Each year Cordwainers Grow runs and supports a project related to growing in London. In 2014 they decided to make a community garment from flax grown in plots around the city as it was hoped that the project would help make a statement about fast fashion whilst also teaching the process of the garments’ journey.
In the Hackney allotment they started growing flax so that the fiber could be broken down and spun to make a garment by LCF students.
Preparing flax for spinning is time consuming. The flax takes 90 days (three months) from sowing to harvesting before it is dried and the seeds then removed by threshing. Next the flax is dew retted (lies on grass for a month) and dried again. When ready, a large piece of wooden equipment called the breaker is used which helps to remove the outer parts of the stem by hitting the stems until they open. The open fibres are then heckled to make them straight with heckling combs in a brushing motion and the flax remain is then ready to spin.
The fibres for the LCF garment were spun by a variety of people. The Cordwainers Community Garden arranged workshops for the schools and community groups who had grown flax so they could try the breaking, heckling and spinning process for themselves.
As a result of these workshops a large number of people were involved in using a drop spindle to create the yarn, and additionally some yarn was spun from fibres using a spinning wheel. This meant that there were a wide variety of thicknesses and qualities within the yarn adding texture to the finished cloth.
LCF students were later asked to send in their ideas for the design of the knitted flax garment. The LCF knit technicians knitted up the chosen garment so that the LCF students could style and photograph it on a model in the studios.
In the end the project took nearly a year to create a crop top with many hands and equipment involved, which tells a very scary story of our expectations from the fashion industry.
It also makes comment on the loss of traditional techniques within our culture, which can involve whole communities providing people with skills and in turn local trade.
Although the process was long the finished piece did not just result in a unique knitted garment; it also created many connections across individuals within the London community, and made everyone involved very proud of their contribution to the process.
Perhaps surprisingly this shows that even in fast fashion clothing can hold meaning - meaning to local growers and weavers who build connections and learn new skills, and to the small communities who depend on the related trade. In this sense a positive product becomes one with positive values that are sensitive to the issues arising from where the product was born, in what environment, and by whom.
Thinking about clothing in this traditional way puts strength and new meaning into the phrase ‘you are what you wear’ because the wearer is investing in a culture within which they may have to live.