In this second episode of the Farming Fashion series we will hear from three farmers or growers who have diversified their businesses explore fibre processing, responding to one of our biggest farming fashion challenges in the UK today – the lack of small to mid scale fibre processing infrastructure.
The first voice we hear from is David from Rampisham Mill, the UK’s newest fibre spinning mill which opened in Dorset earlier this year, specializing in semi-worsted spinning of sheep wool in small to medium scale volumes.
We also hear from Rosie Bristow, a costume designer who through her recent Masters research to grow, harvest a hectare of flax, is now exploring models and building prototypes for machinery that can process it.
And finally we hear from Mallon Linen, an arable farm located in County Tyrone that is reinvigorating this heritage industry in Ireland, by not only growing the fibre but also aiming to process it into textiles.
Full Episode Transcript
If we think about regenerative agriculture, regenerative systems, what we are doing is we are regenerating the soil. And when we do that, we regenerate the carbon cycle. We regenerate the, the biodiversity in our soils, and we also regenerate our human ecology or our human economy. As soon as you move into a regenerative farming model, you know, as a horticulturalist or somebody growing grain, you have to put the livestock back into the system.
So you grow crops for a couple of years, then you have to put your soil to rest, with green deep rooting, green manures for a couple of years, and the best thing to do with those green manures then is to graze them off with cattle for milk or for beef, for sheep, for fiber, but also for meat or I guess milk and or chickens. And so you, you weave the more complex system, it becomes more interesting. The community regathers around a farm and those farms become more economically viable because they have more products to sell. So my name is Marina O’Connell. I’m a horticulturalist and I set up and divert platforms across farm, the apricot centre is based at Huxson Cross Farm in Dartington in South Devon. And we weave together permaculture design with biodynamic practice.
In building our regional networks of fibre and dye farmers, processors, mills, and designers, fibre sheds across the world are showing that it is possible to produce high quality and profitable fibers and dyes within nature beneficial systems. The problem is that the connection between farming and fashion has been lost.
In this series, we’ll be exploring the challenges that farmers and processors face, as well as the experiences and needs of designers, and we’ll also dig into what a regenerative fashion system could look like by hearing from those already pioneering the path across the British Isles. In the last episode, we heard from sheep farmers who talked to us about the benefits of farming regeneratively for their land, their animals, and their wool, but also the challenge of making the fibre aspect of their business viable. In this second episode of the farming fashion series, we’ll hear from farmers who are diversifying into fibre processing.
Currently, one of the biggest challenges that we are facing today is the lack of small to mid-scale fibre processing infrastructure across the country. David Wilkins, along with his wife Ruth, run the UK’s newest fibre spinning mill, Rampisham Hill Mill, which opened in Dorset earlier this year and caters for small batch processing. It specialises in semi-worsted spinning, which is a way of processing fibers similar to worsted, where the fibres are made to lie parallel to one another before spinning. And this makes for smooth, strong yarns, but the semi worsted process makes ’em a bit more bouncy or airy than the very silky worsted yawns.
There is a place for wool in almost any market really. Obviously you go back a few hundred years and it was one of the few options people had and certain breeds of sheep were almost created for estate workers or a particular town, and that was the sort of stamp inverted comas that that wool was sold as their local product.
I am David Wilkins and along with my wife Ruth Wilkins, we have set up Rampisham Hill Mill, which is a small scale semi worsted processing plant. And, as I say we are based in Dorset in Southern England, and we take on the bespoke and custom processing of clients sheeps wool fibre. Rampisham Hill Mill is a new semi worsted mill, which we sort of opened for custom processing in September, 2001. But the idea came about really six to eight years ago where we were selling a a lot of raw fleeces, arts and crafts and spinning all sorts of artisian and individual business needs. And we were getting a lot of inquiries about people who had fleeces and the wool values were fluctuating and they would like us to do something with their fleeces for them, really? Um, or could we process our fleeces further because they didn’t have the facilities themselves? And, unfortunately, the answers were always sort of no, no, and no. It got to the point where really there was just so many inquiries coming in. We thought there is actually a need for some more smaller scale mills in the UK. And then about three years ago, we looked at getting all the relevant permissions, and it is taking three years to actually get the mill up and, and running. But really the inspiration has come from the need to get back to smaller scale production, more unique production and local supply and production for a lot of businesses within the, particularly Southwest, but also, you know, the United Kingdom.
