Thursday, 24 August 2017

Twine @ Twilight at Chelsea Physic Garden: the history and future of plant based fabrics

Last Thursday, the 17th August, I went to Chelsea Physic Garden for their 'Twine @ Twilight' event, celebrating our relationship with textiles from the natural world. 

It was a beautiful warm evening, and after picking up my complimentary cocktail I wandered through the gardens, enjoying the exuberance of a carefully planted garden in high summer. The borders were such an artistic combination of colours and textures, so I loved finding a textile installation that mirrored this: Dr Jane Scott's textile sculpture suspended over one of the paths like part of the canopy of trees.

The Weaves and Leaves exhibition took the form of laundry day in the History Garden: swatches or sheets of fabric (alongside the the occasional vest and pair of socks) were pegged out near the plant they were produced from. It was a visually pleasing and tactile illustration of the versatility of these plants, comparing the varieties of cloth that can be woven from bamboo, cotton and hemp. The notice boards in the garden explained the history of our relationship to these plants, emphasising how reliant we have always been on the natural world for clothes and textiles, but also pointing out the ways in which the industrial farming of plants such as cotton has negatively impacted people and the planet. From the start of the Industrial Revolution, where businessmen in the UK profited from cotton picked by slaves in the US, to the harmful impact that modern industrial cotton farming, which relies heavily on pesticides, has had on farmers, their local communities and the environment. The exhibit invited us to ponder the future of the natural textile industry, and consider which plants could yield the greatest benefit for workers, consumers and the natural world. 

Sustainable fabric supplier Offset Warehouse were hosting a brooch making workshop, so feeling inspired by their selection of ethically produced silks and jerseys (if anyone you know is still convinced that sustainable fabrics aren't fashion-forward, a quick glance at Offset Warehouse's website is guaranteed change their minds!), the gardens outside, and their helpful set of embroidery instructions, I rustled up a brooch to go with my outfit!  It was a relaxing way to spend half an hour, even if I did have to rush off at the end to get to Kate Poland’s talk: “Spinsters, Hecklers and Lingerie”, about the history of linen.

Attendees at the talk were given bingo cards, to help us spot words which have their origins in the growing of flax and the production of linen, which dates back thousands of years, and is the earliest known woven textile. As well as wonderful words I had never heard before, like "scutching" (the removal of the 'straw' that surrounds the soft fibres in the flax stems), I also discovered the origins of more recognisable words. The Romans used linen for garments worn under thicker outer clothes when in colder parts of Northern Europe, giving us the word "lingerie", “heckling” referred to the combing of flax fibres ready for spinning, and "spinster" originally referred to a woman who could make her own living, usually through the spinning of flax into linen (time to reclaim that word, I think!). Linen has been such a widely used fabric because it has desirable properties; flax is easy and quick to grow in temperate climates (only 90 days from sowing to harvesting), and linen as a fabric can be spun and woven into different weights of cloth, and is moisture-wicking and moth-resistant. Because some types of woven linen could be difficult to maintain, requiring careful storage and ironing to avoid creases, it declined in popularity during the 20th century as easy-care man-made fabrics became popular.

In 2014 The Flax Project took on a challenge to produce a linen garment from scratch within London; growing flax at community farms and allotments, and encouraging the involvement of groups of children from local schools, it took a year and involved almost 500 people! The resulting hand-knitted garment gives an interesting insight into the complicated process involved in making our clothes that we rarely think about, and is a true example of slow fashion.

 The European Consortium of Hemp and Linen were also on hand with a swatch book demonstrating the resurgence of linen as the fabric we all need in our modern wardrobes; knitted as a jersey it is soft with a good drape but not too stretchy, and it can also be woven or felted to create smart suiting fabrics. The samples banished bad memories of crumpled summer trousers; linen has re-emerged as a fabric I would be keen to work with again.

Another fabric I am newly fascinated by is Pinatex, a leather substitute made from pineapple fibre. The fibres come from the plant rather than the fruit itself, and the non-woven unfinished fabric feels rather like a thick felted wool, or a millinery 'hood' before it is blocked into a hat. After the fabric is treated it is usually used for accessories or footwear, like my fab Po-Zu shoes! Pinatex feels really light so it's great for summer shoes, but it's also flexible so it wears well. The range of natural, bold colour or metallic finishes means it looks like a fabric of the future and should appeal to even the most hi-tech fashion lovers.

There were also cyanotype printing workshops with Zoe Burt and flower-crown making workshops with Pip Bensley Flowers that I sadly didn't have time to attend, but looking at examples of people's handiwork as they walked around the gardens, these artists were also doing an excellent job of emphasising the beauty of the natural world, and how it can inspire and delight us. I thought this was a great event; part history lesson, part peek into the future, encouraging a celebration of the beauty around us while gently pointing out the ways we can make the world more beautiful through thoughtful actions.


  1. Oooh thank you sooo much for such a fabulous writeup of the event!! It sounds like such a fabulous evening. See you soon x

    1. Thanks! It was a great evening, looking forward to going to more of your events soon! X