Flax fields in Northern France

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It is late July and the flax plants that were bright green in the mist and rain of early June have now flowered and gone to seed. Flax is the plant that gives us linen: in Latin flax is called, Linum usitatissimum, or ‘linen that is most useful’. I was lucky to catch the moment that the Flax puller was in action – pulling the flax plants and laying them in tidy lines. The plants are then left to the good offices of the elements (the sun, the dew, and the microbes in the soil), to ‘dew ret’ –  separating the long bast fibres from the more easily degradable parts of the stem. These fibres are then ‘scutched’, the step in which the rest of the woody stems are removed, before being spun into thread.

I am completely besotted with everything about linen. I always have been. I am so happy to be dedicating myself to working with this noble, eco-friendly, luxurious and versatile fabric. As well as working with British weavers and printers of linen, I’m also very pleased to able to spend a lot of time in Northern France which is the epicentre of cultivation of this quintessentially European fibre. Four fifths of the world’s production of scutched flax fibers originate in Europe, and France is the world leader.

And talk about sustainability – this crop needs almost no chemical inputs and people have been doing something like this with flax for at least 30,000 years, albeit without the cool Belgian machinery. Spun, dyed and knotted flax fibres were used by European people as early as the Upper Paleolithic. I so like being a part of this ancient industry.


The Amazing John Newton, patron saint of the midlife career change

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Amazing Grace was written by John Newton in 1779. My mother’s side of the family – the Newtons – have always liked to claim him as our forebear, although I don’t know of any actual proof. (Nobody in my family ever tries to claim Sir Isaac Newton as a forebear. He’s definitely out of our league.) John Newton was, for at least half of his life, a real bad guy. He spent the first half of his career in the slave trade, as a sailor on and eventually as the captain of slave ships (he was at one time actually a slave himself in Sierra Leone). Then the conversion. “I once was lost, but now I’m found.” He spent the second half of his career as a beloved clergyman and hymnist and fighter for the abolition of the slave trade. His about-face was profound, “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”

John Newton

My moving from the academic pursuit of conservation biology to a career in soft furnishings is not quite such a volte face – not quite such a rejection of a path of horrific evil for one of great good. Nor, thankfully, I am not haunted by the ghosts of 20,000 souls, as Albert Finney’s Newton was in the 2006 film Amazing Grace. On the other hand, I am pretty unlikely to leave any great legacy like Newton did. But, as I embark upon this new career, it is gratifying to reflect that the author of this great hymn didn’t begin his career as a clergyman or hymnist until he was 39, and then it was only after applying to the church and being rejected repeatedly for 7 years.

Amazing Grace has always been one of my favourites. It has long been embraced in the USA and always think of it as originating in the American South, even though it was written by a clergyman in Buckinghamshire, England (where, coincidentally I spent my first 6 years). To me, Amazing Grace conveys hope like nothing else – like when President Obama sang this hymn at the euology for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a victim of the mass shooting at Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina.




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I am so excited to be working with Rochester-based animator Nat Unwin to create short films to tell the stories of the species in my designs. Here is the little film she made for me:

She explained to me about how she works, often 16 hours a day, with hundreds of layers. “Once all of the objects are prepped, I take it into the animation stage. This is like a brain training puzzle. Each object in your illustration is in its own folder which has more folders inside that and each of the folders I have to tell what to do in order for it to work properly, so they are in the correct hierarchy depending on how things are to move and how they will look.

Each object’s layers are individually animated, so the Venus fly trap for example has 37 points of interest to animate, each of those needs animating individually across the timeline, with 24 frames (or images) per second of film, so of course the longer the animation needs to be the more animating there is to do. This particular illustration has around 30 objects each with their own dissected layers.

screenshot from Nat Unwin's animation

Some pieces need additional images to be drawn, for example the butterfly’s Proboscis had to have replacement animation in order to make it look like it was curling, that’s not something that can be done in the other method of animation, and an eyelid was made for the the painted bunting as I noticed when watching reference videos of them, they blink quite often (I look at reference for everything to try and get the animation true to their movements).”

It is pretty incredible stuff and magical to see the effect. Learn more about Nat on her website.