There has been a strong demand or professional production of the smaller batches where individuals either don’t have the sheer volume of fibre that the bigger mills require, due to just, the size, their machines, their production techniques and things like that. Or they have multiple breeds and, and therefore they wanna do a little bit of each breed, rather than a large quantity of one breed, which then potentially, obviously depending on their product, gives them less choice for their end designs, end product and obviously the consumer. When we built Ramisham Hill Mill, cause we were able to do a ground up rebuild, we were able to utilize the leading technologies. Not only did we design it to be exactly the right size and shape and layout for our processing setup, we were planning to undertake, but we could also use very high performing insulated, steel composite panels. We can get all our heating and our hot water. From an air source heat pump, and because we’re lucky we’ve got the, the roof space on the new building, we are able to put a large solar array on it. So right from the start, we have very much in the forefront that we need to produce this building to the highest specification of really green technology we can at the time of build, which was made during 2020 and 2021. We also use organic approved wool scouring detergent, so that’s very gentle on the fibres and the Environment. And our spinning oils, and products that we apply to the fibres are generally all biodegradable, and easily scourable out with just normal water, which again helps the end consumer to know that really the full chain has been as green as we possibly can from the start.
Here at Ramisham Hill Mill, we generally have a lot of people who are very local to us, and they’ll drop their fibre off. We’ll process it and they’ll pick it up. It’s very encouraging to see how much of our work is coming from you know, a small radius of the premises. These mills are few and far between in the UK so we do get inquiries coming from all over the country. Different mills specialise in different products and have different manufacturers and styles and machinery. So sometimes we might not be the most suitable mill for the customer’s end product that they’re wishing to make. We have to be realistic as well, that just because we might be on someone’s doorstep, we might not actually be the most efficient way or even possible, achieve the specification they want. Because of the machinery we run, we are a semi worsted mill, which means we can generally accept fibres between about six centimeters up to 20 centimeters. Uh, but obviously there’s good and bad breeds, and good and bad fibers within that. One thing we have to be very clear with the client to start with, is that not all breeds are suitable for all specifications of yarn or products. And it’s very important when we do the design work with designers and new products that actually designers know a little bit about the breed of sheep or the size of yarn they are proposing to use to actually see if it’s gonna make them a really good sellable product. So we have various breeds in the UK, which are renowned for different characteristics. So something like the Shetlands have lovely fine soft fibres. You get something like the Romneys or the Gotland, they are very lustrous and it’s a flatter fiber and are more suited to to finer spinning. You get things like the down breeds, lovely crimpy bouncy fibre. As a result, the yarns are nice and airy and bouncy yarns, springy yarns, and therefore they’re slightly more suited to a little bit thicker yarns.
Woolen Mills throughout the ages have been key to industries, not just in the UK, but around the world, and the skills and the knowledge that is being passed down through history and generations from mills in literature and obviously in some cases actually family members, is invaluable, and will help people to ensure that only the best fibre is sent for processing because at the end of the day, the better the inputting fibre the mill receives, the better the output of the product will be. The machines in the middle will do the processing, but they can’t really produce miracles. So if the fibre is damaged or not of a high quality to start with, then they are not gonna be able to improve that quality as it goes through the process. Farmers are there to look after the landscape, look after their animals. The welfare, the conditions they farm in are paramount to the success of their farm, and really we are taking the product, in this case, wool, helping the producer to create a nice quality fibre. Working with them to let them understand why some particular individual animals might not have higher quality fibre as others, and therefore select right fibres so that when their fibre comes to the mill, we have the best chance of giving them a very high quality fibre back.
So I think one of the standout insights from what David said here is that farmers and designers alike should be paying attention to the quality of the fleece that ends up at the mill, and that ultimately determines what the quality is of the end product. So a mill who is being highly selective and perhaps turning fleece away is actually a mill that’s working with integrity. And I know in the short term it can be demoralizing, but in the long term it’s well worth a producer taking the time to learn from the mill what’s going to be good for spinning and what isn’t, and what wool from what breeds are suited to different uses. And to take the time on the farm as well, to sort the good from the bad before it goes anywhere.
We have a deep historical relationship with wool in this country. And that includes fibre farming, processing, and trading. We still produce tens of thousands of tons of wool a year, which is mostly sold to overseas buyers, but there are still facilities across the country. Many family run, which specialize in processing wool and other animal fibres, such as alpaca or mohair, but plant fibres are another story. With the introduction of cotton in the late 16 hundreds produced through colonial exploitation of lands and labour overseas, the production of linen from our native flax quickly disappeared, sealed by the closure of Britain’s last linen weaving mill in Scotland just last year.
