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Eco-fibres old and new

Mark Nesbitt
13 December 2010
Blog team: 
Sustainable fibres are ever more popular with consumers and designers. The Textile Society's recent conference compared historic and contemporary approaches to the subject.

Regular readers of Kew Blogs will be familiar with my colleagues’ travels to far-away countries such as Montserrat and Guyana. It seems a paradox that my own work, as curator of Kew’s wonderfully global Economic Botany Collection, rarely takes me far from Kew. 2010 has been a typical year, with trips to the Museum Ethnographers Group in Reading, a meeting on radiocarbon-dating in Oxford, and most recently the Textile Society in Leicester.

There’s a lot to be said for these smaller, cheaper meetings, both for the chance to learn from experts, and as an opportunity to network and encourage future collaborators and users of the Collection. Over the last year I have been seeing a lot of textile historians at Kew, so it was a pleasure to accept an invitation to give a talk at the Textile Society’s annual conference, on the theme of sustainable and renewable fibres.


Left: Isabella Whitworth showing orchil-dyed cloth
Middle: Diccon and Lesley Pullen, seen here with fabulous textiles from the Threads of Life project
Right: Jenny Balfour cloth showing her research notes and own dyed cloth

We started with a very varied day of talks, ranging from a study of the secondhand clothes trade in the 18th century, to the many complications of trying to define a true eco-textile today. Several speakers referred to Kew, including  Isabella Whitworth who spoke about the hopelessly unsustainable lichen dye (orchil) trade of the 19th century. Thanks to Isabella’s intervention, we have recently been given a beautiful set of 18th century Canary Island dye lichens for the Collection. Leslie Pullen talked about the Threads of Life project, supporting textile crafts in Indonesia (with some help from Kew botanists on dye plants). Jenny Balfour-Paul, the great expert on indigo, illustrated her talk with quite a few Kew artefacts. She concluded that history was most worth doing when it had relevance to the present, elegantly illustrated by reference to the modern revival of natural indigo dyes.

Emily Brennan and I gave a joint talk on Jamaican lace-bark, setting it in the context of world barkcloths. Almost nothing is known about traditional harvesting of lace-bark – a real obstacle to reviving this historic Jamaican craft. Our survey of the great diversity of barkcloths used around the world suggests that most are harvested sustainably, either through regrowth of young stems and branches, or when patches of bark regrow on thick trunks. It's a strong hint that sustainable harvesting of lace-bark is possible.


Left: Emily discusses our lace-bark exhibit
Right: Matthew Horne and Emily Baines, with sacks of hemp, stinging nettle and flax fibre

Thanks to the conference host, De Montfort University, there was plenty of space for exhibitions (we showed some Kew specimens of lace-bark) and retail stalls. An unexpected snowfall led quite a few to miss Sunday’s coach tour, one highlight of which was a visit to a hemp and stinging-nettle processing plant on a local farm. Dr Matthew Horne, of De Montfort's impressive textile group, gave an excellent tour despite the bitter cold, and I was even more pleased to leave with samples of raw fibre for the Economic Botany Collection.

Many thanks to Janie Lightfoot, Brenda King and the Textile Society for the invitation and funding to attend the conference.

- Mark -


14 December 2010
As a member of the Textile Society and natural dyer, handspinner (of cellulose fibres as well as protein) I was very sorry to miss the Conference but delighted to see your account. Thank you.

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