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Exploring plant fibres - Are they fashionable and sustainable?

Mark Nesbitt
25 February 2010
Blog team: 
Students from the London College of Fashion visit Kew's Economic Botany Collection to explore the sustainability of natural fibres.

Kew’s Economic Botany Collection holds several thousand fibre and textile specimens, from at least 350 different plant species. It is a striking contrast to world fibre production today, with just four plant species dominating the industry: cotton, flax, sisal and jute.

A recent visit from students at the London College of Fashion offered an opportunity to further explore this topic. Although just the second year of the College’s MA in Fashion and the Environment, the course has attracted 19 highly enthusiastic students. It is a timely venture given the huge interest from consumers and industry in sustainable “eco-fibres”.

Image: Students among compactor units in the Economic Botany Collection

After spending the morning looking at textile plants in some of Kew’s iconic glasshouses, the students came to look around the Economic Botany Collection, located in the Joseph Banks building at Kew Gardens.

We started the tour looking at cotton, which is by far the most important plant fibre. The distinctive flattened, twisted seed hairs of cotton have an unusual combination of strength and softness. Specimens in Kew's collection demonstrate the complete production process, from harvesting the cotton bolls (fruits), via cleaning and spinning, to weaving and making clothing, such as the beautiful jacket from India (see image below).

The jacket from India that we explored together was made by poor schoolgirls in Bihar, India, as part of a training programme in the early 20th Century. It is a good reminder of the importance of natural fibres to livelihoods in the developing world. Cotton remains problematic as an eco-fibre because of concerns over its high water and pesticide consumption as a crop, and labour conditions in textile factories. This is a topic that came up several times in our tour – how can one assure sustainability throughout the production cycle of a fibre, from field to shop?

Image: The group looks at a jacket from India

Moving on from cotton, we looked at ramie (Boehmeria nivea). Like many members of the nettle family, Urticaceae, ramie has tall, straight stems that are a rich source of strong, lustrous fibres. It was once an important textile fibre, and still turns up as a blend in high street shops.

We talked about the reasons why ramie is no longer as popular, such as the rise of synthetic fibres and the difficulty of getting more marginal crops into world markets. The stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is another member of the nettle family with tall, fibre-rich stems. There have been centuries of experiments in fibre extraction, but it has proved hard to get consistent quality. However, improved varieties of stinging nettle are now being grown in Leicestershire, and we have recently been given sample fabrics for the Collection at Kew.

Image: Handling blocks of blue indigo dye

Dyes are another important aspect of textile production, and we looked at the wide range of plants from which blue indigo dye is extracted around the world, ranging from Indigofera in India to woad (Isatis tinctoria) in Europe.

The afternoon certainly gave me, as a curator, fresh insights into the collection and its relevance to current debates. For example, it is clear that some of the local materials that we looked at, such as Jamaican lacebark or some of the dyes, might well have a role in high-value, individual fashion, even though they will never enter large-scale trade. Such high-value uses could help preserve traditional uses of plants that are in danger of disappearing.

Most of the teaching we do in the Collection at Kew is at Masters level, and one of the great strengths of this is the life experience that students at this level - such as these from the London College of Fashion - bring to their course. Some of the Masters courses with whom we work are:

Image: LCF students in front of the Temperate House 



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1 June 2010
very good blog;)
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7 March 2010
What a lovely post Mark :) Really enjoyed this, thanks! Makes me wish I was doing more short courses in economic botany!
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1 March 2010
We're hosting a Fiber and Dye Exhibition beginning March 20th at the University of California Botanical Garden in Berkeley. We are exploring some of these very same issues around "wearing plants". Last year with the help of some eco-friendly designers the Garden hosted a fashion show featuring all natural fabrics from plants. It was a stunning success!
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