A few weeks ago there was a real shift in the seasons as things tipped from late summer into autumn. Since then we’ve had a number of frosts at the allotment and as a result some things suddenly faded and flopped. As well as gathering produce in for eating and preserving I have been gathering materials too and preparing what I can for storage, meaning I have a supply of colour or fibre when I need it. Various flowers have been dried and bottled up. Some are ones I know are worth keeping for future use, others are more of an experiment. I’ve also dried various plant fibres to make into cordage when I have time over the winter.
I set up a series of solar dye jars in the summer and these were eventually emptied out to reveal dyed linen squares to add to my on-going collection of colours from the plot. Sunflowers have been quite a revelation, with interesting colour from leaves and petals. I grew a mix of different coloured ones and they were really happy with the particularly hot summer we had.
Yesterday I pulled up the flax plants that I showed growing at the allotment in my last post. They will now dry and then be retted and processed. Last week I finally got round to processing the small amount of flax that I had grown last year in a couple of pots at home. Because they were grown in less than ideal circumstances the fibres turned out to be pretty poor quality. However, I managed to get a handful of processed fibre, which was then spun.
Despite this being a very small amount of fibre and a great deal of work to get it to that stage, it was a very satisfying thing to do. The right hand spool shown below is the spun fibre. The small ball and the left spool are spun from the ‘tow’, which is the rougher fibre separated out during the combing, or ‘hackling’, as part of the processing.
These were added to a series of cordage samples I have made using a variety of different materials from my allotment plot. This series includes lots of different plant material (leaf, bark, stem and bast) as well as plastics, cloth and paper: things either growing on the plot or found in the sheds.
These form part of my submission for the third module of my MA in Creative Practice. I’ve really enjoyed the process of getting to know the properties of each material that I’ve worked with. To a certain extent I’m starting from scratch with each new fibre, but there is also a cumulative effect of the experience of working the materials. I’ve also been surprised by some that I had low expectations of and which turned out to be much more pleasing to work with than I’d expected.
I don’t have any plans yet for what I might do next with the different cordages, that may come later. For now, the process of working with each material and getting to know its possibilities and limitations have been very rewarding. Furthermore, tied up within each bundle of ‘string’ is the experience of the place they were made: the birdsong that surrounded the making, the smell of each fibre as it passes through the fingers and the slow accumulation of local knowledge about the plot of land where they are from.
Things are growing a-pace at the allotment, although it has been so very dry and warm that some plants are struggling. I sowed some flax back in early May (a bit later than intended but the spring was so cold). It has been good to see it grow and now bloom with its dainty blue flowers that only last less than a day each.
This is a very small patch of flax, which I know won’t result in much of a quantity of linen, once it has been retted, processed and spun. But it is an important part of my experiments in using gathered fibres for my MA project. Last year I grew an even smaller amount in large pots at home. I didn’t manage to process it over the autumn, so I left it dried until we had warm conditions. It has now been retted and is drying again in the green house before I can do the breaking, skutching etc. ready to hopefully spin some thread.
I have been gathering all sorts of plant fibres from my plot and using them to make cordage, including nettle fibres shown drying below. I’m really enjoying experimenting with these different materials and working at the plot when I can. You can see some of the cordage results on my instagram account here.
I’ve been exploring what there is on my allotment, including all the things I have inherited from the previous owner(s). As well as plants and the structure of beds that contain them (or not!), there are many other objects and materials with potential use to me. The site is a sort of palimpsest, a record of the different layers of activity and lives that have worked the plot.
Rusty old tools, which at first seemed pretty useless, are being put to use at times – if a hammer is a bit rusty it still works as a hammer! I’ve been drawing some of these tools and other objects using my home-made inks. These are made from previously gathered walnuts and oak galls, neither of which I am likely to find on my plot. But I have plans for making inks with things that do grow here.
Drawing really makes me look at the detail of these objects: the nature of the surfaces; the curve of a handle; the structures that make up the forms. It is deep looking and allows for good thinking time.
Happy new year (I know I’m a bit late in getting round to saying that, but it is still just the middle of January). We’re still in the depths of winter, and although today the weather has provided a mix of cold wind, sleet, snow and generally depressing greyness I did notice yesterday that it is getting dark a little later now.
I have news of new projects and new workshops. Back in September I started studying for an MA in Creative Practice. This is a research-based course, the focus of which (for me) will be my new allotment. I have taken on this plot in order to garden but also to explore the site in creative ways. I hope to use material from my plot for a variety of different techniques, recording the site and its changes through the seasons. If you follow me on Instagram (where I post pretty much daily) you will already have seen some of the things going on there.
There is a lot to do over the winter to get my plot ready for the growing season as it hasn’t been properly tended for a few years. However, there is a good structure of beds, sheds and fruit trees under the weeds. I am very excited about this project; about the possibilities it offers for creative engagement with a site over an extended period, as well as the benefits of being outside, having my hands in the soil, growing some lovely things and the fresh start it provides.
I have a long list of workshops which get under way from March onwards and which are all listed on the workshops page with links to the relevant studios for booking. I am looking forward to returning to familiar locations to teach this year, as well as some new ones. Some of the workshops are full, but these have waiting lists (it is always worth being on a list as people do sometimes have to drop out). I understand here are still places available at Lund Studios in early May, ArtisOn in late May, Moor Hall Studio in August/September and the wonderful Masseria della Zingara in Puglia in October.