Dreaming of a small fashion farm

Article written by Zoe Gilbertson as starts a month long European journey researching small scale, bioregional textile processing

As I write this note, I am about to embark on a month long journey around Europe researching small scale, bioregional textile processing and the collaborative governance and distributive finance that will support such initiatives. Supported by a Churchill Fellowship, I will be meeting a wide range of amazing people from farmers, to designers, academics, entrepreneurs and co-operatives. As I sit on the Eurostar, I want to share the dream that underpins this trip. I wrote this essay at Schumacher College, Dartington, an institution currently in great peril. The dream emerged from the transformative environment nurtured by Satish Kumar and the amazing staff who teach there. I am sharing these words with gratitude and hope for the future.

‘If change is to come, it will have to come from the margins.’ Wendell Berry

‘The small farmer is the last free person on this planet’ Vandana Shiva

‘Even though the idea of the small farm future is currently marginal to mainstream thought, it’s probably the best future now available’ Chris Smaje

I have a dream to run a small fashion farm. Situated in the rolling English hills of South Devon, an 18th Century, slightly shabby farmhouse, nestles on the edge of a vibrant village. Retrofit with natural materials, furnished with ground source heat, solar PV and a hemp glazed extension to let in light and rural views, the building is practical and beautiful. A sheltered south facing garden grows vegetables and flowers following permaculture and biodynamic principles. Chickens roam between an orchard and dye garden. Timber and stone farm buildings are used for practical and educational activities. Beyond the farmyard sits 20 acres of mixed-use agricultural land suitable for both arable crops and grazing stock. At the furthest edges of the farm lies a stream and an ancient woodland brimming with life. Organic flax to make linen is grown in rotation with heritage wheat, grains and pulses. Wool will be hand sheared from a few sweet natured Dorset Down sheep, regeneratively grazing in rotation on pasture and woodland. Nettles from the fringes will be harvested to create an experimental yarn. Mulberry Trees will be planted to give additional nutrients to grazing sheep but mainly to produce peace silk through feeding tiny silkworms. People will flock to the farm to learn about soil-to-soil systems and ancient artisanal skills, assisted with considered technology such as 3D printed spinning wheels and cycle powered machines. Eyes would be opened wide to the time, energy and extensive knowledge needed to make local, natural clothing through methods of processing, spinning and weaving cloth. Idyllic and educational it will lay bare the realities of making nature-centric clothing.

The Fashion Farm. A jarring and unconventional phrase. A farm conjures bucolic imagery of cows, tractors, wellies and golden wheatfields but can often be industrialised and grim. Fashion expresses the prevailing styles of dress, defined by western modernity and something the industry self-determines through a nebulous constellation of marketing interventions. To create ‘fashion’, a process that once took years now takes days through the speed of technology and the power of social media. Fashion and farming industries are connected through material production, unfair supply chains and unhealthy consumption. Both sectors are key players in our destructive industrialised systems, causing much soul searching and exploration of alternatives among participants. Both sectors directly reflect the values of our society.

Along with food and shelter, clothing is also a human need. With the dream of the fashion farm, I want people to talk of local fibre production in the same breath as local food. Although we are massively over producing clothing at present, it important we learn how to transform our systems of production. It is vital we become more in tune with the land, using fibre and food to connect and begin to place the needs of our beyond-human-kin in better balance with our own. A network of local production capacity for life’s necessities will also enable future community resilience. Less than 30% of a plant such as hemp or flax is needed for textile fibre and the remaining material can be used to make oils, building materials and even composite materials such as wind turbine blades and surfboards. A locally based food and fibre system will provide security against the increasing risk of global systems collapse. It will keep us safe, repair our soils and our souls. This slow and deliberate nature of production will prevent the excesses of consumption and the unhealthy thoughts and feelings that fashion can bring. I believe the fashion farm to be an adaptive process in which participants prepare for a more resilient society without jeopardising the needs of life’s future generations. It will coexist within a bioregional, relational ecosystem of small-scale, land related activities supporting regenerative livelihoods.

