Farming Fashion: Part 3

Farming Fashion: Part 3 150 150 Farmerama Radio
Phoebe English

Welcome to Farming Fashion, our three part series co-produced by Southeast and South West England Fibresheds and Farmerama Radio. 

In this third and final episode we talk to three designers from independent design studios who work with native natural fibres and dyes  and who are pioneering a shift toward a new paradigm for fashion. While none of them would claim to be fully ‘regenerative’ they are transparent and open about their approaches to becoming more so, and take a deep, thoughtful approach to making small, truthful steps in the right direction. 

The first voice we hear is Tilly Kaye from Zero to Product, a design studio offering design and development services to the fashion industry. 

Next we hear from Pheobe English, another designer who through her connection with the Southeast England Fibreshed and Plaw Hatch Farm, is also now on a journey to rethinking how her brand designs and produces fashion.  

Finally we hear from Deborah Barker, who besides being a co-producer in this series conducting the majority of the interviews, has herself worked with natural dyes for 15 years and is also the regional coordinator for the Southeast England Fibreshed. 

Episode Transcript

I think ultimately we have to get the general public on board with thinking about these systems from a deeper holistic place. The thing that I’m most passionate about is getting people to understand the scale of the system and the weight of their decisions. How do we change anything? When the solution is to dump our excessive clothing waste on non-white people in the global south, to the point where it pollutes the land and the sea.

I need people to understand that it isn’t particularly on this group or that group, that it’s on all of us because at the end of the day, we are the ones buying the clothing. It’s never just a $5 dress. It represents exploitation, pollution of the environment, and a system which farther harms, marginalized people, regenerative systems and textile systems like Fiber Shed.

They aren’t just good for the planet, but ultimately they’re good for people. Domestic textile production in the UK is practically non-existent and in getting away from understanding the importance of how things are. We’ve truly done a disservice to ourselves and to future generations where we could have this amazing system which provides jobs and a healthier environment.

My name is Aja Barber, and I am the author of the book Consume the Need for Collective Change, colonialism, climate Change, and Consumerism.

In building our regional networks of fiber and dye farmers, processors, mills, and designers, fiber 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.

So far in this series, we’ve heard from the farmers and fiber producers, and also the people who are developing infrastructure for processing it into ya. In this final episode of the series, we talk to three independent designers who work with native natural fibers and dyes, and who are pioneering a shift towards a new form of fashion.

While they don’t claim to be fully regenerative, they are transparent and open about their approaches to becoming more so, and they take a deep, thoughtful approach to making small steps in the right direction. First, here’s Tilly K of zero to product. Design studio offering design and development services to the fashion industry.

So I’m interested in deepening the understanding of our wardrobes and their connection to the natural world and all of those processes in between. I always wanted to be a fashion designer, but I also remember from a very early age being incredibly conscious that I only wanted to do it if it was in a sustainable.

I’m Tilly Kay. I’m a designer. I’m exploring the balance between my desire to develop my ideas into products with. My awareness of a industry that’s grossly overproducing by focusing my attention wholeheartedly on materials and practices that I consider to be in closer harmony with the earth and what it can sustain.

I work freelance with small businesses and independent designers helping to develop their products and do sampling and, uh, pattern cutting and designing. Whilst helping them make more sustainable choices in materials or production methods under the trading name, zero to product. I’m also currently developing a collection of linen shirts.

My grandfather was a farmer. He had a biodynamic farm in Wexford and Ireland. It was called Inish Glass. So this farm, to me was glorious and seemed huge and unending, and so rich and full of different types of life and growth. It was a very immersive experience with the land at a young age. is my favorite material to work with, like a woven.

Well, I love sewing with it. It’s just so pleasing. You can mold it, you can sculpt it to be what you want it to be. So if I’m not looking for a winter coat, then my next go-to would be linen or hemp. And I’m especially interested in the fact that they can grow quite easily in our climate. As far as I’m aware, the only thing holding us back from producing more UK or European, Made linen and hemp material is the processing machinery required, especially to make it fine enough for fashion use?

