Monday, 22 July 2013

The Foolishness of Craft Explored: Part 3 Mary’s Materials

This is the third of my posts looking in more depth at The Foolishness of Craft, a story that explores the impact of global production and suggests a more local, sustainable alternative. If you haven’t read it yet, then it might be best to click here and do so, before reading on. 

 In the last post I explored some of the environmental and social problems caused by the production of Hugo’s jumper and focused on the manufacture of cotton, nylon and wool from large-scale farms. It was a rather gloomy, but necessary, post. This time though we are going to explore the materials that Mary used and few she could have – its much more positive and forward looking article…

Mary’s jumper is made from local undyed organic wool, it has travelled from a field in the village (via the sheerer who worked at the farm) and has been washed in nothing more than soap and water. 

I am aware that this sounds a little idealistic and pastoral. How convenient that Mary lives next to an organic farm that happens to keep sheep that produce wool suitable for spinning and knitting into a jumper. And yet, is it really so impossible to imagine, at least for those living in rural areas? At the moment in Britain most sheep are breed entirely for meat, with wool being a secondary low value product, but this wasn’t always the case and several traditional breeds were dual purpose, for meat and fleece and even possibly dairy too.

The British wool trade has improved since 2008 when farmers were setting fire to their fleeces, because the low prices meant it wasn’t worth handling and transporting them for sale. Prices for this year are four-fold what they were then, but the quality of the wool is deemed by buyers to be only suitable for carpet making and that’s where 75% of British wool ends up.

And yet what I am suggesting isn’t simply pie in the sky; of course there is a historical precedent, but actually today you can buy organic, British yarns made from the most beautiful British wool and you can even get them dyed with organic dyes into range of colours. Likewise we have access to a number of animal fibres, such alpaca and angora, all produced in natural and humane conditions here in the UK, and this will be true in many countries throughout the world; there are local, sustainable alternatives to mass-produced wool. But these things cannot exist in a vacuum; no one will raise a flock of the finest wool-producing sheep using natural farming methods, if everyone is getting their wool from cheap intensive operations abroad. 

That said, it is important to accept that it is possible to have very poor welfare conditions on a local farm as it is on one far away. However, by buying as local as possible you have a greater chance of being able to assess the welfare conditions of the animals you are buying the wool from, either through direct personal contact, media or animal welfare charity reports or by looking for certifications (e.g. organic). The other important point is that in most countries there are also democratic and political routes to improving and monitoring welfare and so you can have a say in the conditions which form farm practice and law, if you purchase from the country in which you reside and have voting rights.

A slight side track, but if Mary couldn’t afford natural, local wool or was unable to get it, she could have used recycled wool. Almost any jumper or other knitted item can be unpicked fairly easily and the wool rewound to provide a good knitting or weaving yarn. If you get a larger jumper size than you are, even with the inevitable waste, you should have enough for a new one.

Of course it isn’t only wool that we are able to produce in Britain, there are a range of fibre producing plants that grow in our conditions. Flax (linen) is perhaps the most obvious and again this is a traditional material that was grown, spun and woven across Britain, often on a very small scale, requiring none or very little of of the pesticides and excessive water that cotton does. This is entirely possible again and there are small organisations and companies that are providing training and access to the tools to help revitalise the production and use of linen.

Even more than flax, hemp is being rediscovered as a commercial crop. In the C16th it was considered so vital to the British economy that Henry VIII passed a law stating that farmers had to grow a quarter acre for every 60 acres of arable land they owned. In China they have never stopped growing it and have a 6000-year history of production. Part of the problem has been the confusion between the innocuous hemp plant and the related cannabis plant – a confusion that still exists in Britain today where you need a licence from the Government to grow it. 

Hemp has deep taproots that penetrate down into the subsoil, drawing up nutrients and moisture. That means it requires none of the intensive watering of cotton and, when it is harvested, the roots rot down, increasing the humus and nutrient levels in the topsoil. Because it grows so fast it out performs weeds and therefore requires little or no herbicide. The outer shell, which is removed during the process of fibre extraction, can be used to make logs for wood burners – the ash of which provides a valuable plant food for the garden.

 Again this isn’t some fanciful dream, you can buy today hemp yarn, material and products. Even if, at the moment, this isn’t grown in the UK (although often it is EU produced) this is a huge improvement over cotton, the production of which causes so many problems.

Finally there is one plant that grows like a weed (because it is) and yet can also be used to make fibre; nettles. A few years ago there was quite a bit of discussion about the possible use of nettle fibre and De Montfort University had worked on some government funded research, as well as producing some example pieces of clothing. Since then the hype seems to have quietened down a bit and the only real world product as far as I can tell is a 75% wool and 25% nettle fabric produced by Camira in England. Nettle has less fibre content than say hemp or linen, but it is a very fine fibre and could potentially make a good yarn. There is also the added benefit that it is able to provide multiple products from one harvest, such as sugar, animal bedding and leaves for human consumption and, as everyone who has ever had a garden or allotment knows, it grows quite well in this country, with no pesticide, herbicide or fertiliser required. There is a fair bit of historical use to draw on (even as recent as the second world war) and surely this plant deserves more research and experimentation.  

There is no point in pretending that swapping to locally produced, sustainable materials is going to be as easy as it should be, but it is possible – not just in the future – but in the here and now. Mary could indeed knit herself a jumper from organic wool, even if she chose not to spin it and instead bought in the yarn. Likewise, many of the alternatives, such as flax, hemp and nettle provide fantastic opportunities for experimentation and discovery, even in a home or small group environment – the results of which could genuinely be new and should be shared with others. So why not go on a course to learn how to grow and spin flax? You know that patch at the bottom of the allotment that you never get around to weeding, well why not try growing some there? Perhaps get some hemp fibre and have a go at spinning it on a drop spindle or do up a chair with the 25% nettle fabric? Or simply buy in some organic wool and crochet a hat. You may not be able to make enough to clothe the whole family, but the possibilities are enormous and the discovery is half the fun, and every success you do have could make a huge difference to someone you’ll never meet.

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