they have grown and produced flowers, to get more even, bigger and better crops of fruits, hand pollinate with a paintbrush. It’s much easier than it sounds. Just move pollen from the stamen to the stigma. Use different brushes for different plants to avoid cross-pollination.
Soak cardboard beneath pots to keep plants moist.
Add good quality soil to water so that you are watering your plants with nutrients. Comfrey is too strong!
Prune chillies. They are perennials and benefit from the stress.
Save seeds from shop bought chillies as well as your own.They may not come true but you can experiment. You must!
If you’ve never witnessed the magic of a woad (or indigo) vat, seen the alchemy of one thing turning into another, book yourself a place on a workshop now. Forget the wow factor, the woad factor will bowl you over. The nearest thing I could think of in twenty-first century terms is the awe we felt the first time you see an iphone swipe. That wonder soon wears off. Never with woad.
We set up an informal workshop at Cordwainers Garden to experiment with our woad harvest and went through the exacting (but not difficult) process of turning a handful of leaves into a permanent dye. It took about three hours in all. We had a great turnout of people from all corners of the world. People from Uruguay, Argentina, Spain, Leicester, and Wembley came to have a go and help us with the magic.
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 email@example.com
In that no-man’s-land between Christmas and New Year, we managed to winkle a good handful of people from the warmth of their homes into the cold mid-winter to try to reduce our still large pile of flax to thread (where IS Rumplestiltskin when you need him?). Two people, Moira and Catherine, came from afar (Woking and somewhere further than Richmond) in spite of the bus strike. Moira is now an expert as she’s been to three workshops and is even starting to develop her own tools. Catherine was a novice but keen to learn about natural fibre and dyes. We were also very happy to see Charlotte and Doug (formerly of this parish) who’ve been working on organic farms in Britain and Spain.
It was cold but bright and we spun 56 metres – mostly using the hand drill method. Doug made a lovely fire (don’t tell) and we drank lots of tea and HopCord, the beer made by the People’s Park Tavern with our hops. Yum.
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!