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Gardening goes fashion-forward

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Cordwainers Community Garden Volunteer Day, credit: Karl Mathiesen

Collaborations are all the rage in the world of fashion, but it’s not so common for gardeners to be one half of the partnership. Students from the London College of Fashion though, are joining forces with a group of community growers, to create a dye garden that will bring colour to their fashion collections and their campus.

The students will use the plot in a community garden on their East London campus to grow a number of dye-producing plants including woad, madder, weld and marigolds. Colours from the plants will be used to dye fabric for their collections.

The growers from Cordwainers Garden and students held their first joint growing day on Sunday. Most of the new plantings are native to Europe, although some exotics, such as Japanese indigo, were chosen for their particular dying qualities.

Liz Spencer, who will complete a masters degree at the college’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion this December, is one of the students who will benefit from the colour-producing plants. She says that natural dyes are an attractive alternative to synthetic ones. “Natural dyes are sustainable and biodegradable,” she says. “Dyeing can be one of the most damaging processes in the fashion industry.”

The effluents from manufacturers’ dye baths can contain toxic chemicals that can damage ecosystems if they do not undergo an expensive treatment process. Also, says Spencer, the process is incredibly water-intensive. Contrast this with traditional indigo dyers who reuse the same dying pots and liquids for decades. “It is important that this knowledge isn’t lost,” Spencer says.

The range of natural colours is limited – Mother Nature’s fashion sense evidently did not encompass 80s neon. However, Spencer argues, “That’s the charm of it. You work with what nature gives you.”

The project has also captured the interest of the community gardening group. “I like the idea that plants can do more than look nice,” says Kate Poland, a local resident and one of the group’s founders.

The space where the dye plants are being grown is already home to a flourishing garden. The plot was originally disused and frequented only by day-time dog walkers and night-time drinkers. Poland and other local residents approached the college and asked if they could return the land to an agricultural use. In less than a year the neighbours have produced a vibrant patch of vegetables and they have ambitions to sell to local restaurants.

The unusual and collaborative nature of the project has captured the imaginations of both community and students, said Poland. A healthy turn out of around 25 willing helpers seemed to confirm the enthusiasm for the endeavour.

Spencer said that many of the plantings would not be ready for her to use by the time she graduates in December. “They need time to mature. But this is a long term project.”

You can find out more about Cordwainers Garden here and about the project here.

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2 Responses to “Gardening goes fashion-forward”

  1. Hedvig

    What a great collaboration. I am really interested in exploring the natural dyes and plants. There was an interesting article in the last edition of Oh Comely magazine.

  2. Rhiannon

    The cross-over between gardening and fashion and other industries is really interesting. If you’re interested in growing dye plants, there’s more info here http://www.cityplanter.co.uk/out-and-about/beer-bread-and-threads-cottage-industries-grow-in-the-city after the section on wheat for bread!

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