Flax: growing

flax plants growing

I wasn’t familiar with the flax plant before I started Linen Growers Club. I knew vaguely that the plants grew blue flowers and seeds that I like to eat, but beyond that it wasn’t ever the sort of thing that we grew at home and I’m not confident I would have been able to pick it out of a lineup.

The specific cultivar that we are growing this year is called Marilyn. It’s a heirloom variety originally from the Netherlands, but now apparently widely used for small-batch fibre production. It produces less seeds than ornamental or edible varieties of flax. It puts all its energy instead into producing long, spindly stalks that end up producing longer fibres more suitable for spinning. This variety was chosen because apparently the modern fibre-flax varieties that were used in earlier years of Linen Growers Club have been developed specificially to be processed with industrial machines, and turned out to be difficult to work with hand tools.

My first challenge was finding space to grow my flax, which is always at a premium in Vancouver, especially if you’re renting. I ended up growing it in my parents’ back yard, which is a considerable distance outside the city. But the upshot of this is that my parents have really gotten into this project, watering the flax daily and sending me updates via text message.

They also have really good soil, enriched by years of compost and manure, so the plants grew vigorously and always seemed to look healthy. I’ve heard that this actually isn’t necessarily a good thing – that sometimes poor soil produces better quality fibre, so I’m not sure how exactly the soil conditions will affect the end result once it’s all processed. But there’s a certain sense of satisfaction that you get when you see your plants looking robust and swaying gently in the wind on their long, spindly stalks.

The plot ended up being a bit larger than what I had seeds for, so it was sown at a bit less than the recommended density. I’ve heard that it’s possible this has negatively affected their height, but I’m still pretty happy with how it has turned out.

Growing flax this year has been an exercise in getting really familiar with a kind of plant I’m only experiencing for the first time. It’s been interesting and it’s inspired some poems I may share later.

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In 2018 I’m participating in the Linen Growers Club, a collaborative project to produce linen from scratch and contribute to a growing body of knowledge about local fibre production.
View other posts I’ve written about this project.

Linen Growers Club

flax flower

Remember that time that I spontaneously decided to build a theremin after seeing a random tweet for a workshop?

I did it again. Earlier this year I made the impulse decision to join the Linen Growers Club run by Earthand Gleaners Society. It’s a seven month class that runs from February to September, meant to guide you through the process of making linen from scratch.

Throughout that time, you’re responsible for growing your own flax crop, then harvesting and processing it into useable fibre. Once you’re finished that process you can contribute some of your fibre to Earthand’s growing collection of samples of locally-produced linen, adding to a growing body of knowledge about local soil and weather conditions. By then you should have the skills to be able to continue your adventures in local fibre production on your own.

Linen Growers Club - tamping down the seeds

Each month we’ve gathered to check in about how our crops are growing, followed by a discussion about what to expect in the coming month. We spent the rest of our meeting time working on learning various processing skills.

I’ve really enjoyed our meetings. There’s something that just feels very right about sitting around in a circle and talking about your crops. It’s undoubtedly one of the oldest activities we have – something people must have been doing ever since since the agrarian revolution.

And there’s always something warm and supportive about being in a circle with people who are working on fibre craft. It doesn’t seem to matter what it is – stitching, spinning, knitting – they all promote a sense of calm. Bits of chatter break out but there’s no pressure to join in. I always feel well in such a space, and I always come away feeling like the time was well spent. I think for me working with fibre is an act of very consciously deciding to unplug in a way that I never manage to do otherwise.

processing flax into fibre

I’ve been collecting notes about my experience and I’ll share more in upcoming blog posts. Stay tuned.

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In 2018 I’m participating in the Linen Growers Club, a collaborative project to produce linen from scratch and contribute to a growing body of knowledge about local fibre production.
View other posts I’ve written about this project.

