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Against the Grain: those pushing the boundaries in the woollen industry

Extract of article featuring iconoclastic stakeholders in the woollen industry. With insight from Deborah Barker, Fibreshed; Maria Benjamin and Zoe Fletcher, The Wool Library and more. 

Published by Fashion Roundtable. 

I’ve travelled down to Harlech over the summer for a few days, and am sitting in a stone cottage in what feels like the middle of nowhere, the sun streaming in through the window. Deborah Barker who runs Southeast England Fibreshed stares back at me through the screen, a floor-to-ceiling bookcase behind her.

Fibreshed is a grassroots organisation specifically focused on place-based sovereignty and as soon as I wanted to write a piece on those pushing the boundaries within the sector, I knew I wanted to speak to Deborah. We get straight into talking about other ways of working, to which Deborah said:

“It’s about getting away from the idea of supply chains and creating local supply networks. With a network you get equal stakeholders, so you’re bringing the designer, farmer, the spinner, the weaver, everybody working together.

“One of the things I hear from farmers is that it really gives them a sense of pride when they know where their work will end up.”

This concept of a network in place of a supply chain offers an alternative, one in which costs are agreed for upfront and consequently pride is instilled back into the process. Here transparency is key. Currently there is a disconnect between what farmers are receiving for their wool and the end product whether that be knitwear or yarn. This is something which Deborah feels cannot be taught in a classroom. Deborah said:

“Stand in healthy ancient pasture and you see the sheep are actually helping to maintain the biodiversity, they have a reciprocal relationship that has evolved over thousands of years with the landscape, and are part of the whole ecosystem.”

The fact that sheep are part of a reciprocal relationship with the land is often disputed. I am reminded of a book I read recently called ‘Feral’, by George Monbiot, who suggests sheep are part of the reason that we are now facing a lack of diversity amongst species in Wales coining the term “sheepwrecked.”

However, Deborah suggests that there are certainly ways of working with the land including organic farming. When I ask her about regenerative farming, she is a little more cautious due to the amount of greenwashing around the terminology. She tells of the farmers she is working with who are at the cutting edge of regenerative farming, who are still working on long-term solutions in this direction. 

Regenerative farming is the latest buzzword and much discourse surrounds this. This requires indigenous knowledge, experience and wisdom and while this is often acknowledged, Deborah says that little investment is made in this direction. 

The term ‘regenerative’ also suggests it goes beyond soil health and instead looks at the entirety of the system, including the role of extraction within a capitalist society and those who are suffering and oppressed within this system. In its simplest form regenerative agriculture improves the land instead of causing harm. This ultimately leads to healthy soil with capabilities of producing high-quality food, leading to healthy communities. Deborah said:

“It's really important because a lot of our land, like Wales for example, is just not suited to arable, but we have to feed the population. So if those animals can graze that land in a way that supports nature, restoration and carbon sequestration, and convert the grass into food, that's a no brainer. 

“I think it's very irresponsible for George Monbiot to suggest taking the animals out, because without the animal dung, you don't get the dung beetles and you suddenly disrupt a whole ecosystem of which they are an integral part and that's taken thousands of years to evolve.”

As we end, Deborah and I reminisce over her time in Wales. She had lived in Blaenau Ffestiniog for a number of years while her children were young. She knew of the land in Wales, had felt the culture and the language running through the place. Deborah said:

“Food and fibre sovereignty go hand in hand, and that seems really critical in times of climate crisis. I’m slightly wary about being too romantic about connecting with the land. I think there’s a place for the landscape and rural culture being an expression of the land, but I think it also has to be rooted in urban life.”

This thread of being rooted in the contemporary suggests that harnessing the provenance of Welsh wool requires a steer away from how things have always been done. Currently within the woollen industry, wool is blended at large-scale facilities into a homogenous fibre of sorts and loses its sense of place as a result. 

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