“What shall we wear?” Was the question posed by the front cover of a beautifully illustrated magazine I’d found lying about the barn. This is a question often asked by glossy fashion magazines, and the answer is invariably “this season’s must have statement piece”. But this magazine was The Land - a publication about agriculture and land rights, and had very different ideas.
A series of articles put forward the radical notion that we could “Wear the Landscape”, growing crops such as flax or hemp and spinning, weaving and sewing clothes that were beautiful, long lasting, compostable and even carbon negative!
What’s the catch? The main stumbling block is time. Growing your own clothes would be extremely slow fashion that would involve hours and hours of manual labour. No flax spinning factories or machines remain in the UK since the fashion industry started taking advantage of cheaper labour overseas, and a home-grown alternative would result in prohibitively expensive clothes no one except eco-conscious celebrities could afford. Time, however, is also something I have way too much of this year. I might not be able to re-arrange global supply chains overnight, but I could at least weave my own dungarees...
Farm to fashion
I was spending the summer living and volunteering at Flourish, a beautiful organic vegetable farm, and counting myself very lucky that I’d been allowed to move out of my lovely but yard-less flat in Newcastle with zero notice at the start of lock-down (shout out to my landlord Matt!). In ‘real life’ (pre-plague) I worked as a musician in a lively festival band, a care assistant and a freelance set and costume designer for theatre. But after being dramatically sent home mid European tour I found myself unemployed, unable to work from home and miraculously free of all responsibility from my hitherto hectic schedule as a self employed artist. I had a lot of time to think, no longer zooming about between festival sets, but instead whiling away the hours washing turnips, thinning chard seedlings, weeding and philosophising. I’d always thought a lot about food ethics, which is partly what prompted my decision to try farming. I wanted to find out where my food really came from, what was good for the earth and environment, what eating seasonal local vegetables actually looked like*. Could organic veg really feed the world? Was it destined to be something only the middle classes could afford to care about? But whilst I was busy digging for answers to these comestible conundrums it suddenly struck me that I’d never put anywhere near as much thought into my fabric and clothes shopping habits. Like food, clothes are something we use everyday, constantly buying, wearing and then throwing away clothes our entire lives. As a seamstress I knew about the amount of time and care creating an item of clothing takes.
I used to try and steer clear of fast fashion brands with their notoriously bad track record for worker’s rights, and head to charity shops for my fix of cheap throwaway outfits, but I’d never considered where the fabric actually came from.
When I went shopping for sewing projects I’d always consider the price and the look of fabric but rarely the ingredients. If polyester was cheaper than cotton then great, I’d make the shoe string budget for whatever show I was working on stretch a bit further. The “What shall we wear?” articles made me sit up and think: What is fabric made of? Where do these these substances come from? How do you take a plant, or animal hair, or petroleum oil and process it into cloth? Rebecca Burgess’s amazing book and project Fibershed answers many of these questions and is both a terrifying eye-opener to the malpractices of the fashion industry, and a joyful call to arms for farmers, crafts people and fashion designers to collaborate and find solutions. Burgess set up a ‘Wardrobe challenge’ project for herself, spending a year only wearing clothes that had been grown, woven and sewn within a 150 mile radius of her home. She ended up creating a network of fibre farmers and artisans, hosting a fashion show of home-grown clothing, and writing a book about her experiences. I couldn’t wait to join Burgess’s Fibershed movement – the only hitch being she’s based just outside San Francisco and I was in rural Cambridgeshire.
Since I’d already recorded a sad bedroom EP about not being on tour and started growing my own beans in case of an impending apocalypse I set about new lock-down hobby no. 407: befriending farmers on Instagram. Specifically hemp and flax farmers, who might help in my quest for locally grown fabric. George Young (AKA @farminggeorge) was immediately enthusiastic and invited me and a bunch of the other volunteers from Flourish Produce to come on a field trip to his farm an hour away in Essex. He was incredibly generous with his time and spent the whole of his Sunday morning showing us around and telling us about his big plans for next season, which involve planting strips of fruit trees and wild-flower meadows in-between other food crops. He then let me pick a sample of his flax and hemp crops to try and process into fabric! What had seemed like an idle musing a month before (“what even is fabric?”) was a tangible bundle of plants being stowed in the back of the pick up truck.
Excitingly we also discussed the possibility of him growing a whole hectare (1000 m²) of flax for me next year, provided I sourced the seeds and enough people to help with the harvest. Suddenly my grow-your-own-clothes plans were becoming very real, I didn’t need to know much about crop yields to guess this would be a f**k ton of flax.
In fact the kind people at Flaxland informed me it would be a literal metric ton of fibre for spinning which would take about 3 years for one person to process by hand, and make roughly 350m² of fabric (or about 116 pairs of dungarees if you prefer).
