Tag Archives: natural 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.

The Tang Shipwreck and Orkney Simmens

Examples of plant fibre and plant parts used in construction: coir from the husks of the coconut, simmens and sookens from oat straw. The Tang Shipwreck, found in the Java Sea, its hull planks sewn with coir. House roofs in Orkney protected and insulated with oat rope. Traditional uses of unprocessed plant material brought to life through museums in Singapore and Orkney.

Coconut fibre binds 9thC wooden hulled ship

The Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore [1] hosts a major exhibition on the Tang Shipwreck, found in 1998 in the Java sea [2]. The ship carried pottery before it sank, including many porcelain bowls made during the Tang Dynasty of China (618-907), far to the east of its resting place, and intended for export and sale to the middle east. They were decorated with homely designs, trees and flowers, but also fantastic sea creatures and other beasts (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 Images of the Tang Shipwreck: a replica of the ship among examples of pottery; (upper right) a silver medallion; (lower right) bowl with fantastic sea monster; (lower left) a large pot in which many individual bowls were packed. From Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore (www.livingfield.co.uk).

It is not so much the surviving pottery and coins that caught the interest of the Living Field‘s roving reporters, but the way the ship’s hull was constructed. It was made of wooden planks, but they were not nailed or bound by iron. Rather they appear to have had holes bored in them through which coir fibre was passed to sew the planks together. The joints were bound with wadding and sealed with lime. The guidebook states ‘these techniques are typical of early ships made in the region of the (Arabian or Persian) Gulf and India’ [2].

The Tang ship was recreated using techniques as in the original and proved seaworthy during trials in 2010.

What of coir?

Coir comes from the husks of the coconut fruit [3]. The durability of coir can be seen in the many coconuts that are washed up on beaches throughout the region. Strands of the fibrous content of the husk appear clearer when the coconut has long exposure to salt water, during which the natural packing material disintegrates, allowing the coarse fibre to fall free.

Fig. 2 Coconut grove and palm-thatched hut typical on shores of the South China Sea (taken 1980s), discarded coconuts after food extracted (lower left), and part of a coconut in cross section showing the band of fibre about 5 cm wide (coir) between the inner kernel and the outer skin (www.curvedflatlands.co.uk).

Coconut Cocos nucifera is one of the most useful plants [3]: as food, drink, oil, medicinal, fermented alcohol, utensil, animal feed, fuel, roofing material, and more. In Europe, its flesh or ‘meat’ is widely used in oriental cooking, but more common is the coir fibre used to make mats and matting . The fibre surrounds the ‘nut’, the whole protected by an outer skin. More recent uses include the fibrous ‘compost’ in which some protected fruit crops are grown.

Orkney Simmens and sookens – oat rope

At that time of the Tang shipwreck, the Picts in Scotland were carving stones and cross-slabs, reaching a high point in European Celtic art. Like the Tang potters, they also depicted fabulous monsters. Little is known of how they built their ships, but there is no equivalent of coir here, nothing quite so strong and durable that grows ready-made on trees, except perhaps the stems of heather and worked willow.

A material moderately strong and durable was however used to make rope, and that was straw from the oat crop. The distant origins of oat-rope are uncertain, but it was still in use until recently in Orkney where it was called simmens, used in roofing and securing hay ricks [4].

Fig. 3 Inside the Corrigall and Kirkbuster Museums on Orkney Mainland [5], showing plaited oat rope or simmens, balled for storage, and a rope hanging across the room over the fireplace (www.livingfield.co.uk).

Simmens is plaited from oat straw by hand, then typically stored as balls (Fig. 3). Its most celebrated usage was as a roofing material. It was looped from one of the eaves, over the top of the roof, down the other side, secured there and then looped back again, a procedure called needling.

The simmens rope was packed tightly to form a complete covering. In some places, straw was packed between successive layers of simmens and the roof completed with a final layer weighted down at the eaves by stones.

Where roof-stones were available, it was used as sarking, an inner layer, both as insulation and to secure thatch below the stone roof tiles. Vast quantities of oat straw – probably a few kilometers of it – were needed for a single house [4]. There must have been similarly vast quantities of long-stemmed oat grown to provide the straw.

The last few roofs that used it in Orkney were examined in the 1990s, but no attempt was made to conserve original simmens and it has all but disappeared. Could simmens be recreated today? One obstacle is ‘obtaining regular supplies of uncrushed, long-stemmed straw and the skill and amount of labour required to make and apply the simmens’ [4].

Simmens is on display at the Corrigall Farm Museum and the Kirkbuster Museum in Orkney [5]. Also demonstrated (on request) is a quick method of making temporary ‘rope’ or sookans from straw using a tool shown in Fig. 4. The tool is turned by one person, straw being fed through the hook, and the twisted straw pulled through by another.

Fig. 4 Oat plants, probably bristle oat Avena strigosa, a tool used for twisting the oat straw into sookans and twisting in progress, Corrigall and Kirkbuster Museums Orkney (www.livingfield.co.uk).

Fibre unprocessed

These two plants, coconut and oat, are two of a number from which structural fibres can be extracted and used without the need for any highly technical processing (though coir extraction takes much effort and skill). They and others like them, including sisal and heather, would likely have been used from well before settled farming.

The two museums visited in 2019 are both excellent in their own way, each displaying ancient crafts and allowing people to see, and in Orkney touch, the exhibits. We have to admire how the peoples from mediaeval times back through Iron, Bronze and Stone ages built their ships, strong enough to cross some of the most dangerous seas around the Northern Isles.

Sources, links

[1] Asian Civilisations Museum is by the river in Singapore. Web site: https://www.acm.org.sg

[2] The Tang Shipwreck exhibition is on permanent display at ACM – superb layout and information. The museum offers a free guide book from which the information given here was taken, but much more detail can be found in a book sold there with the title The Tang Shipwreck and on Wikipedia at the Belitung Shipwreck (another name for it) which covers construction and contents and also the controversy surrounding excavation.

[3] Coconut fibre or coir is a protective coating between the inner ‘shell’ that shields the ‘flesh’ and milk and the outer tough skin. The fibre has become a substitute for peat in some horticultural uses, but its transport to Europe from the tropics is hardly sustainable as is sometimes claimed. The Wikipedia entry is useful: Coir. The Living Field relies for information on Burkhill’s massive treatise on the uses of plants (A Dictionary of the Economic Products of the Malay Peninsular, 1935, 1966) which describes the long process by which coir is extracted and made ready for use.

[4] Simmens (but also simmans and simmons in various modern sources) is made by plaiting oat straw. A photograph of simmens being used to thatch a roof is reproduced on the Living Field site at 5000/Fibres. The Scottish National Dictionary under Simmen gives examples of usage over the past few hundred years and indicates a Norse origin. Its use in roofing is described in the booklet:

Newman, P, Newman A. 1991. Simmens and strae: thatched roofs in Orkney. Extracted from ‘Vernacular building’ published by the Scottish Vernacular Buildings Group. Herald Printshop, Kirkwall.

[5] Orkney museums provide authoritative and very helpful and practical guidance to natural products and past farming. The main site is in Kirkwall – The Orkney Museum. The Corrigall Farm Museum at Harray and the Kirkbuster Museum Birsay are both in restored farm buildings.

Contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk or geoff.squire@outlook .com.