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In conversation with Kate Fletcher and Mathilda Tham

Extract of article about Welsh wool, the climate crisis and the importance of localism for the next generation.

Published by Fashion Roundtable 

I’m adjusting frames in our beehive, replacing some of those the bees have capped with empty ones, a successful strategy so far in mitigating the bees from swarming. As I go about this process, slowly and methodically, I’m reminded of how seasonally bees operate, from collecting pollen to offloading this to awaiting cells. This is knowledge transfer, community and localism in motion, if only this process of collaboration could be magnified and harnessed. 

Wool is an age-old fibre, one that has been cultivated in Wales for thousands of years. This is entrenched so far into Welsh culture through place names and desolated mills that pepper the landscape, as well as the streams and rivers that meander down from the mountains, once a source of power. So much knowledge exists in this place, from the carders and spinners to the weavers and mill owners. 

So much of this is tangled in the word ‘Hiraeth’, an untranslatable Welsh word often rendered for a type of longing for home and the knowledge and culture woven into this. Although untranslatable, this word is not untenable, I myself have experienced the feeling, the more I have connected to the roots of Welsh community and culture. 

This action of looking back, is like a mirror reflecting my thoughts forwards to the ground-breaking work of Kate Fletcher and Mathilda Tham, two of the world’s most cited scholars in textiles and sustainability. Their work on the ‘Earth Logic Fashion Action Research Plan’, puts the health and survival of Earth before economic growth, therefore upending existing priorities. 

As I Zoom called with them both one balmy Spring afternoon, I am instantly reminded of why I so desperately wanted their viewpoints as both Kate and Mathilda share the complexity of working within planetary boundaries with such clarity that I could indeed listen all day. 

We start with Kate weighing in on wool within Wales’ localism narrative. Kate said:

“Wool definitely plays a part in the localism narrative of Wales. It’s certainly one of the region’s fibre crops, and I suppose therefore it’s part of its fashion direction. However, it’s not like this is uncomplicated, because of course we know the impacts overgrazing has on the health of ecosystems.

“I think it's definitely a question of allowing small farmers to stay on the land, it's about good land stewardship, it's about building different sorts of relationships for the long term, that foster wellbeing both for human communities and also natural ones. 

“And maybe it's also the reordering of priorities. So that, once again, we realise that the thing that supports humans here, is its other ecosystems and in a very simple, quite frankly, hierarchy where nature is at the top and then industrial priorities flow from that.”

The power of Wales 

While Kate is speaking I think about the role sheep can play within a healthy and ecologically balanced system. The potential power Wales has is that its farms are made up of far smaller land holdings and could offer the potential for climate mitigation to happen at a faster pace than perhaps England who is known for larger land holdings. While wool itself is inherently sustainable the farming process is not always so, requiring much work on supporting best practice from a policy level. 

To this point, a recent report by The Green Alliance Trust, suggests a Land Use Framework, could assist farmers to use the least productive land as a carbon sink, producing the majority of food on the most productive land, and supporting farmers to boost incomes through payments that support more space for nature onto their farms. 

The report goes on to state that to date the Westminster Government has looked at shorter-term solutions such as a Stewardship Scheme which does little to assist farmers with longer-term viability such as a framework which combines food production with income from climate and nature benefits. Suggesting the need for a vision from the Westminster Government which realises the need for strategies which support Welsh environmental and social values.

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