First read about Fibershed in the middle of 2020. And that has actually what made me want to do my whole project. I was just blown away by the book. My name is Rosie Bristow and I’m currently a student at Heriot Watt. I’m doing an MSc in fashion and textile management, and my dissertation project is on flax and hemp processing equipment. Alongside my dissertation I’ve also been running a sort of practical project where last year I grew a hectare of flax in collaboration with George Young at Fobbing Farms. And then I’ve also been working on getting the flax processing equipment built. So we’ve now got three different prototype machines. So that’s kind of part of my research, but also a bit of a extracurricular project that’s running alongside it. Main focus of my project at the moment is looking at the processing equipment and really looking at like, how can we actually set up a flax or hemp textile economy in the UK? Like what are the practical steps that we need to take. The real missing link is the milling equipment, so to the raking, scutching, heckling, and then spinning equipment is all missing in the UK.
So that’s what I’m focusing on researching at the moment. Different options for the how, how we could get this infrastructure back. I’m also really interested in what that might look like in terms of how it would fit into a community in the future. I am imagining the kind of fibreshed model of it being rather than a linear supply chain. It’s like a local supply network, so there’s lots of different people involved. I would define a Fibreshed as the local area where you can draw all of your fibre resources from. So I guess it’s just taken from that idea of a watershed. But for fiber and using local fiber, local dye, local labour, and about it being like not just a linear supply chain, but like a supply network and the fact that it’s all natural means that it’s therefore all compostable as well.
I think there is the potential to set up this business model where it’s like, like a network of lots of different businesses that all feed into each other. So yeah, I was giving the example of the woodland tannery, which uses the waste products from small scale abatoir and the waste products from wood coppacing and tree surgery business, like all the bark and oak galls and stuff, and then that tans the skins from the animals and then the waste bottles from that in turn become the start of like another thing. Flax and hemp have that capacity, which isn’t being explored at the moment because you can harvest them for the seeds and you can harvest them for the fibre and then the waste products you get, all of the shivs and the woody core can be used for like animal bedding or it can even be used in a sort of concrete like hempcrete thing. They’re a really interconnected web and like Fantasy farm where I was volunteering last year have a sort of similar thing, but they have the sawmill and tree surgeons on site and then that means that we get all the wood chip for doing the pathways and the no dig beds. I love seeing how there’s like businesses within businesses, and I think what I can really imagine that I wanna set up in the future is kind of like a fiber mill, I guess, but one that’s situated within a vegetable farm or some kind of small scale farm setup. For example, there’d be flax growing in rotation with wheat, but then also that you might use the waste products from the vegetable farm, like onion skins for dying. And so it would be trying to integrate it both into the local environment, landscape, the way that it’s being farmed in rotation with other crops, but then also integrate it into the local community so that it’s actually creating jobs which are interesting, fun jobs. The scale is really important, not just going, let’s copy the machinery that exists in Holland, for example, and buy a huge scutching mill. But thinking of what is the best possible scale of economy that we want to try and build.
There isn’t anything in the UK other than historical reenactment, hand tools, so spinning wheels and like little wooden tools. What I’m really looking into is like a medium scale of equipment. So it’s much more efficient than medieval style hand tools, but less huge than a 5 million pound factory. I’m really excited about collaborating with like these different people who’ve been working on open source designs. And I think that’s like a real strength of all the different Fibershed projects is like the international collaboration. I know that there’s lots of other companies who are all tackling this problem simultaneously.
How do we have medium scale processing equipment? Because the huge industrial stuff is all under copyright and it’s like intellectual property of the companies. I can’t just ring them up and be like, oh, can I build one of those? They’re not gonna give me their plans. Whereas the open source stuff, I think that’s what’s really exciting because we can have both a global movement whilst it also being a local movement for the project. So just because we’re wanting to do like a local product doesn’t mean that we’re trying to go back in time and ignore the rest of the world.
I think like international collaboration is really helpful and, and something I’m quite keen on, which I think is quite radical because everybody at the university has told me not to do it. I’m really keen on the idea of once I’ve got these designs is to make them open source and just share them for free on the internet because what I really wanna see is sustainable fashion being something that’s accessible to everybody wherever they live. If I do manage to create these machines to do flax and hemp processing that are successful and easy to build, easy to repair, I want to disseminate that information as far as possible and not put an intellectual copyright on it and be like, Ooh, I’m the only flax mill in the UK, everybody has to come to me. Like, that’s not what I wanna do because I’ve been trying to raise the money through applying to these entrepreneurial schemes at the university, they’re really not keen on that. And they’re like, oh no, you’ve got to get your intellectual property. And they’re like, oh, don’t tell anybody about your ideas incase they steal them.
