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:
- MSc in Ethnobotany, University of Kent
- MSc in Conservation Science, Imperial College
- MSc in Conservation for Archaeology and Museums, UCL
- MA Conservation, Camberwell College of Arts
- MA History of Design, Royal College of Art
Image: LCF students in front of the Temperate House
- Discover Kew's Economic Botany Collection
- Explore plants and fungi with Kew
- Building global networks - Kew's work in China & Central Asia
About Mark Nesbitt
Mark Nesbitt is curator of the Economic Botany Collection at Kew. After studying agricultural botany at Reading University, Mark moved onto the archaeology of plants via a doctorate at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. After 15 years of research in the Near East, he joined Kew in 1999 as a specialist in useful plants both past and present.
At the core of Mark's work is caring for the Collection: adding new specimens (about 800 a year), monitoring environmental conditions, lending to exhibitions, upgrading the Collection database and rehousing specimens. Mark hosts around 500 visitors each year, from many different disciplines, organises conservation, teaching and research projects with collaborators, and carries out research into the history of plant fibres, medicine and colonial botany. A team of 5-6 volunteers, placement students and interns play a vital role in keeping everything going.
Mark's aims are both to ensure the Collection is cared for to modern museum standards, and to help the fascinating stories told by its 85,000 artefacts reach the widest possible audience.
- english garden
- around the world
- ground breaking
- for kids
- english heritage
- for friends
- gifts that help
- the UK
- at risk
- brand new
- special interest
- high up
- Kew at home
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