Farming for Fashion: Homegrown Textiles in the UK

Some small-scale growers hope to revitalize interest in flax and nettle fabrics.

flax flowers and linen sheet
A linen sheet in a field of flax.

Anastasiia Krivenok/Getty Images

Trying to live in a more sustainable way involves thinking more carefully about what we wear. In the UK, there is growing interest in bringing textile production home and growing traditional fiber crops in British fields once more. 

Certain parts of the UK, including the Blackburn, Manchester, and Lancashire area, and parts of eastern Scotland, were once at the heart of global textile manufacturing; however, post-World War II, the industry went into sharp decline, as production shifted overseas for cost-cutting reasons. Two recent events—the British Textile Biennial 2021 in east Lancashire, and Scotland's first Flax and Linen Festival, which took place last month—have revitalized interest in homegrown textiles once again.

Farming Flax, Britain's Forgotten Crop

Flax was once grown all across the British Isles. It was first cultivated for linen during the Bronze Age. 

Fashion designer Patrick Grant, well-known to British viewers from the television series, "The Great British Sewing Bee," has been involved in a project called Homegrown Homespun, which grows flax and woad (a plant that produces blue dye) in Blackburn, Lancashire, to turn into linen and grow local, sustainable clothes. A portion of the linen they created went on display at Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery as part of the British Textile Biennial 2021. 

As Patrick Grant told the BBC, “In this country we used to be completely self-sufficient in clothing. Most clothes were linen or wool, and flax was grown all across the UK. In fact, in the sixteenth century, it was law that every landowner had to dedicate a portion of their land to growing flax." The idea behind Homegrown Homespun is to rebuild the whole of the supply chain and bring back a resilient, local textile trade to the UK.

Trade links with Flemish flax growers and weavers brought expertise to Scotland, and the blue flowers of flax sprang up across the kingdom of Fife and beyond. Just this year, the last linen manufacturing facility in Fife, in Kirkcaldy, sadly closed its doors; but a growing number of small-scale growers are determined to revitalize interest in this textile crop and its fascinating history. 

Treehugger spoke to weaver and artist Dr. Susie Redman, who was part of the Flax and Linen Festival in Fife last month. 

She said, “I’m a very small time flax grower—a 2-meter x 2-meter section on my allotment—though I hope to increase that next year. It’s a joy to grow, so far trouble-free. I use no-dig permaculture methods to improve my soil and to prevent weed growth over the winter. Germination has been excellent and with just a few measures to protect the seeds at germination time (strings of foil milk bottle tops), I don’t do much else.”

Redman went on to say, "Flax is worth growing, to see the wonderful blue flowers and the seed heads which I find too beautiful to compost; they find their way into my weaving. On the small scale that I am working in, it’s a joy to pull the flax at harvest time rather than any heavy-duty digging.
We seem to have the right climate in autumn for drying and then dew/rain retting. I really hope that farmers will think about flax as part of crop rotation. What a sight that will be!”

Many hope that flax can find its place once more on British farms, and that clothes can once more be grown and made on British soils. 

spinning linen
A woman draws out flax fibers to make a continuous thread (1948).

Merlyn Severn, Stringer/Getty Images

Nettles for Textiles

Flax is not the only fibre with great potential for creating homegrown textiles in the UK. There is also a lot of interest in using the common stinging nettle. This concept of using nettles for textiles is nothing new. 

Like flax, Urtica dioica and other nettles around the world have been used in making fabrics for millennia. There is strong evidence for the historic use of nettles in textiles in Scotland, for example, where they are believed to have been used more extensively before flax cultivation took off and other fibers were more broadly imported from abroad.

STING (Sustainable Technologies in Nettle Growing) was a British project at De Montford University which worked to develop nettles as a fabric. Camira now makes a range of sustainable fabrics, including those with nettles from Driffield, their base in Yorkshire. They also show the great potential of other homegrown fibers for textiles—British sustainable wool and hemp, for example. 

But there is more that can be done. Many smallholders and individual gardeners are also experimenting with nettle fibers and other locally grown materials, as well as experimenting with techniques and strategies which localize growing for fashion.

Looking at textile history in the UK can help us create a more sustainable future, in which we farm for local fashion and textiles, not just local food.

View Article Sources
  1. Brown, Allan. "Nettles For Textiles." Nettles for Textiles.