Off to Flaxland!
Flaxland is a real and wonderful place, strongly reminiscent of the lovelier bits of Middle Earth. Housed in a hand carved wooden outhouse next to a bubbling stream (with water wheel) at the bottom of Ann and Simon’s garden, Flaxland is a tiny museum of the UK’s former flax industry, and a workshop space for learning how to process and spin flax into linen thread. I spent two very informative days visiting with my Mum, who amazingly offered to do all the driving (thanks Mum!) and who luckily enjoys obscure craft projects.
We learned about the full process: pulling, retting, breaking, scutching, heckling, dressing the distaff and finally spinning the fibres, and were let loose on some beautiful old spinning wheels.
The fairy tales in which young women are tasked to spin straw into gold suddenly made a lot more sense. The dried flax plant looks just like an unassuming bundle of straw, but as you crack away the brittle outer layer the inner glossy fibres are revealed, which grow ever more lustrous as they are brushed (or heckled) with increasingly fine combs. The concept of ‘flaxen hair’, and ‘tow rope’ also took on deeper meanings (flax indeed looks like hair and the tow is the short rough fibres not good enough for spinning which are made instead into rope), but by far my favourite new flax vocabulary fact is the etymology of ‘heckling’:
Although the word heckler, which originated from the textile trade, was first attested in the mid-15th century, the sense "person who harasses" was from 1885. To heckle was to tease or comb out flax or hemp fibres. The additional meaning, to interrupt speakers with awkward or embarrassing questions, was added in Scotland, and specifically perhaps in early nineteenth century Dundee, a famously radical town where the hecklers who combed the flax had established a reputation as the most radical and belligerent element in the workforce. In the heckling factory, one heckler would read out the day's news while the others worked, to the accompaniment of interruptions and furious debate.
On the way home from Flaxland we stopped off in Yorkshire to collect a spinning wheel (kindly donated by an old friend) and purchase two 20kg bales of flax and hemp from East Yorkshire Hemp Co. There I was met by Margo, a very knowledgable farmer, who answered all my questions about their hemp harvesting machines and showed me some of the products they produce. Hemp can turned into almost anything it seems, in their barn they had hempcrete building material, hemp briquettes for fuel, animal bedding, and huge fibre bales of both flax and hemp in imposing towers right up to the two story high roof which can be used for mattresses, loft insulation, and of course fabric weaving. Craning my neck to see the top of the towers and remembering how many hours it had taken me to coax just a fistful of fibre onto the spinning wheel I could see how one might be persuaded to trade your future unborn child with a goblin who has magical spinning skills.**
What on earth am I going to do with a metric ton of flax?
Here’s where you come in: I’m confident enough people will be excited about the prospect of a grow-your-own-clothes adventure that we’ll have all the hands we need to grow and process the fibre, and everyone can keep what they sew and put on a fashion show or exhibition of all the clothes or rugs or tea towels we produce at the end. I’m especially interested in developing tools and machinery to speed up processing, there must be something more advanced than the lovingly carved hand tools at Flaxland, but not as expensive as importing huge factory equipment from overseas. I’m planning to spend the next year (until the flax harvest in August 2021) doing lots of research and prototyping; learning everything I can about growing, retting, spinning, weaving, and dyeing fibre fabric. So if you have any expertise in this arena you’d be willing to pass on, or if you’re excited to learn about it along with me, or even if you just fancy looking at pictures and reading about how we get on please sign up to the mailing list below and I’ll send out more details about the project soon: https://mailchi.mp/54bb8983d14a/project-collaborators-sign-up
Relevant links to things
Read the Land Magazine’s review of Fibershed here: https://www.thelandmagazine.org.uk/articles/wear-landscape Farming George: https://www.instagram.com/farminggeorge/ Flourish Produce:https://www.instagram.com/flourishproduce/ Flaxland:http://www.flaxland.co.uk/ East Yorkshire Hemp Co:https://eastyorkshirehemp.co.uk/ Fibershed in the UK: https://fibershed.org/affiliate/north-west-england-fibreshed/ https://fibershed.org/affiliate/south-west-england-fibreshed/ https://fibershed.org/affiliate/southeast-england-fibreshed/ Weavers, spinners and dyers guild: https://www.wsd.org.uk/
What will be the Insta for this project once I have more photographs: https://www.instagram.com/straw_into_gold/ Irrelevant links to things:
Sad lockdown EP: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z92QTI7_uuA My band: https://www.instagram.com/holymolyandthecrackers/ *if you want 10 increasingly experimental recipes for courgette dm me **this is a reference to the Brother’s Grimm fairy tale Rumplestiltskin, not a fast fashion human rights abuse scandal.