There is a, a definite growing awareness of the benefits of the use of homegrown fibers, but there’s still this mood in, in the fashion industry of driving down the price from your supplier. It shocks me that material is. If you think about the amount of work and time and space that is required to produce this cotton or linen or whatever the material, however high the yield, it’s still such an enormous effort and we are treating it like a throwaway product.

It’s not surprising if you think that especially the cotton industry was founded on slavery, so the price of it for a long time has been influenced by the fact it. based on free labor. So the, the amount of actual labor it takes to produce material was not really accounted for in the price of it. And now that we barely pay people, I mean, in some cases people are paid.

In other cases, people are not properly paid for the work still. So it’s not factoring in the amount of actual labor required to produce the material. So I think a huge shift is needed to see the actual value of these products. , when we talk about models like fibershed or projects around the UK that are really trying to focus on homegrown materials like the Bristol Cloth Project, and the price has to be high, but it, I think it only feels so shockingly high because the rest, what we’re used to is so undervalued.

So the Fibershed model, which is based on the idea of having more regional textile systems, Means that you’re able to see all of those processes that go from that original raw material right through to the finished product. They’re all more local and they’re more visible. So I think it really helps foster that understanding of the value and work that’s gone into every piece of clothing.

There’s a potential for Fibershed to help designers like myself to better understand where their materials are actually coming from, and that direct link back to agriculture. I was lucky enough to go to a farm that’s part of the Southeast Fibershed and we did a tour on the farm and we looked at the die garden project that they’re setting up and met the sheep who are gonna be part.

A flock to hopefully produce some wool to make jumpers. It was a visit that really shows that immediate connection between our clothing and farming. The five shed is a, a soil to soil textile system, and I feel very strongly that we should make our clothes a hundred percent biodegradable. So that means thinking about the thread, and it means thinking about the buttons and the fusing as well, which if.

It’s a hundred percent biodegradable. It means really, you can’t have any traditional fusing in it either. A fusing is that plasticy, often non-woven interlining that has a sticky gluey surface on it. So it actually is a bit harder to give clothes that sharp fashiony look that we’ve come to expect without using some plastics or synthetics along the way.

So it’s very interesting to explore that further and see what else you can use instead of synthetic materials. In the trimmings, it’s easy to focus on just the main fabric of the garment, but there are all of those little things that go into it as. I really think that that is a helpful model of thinking about the end of life of a garment, and is it able to degrade back into the soil without leaving toxins from the dyes if their chemical dyes, or without leaving any plastic residue from a polyester thread or from a fused inter lining.

My grandfather took five years to turn the farm that he took on into a healthy biodynamic farm. I feel like I really understand that delicate balance that the soil needs to continue to do its job and richly produce and produce. It is now becoming a lot more common to talk about regenerative agriculture in fashion and not just food systems.

I would like to see that spread a lot further in, in the fashion industry and in how we produce materials. The idea that it’s got to be regenerative, but also really digging into that idea of what is regenerative and making sure it’s not just becoming a catchall term.

Track 3: Textiles and clothing are undervalued, and that’s a real challenge for the industry to correct, and so is the endemic exploitation of people and natural environments that paved the way for the monster production system that we are faced with.

If we reflect on the centuries of injustice and harm that have been inflicted on people in this industry, it’s clear that we have to integrate a social awareness into future models for fashion, not just an environmental one. We need a model that aims to decolonize as much as it aims to detoxify the materials and practices being used.

The discussions that we and others are having about what our clothing is made from and where, and how natural fibers are grown represents a huge leap forward both in industry and consumer consciousness. I think it’s interesting how the conversation around dye and color is often secondary to that of fibers and fashion, a topic which itself usually comes behind.

I’ve sat through so many events or discussions about food sustainability and sovereignty, wondering why we aren’t having the same level of discussions about textiles and clothing, and now that is starting to happen. I wonder the same about colors and dyes. One great initiative worth drawing attention to is the dire circle.

