Developing cloth from local soil with local toil

Article by Zoe Gilbertson, reproduced with kind permission from her blog

As many of you know, I’ve recently returned from a 4-week journey around Europe funded by a Churchill Fellowship. I connected with many purpose-led people who believe in localised linen, hemp and wool production and in developing cloth from local soil with local toil in bioregional textile systems.

In this article I share snippets of my journey and give an intro into the realities of bast fibre textiles production.

Much of the research felt like detective work. One of the many stumbling blocks to creating localised, UK fibre is the small-scale machinery needed to help with processing the raw plant material into practical value such as insulation, growing medium or textile yarn. Through the Netherlands, France, Switzerland and Spain, I explored cultural, social and physical infrastructure, investigating existing equipment and process to consider what needs collaboratively developing to support farm scale, localised fibre production.

The fashion farm
After crossing the channel in a packed Eurostar, my quest began in the Netherlands. Looking from the train window, at the flat expanse of carefully manicured farmland crisscrossed by waterways, I wondered how long this land will continue to be habitable. Dutch people will continue to adapt with indigenous ingenuity but at what cost and for how long? Surrounded by flood plains full of water and baron fields, it was joyful to visit a fledging fashion farm brought to life by designer Joline Jolink and her partner Peter Feldbrugge. With only 1 hectare of land, a compact farmhouse, multiple out buildings, a pond, 3 sheep, 5 chickens, an orchard and a perfectly formed BNB and studio space, they are making their dream a reality and over time will explore the potential of growing clothing. In a meeting of minds conversation, Joline observed that one of the most surprising things about moving from Rotterdam into a rural landscape was how friendly and receptive her neighbours are. Although conventional farmers, they love what she is doing and are surprisingly supportive of her plans to renovate a large barn and inviting the public in to experience the craft and graft of seed to cloth production. Later in France I saw some startling farmer protests and in these times of political conflict cross Europe it’s foundational to develop these diverse and critical friendships.

Flax growing
Moving on to more practical knowledge, the first step in fibre production is to figure out how to grow the plants. Of course this is context and place specific, but a lot of know-how is transferable within similar climates. I stayed on another inspiring farm in Normandy, France. This time a mixed-use organic dairy and arable farm of 120ha situated in the most famous flax growing region in the world. Silt soil – limon en francais – means that flax roots go deep and the plant grows tall and straight. As a result of this good fortune Normandy produces 55% of the global crop. However, climate change means that ideal growing conditions might be moving north towards the UK. We won’t have the same soil unfortunately, but we can grow a decent enough crop as evidenced by history (previously flax was grown everywhere in the UK) and recent small-scale experiments.

Post-harvest, Flax requires retting (rotting), in some places this is completed in tanks but in France ‘dew retting’ takes place in the field over 3-6 weeks. Retting requires intermittent light rain and sunshine to create the right microbial conditions for perfect fibre quality to develop. Joris Soenen and Pauline Laurent have an organic farm with pasture (dairy cows/meat) flax, wheat, oats, barley and cover crops in an 8 paddock, 80 ha rotation. The rotation always creates 5 years of pasture and during that time the soil is untouched and the seeds of weeds have time to die in the soil. Flax always has issues with weeds and they must be kept out of the fibre crop as it devalues the end product. Although it requires a 10-year plan, this rotational system works very well and the farm is ecological and profitable. Out in the loamy field, I met tiny, winter flax babies growing on the best Normandy soil. This time was brief, due to the inconvenient fact of winter, but it was one of the highlights of my trip. Innovative farmers like Joris are starting to plant winter flax in November to harvest in June, to balance the risk of spring flax failing if the weather is too dry in late summer. This is climate adaptation in action. Potential consequences can mean a slight downgrade in fibre quality and it’s becoming ever more difficult to produce the qualities of flax that the market is used to, what was rejected 20 years ago as low grade is now considered good.

Once the retting is complete, easier said than done as it requires an art of timing and experience to perfect, the flax is dried, bailed and transported to a nearby scutching mill. There are many of these units in Normandy but none at all in the UK. Our last flax mills closed in the 1950’s but these were a temporary war measure and most of our linen industry was gone long. Scutching first involves breaking, the crimping of the retted plant through geared wheels, then scutching, where blades bash the fibre in a circular flow to remove all the shives (the woody outer core) then finally hackling, where the fibre is drawn through a series of progressively narrowing combs to produce a smooth, blonde, ponytail bundle of flax. (The term flaxen hair makes sense once you’ve experienced this!) Scutching facilities are abundant in Normandy and Belgium but they are rare in many European locations and lie at the root of why new linen production is difficult. An industrial scale plant costs between 5-15 million Euros to set up, will service 1000-3000ha of land that has the potential for over half a million pairs of jeans.