And I’m like, no. I want people to steal my ideas. I want to create the movement of, you know, so every town or village can have its own local little production. I don’t wanna be producing everybody’s flax in the whole country. I don’t have time to, I want to make machines that you can just make out of bits that you’ve got lying around. And although obviously my project is trying to create new stuff, I actually think the best solution for 90% of the time is learn how to fix and like really treasure what you already have. And I think that’s where the focus should be, and then at some point we’re gonna need new clothes. And you know, maybe by that point I’ll have like figured out how to set up a flax spinning mill in like a few years into the future. But I think in terms of like sustainable fashion for like every day people – learn how to darn. That’s the thing I think everybody should be doing.
The heart of the British Isles’ remaining linen industry can be found in Ireland. Which is world renowned for the high quality of the products produced. These days even Ireland has no spinning mills, and the cloth that is manufactured today uses flax that has grown elsewhere.
Mallon Linen is an arable farm in County Tyrone that’s reinvigorating this heritage industry in Ireland, growing the fiber and looking to do the processing into textiles on site.
Irish linen is renowned around the world. Belfast was known as Linenopolis at a time and you can still see it everywhere today in the street names and the building names. So, you know, we have the Linen Hall Library and Scuptures Lane and Drapers Town, and you know, you have all of these different names around the place that remind you of what was here.
Flax was very much part of agriculture here, and the linen industry was very much part of our whole industrial heritage as well. Went looking for Irish linen and discovered that none of the linen that you can buy now was actually grown in Ireland. And that we just realized that actually it’s not grown here at all anymore. And it’s one of those things where Charlie said, You know we have a farm, we could try this. You know, so that, that’s what got us into it in the first instance. My name’s Helen Case, I’m from Mallon Linen. We have a farm in County Tyrone, where we have for the last four years been growing flax with the aim eventually processing it through to textile.
So every farm at a time would’ve grown some flax. We’ve had big companies here as well, like Mackey’s. Who designed the machinery and held all the patents or a lot of the patents, and they exported machinery all over the world. And there’s a, a brilliant project a guy has somewhere he’s documented all the different mills around Northern Ireland. And when you look at his map, it’s just covered, you know, there were mills every few miles.
Every few months we either have been restoring an old Mackey’s scutching turbine. And it’s a much quicker process than doing it by hand. And you get your nice line fibre out the other end of that. And then we hit our real stumbling block because then if you were processing right through to linen, you need to get it spun at that stage. Heckled and spun. There’s no spinning mills anywhere in the UK or Ireland? As far as I know, I keep waiting for somebody to tell me that there is one that I just didn’t know about, but I still haven’t managed to find one. Everybody that we talk to is up against the same challenges in terms of, you know, where can we get machinery and how do we, how do we scale if we want to scale or how do we make it viable at a sort of smaller, smaller cottage industry scale?
So I think the approach that Fibershed taken in terms of you know, looking at smaller, easily replicable systems is it’s a really good way to go forward. Cause that worked in the past. And I think that is the obvious and most sustainable way to do it. Again, people are very patronizing when they talk about cottage industry. You know, people use that as an insult almost. Cottage industry does not mean small. Cottage industry can be everywhere. It can be replicated in all kinds of places and, and it can become a huge thing all over. And that’s what linen was in Northern Ireland years ago. It was a huge industry, but it came from that cottage industry.
You know, it would’ve been grown on the farm. It would’ve been retted generally on the farm as well. So those two processes would’ve happened on farm, then would’ve gone to a scutching mill. And from a scutching mill to the spinning mill and then from spinning to weaving and then occasionally beetling at the end. Not all the time, but for some products would’ve been beetled at the end. We don’t have any spinning here anymore, but there are still good weavers here and we are very lucky that I think possibly the only beetling mill left in Europe? Beetling is the sort of finishing process right at the end. So if you want to bring a beautiful sheen and strength to the fabric, you can put it onto a beetling engine, so it goes around these big rollers and just huge wooden hammers are dropped down on it.
So it would be beetled over hours and hours and hours, or maybe even days it would stay on the beetling rollers. And we’re very lucky that William Clark of Upperlands is very nearby here and they’re leading a real revolution in textiles and, and beetling and so on. And they’re supplying some of their amazing beetled fabric to some of the big names in fashion.
Some of their textile was used in Alexander McQueen, the Paris fashion show, and I know they’ve some really exciting stuff happening this year as well. You know, it’s just so brilliant to see that end of the process being valued and, and still happening. So we have a farm that’s about 50 acres in County Tyrone, right in the middle of County Tyrone.
