Looking good and being good people don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Zoe Gilbertson spins a worthy yarn.

The £50bn listing on the London stock exchange of clothing giant, Shein, following its rejection by New York due to tensions between China and the US, is expected to be announced this month. Labour and the Conservatives see this as a big opportunity for economic growth.

Despite the high visibility and horrors of waste, exploitation and pollution, the sales growth of fashion continues to rise, supercharged by the likes of Shein who drive pricing downwards and consumption upwards through low wages, fossil-fuel derived materials, fast manufacturing and clever tax avoidance. And consumers are often shocked when confronted with the real prices of production.

We forget that the origin story of our fashion and clothing systems involves fibre being grown alongside food by ordinary people everywhere.

We forget that the origin story of our fashion and clothing systems involves fibre being grown alongside food by ordinary people everywhere. In the UK, before the enclosures of the 16th and 17th centuries, most peasant families grew flax, hemp, wool on common land and made their own clothing at home (see box A short history of flax and hemp in the UK). Just as people grew vegetables and fished, they also grew fibre to weave into a sack-like cloth that they wore with wool and leather outer garments.

History of flax and hemp in the UK
Bast fibres, flax and industrial hemp, are annual flowering plants and their stalks contain fibres. They are easy to grow in temperate climates and can be transformed into cloth through several well established stages. Flax is derived from the Mediterranean and hemp from Asia but both have been commonly grown in the UK for thousands of years. We grow very little of either crop now. Hemp fibre was traditionally used for rope, canvas, sail cloth and paper and flax fibre was made into linen for clothing and tableware.

The UK lost much of its indigenous textile knowledge hundreds of years ago with its early advancement of industrialisation and colonisation. However, it is fascinating to read the history of flax and hemp production because it waxed and waned even before the industrial revolution and the intense competition that the cotton trade brought in the late 18th century.

In 1535 Henry VIII made the cultivation of flax or hemp obligatory and all holders of arable land had to grow a quarter of an acre for every 60 acres or be fined. However, by the early 18th century production had declined in the face of cheaper imports of European flax.

There were attempts to revive production in the late 19th century but by then the UK had lost too much knowledge to be competitive. There was a gallant revival attempt in1994 by the Bioregional Development Group, but it failed with the most likely cause being that garment production was heading rapidly towards cheaper production in China.

If we are to, once again, attempt to revive a bast fibre industry, it will require extensive planning and support at many levels and rethinking about how it is organised.

Flax and hemp can be part of agro-ecological crop rotations while creating valuable and useful outputs beyond just textiles such as food, building materials, paper and bio composites. Flax is the starting material for linen. And is easier for communities to work with due to its smaller size of around 1m rather than 3m tall. Hemp is interesting because it can more easily provide multiple different products and revenue streams and is more adaptive and resilient to climate change.

In the UK, many organisations have already emerged to sell agroecologicaly produced food at the local level. Examples include the Apricot Centre in Devon, which grows biodynamic organic food, distributed through local markets and a vegetable delivery service, while also being an agroecological education centre, teaching regenerative farming practices, and providing mental wellbeing services. All these services complement and support a diverse and sustainable farm. Could fibre farming be added into this mix to build this type of economic mode further?

There are signs that this is possible with projects developing around the world (see box – International projects integrating food and fibre production).

International integration of food and fibre
TapRoot Farm in Nova Scotia, Canada has an organic vegetable box delivery scheme, grows arable crops and is also creating an ecosystem for textiles in Nova Scotia.  TapRoot Fibre, has invested in wool and linen-processing equipment supporting the local fibre community, even going as far as developing its own farm-scale processing machinery. This has allowed other smaller farms and small-holdings around them to diversify their own outputs, creating revenue and natural goods from more than just food.

Les Chanvres de l’Atlantique, in Saint-Geours-de-Maremne, Southwest France, grows organic hemp and over the past decade has enacted a plan to integrate food production, building materials and textiles. In a hemp building it started with food production and developed an innovative, low-energy cold store for seeds. It manufactures hemp oil, seed products and hempfu (tofu) as well as hemp tea. It developed hemp building bricks alongside the food products which went to market and created revenue. The company spent five years researching the textile process before creating its own made-in-France fabrics.

The company now has three revenue streams and markets from the same plant. All outputs demand slightly different timing and management but in a holistic, vertically integrated economic system they can work well together. A system like this, at the medium scale they are working to, requires deep pockets and patient investment but promises to make economic sense over the long term and to build local resilience.

However, producing fibre from seed to then produce garments is a much longer and more challenging process than producing food (see chart – Fully integrated supply network).

A simplified overview of steps and actors involved in taking a seed to become a linen garment

When it is fully developed, Fantasy Fibre Mill will produce yarn and its flax processing and spinning equipment will be available as open-source plans.

Some are still willing to take on this challenge. Inspired by the ethos of maker spaces, where people make experimental items, Rosie Bristow and Nick Evans at the Fantasy Fibre Mill in Scotland run a prototype microbusiness designing and building easy-to-assemble textile processing equipment to turn raw fibre into yarn under one roof. When it is fully developed, Fantasy Fibre Mill will produce yarn and its flax processing and spinning equipment will be available as open-source plans.

