Tag Archives: fibre

Repurposing Grass Pea as an Embroidered textile and handmade paper

Caroline Hyde-Brown, at Norwich University of the Arts, gave the Living Field this account of her work with the legume, grass pea. Here are some examples of her craft.

Read on to see how it is done.

Introduction to the grass pea

The grass pea Lathyrus sativus is a member of the legume family (Fabaceae) and commonly grown for human consumption and livestock feed in Asia and East Africa (Caroline writes). It is a hardy yet under-utilised crop and able to withstand extreme environments from drought to flooding. The grass pea fixes nitrogen from the air which helps maintain a healthy and well fertilised topsoil [1].

However, the grass pea contains a potent neurotoxin called B-ODAP which increases if the plant is exposed to conditions of severe water stress. Historically the grass pea is known to produce adverse side effects with excessive human consumption which exacerbates the risk of a neurological disorder known as lathyrism which can cause permanent paralysis below the knees both in adults and children. 

Growing the plants

In September 2019 I initiated a collaboration with John Innes Research Centre in Norwich to investigate whether this ancient legume could be utilised to create a biomaterial with a sustainability strategy of raising its residual value. With a mixed methodology of qualitative research, critical inquiry, and home-based experimentation, I explored the inherent qualities of the natural raw plant residue with Anne Edwards and Abhimanyu Sarkar [2]. I used a framework known as the ‘whole systems’ approach adding freshly collected rainwater and solar heat [3].

Growing the plants: (left) in shallow container, weak and spindly plants one month old, and (right) in a glasshouse at the John Innes Centre.

I experimented with different types of potting containers to observe growth patterns and plant behaviour. Shallow containers produced spindly and weak plants compared to the much stronger and higher yielding plants grown in deep ‘rose’ containers or in a glasshouse.

My assistance with the harvest at John Innes yielded positive results during January 2020. I began with behavioural growth studies in agar flasks, which provided a fascinating insight into the delicate root structure as the roots are normally below ground. Unexpected discoveries about how the grass pea behaved under certain conditions helped the iterative design process.

During lockdown last year I had time to observe the plants on my windowsill and how they used the agar provided by John Innes. I didn’t need to water them, and it was fascinating to see how the plant easily grew, the perfect house plant!

Root studies with grass pea: (upper) in agar flasks on a window sill, after 5 months; (lower left) seedlings emerging in a shaped shallow container; (lower right) soil turned out after six months to show root patterns.

I also planted some grass pea in different types of container with various depths to see which environment the crop preferred. The black container (photographs above, lower left) provided the wonderful patterned shapes shown lower right.

Embroidery with roots and tendrils

Perfectly formed tendrils from the harvested residue of grass pea inspired me to do some hand embroidery. I used Kantha stitching on cotton to reflect the Indian traditional embroidery technique of simple straight stitch.

Grass pea tendril

My overall aim was to see whether the grass pea residue could be recreated into a cloth of some kind. Cutting up the paper samplers and using other threads and vintage lace slowly transformed the paper into a fabric, but the harvested residue was extremely dry and brittle.

I was unable to spin a thread out of the stalks.  However, I believe, with the right biotechnology, cellulose could be extracted from the grass pea to make clothing, paper, shoes and lighting. Recent advances prove that using agricultural waste is an extremely profitable and sustainable operation with companies such as Agraloop [4], already spinning innovative and unique fibres.

Papermaking

Initially my papermaking explorations were unsatisfactory. The handmade paper felt stiff, broke easily and resembled cardboard. After boiling the residue and retting it in a bucket for a week however, it softened to produce a softer slurry or pulp.

Making paper: paper slurry poured onto a mould and deckle with scattered seed pods adding texture and interest (upper); kitchen set-up with slurry, waste residue and mortar and pestle (lower left); and retting residue in harvested rainwater (lower right).

Although I was unable to provide precise samples of artisanal stationery, each piece of handmade paper had its own individual character. I began to realise that imperfections can help create an authentic narrative and felt more confident in exploring other possibilities with ingredients.

A series of handmade papers were constructed from localised resources. I wanted to see if the grass pea could hold other grasses and petals within multiple layers of slurry. I took advantage of the warm weather and dried them in the garden. By adding spices from the kitchen, combined with grass clippings and petals taken from hedgerows and heathers they took on a lovely range of colours.

Paper samples made with grass pea and root residue.

