South West England Fibreshed is an official affiliate of the Fibershed initiative, a non-profit organisation that develops regional and regenerative fibre systems. Founded by Rebecca Burgess, who set about to see if she could create a wardrobe of clothing within a 100-mile radius of where she lived. Throughout this work, Emma discovered that the processing sector of the industry was sparse and difficult to access for small producers. In creating Fibreshed, she created and nurtured a network of fibre farmers, dye growers, fibre processors and artisans and in doing so created a community of advocates for soil-to-soil textile processes. Fibershed has now grown into a large organisation that leads the way in research around what bioregional fibre or textile systems look like or could look like in the future. It has inspired lots of local and regional projects across the world. There are currently 50 official affiliates.
Founded by Emma Jane Hague, South West England Fibreshed was the first Fibreshed to be founded in the UK. Prior to this Emma co-founded Bristol Cloth producing a textile consisting of wool from Fernhill Farm, dyed with organic plant dyes with Babs at Botanical Inks and woven at Bristol Weaving Mill but left to focus on South West Fibreshed. Bristol Cloth was the first foray into seeing what could happen when you bring a network of fibre farms, a processor and an artisan together, before even thinking about a wardrobe of clothing. Emma and Babs focused on making their own fabric, Bristol Cloth is made up of regenerative farmed Shetland Romney lambswool dyed with organic madder root and weld flower. Throughout this work, Emma discovered that the processing of the industry was sparse and difficult to access for small producers.
‘Fibreshed’ a word inspired by ‘Watershed’ is a geographically defined area by which you get your natural textile resources. It’s about working with what you have available to you locally. For South West England Fibreshed and the other UK affiliates working with natural fibres, natural dyes and using local labour in creating a healthy bio-regional resilient system is at the core of their values. Different affiliate projects are free to interpret the Fibreshed model in their own way. South West England Fibreshed was inspired by the idea of a bio-regional local textile economy that is not dependent on synthetic fibres, or cheap imports that supports an inherently exploitative and extractive system of fast fibre fashion overseas. The starting point was mapping the community in the South West that grew and processed fibres and finding the artisans and businesses that prioritised the use of natural fibres and fibres grown in the UK.
The British Fibre Industry has really struggled to get back on its feet since World War Two, agricultural policy was prioritised to boost the production of food. Where the UK used to thrive in having a huge diversity of sheep – sixty native breeds and perhaps the same number of recognised cross breeds that produce a wonderful diversity of different kinds of fleece and meat – after the Second World War, policy was incentivising farmers to focus on sheep for meat in the biggest, highest yields possible. This resulted in the decline of the quality of wool. Britain is known as being the carpet wool producer because our commercial breed of sheep are being bred for meat and not fibre. Not all breeds of sheep will produce good quality fibre. Some fibres come from breeding programmes.
“What we’re trying to do with Fibreshed is point out that actually we really can celebrate and honour the diversity of native breeds in the UK and use them to produce not only meat but good quality fibre.”
Emma Jane Hague
The UK’s textile and clothing needs are unlikely to ever be satisfied by the UK’s current manufacturing capability. Part of that is because of the ‘fast fashion’ mindset that consumers are prescribing to and the sheer amount of clothing that people are buying and mostly not wearing. The average garment is worn about seven times before it’s discarded. Keeping up with that consumption through national manufacturing let alone UK fibre production is unlikely. We do have the opportunity to be increasing our capacity for producing and processing fibres that we grow here in the UK, to be able to satisfy more of our outerwear needs including sweaters and socks.
There is increasing interest around fibre produced with British breeds of sheep, similarly fine fibre to merino that can provide a British native alternative to merino when it comes to thermals and undergarments. Why did wool become synonymous to merino? Large quantities of merino have been imported to the detriment of our own British breeds and the industry is just starting to catch up and realise how amazing UK native breeds are. British breeds will survive, thrive and equally produce fibre and meat being farmed in a climate that is more suited to them than a sheep that is imported from elsewhere. There is a lot of interest from brands about how to better harness the fibres that are readily available locally and whether it’s possible to make undergarments or thermal garments with native breeds as opposed to merino.
South West England Fibreshed is currently being funded to map their fibre processing infrastructure; from scouring wool to spinning the fibre, to knitting the fibre, to dying the fibre. The findings reveal that there are huge bottlenecks around some parts of the process specifically early on, which makes it very difficult for new brands to get started, particularly if they want to do something bespoke, small scale or with full traceability or Provenance. There are only a few processing facilities that can offer this at an accessible price. The mapping process will be shown as an infographic that will illustrate to industry and potential investors exactly where there are gaps in the ecosystem that could potentially be filled in. As a result of covid, lots of facilities have suffered and are on skeleton staff or have shut down operations temporarily or permanently. The closure of one facility could mean that a lot of brands struggle to manufacture resulting in a domino effect of business closures.
The Fibreshed model is about equitability, making the voice of the farmer or the processor as loud as the voice of the designer to highlight: we wouldn’t have anything without them. What sets Fibreshed apart from other sustainable initiatives, circular economies or models is that they work with nature’s own processors and it is really very simple. It doesn’t require huge inputs of extra chemicals or energy, or mechanical processes to break down, nature does it for you. The other Fibresheds in the UK are in the South East, North West and Wales. They meet once a month to learn from each other in terms of how they are facilitating their projects and programmes.
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