Aberthau: Flax=Fibre+Food - Year 2
by Rebecca Graham on behalf of West Point Grey Community Centre and EartHand Gleaners Society
Video Documentary by Martin Borden:
This year was the second year of Aberthau’s Flax=Fibre+Food Project. The new lead artists were Rebecca Graham and Brian Jones. Sharon Kallis, one of last year’s lead artists, acted as mentor.
Rebecca brought a wealth of textile- and weaving-related knowledge and experience working with children and leading multi-age events; Brian brought his considerable agricultural background and knowledge of the folk traditions of Wales and Britain, as well as his music, organizing and wheat-weaving skills.
The vision of the project remained the same: to engage the community in a conversation about food and fibre security through art education programming based on the garden. One of our goals was to host a workparty to enhance the garden infrastructure with a semi-permanent woven fence sculpture on the north west corner of the garden, to protect the crops from the prevailing winds. Another goal was to build on the community-engagement rhythm begun last year, such as garden maintenance events, the Harvest Party, and the Spinning Social. A third goal was to build networks in the community by co-ordinating with other groups to enhance our programming.
Woven Fence Sculpture
Our first goal was met early in the spring, when a brave and hardy group of neighbours joined Brian and I and our guests, the Tiddley Cove Morris Dancers, for a workparty to create the woven fence sculpture. Supplies of cuttings and stakes of red osier dogwood and hazel had been kindly provided for us by the Vancouver Park Board teams, the Means of Production Garden, and some of the participants. The weather was cold and a bit drizzly at times, but we prevailed in setting the stakes in deep and weaving a very handsome reddish wind break with a twined top edge, completed with a splash of pink from blossoms on the the branches of quince brought by a neighbour. Tiddley Cove Morris treated us to some traditional winter/early spring dances and lore while we warmed up with tea and cookies afterwards.
Planting the flax marked the beginning of our regular Wednesday evening ‘Garden Nights’. Brian or Rebecca, or both, would be in the garden to lead regular maintenance (ie/ weeding and watering), answer questions about the garden, or lead a special theme activity. For example, June 18 was a musical ‘crop serenade’ for midsummer, following a British folk tradition; and July 23 was ‘spinning and cordage’, to which we brought spinning wheels and a simple rope machine. These evenings did not become the regular neighbourhood socials we had hoped they would, but those who attended were deeply engaged with the vision of the project, and the passers-by always stopped to say hello and voice their appreciation for the beauty of the garden and its philosophy. These Wednesday night gatherings continued until our Harvest Celebration in September.
“I heard the music and caught this beautiful garden out of the corner of my eye, so I decided to stop and check it out. I have a photo blog and I sometimes go for my runs down here.”
“I come here to practice my penny whistle and I’ve enjoyed watching this beautiful garden growing this year, it looks stunning.”
“What you’re doing here is fascinating! I had no idea that linen came from flax. Thank you for this wonderful project.”
Brian attended with his wheat-weaving display and materials for people to try.
Trimble Park Playground Nights & Fresh Air Cinema
In July, at the suggestion of the programmer Nathalie Vermaas, Rebecca began to attend the Trimble Park Playground nights, also on Wednesday. This served to engage a large group of small people who take great interest in making things with nature but wouldn’t typically pass the garden at Aberthau, or make it a destination. Rebecca’s displays and activities at the playground always drew a keen and appreciative audience. Children would spy out what she was doing, then shyly come over, and then crowd around to try their hand at whatever was on offer. One night is was making corn husk dollies; another night it was breaking flax straw; the most fun was to treadle the spinning wheel and see who could keep it going in one direction the longest!
Harvest Home Celebration, September 5th
Together we harvested the crops, and joined the Morris Dancers in our version of a traditional harvest procession, winding our way across the park to Locarno Beach, and back up to the Discovery Cafe. Inside the cafe we had music from the Cypress Street Band; outside, we had our linen processing equipment and the Morris Dancers.
Two memories stand out:
One participant who began the afternoon with a frown, relaxed considerably when we gave her five-year-old son the cherished task of ripping up the marigolds, and was aglow by the end of the evening, when she gushed enthusiastically “What a wonderful event! We will definitely come again next year!”
A retired neighbour, who frequented our Wednesday evenings to inspect the garden and ask us questions, and was intrigued by the idea that we would be making linen from flax. He came to the Harvest Home Celebration and was, in his quiet way, astounded: “This is amazing, what you’re doing here with the flax. I had no idea that linen comes from flax. Good work!”
Art in the Park, September 19th
Brian and Rebecca presented wheat weaving and fence weaving, as part of a slate of excellent musicians and artists. Brian presided over a huddle of intent new wheat-weavers, while Rebecca marshalled the day camp kids, who needed almost no encouragement, to pound in the stakes for the fence.
Queen Mary Elementary Gr 6 Welcome Back Potluck, October 3rd
The students of Maria King’s Grade 6 class and a host of parents and guardians joined Rebecca in processing flax straw into linen, and then reverse-wrapping the fibre into stricks to take home. Rebecca created a short 2-page handout for the event, and Ms.King followed up by going over it in class.
Sit, Sip and Spin Social, November 27th
Rebecca and Sharon hosted a ‘flax tasting event’, at which spinners and would-be spinners came to learn to spin and to sample the differences between fibres grown and processed in different ways.
