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Recycling and sustainability

Ecology and sustainability in textiles are issues I have been interested in for over 10 years. Researching these subjects in order to apply what I found to my work, I soon realised that there were no sources of ecological yarn easily available. I’ve now gone back to college to research the field and becoming as informed as I can about what constitutes a sustainable, eco-friendly yarn.

What makes an eco-friendly yarn? There are lots of issues including (but not limited to): where the fibres come from, how they are processed, what pollution comes from any of the processes, how far the yarn has to travel, whether it is produced locally, whether it has been fairly traded, etc.

As you can imagine, each area has a different set of problems and indeed benefits to consider and I focussing my research on just one of the areas, recycling.

A big problem that we have in the UK is the amount of rubbish we produce that goes to landfill. We are rapidly running out of available sites to bury everything. In 2007, there will be very strict government guidelines coming into force whereby manufacturers will have to 'take back' their products and will be forced to be clever in dealing with these returned items!

Currently we export most of our waste textiles to Africa where second-hand clothing, or 'Salaula' (which means rummaging), literally clothes the population. Ironically, when world banks arranged to deal with Zambia’s debts in the late 90s, part of the agreement was for the country to open its borders to international trade. This resulted in a great influx of cheap clothes, which undercut the prices the fledgling Zambian clothes companies could get for their wares. Now there is little or no indigenous textile or fashion production in Zambia and they rely heavily on our waste textiles to clothe the whole population.

However, one would hope that eventually new industry can be encouraged, and that we will begin to see our own waste textiles as a valuable resource, not a problem. The textile industry in this country suffers similarly because of competition from cheap Chinese imports, and I also believe that if we don't do something to find new markets for UK industries, we will lose them completely, just as Zambia has lost its own textile industry.

When we lose our factories, we also lose the knowledge of how to make yarn or weave fabric. We lose jobs for people who are good with their hands and don't want to do I.T. or can't find a job in the service industries. We also lose choice.

The Mayor of London (yes, Ken himself) has a programme for managing the waste in London, and part of that is a design strategy. If we can get brilliant, creative people to work with various waste products, we can add value, and stimulate new markets for the products. I have been fortunate to receive a grant to investigate ways to recycle waste textiles.

I am working with a talented spinner to combine the recycled textiles with 50% virgin wool, to produce an eco-friendly yarn which has essential strength and basic good quality. It will be a ‘natural’ colour so that knitters/crocheters can dye it themselves to suit their own needs, of course encouraging them to use natural dyes.

Eventually I hope to have the yarn dyed on a bigger scale, but dyeing systems are even more complicated than spinning systems.

You can trace my progress on my website: www.anniesherburne.co.uk where you can also fill out a questionnaire and be notified when the yarn is ready. I would be delighted to hear from any interested designers keen to work with this yarn.

I am also very interested in the creative potential of people to work with this new initiative, and to show that environmentally friendly textiles are visually inspirational, and practical as well! What will the new ecological aesthetic look like?

Annie has a shop on Columbia Road in London which sells naturally dyed yarns and wool from UK sheep.

Just read your article and I agree in the main, especially about the threat to the uK yarn manufacting industry. However, as a vegan I would not buy anything made from wool or silk, even secondhand (although some vegans do do this) or "ethically" produced (eg alpaca yarn from managed herds). I have been criticised by other knitters for using acrylic yarn because of the way it produced; because of this I try use linen or cotton yarns now and am hoping to experiment with hemp, soya, banana and bamboo yarns etc.
Just though I would comment from a vegan perspective!

your article is very interesting, and I think that there is definitely a market for sustainable, eco-friendly yarns. I'm off to investigate your webstie now.

I tried to email this to Annie but it came back so I'll post it here!

I'm really interested in how you get on. I've been thinking more and more about enviromental issues and making things myself. I know I sound really stupid...but I hadn't thought about the fact that all those western style clothes that we see on people from Africa etc on the news are actually wearing our cast offs. Funny how know matter how much you try and be aware of what is going on in the world...you still miss something that is right in front of your eyes!

I've knitted recently with recycled sari silk and enjoyed it. I thought myself that we could do that with other things like cotton etc...but not being a spinner not sure how to do it. I'm in the middle of thinking about recycling plastic bags by knitting them into substantial bags. Also t-shirts into yarn for rag rugs etc. It is just so creative to see what you can do! Especially when in the end it doesn't look like it has been recycled!

Thanks!
Dawn

Dear Dawn, eco textiles is such a new area that there isn't even a classification in libraries! so its not just you, this area needs to be understood before we can cahnge anthing, or even know what an eco-textile is! Kate Fletchers site is a great place for a quick eductaion! Most manufacturing systems use chemicals and non freindly processes, so there does have to be a second industrial revolution, and every process has to change. Designers can, by being the enlightened and educated ones, guide and be the consultants for this.
In the meantime, organic, fair trade, some natural dyeing, hand-making, preserving skills, recycling, and fidning new ways to launder(! 80% of the pollution in the lifecycle of a textile comes from washing it again and again!)
Political issues, and how textiles affect people, and how they are used is an even more complex area, but thanks goodness we do all have free choice, to be vegan, to make things, and to have great forums to discuss them like here at knitchicks!

I visited the eco-design fair today in Islington and bought two baby balls of eco-annie. Apparently I am Annie's first sale. I have no idea what I am going to knit with the yarn but it certainly made me think about exploring natural dyes. I think this is a really exciting product and will give the second ball to a fellow knitter to help spread the word and the philosophy. The label is lovely (I have posted a photo on my blog if you want to take a look.)

ps.. links page on Annie's website is a fantastic resource for finding like minded people, products and organisations.

I read your comments with interest as I have a small company selling hand spun and mill spun, hand dyed alpaca yarns, using acid dyes. We have just begun experimenting with natural dyes but I find that I need to use quite a few chemicals. Alum sulphate as a mordant, oxalic acid (from rhubarb leaves) washing soda (sodium carbonate decahydrate). Indigo dyeing, that people think of as natural, has to use chemicals to reduce the oxygen in the solution as very few of us want stale urine which needs to be kept at a constant temperature for a couple of weeks usually in somewhere like an airing cupboard. So although I'm really excited about a new venture - I would just ask how ecologically sound it is? In some ways acid dyes that are exhausted in the vat are possibly better for the environment in that there should be no residue remaining.

I also think that when considering eco-friendliness we should consider animal rights! Could the recycled yarn be constructed with cotton or hemp instead of wool?

Hi even the practice of knitting garment and other textiles is a a start. Small steps first. its very difficult to take on the economicsuperstructures of capitilaism which manufacture our textiles for us. The practice of knitting is so essentillay eco-friendly, its akin to cycling angie please see my knitted strawvberries on my blog.

No society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law.(Thomas Jefferson, America president)

We spent quite a bit of time cutting up our moving boxes into squares. We stacked them neatly in the black and white bins and they still just threw them in the trash. The same thing happened to my neighbor. It's very frustrating when you try to do the right thing.

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