The Readings of Saturn

a copy of The Rings of Saturn lies open on a table

I’m rereading The Rings of Saturn right now as part of Robert Macfarlane’s international Twitter book club. I’ve been enjoying it so far. The book itself yields new things every time I read it, and it’s fun to see others’ thoughts each day and gain multiple perspectives. It’s forcing me to read it much slower than my normal pace and to really sit with the material.

I first read the book about three years ago while I was living in the UK. It had been recommended to me by three separate people who were totally independent of one another, so I had to check it out.
I was in a particular state of mind. I was working in London and I spent most weekends walking in the countryside with a good friend with whom I would have long philosophical conversations. I was drawn to the seaside multiple times and witnessed first-hand the desolation of so many places that had been left behind by the economy. A week before, a hurricane had swept through, causing flooding in much of the country. I was preoccupied with coastal erosion. Every day on my walk to work I would look at the ground and think that one day everything around me would sink into the ocean and be erased. Reading The Rings of Saturn felt like climbing inside the claustrophobic head of an old friend I knew intimately well.

Today I’m reading it with my poet hat on, with so much more appreciation for the craft of the book, how the individual essays continually call back to each other and Sebald’s choice of sometimes cryptic images. This time around I’m much more able to appreciate the thread of silk that weaves its way throughout the text.

Back to the blog

A few months ago I wrote a tweet that was a bit tongue in cheek but also true.

I’ve always loved Twitter. I love the way that I can stalk the thoughts of interesting people that I don’t know and may never meet. I love the ease by which I can push things out. I barely have to think about it.

That’s really the problem, isn’t it? You say your little piece and then it disappears and at the end of the day you have nothing to show for it.

At some point in time blogging became too hard to do. To write something every day, to edit it, to add links, to pair it with an appropriate image, (or, in my case, a Sebald-style random or only tangentally-related, uncaptioned image). Then I’d have to to resize that image appropriately and upload it then preview and tweak until it all looked okay. At some point in time that stopped feeling fun and started feeling like a lot of work. So many steps. I got tired of it and I got busy with other things.

But there’s something about spending conscious effort and time on things. So much of the way that the world is designed actively discourages one from pausing to reflect and plan. Maybe that’s why I started my mending project and why I’ve jumped with both feet back into knitting. They’re slower activities. They give me time to think.

Earlier this year everyone said that they were going back to the blog and I got excited. I half-wrote a blog post with the best of intentions, then promptly got distracted and now here we are three or four months later. Typical.

And now I’m blogging about not blogging and returning to blogging. Also typical.

But here I am. I have shit to say, and I’m going to say it.

Media and Millennials at the CBC

Last week I was invited to participate in a panel discussion at the CBC on millennials and their use of media, along with several other people who work in the Vancouver media, tech and culture scene. Being a bit of a cultural policy wonk I jumped at the chance to participate.

I was a bit surprised at the amount of overlap between everyone’s responses. I like to think that I am very unique in the way that I use media but apparently I am not.

We are all, collectively, dealing with a sense of overwhelm brought on by the sheer volume of incoming information that we have to deal with daily. Several of us reported that in some way or other we were trying to actively limit the amount of information that we consume on our devices, and while infinite choice seems like it would be a great thing, many of us mentioned that that choice can be paralyzing.

There was a general consensus around the room that CBC Radio is really good for a variety of reasons. There’s the practical aspect of not having to read or watch it. We can be hands-free and able to work on other tasks. There’s also the sense that it is curated and programmed so you don’t have to get stuck in the trap of trying to decide what to listen to. You turn it on and then it’s there, and you just know that the programming is going to be decent regardless of what it is.

And then there’s the fact that the quality of journalism on the radio is quite good. Radio programs on the CBC allow more time for individual topics so there’s the opportunity to include context and go more in-depth in a way that is rarely done on TV and on the website.

