A resilient community is one that can fall back to meet its own basic needs in times of difficulty.
Food is obviously fundamental, energy not far behind (as many experienced with Far-North power blackout this week) but not far behind this is the need for clothing.
With that in mind three years ago we began researching alternative fabrics that could be produced locally. We found that most of our imported clothing comes from sources that are either ecologically unsound (monoculture, GE, high water demand, high energy requirement, high chemical input) or socially exploitive (sweat-shops with bad wages, poor working conditions, badly rewarded farmers etc). Even so-called organic or fair trade cotton requires huge volumes of precious water and energy-intensive processes, plus it still requires transporting from distant parts of the world. Like the food system, the fabrics of the world have been industrialised with all the problems associated with massive-scale industrial thinking.
The obvious answer seemed to us to be locally sourced fibre that can be grown and processed small-scale in a way that has a positive environmental impact. We already have wool obviously, and there needs to be much more local processing of this, but we wanted lighter fibres that had the potential to replace cotton and synthetics. We looked at Bamboo based fibres and Rayon (made from wood-pulp) but both, although organic-based, require a large amount of energy and chemically intensive processing.
Our native flax harakeke (Phormium Tenax) is another obvious choice but to process to soft clothing that is wearable like cotton is not easy. It has potential, and we are pursuing this also, but it lends itself more to heavier duty applications at this stage. Our other choices were hemp and linen flax. Industrial hemp is a great fibre but closely related to the Cannabis plant which obviously thrives in Northland – an association that can be problematic from a legal and perception perspective, so for now we decided to explore the option of linen flax (Linum usitatissimum).
What is Linen Flax?
Linen flax is no relation of our NZ flax. The reason the early Europeans named Harakeke as “flax” was that the fine soft fabric made from the “muka” in the harakeke resembled fabric made from European linen flax. The difference in the plant itself is substantial, and often surprises New Zealanders who expect the linen flax plant to be a fan shape when it is actually a completely different structure.
Linen flax is the same plant that Linseed comes from. Linseed is used for its oil – both for human and animal consumption and also extensively in paints and finishes for furniture. The plant has a three-month growing season from sowing seed to harvest – usually over summer. The whole plant is harvested including roots, and seeds may be saved for re-sowing the following season. It may be possible grow two crops in a year – something we will explore in future. There are number of varieties for fibre, and other shorter, bushier varieties for seed/oil production. So two years ago we decided we would try to source some seeds and grow a trial patch. We decided on a variety called Marylin from Wild Fibres in the UK. We purchased 600 grams the first year which cost us GBP35 including shipping.
We planted 200 grams the first year on an area of about 5m x 1.5m. This enabled us to water easily, pluck out weeds and cover with a shade cloth shelter. We prepared the soil with lots of compost and broke up the ground to a depth of about 40cm. The soil we were working with was naturally poor, slightly acidic, mostly in northerly full sunshine so we added shade cloth to protect the crop from drying out too much and to keep birds away. We watered the crop regularly over the dry Far North summer (this was in Mangonui), and sure enough after 2 1/2 months little blue flowers appeared and the crop began to mature to a full height of 1.2m. At three months the flowers had dropped and seed pods were beginning to brown and fatten. The bottoms of the stems were starting to change colour. A storm had laid the crop over a bit so we decided it was time to harvest!
Harvesting consists of grabbing a bundle and plucking it out of the ground. The plants are hardy so come out well, but we found that care should be taken not to kink the stems at this stage. Our precious crop was now ready for drying and retting. The only inputs up to this point were soil, compost, water and labour. The rest of the process can also be completed just with natural inputs.
After allowing the stems to dry a bit, and removing the seed heads we next entered the “retting” process. This is about breaking down the pectin in the stems so that the fibre can come away from the woody portion, and is accomplished by soaking the stems in a bath of water for a couple of weeks. In some parts of the world retting is done in streams or rivers, and in some places dew-retting is practiced. Our bath made a good small-scale retting pond. As the process continues the smell can be a bit of an issue – not unlike a pigsty. Once the retting is done the next stage is to dry the stems in the sun ready for “breaking” and “scutching”. This removes the woody portion releasing the beautiful fibres for combing for eventual spinning.
At this scale we did this all by hand, without any real tools to speak of. To move to larger scale some tools would obviously be essential! The most time consuming part is the scutching. In our second year we allowed our flax to mature more and spend longer in the retting process. This made the scutching easier as the stems were stronger but the bonds were weaker.
A friend who is a spinner spun some of the “tow” (the shorter, broken fibre) into a heavy thread – then knitted it. This made a light, warm fabric that would have potential for a jacket say once larger amounts were spun. We have yet to try spinning the longer lengths but these should produce finer tread suitable for weaving.
In our second year we experimented with growing more (we grew 800 grams in 4 beds) and seeing whether it would be okay without so much soil preparation and without the shade-cloth. The results were mixed. Obviously good well-prepared soil helps! A couple of friends grew some in different soils. One was coastal and sown widely apart – it did not thrive and was overcome with weeds. It seems they like to be sown close together. Another grew some in volcanic soil with plenty of water and the crop was spectacular. They were planted close enough that they beat the weeds so no weeding was required. This year we have been offered a plot of volcanic soil around Whangarei so we are hoping for a great result. Now in our third year we are experimenting for the first time with planting seeds saved from prior year crops, plus some from what was left of the imported seeds.
Potential as a viable fabric?
It can certainly grow in Northland. It requires no input apart from soil, water and labour to grow. Processing is fairly basic – some equipment could probably be made easily enough to speed up processing. People with spinning and weaving skills already exist. The point is we could potentially grow this at enough scale to provide employment and create a local fibre without massive investment in infrastructure or R & D. Technology is available to take to a larger scale. There are production models from France for instance where this is commercially grown within a co-operative business structure. The idea is not just as a high-end craft item, but as a fibre that can potentially be used to provide ordinary local fabric, helping us to be more economically resilient, providing work and reducing the global transportation impact.