The sharing platform comprising people who are committed to transitioning the industry away from synthetic. Deborah Barker has worked with natural dyes for 15 years and is also the regional coordinator for the Southeast England fibershed, as well as a co-producer and primary researcher for this

Track 5: series.

Natural dye is, is, is is not new. It’s something that we’ve been doing for thousands of years. There was some scraps of blue cotton dye with indigo discovered by archeologists in Peru in 2016, and they’re estimated to be six and a half thousand years. For thousands of years, we’ve dye our clothes with, uh, biodegradable dice stuffs like plants and insects and light chins, mushrooms, right up until the mid 19th century when synthetic dyes were developed, just 170 years later, 99% of our clothes are colored with synthetic dyes.

Whether the clothes are made from natural fibers or from synthetic fiber, Synthetic dyes are made from crude oil, which unlike plants and insects, doesn’t by degrade, and there are hot acidic cocktails of synthetic endocrine disrupting and carcinogenic dye chemicals regularly emptied into our water systems.

It now accounts for up to 20% of our global water pollution. My name’s Deborah Barker. I’m co-founder and director of the Southeast England Fiber Shed, and I run a small natural dye studio collaborating with artists and designers. Alongside my work with farmers in regenerative agriculture, I also grow small scale dye plants.

In the UK there are three dye plants that will grow well. It’s weld for yellow, matter for red and wood for blue, and there are also lots of other plants and shrubs and trees as well as waste material from food and forestry and farming that’s being researched and they can all be used to create a biodegradable pallet.

It does mean rethinking how we work with and value color, but I think that’s a really exciting invitation to find a place-based relationship with color and the landscape that it produces. Over the past three years, there’s been a rowing interest from designers. Uh, wanting to work with natural dyes, particularly regionally grown agroecological dyes from people who are interested in making products within a fibershed and a source of soil model, partly inspired by what’s happening in the usa.

Fiber shed. There’s a daunting realization that every meter of dye cloth represents square meters of farmland, and you can choose cloths that furthers harm or you, you can buy cloths that supports farmers who are paid a living wage and are actively working to improve soil health, sequester carbon, and support nature restoration and biodiversity.

despite the interest that designers are showing in naturally dyed fabric, there are no commercially available dye plants in the UK that I’m aware of at the moment. There’s lots of dye plants being grown on allotments and in gardens, and some grown on farms, but therefore, farmers who are using them in their own products in the 19.

There was a big EU research project into natural dye crops, and several farms in the UK were involved, including. The farmers, Ian and Bernadette Howard, who set up the Road center in Norfolk. They’re now retired, but they are advising on several dye projects, which are in the early stages, including homegrown Homespun, which is a community clothing project in the north of England.

Fiber shed. And they’re growing road on a, a large scale to dye the flax that they’re. We’re also hoping that they’re going to advise on field trials of Weld to be grown as a cover crop with Bali that we’re growing in the southeast of England. Fiber shed the project which we ran to trial growing dye plants in a commercial scale.

And to understand some of the challenges. We work with three farms, two mixed farms in a small horticulture farm, all committed to working a ecological. and there were two main findings from the trial. The first was the need for equipment for harvesting and processing. And this isn’t a problem that is common to all the countries who have offshored all their textile production, so usa, Europe, Australia, but there are lots of people around the world working on open source designs to develop harvesting and processing equip.

Another useful source of information is the Dire Circle, which was a platform set up in 2020 by academic and colorist Jackie Andrews, and she’s brought together natural dires historians and conservators and archeologists from all around the world who are really generously sharing their knowledge and experience with people who are committed to creating.

Um, without using petrochemicals. The other main learning from our pilot is that we can’t expect farmers in the climate crisis to carry all the risk for growing a new crop. One of our farms twice lost all their seed beds in violent storms. We’re working up ideas for a project to encourage studios to invest collectively.

in a dye crop with a farmer. This is a really important step. It will help spread the risk financially, um, between the farmer and the studios. And there are precedents that we can draw in, in community supported agriculture that these more collaborative ways of working through supply networks rather than operating in a vacuum in a large global supply chain are going to be essential if we’re gonna create economic systems that support.