Long-form journalism is something that we all said that we crave, and we turn to places like the New York Times, CNN, The Guardian and other foreign publications to fulfill a need that is not being met domestically. Numerous rounds of cuts to the CBC as well as other mainstream daily and weekly news publications in Canada over the past several years has seriously gutted their abilities to serve the public with strong, investigative reporting. There are some small and independent publications that are trying to fill in the gap but they do not have the reach of the mainstream publications.

I’m not the only one who is concerned about this. Some other people on the panel wanted to see the CBC provide a stronger voice for Canada, in interpreting global events through a Canadian lens. There was a sense around the table that Canada is absent from the world stage, and needs to speak up more.

We also discussed the value of feeling connected to individuals at the organization. Many of us follow specific journalists and producers, and enjoy hearing about what they’re interested in and being able to see stories come together before they’re published. For me, following journalists on Twitter is my main point of access to news websites. The consensus around the table was that having them share their work in this way was a thing that we all enjoyed.

Since this discussion took place I’ve been thinking again about all of that labour. Perhaps it’s my cultural policy background or because so many of my colleagues right now are interested in the future of work. While I like being able to stalk journalists and know what they are working on, I’m conscious of the fact that sharing this information on social media is often unpaid labour above and beyond their regular work.

I’m concerned about scope creep in these sorts of jobs, where new tasks and duties begin to be required without consideration for the additional time they take and without any increase in pay. It may not seem like much, but speaking as someone who does social media as a full-time job, it is work, and you can’t clock out at the end of the day like you would with a lot of normal jobs. And especially for women, people of colour and LGBTQ2 people, it can potentially be hazardous, exposing them to a lot of harassment online that there isn’t really adequate protection from.

I know that we all said that we want to see more journalists share their work in this way, but rather than expecting it as an unpaid add-on that is required of journalists, I want to see it valued as work, that requires adequate compensation. In a time of draconian cuts to news room budgets, life is precarious and challenging enough for journalists as it is, without expecting unpaid extras from them.

2017 RADIUS Fellows Retreat

RADIUS Fellows Retreat 2017 - group discussion

On February 4 my RADIUS 2017 Fellows cohort braved the blizzard to arrive at Camp Alexandra for our program’s opening retreat. This was a chance for us to unplug from our daily lives, get to know eachother and work on setting some personal goals for our time in the Fellows program.

Once we were assembled it didn’t take long for us to skip to the good stuff: who am I? How did I get here? What difficult decisions have I made in my life? Each exercise throughout the weekend was an opportunity to reflect on our experience by sharing it with others.

I really enjoyed getting to know people and appreciated how the tasks we were asked to do were very purposefully meant to get us to explore different ways of telling our stories than many of us are probably used to. The more conversations I had, the more I realized that there are a lot of similarities between us. It might be a bad breakup, or getting fired from a job, or something as random as having a crippled waterfowl as a childhood pet. So rarely in everyday life do we get the chance to focus on other people for long enough to discover the things we have in common.

I was surprised to learn that two thirds of our group identified as introverts. It definitely didn’t feel like it. The lodge was humming with energy and early on we were already having conversations about how well the group gelled and what kinds of wizardry must have taken place in the selection process to make that happen.

But perhaps this was just because we’d spent a long time at the outset coming to a consensus about community guidelines that would enable us to be an open and supportive group. The list we arrived at was rather extensive and emerged out of deep discussions about listening well, showing respect for others’ viewpoints, creating space, expressing radical candour, and hugging consentually.

RADIUS Fellows Retreat 2017 - walking outside at Crescent Beach

One of the hardest exercises for me during the retreat was the “super social vision portal” where you have to beam yourself one year into the future and then talk about all of the things that you have accomplished in that time. Being forced to articulate my goals in terms of tangible accomplishments was hard, but it was a good exercise because it forces you to work back from that point to start mapping out how to get there. And more importantly, voicing those goals to another person forces you to think seriously about committing to them.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the retreat was the creative talent in the room. The suggestion on Saturday evening that we should have a talent show was met with near universal awkward rejection, and many in our group opted to try out a rap workshop with Nigel instead. From there things morphed organically into a singalong and Pictionary. There are some seriously talented people in this group.

