GOTLAND SHEEP | IMAGE: FIBRESHED MELBOURNE
Nicki Colls - co-founder of Fibreshed Melbourne
Fibreshed’s work develops supply chains to create clothing that will become the new standard in a world looking to rapidly mitigate the effects of climate change.
Fibreshed is an international grassroots organisation that promotes the development of regional fibre systems - fibresheds - that provide all the resources that go into the making of a textile from fibre to dyeing and manufacturing. The network organisation was built on the need to invest in local communities and rebuild systems holistically in the country where consumption is happening; to create regional economic development while encouraging regenerative farming practices. From its beginnings in 2010 in California, Fibreshed networks have sprung up around the globe including Australia. I spoke with Nicki Colls, co-founder of Fibreshed Melbourne to find out more.
Fibreshed Melbourne was founded by Rachel Bucknall, Nicki Colls and Maia Sauren, three women passionate about rebuilding the local textile network. Strong advocates for transparency and sustainability from the soil to the end of life, Fibreshed Melbourne are expanding carbon farming opportunities and connecting end users with their local fibre supply chain in a personal way, and allowing for full traceability from soil to garment.
NICKI COLLS | IMAGE: KERRY BARDOT
Hi Nicki, Can you tell me about the Fibreshed network and what you are working on in Australia?
We are at the stage a where we are listening hard to the farmers and mills and what they want, and what their needs are. We are generally talking to the farmers that have sustainable farming practices or are working hard to find out what they need to do to be more sustainable. We are interested in developing climate beneficial wool projects, similar to the US, and are seeking funding to do a scientific study on the local benefits and to explore to see collaboration with local regenerative agriculture projects.. We also work with yarn retailers, so people can see that there is 100 percent local product available. The retailers host a basket of local yarns and whilst you cannot buy all the yarns directly through the retailers quite yet, they are happy to support the farmers by promoting their products.
What fibres do you work with?
Any natural fibre grown locally. We have wool and alpaca, and then smaller amounts of mohair, cashmere and hemp which is just starting up. There is a manufacturing gap with hemp fibre so we are looking out for grants and investment opportunities so we can support the burgeoning hemp industry to move from fibre to spun yarn. Right now we are collecting information from brands that want to use hemp, this gives the farmers more confidence if they know there is demand, we can give this information to farmers.
Fibreshed Melbourne supports the connection of designers, brands, farms and artisans across the textile ecosystem.
ALPACA GRAZING AT GREAT OCEAN ROAD WOOLLEN MILL
In New Zealand many of our mills have closed, a lot of our fibre is sent off shore to be processed, is this a similar situation in Australia?
We are at a very similar stage. Over 95 percent of our raw wool is sent directly overseas. If someone wants to process locally, we have some mini mills that are strong, but in that mid market many send their wool to NZ mills. There was a 20 year lag in investment here, so there’s some upgrading needed. We are working to give the farms confidence to do this. Our farms here are interested in adding value to their raw materials, and are starting to push mills here to increase their capacity - opening machinery that has been sitting there for 10-15 years.
If a business wanted to develop a regional Australian fibre how would this look?
We are getting really close to having a full wool supply chain become more accessible again. You can do knits wool now and are working on a woven supply chain. We are hopeful we can amalgamate a group of small suppliers to pre purchase, or get a brand to commit to purchase on its own. From a wool perspective we can definitely do this, along with alpaca/wool and mohair/wool blends. There are a range of ethical options that brands can choose from as well, such as farms that are biodynamic, RWS (Responsible Wool Standard) certified, and others that are practicing good farm management.
COMBING MACHINE AT CASHMERE CONNECTIONS
For consumers it's about the story at the moment, as this allows them to understand the provenance of what they are buying. Is there anyone that you are working with that is doing a good job of communicating this?
From a craft yarn perspective, there are a couple of smaller farms that are doing a great job of communicating this. One is a collaboration between a mill called Great Ocean Road Woollen Mills and a local wool farm Tarndwarncoort. Together they make an alpaca wool yarn that is completely local to the area as this breed of sheep isn't bred anywhere else in the world - the Polwarth breed was born out of a need to deal with soggy soil that is unique to this region. So you literally cannot get this wool from anywhere else in the world. They are telling their story so well they are now able to sell to overseas. Both farms are just about to plant their own dye gardens and they have engaged with natural dyers to help them with application of the dyes, so you are supporting three local businesses by buying the wool. Watch the video below to find out more.
From a brand perspective I would say A.BCH - they have gone out hard with compostable clothing, and this is what we want too. They are really solid on this and everything they source and use is completely transparent.
NATURAL DYEING TOOLS
FIBRESHED MELBOURNE YARN SAMPLES
Alpaca generally come in a range of natural colours that many sustainable brands use as their colour range, is this the same in Australia with the available alpaca and wool?
At a small scale, the directory on our website shows the different options available in the natural colour of the wool and alpaca. There are some really interesting breeds of sheep that come in a range of colours. Some breeds are better for sweaters, some better for socks depending on the type of fibre produced. We are excited about the possibility of connecting a specific fibre type to an intended end use, especially when it negates the need to blend in nylon yarn for strength.
You created a Maker's Movement, can you tell me a little about this?
I am a sustainability engineer, so in my career for the past 15 years I have also investigated the life cycle impacts of products. When I started making my own clothes I was frustrated with the lack of information on exactly how the fabrics I was buying were being produced. I did some research, and came across Fibershed in the US which had been established for a few years. I became interested in this concept of making clothing within a certain area and set myself a challenge of making an outfit within 500km. Then I made this commitment public on the web, and invited others around the world to do it. So I had to do it!
After a year I had an outfit - I had a lot of mistakes but for me the real outcome was learning about the textiles and where they come from and the gaps in the supply chain, and then seeing the flow on impacts of having this knowledge. I used wool and alpaca for my outfit and during the process I learnt to weave. The challenges were learning how to naturally dye and getting enough plants to dye a kilo of wool, and then things like closures. I ended up making some buttons with local soil that I fired in a mill.
Other participants from around the world had similar problems or found little known mills. Lots of these makers have gone on to be wholesale sellers of what they found. There is a lady in the US that found an amazing tweed wool that was still being made locally and she now sells that on to sewers. And a women in UK that is now selling the silk she found at the last remaining Irish silk mill.
The challenge is called 1 year 1 outfit and you can find it on the Fibreshed US website.
NATURAL DYEING: EUCALYPTUS LEAF DYE DIARY, 2016. EUCALYPTUS DYED WOOL, SILK AND LINEN. Photo courtesy of Sally Blake.
You work with animal based fibres and hemp, do you work with cotton?
We can direct people to the only cotton manufacture from farm to fibre which is Full Circle Fibres based in Queensland. Within our 500km we have a few cotton farms on the northern borders and one of our mills has just taken on the challenge of spinning the cotton so we are interested to see where this goes. There are other some small fibre trials happening, such as linen, and others playing with banana and nettle but these are likely to stay small and non commercial. We have looked at our local basket weaver tradition and working with indigenous groups and what they use, and looking at whether the mills can blend these native grasses with wool.
If there is a business that wants to explore incorporating a regional fibre into their collections is there any advice you can offer?
Firstly , get in touch with your local Fibreshed group. You can also look at our directory to see what's available, and then its best if we can chat to determine the scale and what's required. When we first started this conversation 3 years ago people would say there is nothing here, and that was the reason they were making offshore. My number one piece of advice is that there is more infrastructure here than you think.