Growing my own jeans took three years and cost more than $15,000
It was a lot harder than she thought it would be.
Justine Aldersey-Williams is talking me through her new jeans. “The rough texture on the pocket is where I had a different quality of flax plants,” she explains. “These threads kept snapping in the weaving process but now I think they add a unique feature.”
These are no ordinary jeans. Aldersey-Williams, 51, a Merseyside-based textiles teacher, grew them herself. The process – which “nearly broke” her – took three years and 600 hours of labour, from sowing and growing the flax and woad (for linen and natural indigo dye); to “dew retting” (or rotting) the flax to reveal the linen fibres; to breaking, scutching and hackling it (that is, prepping it for spinning); to spinning almost five kilometres of thread; to weaving, cutting and sewing it all together. It’s a process that stands in stark contrast to the “try on a few pairs, pay and wear” routine most of us associate with our high street denim.
Why go to so much trouble? Her motivation, she says, was her 24-year-old daughter’s anxiety about the climate. “It triggered a compulsion in me to do more.” Thus, the “homegrown, homespun” jeans project started in 2020 with her friend, The Great British Sewing Bee presenter and Community Clothing founder Patrick Grant, both driven, he explains, “to reduce the carbon, waste and pollution footprints of clothing”.
According to the UN, it takes 10,000 litres of water to grow enough cotton for one pair of conventional jeans. Levi’s, meanwhile, estimates that producing one pair of jeans emits 33.4 kilograms of CO2 – the equivalent of driving a car 1000 kilometres. Plus there’s cotton’s high use of insecticides and pesticides, and the fossil-fuel-derived dyes, which, says Aldersey-Williams, are “energy-intensive, polluting and non-compostable”.
About 70 million pairs of jeans are bought annually by UK consumers, so it makes for a significant environmental burden. Until now, she’s worn Community Clothing jeans, made with 40 per cent recycled cotton in UK factories – “the best I could get”, she says – “but they still use fossil-fuel dyes”.
Her new jeans are actually the mark two version. Mark one, grown by Grant and Aldersey-Williams, along with some volunteers and Grant’s “fan club”, she says, amounted to just half a leg – it’s that hard.
Flax was chosen over cotton, explains Aldersey-Williams, “because unlike cotton, it doesn’t need any input other than weeding”. What’s more, it’s unappealing to pests, and suits the UK climate – as our ancestors well knew – therefore leaving a minimal footprint. And, Grant adds, “it’s harder-wearing than cotton denim”. But without an existing British flax industry, that meant growing it and hand-processing it themselves, learning as they went. For mark two, Aldersey-Williams went solo – at least that was the plan.
Predictably, it hasn’t been straightforward: “I kept joking, ‘It might not be a pair of jeans – it might be hotpants, or a thong.’ I had to know how much to grow, spin and weave.” It was also “back-breaking”: she planted 40 kilograms of flax seeds and 5400 woad seeds, not before rotavating, building raised beds and “shovelling shit” followed by weeding and harvesting.
She was advised, however, that homegrown, homespun linen would be too weak for the warp (the loom’s base thread), so she bought better-quality flax from Northern Ireland, and commissioned a professional spinner. Meanwhile, she took care of the weft (the thread that’s woven through the warp), but first she needed to learn how to spin. After nine months practising each evening until the thread was narrow and consistent enough, she then spent nine weeks spinning her harvest.
Her lowest point, Aldersey-Williams admits, was the weaving: she’d bought a secondhand loom on eBay for £300 ($570), and drove it to Yorkshire to be close to the weaving teachers. But it was damaged in transit, and after a week of being hunched over, threading away, she had to accept it was affecting the cloth, and delegated the task to a Liverpool-based weaver.
With the cloth finally ready to cut and sew, she chose a vintage pattern with a button fly – no synthetic zips here; this part took 12 hours. “I feel great in them,” she says. “It’s like wearing a story – I can feel all the struggle and intention within them.” Although she won’t divulge the cost (she received £8000 [$15,000] from Arts Council England and had considerable loss of earnings), it’s clear it’s one pricey pair of jeans.
Could it ever be commercial? Not like this, says Grant. “But there are parts we can take.” In fact, he adds, there are just “a few bits to iron out before hitting ‘go’” on Community Clothing’s version.
He’s in talks with a Belgian flax grower who’s producing “great yields” in East Anglia, and a dyehouse in Blackburn willing to work with natural dyes, now being grown in Yorkshire in a commercial trial by Aldersey-Williams and organic farmer Mark Palmer.
With hand-spinning and hand-weaving out the window, the harvest will be sent to Europe to be spun and woven mechanically. The jeans will be cut and sewn in Community Clothing’s Blackburn factory.
“They’d be more local than anything else out there,” says Grant. “Although their footprint wouldn’t be effectively zero like Justine’s, it would be a huge reduction [compared with] most clothing.” In fact, all that’s needed is a UK flax-processing plant, he adds, “and we could get back to where we were 75 years ago”.
Original article: here