After the retreat I’m really looking forward to the rest of the program. I’m glad to be part of such a great group of people with so many exciting plans. The retreat was a reminder that though the world has a lot of huge problems that need to be fixed, none of us has the sole responsibility to fix everything. When we are isolated, it is so easy to feel defeated by the enormity of the task. But when you connect with others who are motivated and passionate about what they do, you realize that everyone is doing their bit to make things better. Creating allies lightens the load.

RADIUS Fellows Retreat 2017 - group singalong

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Darning Socks

socks with darned heels

For my first mending project I wanted to try my hand at darning socks. These ones had large holes in the heels so they were good candidates.

Darning socks fell out of favour when cheap, machine-knit socks came onto the market and it became more cost effective to throw out holey socks than to fix them. Certainly it would have been more cost-effective to replace these socks, which were cheap Christmas gift socks that I have very little attachment to. It took me a couple hours to fix them. But I enjoyed learning a new skill and there’s something about hand-sewing that I find very absorbing in a meditative way.

The most basic darning stitch results in a firm, inflexible fabric. That’s where the darning egg comes in. It stretches your stitches out pre-emptively so that they won’t end up too tight. It makes the mend look lumpy and weird but the result is surprisingly comfortable.

close-up of darned sock heels

My stitching is a bit rough. I initially made the rows too far apart and that meant that there were gaps in the woven fabric that I later closed in with a new layer of stitching. In future I’d probably think a bit more about where I’m sticking my needle to prevent that from happening. Also, as I was working on this I started to get kind of bored with a plain 1×1 weave, especially when so much more is possible. One week I might just try out doing a sampler of cool patterns instead.

But at the rate I go through socks, these are sure to be the first of many, so I’ll have lots of chance to perfect my technique.

Should you want to also try mending socks there are many tutorials available on the internet. I used this one. I don’t have a darning egg so I used a lightbulb instead, which worked well. You can’t get incandescent lightbulbs in Canada anymore, but you can get LED ones with an incandescent shape at IKEA.

sock darning progress shot

I’m repairing a thing a week in 2017. You can see all the posts about this project here.

Make Do and Mend

Make Do and Mend IWM PST 14925 ©Imperial War Museum
Make Do and Mend
IWM PST 14925 ©Imperial War Museum

I’ve decided to take up a year-long project in which I take some time each week to mend or fix something. I have a number of reasons, the main one being that I have a lot of things right now that need relatively simple repairs that would make them more usable. I dislike throwing things away, and I need to curb my spending a bit, so making the things that I have last longer makes sense.

It will also be a way to develop some new skills and engage with some of the thoughts that I’ve been having about the unustainability of our consumer economy and the value and benefits (if any) of performing anachronistic manual tasks. Our current model for the creation and distribution of goods requires a massive input of resources and the exploitation of cheap labour often working in unsafe and unhealthy conditions. One of the easiest ways to decrease your environmental footprint is to just buy less things.

The other reason is that I experience real difficulty in committig to long-term personal projects and I’d like to force myself to be more disciplined in following through with them. I allow busyness and paid work to push my own personal projects into the margins and the result is that I have a list of things that I want to accomplish with a perpetual deadline of someday. Without committing to regular deadlines that won’t change.

I get tired sometimes of making things, at least, making things for the sake of making things. Do I really need more things in my life? Sometimes the answer is no.

I have a list of things right now in my mending pile but not enough to last the whole year. One thing I’ve noticed though is that after committing to this project I’m starting to notice more and more things that aren’t quite right in some way that I’ve just subconsciously chosen to tolerate. So they’re getting added to the list.

I’ll be tagging all the posts related to this project with #52mends so please follow along.