I also wanted to test some of the bio-resins from my collection of azeleas to see whether it added another material dimension. I looked at adding colour and referenced the pantone colour range for 2020 to provide inspiration for a moodboard of handmade paper.

Handmade papers coloured with various natural dyes

Bio pots and other functional products

Interpreting scientific knowledge and merging it with my own craft-oriented methods is a lengthy and complicated process. The bio pots initially started out as a conversation when I decided to see whether the knowledge I had gained through papermaking over the summer could result in something more tangible like a functional product.

I looked at whether the grass pea pots could be dyed to provide colour, starting with kitchen spices such as paprika and herbal tea bags with raspberry, blueberry, tea, and coffee. These were quite successful samples and ongoing observations are being made into the waterproofing and durability. Further growth studies will commence this year with a view to creating something that may offer a sustainable alternative for the tree planting initiatives overseas.

Grass pea bio-pot samples 2020 (upper) and kitchen decorative pots to keep nuts and spices in (lower).

… and some final remarks

Research into the use of natural resources to provide extra sources of income has proven potential. It shows how the bridging of traditional artisan work with modern design can provide sustainable solutions. An essential part of the process includes rigorous testing of raw materials to demonstrate that the process is both restorative and circular from the beginning of the supply chain to the end product.

As an inter-disciplinary artist, I seek to implement new ideas through forming partnerships which help shape and question my own practice.  I feel fortunate that we could build a strong professional network to bridge knowledge gaps. It was a collaborative process that reinforced our objective of helping to improve rural livelihoods in India.

I conclude that the grass pea supply chain could be disrupted from field to biomaterial and repurposed to provide vital ingredients for economic change.

Sources | Links

[1] Caroline writes: “When all other crops fail, grass pea will often be the last one left standing. It is easy to cultivate and is tasty and high in nutritious protein, which makes it a popular crop. The Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR) states that at least 100,000 people in developing countries are believed to suffer from paralysis caused by the neurotoxin.  More at the Crop Wild Relatives Project: The curious case of the grasspea.

[2] From the John Innes Centre web site, 27 May 2020: Paper making with grass pea.

[3] The “whole systems approach” was devised by a group of Product Design Students at the Iceland Academy of Arts in 2015 during a project using willow. They designed a unique range of products including paper, glue and string adding just heat and water.

[4] Agraloop: transforming low-value waste to high-value fibre.

[5] The Journal of Sustainability Education describes how collaborations beyond the comfort zone of specialist areas possibly hold the key to making unusual discoveries. Journal web site: http://www.journalofsustainabilityeducation.org/

Contact Caroline Hyde-Brown

email: artistcaz@aol.com

web site: https://www.theartofembroidery.co.uk/

The editor writes: Many thanks Caroline from the Living Field for sharing your experiences and experiments on grass pea. We hope you can continue to develop the technology and craft work and help to generate new income streams for growers.

For other occasional Living Field articles on the use of legumes, see Feel the pulse and Scofu: the quest for an indigenous Scottish tofu.

Sectioned II

Our artist friend, Jean Duncan has been trying out new techniques, getting inspiration and materials from the Living Field garden and from microscopic sections of roots. Jean writes about her depictions of brassica roots:

“The print is an etching made on a zinc plate by drawing with a needle into soft wax and then etching the lines in copper sulphate. Ink is rubbed in to the etched lines and then printed on wet paper.

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“My idea is to print root sections and plant drawings on to plant papers. I want to combine ancient techniques of papermaking with the latest microscopic images in a way that will highlight the plant’s diversity and engage people in how plants can enrich soils as well as provide food.

“For papermaking, the most successful fibres so far have come from maize stalks from the Living Field garden. These are chopped and simmered for several hours in soda ash to break down the fibres. The long fibres are then bashed further in a Hollander beater like a large grinder. Sheets of paper are then formed on a mould and stacked for printing or casting. Wet paper sheets can be pushed into plaster moulds of the plants and roots and when they dry the plant is embossed into the paper.

“So it’s a long process but I am currently working on a latex cast of a plant root and it’s been successful so far. It may even be useful to scientists as a way of preserving the fragile roots in a way that means they can be handled without being damaged.

Sources/contacts

Jean Duncan on this web site (with links): art/jean-duncan

The original microscopic cross section of a root was provided by Robert Baker of the Department of Botany, University of Wyoming http://www.robertlbaker.org and http://www.macromicroscopic.com

Here it is.

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And thank you for allowing us to use it on this site.

[More to follow from Jean’s experimenting ….]

