By Meghan Urback.
Earlier this spring, I was fortunate enough to meet Dutch designer Christien Meindertsma in San Francisco. Her work is a huge inspiration to me, and I was thrilled to speak with her in person and to sit on one of her wooly Urchin Poufs: the delightful, hand-knitted wool ottomans that I’d swooned over for months.
I re-connected with Meindertsma this month via Skpye (her studio is in the Netherlands) to chat with her about her recent work with flax. Meindertsma’s passion lies in uncovering the processing of raw materials and the lengthy journey these materials take en route to finished products. Her strength lies in latching onto a specific material (be it wool, flax, or pig parts) for years at a time. She investigates the material’s source and befriends its producers and harvesters. Her final design projects uncover the material’s rich history and showcase both its utilitarian capabilities and the work of craftspeople who specialize in working with it.
Her focus right now is flax, that wondrous plant that goes on to become linen, linoleum, linseed oil, and rope, among other things. Flax used to be of great importance to the Dutch textile industry, but it’s currently grown mostly in small quantities and shipped to China for further processing.
Enter Meindertsma. She has spent years tracking down farmers, rope makers, spinners, warpers, and weavers all over Europe who work with flax. Her first flax products, produced in 2009, were ingenious lighting fixtures, mats, and ottomans, all made from flax rope produced in the Netherlands.
Her current focus is on linen, and she quickly decided that in order to be fully invested in linen manufacturing, she needed to purchase 10,000 kilos of raw flax and find ways to have it processed as close to her Dutch home as possible. She teamed up with filmmaker Roel van Tour to document all stages of the processing of her batch of flax. His videos, all available for viewing on Meindertsma’s website, are beautiful short films, devoid of narration, that showcase the physical labor and endangered, specialized work that goes into making linen.
Meindertsma goes to great lengths to showcase these processes in her finished work. Each of her lines of linen napkins features a particular stage in the flax harvest, ingeniously depicted in the damask weave pattern. In order to further highlight this linen’s local, hand-crafted origins, each napkin is tagged with woven labels for each production step.
Though her finished products look sleek and seamless, Meindertsma shared with me that her process is fraught with difficulties, many of which stem from hunting down the last generation of European craftspeople who specialize in working with this material. It took her years to find an expert flax rope-maker, an elderly man who is now too old to continue working. Unfortunately, there are few skilled makers who can purchase his machines and continue his livelihood.
Finding these last surviving makers who can process her flax has taken Meindertsma to several countries. Her flax was farmed and harvested in the Netherlands, scutched by another Dutch company, heckled in Belgium, spun in Hungary, warped in Belgium, and woven and sewn back in the Netherlands. Meindertsma’s work delicately stitches together a chain of specialized workers who partner mainly with Chinese companies instead of their European counterparts. Meindertsma and her cameraman personally visit each factory to document the labor that goes into each step of the process.
The loss of local production skills is something that Meindertsma thinks most Dutch people are already aware of but helpless to act on. She mentioned that her handmade, locally produced linen tea towels are fifteen times as expensive as the cheap linen/cotton blend towels sold at a nearby store. However, her products are, of course, a cut above the standard towel, thoughtfully and beautifully made to last a lifetime.
Along with her flax linen works, Meindertsma is currently at work on a batch of linoleum samples (all made from her batch of flax) that may soon become floor tiles and tabletops. Her flax is also on its way into car parts; she aims to document this evolution into Mercedes vehicle parts.
Meindertsma is also hard at work on a book about flax, due for release in February of 2013. Meindertsma’s last book, PIG 05049, which visually chronicled all of the products made from various parts of a single pig, was a hugely successful project that won her the 2009 Index Award and international acclaim.
Despite her busy workload and formidable task of finding sustainable, small-scale textile production in Europe, Meindertsma’s voice often bubbles up in laughter when she talks about her work. She seems to be laughing gently at herself and at all of the necessary mistakes and production difficulties that go into any designer’s work. She always shares a great sense of joy about her newest creations. I am very excited to see this next publication and to get my hands on a set of napkins.
Provenierssingel 59 B
3033 EH Rotterdam
Edited by Natalie Powell.