“Thanks for a great night. I've never had the opportunity to sample the different flax vaieties or see for myself the difference soil, weather and microclimate can cause.
Never spun any flax as fine as yours, Rebecca! It was fascinating to see how you've adapted common tools to function in flax preparation. You're right, we need to have a flax processing facility in BC so we can revive the growing of this valuble crop.” - Penny
“OMG had a great time tonight! We sat, we sipped, we spun, and we may have had a few cookies! I've learned so much about flax from these sessions and am very grateful for the generosity of the organizers!” - Marianne
This year, Aberthau’s Flax=Fibre+Food Project developed mutually beneficial connections with the following groups and individuals:
Discovery Cafe, Chef Don Guthro hosted our Harvest Home Celebration
The Rogue Folk Club and the Cypress Street Band
Tiddley Cove Morris enriched our events with folk music and dance; they also performed at the Dunbar Art in the Park event.
Cascadia Society, Ruth Tschannen donated wheat and oat straw, and enriched our events with participants of many different abilities and cultural backgrounds.
Queen Mary Elementary, Maria King this energetic supporter is very keen to see more garden- and fibre-related programming at her school and at Aberthau. Rebecca may do a project with Queen Mary Elementary in the spring.
UBC Orchard Garden, Susan Gerofsky and Julia Ostertag donated retted flax straw, processing advice and general goodwill. Julia completed an inquiry-based project on flax the previous year. As a result of Flax=Fibre+Food, Rebecca may work with teacher candidates at a workshop at the Orchard Garden this spring.
Clare Cullen steadfast member of our watering team, general supporter of arts-based environmental inquiry, and community connector, she may continue to be involved with the garden through Village Vancouver. Clare is a parent volunteer on the Think and Eat Green at School program at Queen Mary Elementary, and a program manager at the Beaty Museum, where she hopes to cross-promote some programming with Rebecca and Susan Gerofsky of the UBC Orchard Garden.
Flax to Linen Victoria, Beatrice Kaizers and Barb Collington Rimmer provided welcome technical guidance, and a donation of pre-retted flax straw.
Tap Root Farm,NS, Patricia Bishop; and Ross Farm Museum, NS, Monique Veinott (Nova Scotia) networking on flax growing and processing tools and best practices, and the idea of creating a small-scale, high-grade Canadian flax-processing mill.
The project had a different flavour this year compared to last, with a greater emphasis on engaging the general public at events hosted off-site. This year’s on-site events drew smaller numbers than last year. That effect may have been due to the stronger pull of last year’s lead artists on other groups, drawing them to the site; perhaps to the novelty of the project in its first year; or perhaps to competition from other flax projects in the city.
Nevertheless, there was a definite sense that the project was building momentum in West Point Grey and beyond. The garden was strikingly beautiful this year; we received positive comments from everyone. Audience members and participants at events were drawn to the materials, astonished to learn about the relationship between flax, linen, cotton, and fibre security, and genuinely appreciative of the experience. The Aberthau Flax=Fibre+Food Project continues to generate enquiries and requests for the artists.
“We want to show our youth that sustainability can come in various forms and reading about the various sustainable art initiatives like turning flax into cloth that your artists have been doing has been really interesting for us...your projects tend to incorporate many different individuals like dancers, chefs and artists.” - Almas, youth conference coordinator
EartHand Gleaners Society has come to the tough decision that it must consolidate project work closer to the residences of its lead artists. We hope the garden space at Aberthau will continue to be activated for sustenance, because we feel that the neighbourhood receives value from it.
Appendix: Agricultural notes
The garden bed is constructed of four logs, roughly 20‘x20’ square, with a mostly sandy soil about 28” deep, sitting overtop of hard packed gravel. Before planting we raked the surface of the soil up into 5 long planting beds with paths in between, and spread the black compost over the beds.
We planted these varieties of grain, on April 23 (dry weather):
Red Fife, Chinook, Dutch Utrecht Blue and Black Einkorn varieties of wheat; Rodney oats. Most of the seeds came from Saltspring Seeds; a few of the Red Fife were donated by a friend of MOP. The grain varieties were chosen for their ornamental qualities, rather than their yield of grain; though all of them are usually used for food.
We planted the ‘Marylin’ variety of flax seed, on May 28th. The weather was dry; we sprinkled the seed, raked it in and then tamped down with foot paddles.
The seed was imported for us from Belgium by the staff at Vancouver Parks’ Sunset Nursery. This variety is grown for handspinners and fine linen production, as it yields a very long staple fibre that is not suitable for current methods of mass production. ‘Marylin’ is the variety of choice of the Flax to Linen Victoria group, the Ross Farm Museum in New Ross, NS, and TapRoot Farms, in the Annapolis Valley, NS.
The weather this year was warm, not notably rainy, cool, or hot. We watered 3x/week during dry weather. We used overhead sprinklers at first. The Chinook wheat lodged badly around June, at which point we switched to flood irrigation. Wheat continued to lodge slightly, and we tied it together in bundles to help it support itself. In retrospect, it may have needed even less water.
The flax this year grew enormously tall; it was the tallest flax crop of all our beds in the city.