 

Restored High Mill at Verdant Works

The High Mill, derelict for some decades, has been restored at Verdant Works and is open to the public as part of the Verdant Works Museum, Dundee. This magnificent restoration reveals the skills in engineering, architecture and construction that arose with the industrial revolution. The restored ironwork is a superb sight while the roof timbers reflect the colour of jute fibre. See for yourself.

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The name Verdant arises from the flax fields that used to grow in the area of the Mill, yet the flax disappeared many years ago. The museum tells of the changes in the textile industry from its beginning as a distributed home-based craft, cultivating flax and making yarn and linen cloth.

Local cultivation gave way to imported raw material. Then local production gave way to steam power and to industrial manufacture. Even this was out-competed in the 1800s as the industry turned to jute grown in India and Bangladesh. The main museum presents the story of jute.

The spaces created at High Mill are intended for exhibitions and education ….  but they make you wonder, both at the engineering skills that created the building and the industry it served, and the often appalling conditions and treatment of the people who worked there.

Further

Background to the restoration and intended uses highmillproject.com/project

Before the transformation www.buildingsatrisk.org.uk/ref_no_3738

Dundee stv news update with photographs, drawings and images dundee/stv/tv

Visiting the Mill: Verdant Works Dundee

The Living Field’s web pages on Fibres, part of the 5000 Years – Plants project –  describe local and global production of fibre plants, including flax and jute.

Fiberoptic 4

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Sections down a single maize silk, the upper one just below the exit from the forming cob: each strand, less than 1 mm wide, leads to a seed site deep in the cob, 23 September 2015, Living Field garden (Living Field collection).

Bad hair day ….?

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A newly formed silk … but too late in the year for success, 23 September 2015, Living Field garden (Living Field collection)

See also: Fiberoptic 3, Fiberoptic 2 and Fiberoptic.

 

175 years ago today

As if to presage our various web-entries on natural fibres, oils, medicinals and culinary spices, the notes below, from the Advertiser, of 1 May 1840, reproduced in the book ‘The Trade and Shipping of Dundee 1780-1850 by Jackson & Kinnear [1], confirm Dundee’s desire to trade globally in natural products in the mid-1800s.

[Images to be added]

Arrival of the Selma at Dundee

The time (1840) was transitional for Dundee and its hinterland. It was at the beginning of a phase of international trade that gave the area status as a port and manufacturing centre. Jackson & Kinnear relate that the barque Selma arrived on that day from Calcutta … the first with cargo directly for Dundee.

Selma contained, among other things, over 1000 bales of jute, many sacks of unseed [2] and linseed, 300 bags of sugar, more than 1100 bags of rice, coir fibre from coconut and almost 2000 whole coconuts, and teak planks and bamboo; also buffalo horns; spices and condiments – preserved and dry ginger, canisters of arrowroot, tea, black pepper, cloves, nutmegs, mustard seed, castor oil, chillies and cubebs [3]; hogsheads of wine; and then borax and camphor; samples of hemp Cannabis sativa, presumably for fibre. This is an amazingly varied cargo of plant, animal and mineral goods coming into Dundee, on one ship, 175 years ago.

Half-forgotten plants and natural products

Many items in the Selma’s cargo are still in common usage today, but others may be less familiar. Are you kitchen-cupboard-ready?

Arrowroot a starch from tuberous parts of the roots of some tropical species, e.g. cassava Manihot esculenta, used as a thickening agent in cooking and to make arrowroot biscuits – biscuits your granny gave you, proper, decent, thin, no chocolate, no sugar, could be dunked in tea without falling to bits and dropping in – just biscuits.

Castor oil (beavers love it) from the castor-oil plant Ricinus communis, among other things, used as a laxative: pinch the nose, open the mouth and in with the spoon! Castor oil has many legitimate medicinal and industrial uses, but its laxative, and thereby dehydrative, properties have been used as a means of systematic punishment and torture [4]. The seed-oil is extracted by complex methods; the seeds also contain the highly poisonous ricin.

Borax (not a superhero but) a white crystalline substance made from a salty deposit when lakes in some parts of the world such as Tibet evaporate. Borax is used as a mild disinfectant and cleaner. It was put on children and other humans to cure infections like athlete’s foot and dabbed on mouth ulcers (it stings!).

Camphor. A strongly aromatic extract from some tropical trees, also found in the plant rosemary. Went into mothballs, made old drawers smell funny. Camphorated oil got rubbed onto childrens’ skin to do it good.

