A London Community Grows Flax to Turn Into Clothing

by , 03/24/15   filed under: Eco-Textiles, Women's Eco-Fashion

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In the spring of 2014, a dedicate lot of Londoners embarked on a mission to grow a garment. That meant starting from seeds, and using only hand labor techniques to turn a plant into fashion. One year later, they have made a gorgeous woven top entirely from urban farmed flax crop. This exemplary slow fashion project brought together gardeners, weavers, fashion designers, neighbors, and even school children. When we first learned about the project, we had a lot of questions. You may also be thinking, “isn’t flax a weird plant to grow for textiles?” We dug in to find out more.

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The project was born when Zoë Mill Burt from Seeds of Fashion in Herne Hill and Kate Poland, of Cordwainers Community Garden in Hackney met through the London-based Slow Textiles Group.

Along with Poland’s co-founder Natalie Mady, these driven women aimed to prove that slow fashion is possible in an city by making a garment entirely from urban-farmed textile crops. They also wanted the project to be a way for community to connect to their environment and to each other.

“We were inspired by the idea of the threads that bind us together in the city,” Poland writes on her blog. “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.”

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Flax is a fast growing plant, and it’ll thrive even in fair conditions. From seed planting, flax is ready to harvest in 90 days. It also grows in soil that is not very nutrient rich and light deprived. For the small vacant lots in London that the group uses to farm, flax was a perfect match.

Poland says that flax was actually the first textile crop grown by man, more than 10,000 years ago. Flax farming for textiles was at its peak three centuries ago, but waned as textile production industrialized.

Much of the information of how the farmers from years past processes their flax has been lost, so part of the effort of this project was to piece together the history and revive the craft.

In Poland’s online diary, she mentions on several occasions the challenges that humans bring to urban farming.

Among them was the diminutive size of the plots, which were strewn throughout the neighborhood. Although the team tried their best to urge people with signs and netting, the crop was trampled and trash strewn on many occasions. They lost an entire crop to a careless dog walker whose pet romped and destroyed it.  Weeds and weather also became challenges to the plants surviving. Luckily, flax is a hearty plant.

The other big challenge was having only pieces of tribal knowledge of how flax was cultivated for textiles centuries ago.  Poland recalls that, it was like “trying to learn something from fragments of a greater knowledge lost to us but so familiar to our forebears.”

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Getting from plant to fiber is a lengthy and labor intensive process. There are also a lot of flax related jargon to learn in the process.

After the flax is harvested, roots and all, it is laid or hung to dry. Once dry the seed heads are “rippled,” or removed. Next is a process called “retting,” where the plant is wet by either moisten with rain and dew, or it is soaked. The wetness decays the outer fiber breaking it down. Then it is dried again.

Now the tough, woody outer fiber is removed in a method called “scutching”. The group tried many techniques, such as hammering with mallets. Although time-consuming, twisting the dry plant by hand was the best way to reveal the long fibers inside the stalk, known as “line.”

Groups of the long hair-like line are combed in order to remove and remaining harder fiber pieces (also called “shives”) and to polish the fiber. This step, known as “heckling”, also makes sure all of the fibers are running in the same direction. The flax are now spun and dyed, much like other natural threads.

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Students from the London College of Fashion were challenged to take the flax fiber the community labored over for almost a year, and turn it into a wearable product. They decided to make a top inspired by the variety of the makers whose effort made the piece possible.

The designers used a variety of natural-dyed flax threads to weave the horizontal-banded tank. The form celebrates the hand made inconsistencies in the fiber, reminding us of all of the hands that helped make it.

The project intended on engaging the community, but Poland writes about the amazing reach it has had including fashion students, weavers, river dwellers, neighbors, and schoolchildren.

One of the garden plots is next to the River Lea in Hackney. She recalls a memorable day there sowing flax when it seemed that all walks of life were brought together. “We talked over cups of tea to small children, dog walkers, curious passers-by and the odd loiterer,” she says. “Already the flax was bringing us together.”

The project worked closely with local children too and taught them more than they expected. “We worked with five Hackney and Tower Hamlets primary schools…They rippled, retted, broke, scutched, heckled and even spun the flax,” Poland says. “If nothing else, they learned that thread comes from plants and takes a lot of effort.”

The group also learned a lot about improvising. “Improvisation was a big feature of the project as most bespoke tools do not exist any more,” she says. For example, in addition to spinning wheels, they used hand drills as a method of two people to spin the flax line into thread. They also tried using dog-grooming tools to comb the flax rather than the traditional nails on the board.

+ Cordwainers Community Garden

+ Seeds of Fashion

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One Response to “A London Community Grows Flax to Turn Into Clothing”

  1. coloharpare says:

    Fascinating article! What a great project! But I wonder if anyone contacted fiber artisans in Sweden? There are certainly people there who still know the old techniques. There’s at least one museum dedicated to linen production: http://www.ekelundweavers.com/ekelund_today/flax_processing#.VanO__m6fIU

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