Cotton was first domesticated in northern India before 3000 bc and it did not find it’s way to the Mediterranean until 700bc. It played a very small part in the Ancient Near East.*

Ancient people used the fibrous stems of plants to make fibres and Flax is one of the earliest plants used. The earliest evidence has been found in Iraq C 5000bc.

In cooler climates to the north, hemp was used for its fibre and also in Far East, where today, China has re-established the cultivation of hemp on a massive scale. In the mountainous regions of China, village people still use many different wild plants for their garments. Which suggests that, through time, people have experimented with all sorts of plant fibres.

In the USA, at the start of the 20th century, laws were brought in to halt the cultivation of hemp. This was largely due to political pressures from people with a vested interest in removing it as a viable alternative to products derived from fossil fuels. This had a knock-on effect throughout the rest of the world, and until recently hemp cultivation has not been allowed in the UK. There are currently projects underway here in the UK to produce hemp yarn and with  more funding made available this could be one of our future fibres.

Cotton is a water hungry crop and ¾ of cotton now produced requires irrigation, therefore making it a less attractive fibre for our future. In many parts of Africa, however, organic cotton is rain- fed and is produced in a sustainable way. Tragically, unpredictable rainfall patterns in these regions are causing concern over future production.

African cotton producers need to be supported, as they battle against the over-subsidised cotton coming from America, which forces global cotton prices down.

Pesticide Action Network is an NGO, which offers this support to African farmers converting to organic production. There is a premium for this product in the sale price and they do not suffer all the side effects of pesticide use such as -

  • Reduction in soil fertility
  • Poisonings to farm workers
  • Increasing use of pesticides when resistance has built up.
  • Introduction of Endosulphan (cousin of DDT), an endocrine disruptor that has now found its way into Arctic and Antarctic snow.
  • GM

Genetically engineered cotton strains come in two forms. The most widely used is the BT toxin, which is supposed to kill the Bo-weevil pest, through a toxic element engineered into the plant. The other is an herbicide resistant variety, which enables farmers to use ‘Round up’ on the cotton. This is supposed to kill weeds but not the cotton plant.

From the beginning of trials in the late 1990’s farmers have been coerced into using these products. They are required to sign contracts that include a tax for using the gm technology. This is often greater than any supposed saving from pesticide use.

India trialed Bt, despite protests from some regions, the results were lower yields and lower profits for farmers. Many more farmers have protested but the trials still go on. This pattern has been repeated in many other parts of the world, but now countries like China have found evidence that the bo weevil builds up resistance to the toxin over about 6 years. This seems a rather familiar story when you look at the history of pesticide use.

Wool is, once again, becoming an important fibre for the UK. For many years organic sheep farmers were required to send their wool to the ‘Wool marketing Board’. This was then mixed with non-organic wool, resulting in a loss of an important resource. Now there is a market place for organic wool and The Soil Association have created a certification system for fibres along side food.

There are many alternative fibres currently being produced – bamboo being the most trendy. It certainly makes beautifully soft fabrics and bamboo is a sustainable crop. However, it does require a lot of energy to obtain the fibres and to turn it into a textile fabric, research needs to be conducted to establish whether this makes it a truly green fibre.

BE have started working with a fair-trade organisation that produces fibre from Pineapple. It is a remarkable product and we are pleased to be offering Pina cloth in our forthcoming collections.

Linda Row