I'm aware that I only have one range of fabrics, the tweeds from the Isle of Mull Weavers at Ardalanish Organic Farm. On the face of it, you could say it's limited. People ask me, what's next? Summer collection? Trousers.. I have prototyped a few things, but as you can see haven't launched them. There is obviously the investment side of working on a new product set (the sampling, the shoot, the marketing etc). But, it's clear to me that I've been a little stuck as I find another textile that matches the beauty, quality, integrity and sustainability of my tweeds.
I've been attending a series of very interesting workshops and masterclasses at the Ethical Fashion Forum, most recently about fabric sourcing. Some of this was not new to me, thankful as I am that I read Kate Fletcher's excellent and definitive book on the subject: Sustainable Fashion and Textiles.
Much of the focus of the conversations in the eco-fashion community is in the area of organic and fair trade. There are producers in India, Brazil, Peru, all with first-rate credentials and interesting stories. Some is very artisan-based, which of course appeals to me, some is more high-tech eco, some is about reuse or using pre-industrial waste. I have just read and seen the video by Hilary Alexander who was visiting an M&S eco-factory in Sri Lanka. It was very heartening to hear la Alexander speaking so convincingly about climate change. This factory was 96% carbon neutral, which is pretty impressive.
It seems to me, though, that most of the above initiatives are based on an assumption around a globalised economy and production system. Fair trade is laudable from a human dignity and community perspective and generally organic fabrics are much more respectful of the environment than non-organic. The factory might be 96% carbon neutral, but are the clothes really so? The use of fish-leather from Brazil is a wonderful story of using a resource that wouldn't otherwise be used.
But, but, but, I have this 'climate change' and 'peak oil' mantra ringing in my ears. I can't help feeling that even this Fair Trade, globalised production is based on cheap oil. It really can't be that sustainable. And, sorry, but carbon-offsetting is just not good-enough. After seeing Age of Stupid recently, I kept thinking about the comparison with the Holocaust, and how people didn't stand up and say, no. It meant breaking with societal norms, which does mean standing outside the flow. Sorry to get ogre-of-doom on you, but maybe it's not something I should feel the need to apologise about. Surely, we're going to look back and wonder how blind we all were?
Anyway, the only solution to the above seems to me to be a localised production, even of fabric. I am increasingly coming up against is what seems to be an acceptance that UK production of textiles and clothing is simply unfeasible. I feel a little naive. However, I believe in following where my energy is with something. Even though I can see an entirely UK-sourced production, it could be that many people can't envision this yet. It's true, I've had trouble myself but since I've been getting involved with the Transition Town Movement and probably since I've been reading The Ecologist regularly I can see a clearer picture. When oil costs five times as much as it does now, it will be sobering. All this fabric, and all these factories, however cheap the labour costs, will require stuff being sent around the world. We worry about food security and growing our own food. I'm not so sure clothing security is quite such a life-or-death issue (we've probably all got enough clothes to go round if the borders were closed tomorrow). However, I have hope that we will see a return to a localised source of makers and weavers. I do feel like a lone-voice though.
UK production hasn't entirely disappeared. I recently went to the Textile Forum show, a textile trade show that takes place twice a year in London. It's quite small-scale but I met a few UK manufacturers. Some were weaving fine woollens, some weaving fine cottons. The cotton obviously came from abroad, and much of the wool, though there was some UK wool being woven. One thing I learnt from the Ethical Fashion Forum was that anything that is produced in the UK is generally in a closed-loop process (which means there are no effluents) and the dyeing process is clean. So, whilst they may not necessarily use vegetable dyes, it is a considered and approved process. I found a lot of resistance, however, amongst these producers to organic processes. It seems to me that you have to start afresh, with new ways, rather than wait for ready-established businesses to green up and change. It was the new-kids-on-the-block that pioneered the mobile market, not the old telecoms companies, who were too slow and stuck in their ways.
I then had an interesting Monday this week talking to two of my fellow Transitioners. Firstly I met up with Caspar Gray from Wax RDC this week to see how we might work together. Wax is a consultancy who have an environmental product design approach, though they work quite broadly and do whole environmental life-cycle analysis. They have quite strong technical skills, which made me reflect on how I generally avoid or mistrust excessive technology. I favour artisan-produced fabrics. Anyway, it got me thinking that we could start a really ambitious project which would model a perfectly sustainably produced garment - from growning the flax or hemp locally to the final usage and disposal. There have been pilot studies on growing hemp in the South East. Then, later that day I chatted to Jonathan, another transitioner, who is actively involved in a Tudor re-enactment group. They hand-stitch their costumes in authentic design (down to the very year no less) and work with textiles of the Tudor era. Of course, there was no cotton: there was wool and linen. Flax was then grown in England (as well as hemp in fact). It gave me an image of what 'locally produced' clothing could be. However, I was still thinking of Caspar's technology perspective and thought of working on something that merged new technology with locally grown hemp or linen.
This, is where I'd like to be in several years' time. I don't plan to launch a summer collection based on locally grown flax or hemp any time soon. I want this to be a beacon of hope. In the meantime, I've decided to work with a range of fabrics that conform to some of my standards. Excitingly also this week I received a parcel of fabric from Les Indiennes. Mary Mulcahy designs the prints and they are all produced in India, in the same way as the time of the East India Company. All organic cotton, hand-woven, hand-blocked with ayurvedic vegetable dyes, and they don't use any electricity. We met last year as Mary won the interiors section of the Land and Sea Competition where I won the fashion prize. Then I'm going to work with hemp. I've made a summer coat from hemp canvas - produced in Romania I gather. I'm also looking at some nice plain cotton poplins, which are organic and fair trade. I'd like to do some shirting, making in the UK to ensure we get an excellent finish, in the way of men's shirting. Also, I'm weighing up the possibility of using UK wool that isn't necessarily organic but which uses UK wool. It seems to me I have to consider the sustainability in a bigger sense than simply organic. I want to be faithful to the quality of The Isle of Mull Weavers, so I need to keep them as my benchmark against which to assess other textiles.
So, the plan is to have a transitional approach to textiles, working towards a largely UK supply of fabric. Who knows, I may one day have Surrey produced linen? I like to believe it is the future.