Economic Botany blog
Follow Mark's blog and discover Kew's historic plant artefact collection. This fascinating global collection includes around 85,000 artefacts including herbal medicines, food and fibres. The collection illustrates the extent of human use of plants around the world and the huge variety of objects range from paper to weapons and clothing to medicines.
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
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This is the time of the year when we show student conservators around the Economic Botany Collection. It’s partly an opportunity to show them the wide range of plant-based materials used in historic artefacts, and it’s also a chance to tempt a few into choosing items from the Collection for their student project.
Student projects benefit both sides: our objects get careful attention from enthusiastic students, working under close supervision by leading experts; students get to work on ethnographic artefacts that are well documented, often of satisfyingly complex construction, and which have real historical and cultural significance.
In modern object conservation, understanding the object is as important as any physical intervention. Without knowing how something is made, and how it was used, there is a risk of removing “damage” that is in fact evidence of use. Better still, it’s often possible to identify the source community for an object, allowing contact to be re-established and consultation on conservation treatments to take place. As a result, not only does Kew gain an object that is in better physical shape, ready for display, and safely packed for centuries to come, but we also benefit from lasting insights into the meaning of the object to its makers, and its subsequent history.
An example of student work
Last year, Emily Brennan, an undergraduate conservation student at University of the Arts, Camberwell, took on this lacebark bonnet from Jamaica (Catalogue No. 44939). It arrived at Kew in the 1930s as a shapeless mass with little background information.
As you can see from the above image, this was a complex project as the bonnet had lost its original shape, there were extensive areas of soiling, the lacebark (a natural lace from Lagetta lagetto) was brittle, and the vermilion dye in the silk is highly fugitive (susceptible to movement in water).
Emily surface-cleaned and humidified the bonnet, used netting and stitching to support fragile parts, and reshaped the wire making up the bonnet’s framework to reinstate the true form of the bonnet. By consulting costume historians, Emily was able to show the bonnet must have been made in about 1850. Lacebark was a hugely important plant to Jamaica’s black communities, used both for indigenous clothing and for in a thriving souvenir industry, but the craft seems to have died out in the 1950s. The finished result can be seen in the image below.
This project helped Emily secure a well-served first class degree, the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers Prize, and funding to travel to Jamaica to further research lacebark through oral history.
Other projects by students
Other projects at Camberwell included a bark rain-vest from British Columbia and a tree-fern mask from Vanuatu, while at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology Libby McCormick worked on a fascinating incised Maori gourd from the North Island of New Zealand. Sadly one long collaboration has come to an end with the closure of the Textile Conservation Centre in Winchester. Its students worked on well over 100 pieces in the Collection, and we’ll really miss their contribution. Some ex-TCC students now teach at Camberwell, so the connection continues.
This year three of the final-year students at Camberwell have chosen Kew projects: Jessica is interested in feathers, and will work on a stunning head-dress brought back from the Amazon by one of Kew’s recent directors, Sir Ghillean Prance, and a set of 12 poison arrows (seen in image below) collected in the Amazon a hundred years earlier by Richard Spruce. Vania has chosen a group of papyrus artefacts from ancient Egypt, including a fast-disintegrating papyrus sheet (it looks blank but might reveal writing under UV light) and some head-rests, while another student will treat a group of Japanese fans, some unopened since being collected in the 19th century. I’m really looking forward to seeing what they find out.
A note on terminology: conservators care for things; in contrast, conservationists care for living organisms. The two professions require very different training!
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Kew's Economic Botany Collection (EBC) contains 85,000 examples of plant use around the world, from ancient Egyptian wreaths to Traditional Chinese Medicines gathered last year. It's the successor to the Kew Museum, set up by Sir William Hooker in 1847, and covers just about every possible use of plants, in most parts of the world.
To reach a wider audience, we regularly lend to exhibitions, at big museums - the Science Museum and the Musee de Quai Branly - and small, such as Orleans House nearby in Twickenham. Since the summer, we've been talking to another small museum about a different and rather larger kind of loan.
The Haslemere Educational Museum has been running a year of activities based on the International Year of Natural Fibres, a major initiative sponsored by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation. In fact, I met Jane Downham from the Museum at our ethnobotany day at Kew in March, which also celebrated natural fibres.
We've agreed to a joint exhibition called Fabulous Fibres with Haslemere Museum, featuring about 40 historic objects from the EBC - textiles, baskets, cordage, netting and more, together with modern sustainable fibres such as nettle and hemp, sourced by Haslemere. It was difficult to narrow down the choice of objects from Kew's collection, but we decided to go for small ones, so as to fit as much diversity as possible into Haslemere's display cases. We've managed to get 25 plant species represented and the objects, though small, repay close attention.
The exhibition aims both to be fun - there are beautiful objects, and two handling tables of natural fibres - and educational, assisted by ten panels of information on plant fibres and labels colour-coded by plant part (bark, leaf, stem, seed & fruit). Another major theme is the role of textile conservation, drawing on our many years work with students from the much-missed Textile Conservation Centre, and a new relationship with the University of the Arts at Camberwell.
Have we got it right? Come and see for yourself! We think there is enough in the exhibition to justify a trip from London or elsewhere in the southeast, and Haslemere Museum itself is an unusually rich museum for a small town, complete with a mummy, stuffed bear, dinosaur lair etc.
- Admission: Free
- Museum opening times: Tuesday-Friday 10am-5pm (please check for holiday closures/openings)
- Exhibition talk: On Saturday 5 December I'm giving a gallery talk at 2.30pm, with Jane Downham (Haslemere Museum) and Emily Brennan, who conserved the fabulous lacebark bonnet that's on display.
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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.
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