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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.

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