The enterprise anticipates that it will make additional revenue through consultancy fees, helping other growers and makers set up low-cost textile processing equipment in their own localities. Luckily there are groups such as Fibershed who are willing to help fund this development process (see box: Funding the fibre transition).

Funding the fibre transition
A global movement of regional initiatives, Fibershed, works against prevailing practice and dominant economics, to rebuild local, equitable textile and clothing systems based on agroecological farming and soil-to-soil production. It is supporting fibre farms through funding and a distributed network, while educating the public about the damaging consequences of our existing clothing system. It is communicating that regionally-based textile systems offer material diversity and deep flows of value, beyond monetary, to the land, animals and people who live there. 

A big conversation in the Fibreshed movement relates to raising capital for processing machinery that takes raw material to finished yarn. This may cost from £10,000-20,000 for a micro mill, more than £150,000-300,000 for a mini-mill and £5m-50m for industrial-scale mills. 

Many of the difficulties of textile-production economics stem from the discontinuation of US subsidy systems. The hope is that this catalytic funding will help bring in wealth from other sources and perhaps ultimately lead to the US subsidising its textile manufacturing again.

Wool and leather are also by-products of food production, but this often gets forgotten. Wool fleeces end up in waste streams and are not currently valued as a co-product or crop. New York-based designer and co-founder of Fibershed NY Laura Sansone, is adding more value to wool and alpaca fleece by sharing the costs, risks and administration of its development into yarn. The Carbon Farm Network is a cooperative of designers who create bioregional yarns, processed within the local area, accredited through a carbon management scheme and managed by a decentralised Holochain App – an open-source framework for building fully distributed, peer-to-peer applications. Laura designed the system to make visible the value that local textiles can bring to a region.

To add strength and grassroots support for these new systems, another opportunity lies with bioregional demonstration products. These are fun, tangible items with a story, grown and made in a place that can be held, worn or shared by those within a community. At House of Design, in Groningen, Netherlands, Eileen Blackmore has created multiple, local, natural-material products such as toy-like linen animal souvenirs and historically inspired modern sweaters made from locally grown flax and wool (see box: Bioregional demonstration products).

Bioregional demonstration products
Former database specialist turned ecological designer, Eileen Blackmore of House of Design in Friesland, Netherlands, has been working with sustainable materials for over a decade. She is involved in many important projects in her region from plastic waste prevention at Wad Wad Van Waarde to expanding the cultivation of flax and transforming vocational education. These are all interconnected activities in a holistic systems view. Blackmore stresses the importance of seeding the potential of a product in the community you want to engage with.

She started with small souvenirs to tell the story of Dutch flax and linen at a design festival. People bought small linen sheep, cows and horse toys made from Dutch-grown (not made) linen. This method puts materials on the map which helps to create larger markets and investment in the infrastructure needed to complete the production lifecycle over the long term. Blackmore also works with local vocational colleges and has put hand processing of flax onto the curriculum so that students gain an appreciation of the hard work that material processing requires. The products she has made create pride in the region and young and old, rural and urban, people can see and feel the reasons for making natural products in their region.

Nathalie Revol of Lin et Chanvre Bio spent five years galvanising farmers, processors and textile producers to ultimately create 200m of hemp cloth grown and made in France. Working with a jeans manufacturer within the network, they created 100 pairs of hemp jeans to distribute among all those who worked on the project and to give to key players, such as the Mayor of Normandy, to help them understand the value of such a product.

Consultants can write the best reports and give well-designed presentations, but there is something incredibly effective about a real item with emotional and physical value that embodies the essence of a collective dream. It was endearing to see the members of Lin et Chanvre Bio proudly wearing the hemp jeans they created together. The purpose of making products can be so much more than making a profit. Clothing has the potential to make connections to land and people past-and-present once the stories bound up in the production of cloth come alive.

Worn by local stakeholders these hemp jeans products inspire conversation, connection and regional pride.

In France, Lin et Chanvre Bio, (organic linen and hemp association) co-ordinated the creation of a fully made-in-France hemp jean that is worn by organic farmers, local mayors and designers. Clothing can relate immediately to a place, its people, history and culture and can embody relational value and inspiration. Worn by local stakeholders these hemp jeans products inspire conversation, connection and regional pride that provides immense value beyond the financial.

Turning fashion around from its extractive and destructive present to a future in local relational supply networks making products with meaning will be a tough task.

But radical transformation is possible and it will come from the entirely different frame of situating fibre and fashion within local food production systems, centred around collaboration.

From there value can be distributed; risks and revenue can be shared; and aligned purposes can streamline the management and mitigation of ecological consequences.

Fibre and food can work together from an ecosystems viewpoint but there is also synergy around collaboration and routes to market that can provide an alternative to our existing destructive system.

Zoe Gilbertson

​​Zoe is a design practitioner working systemically at the intersections of fashion and farming. Zoe would like people to value where our food and clothing comes from and founded Liflad …

Read More »

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *