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Slow fashion: a top sown and sewn in London

by Rhiannon James

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As London prepares for Fashion Week’s frenzy of must-have looks designed and produced all over the world – an altogether more local fashion project has just been finished – a garment sown, grown, dyed and spun entirely in the capital.

More than 300 people, including schoolchildren, community groups, gardeners and craftspeople have been working together for nearly a year to create a linen top, from sowing the flax seed last spring to stitching the garment together this month.

The project was the idea of Zoë Burt, founder of the Seeds of Fashion initiative and Kate Poland of Cordwainers Garden which is located on the London College of Fashion’s campus in Hackney. “We wanted to show the real cost of producing a garment – both environmental and labour – and get people to question how clothes can be produced so cheaply when, look, it took all these people all this time and all these plants to make one small top,” says Kate.

Gardeners from all over London sowed patches of flax, the plant that is used to make linen, in parks, estates and community plots. Once the crop was harvested and dried, Zoë and Kate held workshops in local primary schools and community gardens to turn the plants into thread, using the ancient skills of rippling, retting, breaking, scutching, heckling and spinning. They spent some of their lottery funding on buying “a kind of Black and Decker Workmate for flax” but also made use of mallets, dog and nit combs, a man-hole cover lever and a hand drill. “Often, though, the best tools were people’s hands,” says Kate. Some of the thread was then dyed using madder grown at Cordwainers Garden. Finally, students and technicians at the London College of Fashion designed and made the top to showcase the great variability of the thread made by so many people.

“The biggest challenge was wondering at each stage whether it would work,” says Kate of this mammoth effort. “Would it [the flax] grow?  Would it dry properly?  Was there any fibre in the plants?  Would we have enough?  And then, once everyone brought their harvests together, would we get through it all (we didn’t). It felt a bit like a fairy story where no matter how much you break, scutch, heckle and spin, the pile of flax never got smaller!”

“One of the best parts of the project was the way people came together, worked together and made new connections – new threads.”

The top will be on display at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Secret Sunday at the Lindley Hall on 1st March.

Kate and Zoë are encouraging everyone to sow flax again this year to grow their own string. Only a metre of growing space is needed to get several metres of string (flax will also grow in containers). They can provide seed and instruction packs for growing and they can give advice or run sessions to help people turn it into string – or thread for the more ambitious. If you’d like to be involved, contact kate@cordwainersgrow.org.uk or nat@cordwainersgrow.org.uk.

Flax facts

To make linen, first the flax has to be harvested and dried, followed by rippling (taking the seeds off), retting (rotting the stalks), breaking (bashing the stalks to reveal the fibre), scutching (removing the stalk core), heckling (removing any short lengths of fibre) and finally spinning!

Linen growing and production was widespread in Britain and Ireland for centuries – in fact it’s probably our oldest crop – with evidence of it growing in Europe 10,000 years ago.

Every family would have grown and certainly worn flax clothing. Along with wool and furs it was all that was available until cotton arrived.

A spinster was an unmarried woman who made money spinning. She had the means of supporting herself so didn’t have to get married.

The industrial revolution and cheap cotton brought an end to home grown textile production in England. There was a brief respite in the Second World War when mills were opened to produce rope, canvas, blackout sheets, firehoses and sailcloth but they were closed soon after.

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