Flax, one of the easiest fibre crops to grow, is currently cultivated across vast swathes of northern France and Belgium. Ideal growing conditions are moving up into the UK thanks to climate change but it’s possible to grow it in many places. Historically the UK and Ireland grew flax and hemp in almost every town and village, but the off-shoring of textile production and the popularity of cotton killed off this practice by the 1950’s. Textile and garment production is highly labour intensive, costly and time consuming, a driver of the industrial revolution – a fact long forgotten and removed from view. The high value of cotton, the transfer of textile production from India to the UK and US slavery provided the bulk of finance for British colonisation, therefore supporting UK textile sufficiency has a wider decolonial narrative. The home of the industrial revolution, the instigator of an unsustainable system should retreat from extraction and revitalise a new home-grown output and perhaps the UK has a moral duty to become self-sufficient. Some worry that on-shoring production of clothing will disproportionately affect the poorer regions of the world by removing huge numbers of jobs in factories and on farms. This is a valid concern and care must be taken of the world’s clothing producers. However, if developed with care, any new local system will take many decades to impact textile production elsewhere. If we continue to use cotton, we must ensure it comes from fairly traded supply chains using regenerative methods and ecological transport. It’s difficult to predict the future but climate change is already reducing productive areas for growing food. Continuing to outsource textile and clothing production to poorer nations, when their arable land is becoming increasing scarce, feels highly unethical and it is a complex economic question to be explored.

Even with climate change it will not be possible to grow cotton in the UK but bast fibres such as flax, hemp and nettles grow abundantly and sheep reside in their millions, with wool underutilised and almost worthless in economic value. On my dream farm, I’d create a diverse, abundant system carrying a wide range of plant types and varieties to protect against changes in climate, drought and disease. In making steps towards local fibre production, it is important to understand the context in which this will happen. Food sovereignty and sufficiency is live in current discourse, but fibre production is entirely missing from UK land-use strategies and agricultural white papers. Using well considered estimates and land-use strategy reports I roughly calculated that if we reduced our new clothing requirements to around 5 new garments per year (a low but workable amount) we could grow textiles for everyone in the UK using only 6-7% of available arable land. It helps to understand this figure with the comparison that we consume hundreds of kilos of vegetables, nuts, cereals, meat and dairy every year to stay alive but the kilo equivalent for textiles will be tiny in comparison. Bast fibres can be stored indefinitely – flax, grown and processed well generates a yield of 300-400 kg of textile fibre per acre. To make 5 garments from linen requires less than 10 kilos of processed flax. It’s relatively easy for farmers to make space for occasional fibre crops within a 7-year rotation. What’s preventing this is a lack of processing infrastructure – the machinery, supply chains, routes-to-market and knowledge – not a lack of interest on the part of farmers and designers.

It is entirely possible to realise local textile production with work and commitment from a multitude of people with green fingers, technical acumen, patience, and creativity. It’s a vision shared by many, from those determinedly growing fibres despite the difficulties, disillusioned designers developing new systems, makers scraping a living and wearers working out new relationships with their clothing. It’s a project too big for one person. Aside from the simple fact I couldn’t afford to buy the farm I describe, is it right for one person to own so much land? The steps towards creating UK textile sufficiency will require rethinking and dismantling many different capitalist systems. It will require new relationships to land and figuring out innovative systems of exchange and finance. It requires new small-scale on farm machinery and process. A future fashion farm could help establish a dynamic clothing commons; creating products locally but sharing knowledge digitally so that similar localities can adapt and evolve process, plans and technique. It will require collective endeavour and creative enterprise. Building a shared culture around what it means to grow, own and wear clothing produced locally will help us consider more deeply what we want our clothing to reflect. We will be directly connected to the land through what lies next to our skin, there is no better story than that. Situated within a bioregion populated by a multitude of small-scale nested ecosystems that grow food and create useful materials alongside textile fibres the fashion farm will require integration into wider production systems and seasons. It will require learning to be we not I. This dream is too big for one person and a single farm, it is something we must manifest together.

Read Zoe’s article in its original location and follow her journey


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