Sometimes, when we’re setting up a stall for a community event my heart sinks a little. The sky is grey and the wind is whipping round the marquee. We have a long day ahead of us and we must be friendly and active and sometimes that seems too much. But these are the times when you really need that human activity. These are the times that will really lift you.
Some local organisations got together on Saturday at Mabley Green to coincide with a football competition at Hackney Wick FC. Our stall neighbours included Children With Voices, Hackney Quest ,Hackney Pirates and ecoACTIVE– all creative and inspiring outfits which encourage children to be active, curious and inventive – to give them alternatives to the other stuff out there like gangs and slumping on the sofa.
As our contribution we set up to make willow crowns with plants picked from the garden – including ceanothus, ivy, broccoli flowers, dandelions, shepherd’s purse, geraniums, yarrow and red valerian – and seeing the wonderful variety in both the people and their creations lifted our spirits.
And if this video of Michelle talking about the event doesn’t lift your heart, you may need to seek a doctor: Jumping Beans
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
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.
The flax project is progressing. We have two schools, two children’s centres, a park, several housing estates and community spaces and individuals growing. It’s now getting pretty late to sow but last week I went to Daubeney Fields in east Hackney to sow a strip with Gerry Tissier, who’s involved with the park users’ group. I roped Cristina Consuega, who’s doing research into urban agriculture, in to help and Gerry asked a couple of people along too. I also texted Ben, who lives on a boat and who we’d met when we looked at the site a few weeks ago. We were lucky with the weather – bright and warm – and the site next to the River Lea which was alive with wildlife, boats – and people. The place was bursting with blossom and new leaf. A perfect May day. What I didn’t expect was the meeting of all the different people using the space – river dwellers, land lubbers, dog walkers, loiterers and some small children. Through our common purpose – of clearing and sowing a strip of land – we met and chatted and talked about common (and some uncommon) issues, and made plans to talk more about other projects meetings and plans. One child buried about half a packet of seeds in a hole he dug (that will be an interesting patch), A dog scraped at the newly-sown seeds and then lay down on them. We ran out of steam at the end so there’s a very weedy stretch and the dog put her nose into the cake I made. So several things went wrong but it didn’t matter a jot as we all had a great time. So good that I didn’t realise my watch had stopped for an hour and a half. The power of flax.
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.
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.
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.
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.