We Grew a Garment!

We Grew a Garment!

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 kate@cordwainersgrow.org.uk

Ryan Saradjola, photographer, Quentin Hubert, stylist and Ka Hei Law, hair and make-up artist.
Ryan Saradjola, photographer, Quentin Hubert, stylist and Ka Hei Law, hair and make-up artist.
Preparing to sow at Gascoyne Estate, Hackney
Preparing to sow at Gascoyne Estate, Hackney
Grace with her harvest at Rosendale Allotments
Grace with her harvest at Rosendale Allotments
Zoe Burt introducing the project.
Zoe Burt introducing the project.
This diagram shows some of the connections we made during the project.
This diagram shows some of the connections we made during the project.
Helpers at Morningside School, Hackney.
Helpers at Morningside School, Hackney.
Workshop at the London College of Fashion
Workshop at the London College of Fashion
Drill spinning
Using a hand drill to spin – at Cordwainers Garden
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Breaking, scutching, hackling and spinning. Again

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”

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Flax Workshop 2

Flax Workshop 2

We took over the canteen at the London College of Fashion on Saturday and found the quality of the flax (or it could have been the retting or drying) was much better than last time.  .

This invaluable piece of machinery breaks the hard stems to extract the soft fibres.  Everyone had a go.
This invaluable piece of machinery breaks the hard stems to extract the soft fibres. Everyone had a go.
Heckling and spinning
Scutching

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Christine showing Jan how to spin with a spindle.
Christine showing Jan how to spin with a spindle.
Combing the fibres to remove the shives and to make sure all the strands are running in the same direction to make spinning easier.
Combing the fibres to remove the shives and to make sure all the strands are running in the same direction to make spinning easier.
Rod tried to repair the wheel to no avail.
Rod tried to repair the wheel to no avail.
The shives are the broken bits of the inside core of the stalk - what gives the stem rigidity.  They can be used in building products - or simply as a mulch.
The shives are the broken bits of the inside core of the stalk – what gives the stem rigidity. They can be used in building products – or simply as a mulch.
We produced a lot of tow, short fibres, which can also be spun.
We produced a lot of tow, short fibres, which can also be spun.
Spun linen thread - rough but beautiful.
Spun linen thread – rough but beautiful.
Spun and unspun flax
Spun and unspun flax

The Importance of Community Volunteers

Our small community garden is maintained entirely by volunteers. We run it with enthusiasm (mostly) and a belief in the power of gardening to bring people together – as well as improving the environment of course.   We have learnt that amongst our gardeners we have a variety of skills – composting, seed-sowing, planning, raising veg, PR, samosa-making, taking photos, organising things – but most people have other things to do – other lives – and sometimes we need a boost to help get things done.

Our first big volunteer day in February 2011 was to build two big beds. Local people and students from the London College of Fashion turned out on a bright (but cold) day to shovel, carry, dig and construct. We found that getting together to drink tea at the beginning, middle or end of the volunteer day was as important – maybe more – as getting the job done – especially if we try to make tea on the camping stove. The waiting makes it taste so much better.

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Our biggest ongoing project so far is what we call the Slow Shed. We’ve built it almost entirely from reclaimed materials and voluntary labour. With a general lack of building skills amongst us it is a slow business with lots of set-backs but it has brought lots of people together and provided everyone with an enormous sense of achievement. The Slow Shed – like a Herculean task – is never finished so we always have jobs to do on it.

Putting up the frame of the shed.
Putting up the frame of the shed.

We got a big boost when a corporate group came for a day last summer. They helped weave the front with willow, painted some lockers we’d found in the street and put up some shelves.

Sarah and Benedicte from Locktons helped us weave the shed.
Sarah and Benedicte from Locktons helped us weave the shed.

It’s usually not usually money we need — the garden is cheap to run and we raise money through cake and plant sales and subs cover most of our day-to-day expenses. Occasionally we need financial help with a specific project (like the willow-weaving where we needed to buy materials). More important to us is energy and enthusiasm – and a keenness to drink tea together.

For such a small organisation like ours, it’s wonderful to get an injection of vigour and good will from people who really don’t need to help but do anyway.  We’re looking forward to seeing more groups from our neighbours in the business world and beyond.

 

 

 

Corporate Volunteer Day

We had a great day yesterday.  Not just because it was probably the last hot day of a blazing summer but because we had volunteers from the international insurance and risk management company, Lockton, to help us with the shed.  Their London base is in the City so they are neighbours geographically, though quite distant in many other ways.  Five of their employees turned up ready to get to work (and we had a fairly long list of things we needed done) and after obligatory cake and tea they got started and didn’t really stop till one of them had to go for a meeting and the rest of us ground to a halt through exhaustion and overheating. Weaving a shed it more tiring than you’d think.

Martin and George did some magnificent carpentry in the shed – mostly remedial work for my wobbly bench but putting up shelves, too.

Martin and George making a wobbly workbench stable - and adding storage space underneath.  Neat.
Martin and George making a wobbly workbench stable – and adding storage space underneath. Neat.

Steve spent all day painting a locker we’d found on the street.  It looks as good as new now.

Steve turned a rusty old locker found on the street into a new storage area - with the help of a tin of Hammerite.
Steve turned a rusty old locker found on the street into a new storage area – with the help of a tin of Hammerite.

Benedicte made us some beautiful labels. Stencilled labels on scrap wood.

and then got down to some serious weaving with willow from World of Willow (at a very nice discount).  Sarah, too – leader of the team – was great company and certainly left her mark with her unique brick-style weave.

Sarah and Benedicte in the background
Shed weavers, Sarah and Benedicte.
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Sarah using her special brickwork pattern
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Nat’s very tidy weave.
Shed Weaving
Benedicte is very methodical and neat. We’re going to batten down the ends.

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For a small organisation like ours, where volunteering enthusiasm easily wanes, it’s wonderful to get an injection of vigour and good will from people who really don’t need to help but do anyway.  So a big thanks to Lockton, who have given us a great boost.

The A Team (with their tools) from Lockton (Risk Solutions Division): Steve, Sarah, George, Benedicte, Martin.
The A Team (with their tools) from Lockton (Risk Solutions Division): Steve, Sarah, George, Benedicte, Martin.