And enhance our communities and the land. So we’ve got a distorted view of the true cost of producing color. There’s a really long history of exploitation. The indigo trade in the 18th century is based on indigenous knowledge and enslaved labor, and apart from a handful of ethical brands, the color in our clothes is always at the expense of people and ecosystems.

Often in the global south. I’m often asked how we’re going to scale up. My response is, why would we want to, we absolutely can’t afford to. We’re grossly overproducing clothes for the uk, which has resulted in mountains and mountains of hazardous waste being exported abroad, and the resources we’re using each year a fashion are way beyond what the earth can regenerate in a year.

So if we want future generations and even ourselves to have a healthy future, we have to transition from our current extractive model and commit to working within planetary boundaries and in restoring our ecosystems to the people who say that the risk of changing the system is too great a threat, my response is that risk of not changing is even greater.

Cuz if we don’t act and don’t stop taking oil out of the ground and the severity of the climate crisis will make it impossible for us to grow anything at.

Phoebe English is another leading UK designer who through her connection with the Southeast England fiber, she, Andre Hatch Farm is also now on the journey to rethinking how her brand designs and produces fashion of a fashion industry as it is running now at the scale and the speed it’s running in at the moment. We won’t be able to continue in this way. We need to be preparing our knowledge base and our skills bases and our practices in preparation for that. And to also not only mitigate, but to try and come back from that as urgently as we can.

I really believe every action that we partake in goes towards. Negative or less negative or a positive path for the future. And we can do that in our home lives, and we can certainly do that in our design activities and in our business activities. Fibershed offers a model where all of those things are covered.

where we can be working in a replenishing and enhancing way because it literally takes you from the source to the destination. You know, the soil being the source and the soil being the destination, and then all the multitude of other elements that are affected along the way are all taken into account and preserved and enhanced and respected.

We’ve been running the business in the. That we inherited fashion businesses and we’ve replicated those systems. Um, but over the last four to five years, we’ve been reevaluating those systems and structures and trying to implement different ones such as production of waste, the reuse of waste, reducing, uh, garment miles as much as we can, and we’d.

Beginning to explore the chemical content of the clothing we were producing. So we were beginning to look at natural dye, which sort of brought us to the plant, the plant-based area, of design. I sort of coincided with a time in my life where I was able to interact with the soil and interact with growth and natural systems and natural processes for the first time.

and it was a natural progression that that needed to feed into my work as well. I’m trying to understand how, how I could connect those two things, urban business and urban, um, existence with, uh, natural systems. So I’d began to see that there was this potential because at the moment, Fashion and farming are completely separated.

We speak a different language. The concept that we’re actually intrinsically linked to each other is completely missed within fashion, education, and, and fashion knowledge and fashion systems especially. But we are intrinsically linked. The systems that we are linked through are so international and.

Complex and so, you know, have such a myriad of processes and people and places in between them that there’s just no point where you come across each other. So being introduced to Fibershed, the concept of Fibershed was really exciting and we eventually managed to attain some funding from the B F T T and we were able to reach out with this funding to see if we could try and link our design activities.

To our natural, local, regional systems, produce some work together. I’ve learned a great deal from the process my southern my team were coming into. It was little to no knowledge and using the project as an action of education and of learning. So the, the idea behind the project was to educate ourselves and learn through doing and hoping that the action of practically.

Trying to achieve these things would help us understand a definition of what regenerative design could be. We came to visit Gala, ATLO Hatch Farm, and Deborah, and to visit the Romney sheep. That was quite as fundamentally important moment for me as a business owner and as a designer, and as a person to realize really how disconnected.