Key to all textile systems is spun yarn and so scutched flax is taken in bundles to a spinning plant. It’s not easy to stay in business since 1778 but Safilin has succeeded against the odds. I visited charismatic innovation director, Adolfo Mandato at their spinning mill in Bethune. Adolfo talked through the machinery and process, patiently relaying information including how wet and dry spinning have fixed operational environments, how wet spinning has to stay at 70-78% humidity and 22-25 degrees Celsius and how the quality of linen is reducing year on year due to climate change.

At the other end of the production scale, Pierre Ouagne, Professor at the École Nationale D’Ingenieurs De Tarbes, put together a small-scale spinning facility for linen and hemp that also has scutching capability. It was thrilling to see the full process in action from raw plant to final yarn under one roof. I particularly enjoyed the scutching machines from Taproot Fibre, developed by flax pioneer, Patricia Bishop in Nova Scotia, Canada, and will write more about this another time. Pierre is doing excellent work, driven by his wider ecological values, to support local French production and with the help of a supportive University Director has created a valuable small-scale set-up. Although rare, small spinning machines do exist, and this means that local production IS possible. Finding the capital to bring it all together is another matter, but we will cross that bridge another time.

Many people in France are ignorant of the ecological benefits of linen and shockingly this includes home-grown luxury brands who apparently do not wish to pay more than Zara or H&M for their yarn. I now have a fantastic overview of the processes that create the finest linen and the differences in yarn prepping for knitting or weaving. In Gouda, I learned from LCA expert, Nathalie van der Velden, that the finer the yarn, the higher the energy use and that knitted cloth uses much less energy than woven cloth. I’d never considered this before but it’s obvious once noted. A thicker yarn may use more material, but the work required to make it finer demands a repetition of process using energy, heat, water and often chemical applications. Hundreds of years ago peasants and lower classes wore cheaper, rougher cloth and the finer textiles were reserved for the rich and powerful. Clothing used to be a very visible demonstration of wealth that’s harder to discern in present times as cloth became so cheap to produce. A likely future enquiry could be to explore if people are willing to consider more rustic versions of textiles if they are local and ecologically produced.

And what about hemp?
It is said, by many an advocate, that hemp can work at the landscape scale to provide many of our basic human needs from food to shelter and clothing. Easily outcompeting weeds it’s a more resilient crop than flax and some say it’s easier to grow in an increasingly volatile climate. Hemp can provide much of what we humans need to survive whilst doing less harm than our existing industrial systems, but it doesn’t suit the capitalist narrative of technology leading growth to return to a simpler system. It’s easy to see many benefits for the living world if we redesign our systems to work with this extraordinary plant. The case for hemp and building materials is very clear as they’re easier to process and make but I am also coming round to the possibilities for textiles.

At Les Chanvres de l’Atlantique, in Saint-Geours-de-Maremne, Southwest France, they have an ambitious plan to utilise all aspects of hemp fibre from food to building materials and cloth. All require slightly different and carefully planned growing, harvesting and processing but in a holistic system they can work well together. Vincent Lartizian, and his co-directors of the brand Nunti Sunya, are creating a different kind of business. Geographically distanced from the main bast fibre action in Normandy they are forging their own path. They start with the hemp plant itself and build corresponding relationships carefully with the land, seasons, climate and organic farmers outwards from this. This care and attention is paramount if the entire system is to thrive. I broke my no new fashion purchasing rule and bought one of their beautiful hemp sweaters of knitted jersey. (I’ve recently developed a new clothing purchasing rule that it’s ok if I trust the person who made it). Martin Klöti works from a traditional Swiss barn in a very steep but pretty valley one hour’s travel outside Zurich. Like Vincent, Martin is a sustainability pioneer who believes he’s found an answer to many of our problems with industrial hemp. Whilst decorticating hemp using hand tools, Martin and I discussed that it is not Marxist or Communist to imagine a sustainable world for all, it’s a common-sense paradigm that, with the right attitude, could be developed outside of market and state.

Cooperative Commons
Virgo Coop, another inspiring hemp producer in Cahors, is using stakeholder and worker coops to progress collaboration and mutual benefit between farmers, builders, mills and weavers. A philosophy supported by a wonderful organisation called Lin et Chanvre Bio (organic linen and hemp association) who organise knowledge exchange, meetups, and lobbying in support of an organic system. The French like to work in coops and the development of the ‘social solidarity economy’ is supported by the ‘Minister for the Ecological and Solidarity Transition’ – a spectacular ministerial title that I hope the next UK government has the confidence to emulate! Flax and hemp can support wider bioregional outputs and we have an opportunity to develop our fledgling fibre systems using a new mindset and methods. We can create conditions of emergence for a democratic, cooperative, commons-based, ecological clothing culture. To achieve this, international knowledge exchange will be sought alongside local experimentation. With determination, cooperation, and careful planning, new fibre systems will be possible.

Read the article, with pictures, in its original location

Support a practical, investable and inclusive narrative for land use.

Sign-up to receive our newsletter

Newsletter Signup
Contribute for just £2.50 per week
Skip to content