Cubebs from Piper cubeba a bit like black pepper corns but with a short stalk (‘pepper with a tail’), mainly grown in Indonesia, and traded for many centuries in that region; employed as an aphrodisiac in Goa as reported by the traveller Linschoten in the 1580s (Q: how did these explorers and ethnobotanists get to know such things – did they experiment?), stimulant and antiseptic, and a tonic for ‘every disease that flesh is heir to’ [3] ….. and much more.

What were they like!

The question you have to ask is what Dundee folk were up to in those days 175 years ago, at least those few that could afford all these exotic imports. Hemp, cubebs, cloves, hogsheads of wine … the ingredients of wild days and nights, and then they came down to earth with borax, camphor, castor oil and coir shirts. And what about the buffalo horns – what were they used for?

Sources and notes

  1. Jackson G, Kinnear K. 1991 The trade and shipping of Dundee 1780-1850. Publication 31, Abertay Historical Society, Dundee. Scanned 2010 and available online http://www.abertay.org.uk. The list of commodities carried on the Selma is given at page 20 and Ch 3 note 32.
  2. Unseed – this had the Living Field in a stir. Even Burkhill’s 2400 pages did not list it [see note 3]. But thanks to an online note found from an internet entity named ‘cyberpedant’, we are reassured that the original was likely ‘Linseed’ and that when documents are scanned, the shape ‘Li’ is commonly read as ‘U’. Relief! Otherwise we’d be scanning the world for unseed seed and never finding it.
  3. Cubebs. Notes above taken from Burkhill IH, 1966, A Dictionary of the economic products of the Malay Peninsular. Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, Malaysia (2400+ pages). On the aforesaid properties, Burkhill cites Jan Huyghen van Linschoten’s Historical Voyages, published in English 1610.
  4. Castor oil. The author Umberto Eco, in the Mysterious Flame of Queen Loanna (2004), relates in Ch 12 a story of a journalist in fascist Italy being forced to swallow a bottle of castor oil as punishment. But after the first two purgings, he regained enough presence of body and mind to bottle and seal the next expulsion of oil and faeces. The bottled contents, sealed from the atmosphere, were kept in hope that the fascist tide would turn, and when it did, the means were found to trace the original perpetrator and pour the 21-year-old vintage down his throat. A delicious passage!

Hairy teacake

Of the photos taken at the Commonwealth Games fabulous opening night in 2014, the one icon of note missing from the collection was the Tunnock’s Teacake, the giant red and silver teacake replicas on legs, cavorting around the arena … not a single photo turned out.

That’s why we added the nearest thing – the marsh mallow. This plant was the source of marshmallow, the sticky confection used in cakes  and now mostly replaced by other sweet sticky stuff, still called marshmallow. Yet it’s the hairy relatives of the marsh mallow that are more widely cultivated.

Flowers of (top left clockwise) kapok, cotton and marsh mallow, and view of a kapok tree by a leaning building (Squire / Living Field)
Flowers of (top left clockwise) kapok, cotton and marsh mallow, and view of a kapok tree by a leaning building (Squire / Living Field)

The marsh mallow Althea officinalis is a plant that lives in marshes and is one of the mallow family – that is why it came to be known as marsh mallow –  but it also be grown in gardens and the Living Field has a few individuals in its Medicinals collection. The name officinalis indicates its use by the apothecary, in this case as a poultice, something to put on wounds. The plant has a darkness about it, the not-quite-white flowers never without a purplish tinge spreading up from the base, but  its value to people over the ages is unquestioned.

This mallow family has many other useful plants in it, notably two  that are valuable because of their fibres. Cotton and kapok are from warm countries and, unusual among the fibre plants, produce the fibrous material around their seeds, whereas most commercial fibre plants produce it in their stems. Cotton is now grown worldwide, over more area than any other fibre crop. Kapok is less familiar – the fibres used to be stuffed in pillows and furniture – but most kapok now sold is artificial, not made from the plant, but still called kapok.

The flowers of these plants are similar, the parts arranged in ‘fives’. (The specific name of kapok is Ceiba pentandra). But plants of the mallow family differ in many other aspects. Mallows in Britain are small or large perennial herbs, the marsh mallow reaching one and half to two metres; cotton can reach two to three metres; but the kapok is a big tree. An example is shown at the lower left of the images above, the red flowers colouring the outer branches of the tree, this one near Mandalay in Burma.

There is more on cotton and kapok on the living Field’s new Fibres pages, part of the 5000 years project.