Flax growing returns to Manchester

A once disused space in Manchester city centre is now blossoming with the green stems and bright blue flowers of a plant that could reinvigorate a local, sustainable textile industry

A field of flax is being grown on the site, in order to produce a special Manchester fabric. The project, dubbed Sow-Sew, follows the vision of architects Chris Wilkins and Rachel Witham, who won a competition to find a way to breathe new life into old brownfield land.

The initiative was set up by sustainability charity MERCi (pronounced “murky” and standing for Manchester Environmental Resource Centre initiative) in partnership with local property developers, Urban Splash.

Flax is an annual plant, which is easy to grow and has many uses that be traced back as far as the ancient Egyptians. It holds a local significance in Manchester, as Sow-Sew project worker Sophia Perkins explains: “Flax was grown in the fields round here 200 years ago. The textile industry, of which flax was a part, was a driver of the industrial revolution.”

There are few known flax growing projects in the UK, but historically the crop was cultivated here successfully. Then, throughout the industrial revolution there was a gradual drift towards manufacturing with imported cotton. Although flax growing was reinvigorated through the world wars with demand for strong fibres and self-sufficiency, it is no longer grown commercially in Britain for the use of its fibres.

Stronger than cotton, but not as elastic, flax fibres can be used to make a range of goods including bed linen, paper, rope, string, boats, eco-building materials and clothing. Just one acre of the crop can produce 1,500 shirts. The seeds can also be used to make oil and are often recommended as a nutritional supplement as they are rich in omega 3. Requiring little maintenance, the crop grows well organically.

As well as improving the appearance of a derelict area, MERCi reports that the project has enriched local biodiversity and provided a site for local schools to carry out outdoor education.

Soon to be harvested, the flax will then be ‘retted’ – an organic process that breaks down the pectin so that the fibres of the flax can be released. Following that, ‘scrutching’ will remove fibres from the stem, before they are ‘heckled’ through combs and then spun like wool.

MERCi hopes to share its learning on flax growing with local clothing designers and growers, to promote this sustainable material. A series of workshops are now being rolled out to help the local community grow their own flax in gardens and allotments.