Growing flax in Manchester; Sew What?

Roisin Weintraub flaxes her writing muscles…

Ancoats at one time was an area full of mills. Manchester’s first cotton mill was built there in 1783 and the area was at one time a bustling hive of cotton-producing activity with the last mill closing in the late 1950s.

Ancoats is that bit right behind Manchester City Centre, so close it contained a retail park before they became an out-of-town phenomenon. There was an attempt maybe 5 years ago to gentrify the area. New flats (one of which my cousin lives in) sprang up, as they did all over the city. The momentum -and the money – ran out and an Urban Splash development in an empty hospital sits, seemingly abandoned, swish street lights line an unusable street in an area still largely council housing, undeveloped brown fields and butty shops.

It is here in one of the old mills that MERCi (Manchester Environmental Resource Centre initiative) exists, an environmental project centre. I was there to meet Sophia, the organizer of one of their projects Sow Sew. Sow Sew is a project that sees the production of flax (a plant that can be woven a bit like cotton) on a bit of brownfield, donated by the aforementioned Urban splash.

I missed seeing the flax growing in the field by the time I turned up last week it had been harvested and was off being processed  (into thread, wool, yarn, fabric and joins for  these ; http://www.bikebamboo.com/ )

The 10th of an acre produced 150 bundles of flax. Fortunately for me there where a few at the Merci offices, it’s quite strange stuff with very little effort the length of the plant becomes thread-like fibers, stronger but not quite as elastic as cotton. However it’s absolutely suited to the Manchester climate – you hardly have to water it in our weather. Sophia gave me an envelope of seeds with the full growing instructions which you can download here.

The North West has been growing flax and producing its own locally grown sustainable fabric for years, says Sophia. Indeed it was the advent of the Industrial Revolution and an influx of cheap cotton produced through slavery that put the local flax economy out of business. Right now Sow Sew is only producing a small quantity of flax but has returned at least a small part of the city to its fabric producing past. They are hoping to gain more meanwhile sites, and are in talks with Manchester council.

So why is Sow Sew growing flax? The harvest will become the inspiration for an exhibition. Artist and makers will be using the flax in its various forms to create works hoping to demonstrate the true flexibility of the plant. I may even join in; there is something really quite fascinating about a plant that can become plastics, fabrics and bank notes.

Sophia adds that the project’s ultimate aim is to show that “we can grow our own organic fabric in the UK and to raise awareness of this. It is also to show that there are alternatives to importing vast amounts of cotton.”

Roisin Weintraub
MCFly volunteer

Photo courtesy of Sophia Perkins

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About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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2 Responses to Growing flax in Manchester; Sew What?

  1. Dave Bishop says:

    Actually, Flax was, at one time, grown and processed into cloth in the Manchester area – as was Hemp (the ‘non-recreational’ kind!).

    According to a book called, ‘A New History of Didsbury’ by E. France and T.F. Woodall (E.J. Morten, 1976): “The earliest reference to handloom weaving in the Didsbury area is in 1601, when Robert Birche of Withington, a weaver, appeared before the Manchester Assizes, charged with trespassing on the land of William Birch also of Withington, who was described as a farmer and linen weaver.” In the following centuries more references to flax and hemp weavers appear – sometimes to farmers who supplied their families with cloth, and supplemented their incomes as a sideline, and sometimes to dedicated artisan weavers.

    Apparently, though, turning flax and hemp plants into weavable fibre was a complex and laborious process. Presumably, imported cotton was easier to process and gave a higher quality fabric.
    It was, of course, this textile processing heritage applied to cotton, combined with the invention of spinning and weaving machinery, which kicked off Manchester’s Industrial Revolution.

  2. And from facebook, someone writes – “Really interesting article on flax growing, is it the same plant that is native to New Zealand? Would love to see what the artists/craftspeople come up with. A lovely link with Manchester’s past.”

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