PR and have been to the fiber and to the, the soil that produces and the people that produce the fibers that we use. So attaining that emotional connection was really important to me as part of this project. This traditional ways of choosing a material would consisted of going to a showroom or a big fabric fair, and you’d rouse all of your fabrics stapled onto abid of card, and you’d feel them and look at the price, and then they’d send them back to the studio, the swatches that you liked, and then do a drawing and choose a swatch that might go on your drawing.

order the fabric, um, through an email. A few weeks later, a roll arrives in the studio and you use the fabric on the roll, and that’s really as much interaction that you would get in a traditional way of making clothes. So being able to actually be part of building a fiber supply network, finding. A farmer , finding a flock, finding spinners and DERs, and being emotionally connected and intrinsically linking those elements together into a supply network.

There’s such a very different process cuz it’s longer, it requires a huge amount of research. Communication and partnership building, but also allows you to really fully understand how your fiber is produced, where it’s come from. You know, we were really trying to work with elements that were supporting biodiversity and water health and soil health, and be biodegradable, and we’re supporting rural businesses.

Urban finances. When we’re working with these types of fibers, we need to be working with them in a different way. Um, not in terms of necessarily the shape or the style, but presenting it to people in a different way and, and supplying it to people at a different time that actually is in sync. And in respect to the systems that they have come from, thinking about the timeframes in a vastly different way than you would do in a traditional fashion valley system and and timeframe has been, I think one of the biggest things that we’ve begun to understand and also relish because it’s so against the grain of.

The fashion systems currently alike where it’s really about delivering quickly in speed and maybe we should be only presenting work around Harvest Festival or something where, where you are actually sort of weeping and and celebrating your harvest. Maybe that’s something that’s more fitting. So it’s given us a lot to think about and reassess lots of different elements.

Of how we work as a design business, and not only in terms of fiber and dye and things like that, lots of other elements such as timeframes and language and knowledge. Once you know the knowledge, you can’t unknow the knowledge. So for example, when I was starting to learn, The realities of the raw materials that we use as a fashion business and started to really understand how damaging some of them could be and how detrimental they could be to communities and to natural resources and natural systems that those communities rely on.

It’s not possible to not act on that knowledge. So now that we have this know knowledge about the amazing possibilities of producing fiber in a. Regional and in an enormously more replenishing way. I think the challenge is definitely time, funding, communication, and language, and having calls with farmers, but maybe not really knowing what to be asking or what to be saying because of spending an entire decade never speaking to any fiber producers before.

So there were plenty of challenges. I think sort of vaguely embarrassed about how little I understood or, or knew, but also knowing it was a very healthy place to be at least trying to communicate . There are many, many gaps, not only regionally, but within the UK as a whole for fiber production and fiber growth and, and harvesting and yield.

You know, there’s not a huge. Movement of people growing fiber for fashion and for clothing. And I’m hoping that that will change along the way cuz there’s a huge opportunity there for, for growers and producers.

Track 3: So I think it’s really interesting that what we keep hearing again and again is how a connection to land, whether that comes through family or friends or just a chance to.

A local farm, how that can end up being a really transformative experience for a designer and how they approach their work. It’s no secret that working with animals, with plants can have a very grounding and therapeutic effect, and this is the kind of experience or exchange that, um, Fibershed is really set up to facilitate more of, despite the many challenge. I’m really daily heartened by the commitment and vision of the farmers and designers that I work with. We’ve got the potential working with indigenous knowledge, the best of historical sources and knowledge, combined with the best of 21st century technology such as renewable energy, rain harvesting, and Reed water Systems for clean.

And collecting water to create a regional network of fiber and dye plant farmers, designers, makers, producing zero carbon garments in a way that respects planetary boundaries, builds soil health, and protects the health biosphere. It’s so thrilling. The thought of weed closed that you know have done so much positive.

Good. In the making of them and look fabulous. If you drew on paper what the regional fiber network might look like, my hope is it would resemble Microrisal Funk, a really diverse and complex web of symbiotic relationships.

This episode was co-produced by Southeast England and Southwest England Fibershed. With support from Farmer Rama 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 sign post best practices and resources for exploring water regenerative fiber and fashion system could look like due to launch next year.