Hecklers Welcome in Dundee

Hecklers Welcome in Dundee

I’ve been telling a story for some years – since I started growing flax, processing it and doing the odd talk and workshop – about Dundee flax mill workers and the origin of the meaning of ‘to heckle’, so Dundee was a place that I was aware was important in the social, cultural and industrial history of linen.  This weekend confirmed the story for me – and much more.

Industrial Dundee, McManus Museum

Dundee became important for flax processing both before and after the Acts of Union (1707) which joined England and Scotland’s parliaments as well as their monarchs. Before, linen production developed as the Scots (and Irish) were prohibited from competing with England’s hugely profitable wool industry.  After the Act, Scotland had a new market for its flax and linen products and the industry prospered – especially in Dundee with its maritime links to the Baltic states which could supply the raw material.  Huge mills were built in the early 19th century when the process was industrialised and the (mainly female) workforce – poorly paid and living in appalling conditions – nevertheless became politically important.

Dundee was known as a ‘woman’s town’ or ‘She Town’ as women outnumbered men by three to one in the mills.  Like the cottage industry spinsters before them (women who were financially independent and so didn’t need to get married) Dundee’s mill workers were the main bread-winners and householders.  According to the wonderful Verdant Works Museum, “In the face of such circumstances any fixed ideas of what constituted normal male and female behaviour were dismissed and Dundee women gained the freedom to act in a way which often ignored convention.” The local vicar called them “Over-dressed, loud, bold-eyed girls” and drunkenness amongst them was common.  So these were the women, working on the heckling (hackling in England) machines who would be bold enough to question and confront their ‘betters’.  And these women were the bedrock of the subsequent Suffragette movement in the city.

Votes for Women campaign in Dundee

This social history was part of the magnificent display in the Verdant Works, a jute mill converted into a museum in the 90s.

Verdant Works, Dundee

As the flax supply became more unreliable with turbulence in the Baltic region, the barons looked to the Empire for an alternative and discovered jute from India (and what’s now Bangladesh). It was cheap, versatile and could be made (like flax) into a wide range of goods – sailcloth, rope, canvas for tents in the Crimean war, fire hoses, sacking (the equivalent of the blue carrier bag we get at every corner shop or market), carpet backing and for covered wagons. The city became known as Jutopolis.

Jute sacking, the plastic carrier bag of their day.

The industry employed thousands of people.

The museum houses training versions of all the machinery that would have been used in the 19th century mills – used for batching, softening, carding, drawing, roving spinning, winding, beaming, weaving and finishing.  Excellent volunteers demonstrate their use.

A heckle/hackle

The last jute mill closed in 1999 but many of the buildings remain, converted to housing, offices or studios.

Former flax later jute mills dominate this part of Dundee.

The flax and jute industries have just about disappeared in the UK but there is one local company, Nutscene which does a fantastic and mouth-watering job of (amongst other things) making jute and flax string and sacking.  The love of string (I know, a bit odd) was the reason why I first started growing flax in our community garden in Hackney.  I can’t wait for my next visit to Dundee and the stringopolis of Nutscene.

Advertisements

Lister Community School

Lister Community School

H

I went bleary-eyed to Lister Community School in Newham the other day – not used to an early start these days. The class had been looking at sustainability so I made a pincer approach of natural dyeing and flax. This is the work they produced in class. I was so impressed that they were actually listening!

One of the girls also wrote a piece for the school blog. http://www.lister.newham.sch.uk/specialist-curriculum-textiles-may/

Wet Your Knee

Wet Your Knee

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.

Reunited with Aaron The Spinner

Reunited with Aaron The Spinner

I met Aaron through Twitter.  Last year in the midst of the flax project, I scoured the electronic world for spinners and we found each other.  He was willing to spin the flax and, not only that, spin in primary schools with scores of excited children buzzing round him.  And then repeat. 

He came to the little exhibition Zoe Burt put on at Brockwell Park House – featuring the garment. It was such a joy to see him again and relive those rather fraught sessions at the schools and to remind ourselves what we’d achieved.  We also marvelled at the work of spinners.  Without them, no fabric.  It doesn’t matter how much processing you do to fibre, without someone to twist it, there is no thread, no strength.  That makes spinners powerful and reinforces the fact that a spinster was, because of her skill, able to make a living. She didn’t need to get married. She was independent.  We should reclaim the word from its negative associations – but that is another matter.  

Back to Aaron.  He’d brought his spinning wheel to the exhibition and spun away – showing some visitors how to do it, too.  He works for TfL to make a living but his love is spinning and knitting and that makes him happy.  I said he was the Philip Larkin of the knitting world – supporting his art with a mundane job. Making beautiful things, working hard and being quite content with that.

Thanks, Aaron.  It was a great collaboration.  

He seems to be willing to do it again so hopefully we can continue our partnership and throw ourselves back into those classrooms and break, scutch, heckle and spin with those buzzing children. Hurrah!

  

  

  

  

  

  

 

Secret Sunday

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.

https://www.rhs.org.uk/shows-events/rhs-london-shows/secret-sundays

Close-up of the London-grown garment showing the variations in the thread - reflecting the variations of its makers.
Close-up of the London-grown garment showing the variations in the thread – reflecting the variations of its makers.

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