It would’ve traditionally been years and years ago in our grandparents’ time would’ve been a, a mixed farm. We’ve still got nice old meadows and lots of woodland and lots of native species and so on. We also need to be productive and I see flax and this sort of crop rotation system that we’re bringing in as a way for us to become more profitable and more productive on the farm, but still maintain the nature friendly aspects that we have and that we really treasure. And, you know, there’s a lot of pressure on farming now. We’re all on a mission to net zero, and we have to look at ways that we can achieve that. And, and I see crops like flax as being really important to help us get to that stage where we need to get to. Because it allows us to find that balance between making a profit but also being nature friendly.
In terms of the crop rotation. It’s important not to grow flax in the same place two years cuz it actually is quite hard on the soil. It likes poor soil. You don’t wanna put it on very heavily fertilized soil, but when you do put it in, it will draw a lot of, a lot out of the soil. So it’s really important to have it as part of a rotation and put that all back again and, and get your soil working for you.
We do it as part of a crop rotation. We don’t put it in the same place for, um, seven years. Seven year rotation. So that will be some oats, some potatoes, some grass. But over the next few years we sort of gradually want to introduce more and more cereals and, and other crops like that, and much more horticulture onto the farm. We literally leave it alone for a hundred days, which is brilliant, it’s a very low maintenance crop. It doesn’t need any fertilizer, no nothing. Traditionally, they would’ve set harvested it at a hundred days. But the real rule is that it’s when it’s sort of ripe, two-thirds of the way up, we have found actually that it does no harm to go in a little bit early, when it’s still quite green. We find that gives still quite good quality fibre. So we, we don’t have many qualms about going in a little early before it’s thirds the way, right? Because the danger is it takes us about a month to harvest it. So it’s a really big effort to get it harvest. We give people the call when we think it’s coming ready, which we’re never a hundred percent sure about.
But we set up catering facilities. Like a composting toilet goes up in the field, tents appear, and there’s usually a lot of fun and a lot of craic and people come and stay for a few nights and you might get a bit of music and, and people will work as well! And we’ll pull the whole field. It does usually take about a month to do it. It’s a very easy crop to pull. There’s something quite lovely about doing it cause it’s not the sort of hard labour, you know, for anyone who’s ever worked in hay or potatoes or any of those other sort of labor intensive things. Flax is actually much easier and very nice to do and people do tend to come back every year. It becomes part of your sort of annual summer calendar. And the thing that a lot of people say to me is, this is just so good for my soul. An amazing part of Fibershed is that it is so international and I’ve been on calls with people from all over America and all over Europe as well. So that, that’s one of the great things about Fibershed is it feels like it really is a movement and, and that there’s a whole lot of people who are interested in doing that, doing something there. I feel like we’ve all just fallen down a rabbit hole together and we’re, we’re in it now. And there is a real community. And you know what I love about it? Is that everybody seems really willing to share what they’re doing. And share how they’re getting on and share, you know what they’ve learned.
And especially during the growing season, I’m on the phone constantly with other farmers and other growers going, how’s yours doing? How’s mine doing? Mine has fallen over, what should it do about it? You know, comparing notes and getting advice for each other. And I don’t know any other industry where that’s the case, that people are so willing to help each other out. And that’s what a movement is all about. It’s just great to see people who are kind of leading the charge and leading the way in terms of looking at how we can restore those short supply chains in local areas and, and bring locally produced textiles back to reality.
It’s really exciting to me that as an industry is emerging, old ideas are being rejuvenated. In the process we are rediscovering history and hopefully supporting new livelihoods and forms of craftsmanship that were probably near lost because in the process we’re rediscovering history and hopefully supporting new livelihoods and forms of craftsmanship that were probably near lost. Although with contemporary knowledge of toxic chemicals, we’re also able to revitalize these crafts in a more healthy and sustainable way. Leather’s also interesting because although we haven’t looked at it for this series, like wool, it’s also a byproduct of the meat industry, which can be a valuable product in its own right.
In the UK we’ve lost a lot of transparency around what happens to animal hides once they leave the abattoir. But now people are starting to ask questions about this too, such as the Incredible Grady Robinson. And that’s for another series.
This episode was co-produced by Southeast England and Southwest England Fibershed. With support from Farmerama Radio, edited by Hatty Francis Bell, and funded by Necessity and the A Team Foundation, the Southwest and Southeast Fibershed Collaboration is now developing a toolkit for farming and fashion sectors to signpost best practices and resources for exploring what a regenerative fibre and fashion system could look like, due to launch next year.