We all need hydration – right? It turns out that cotton does too. Known as a ‘thirsty’ crop, conventionally grown cotton requires about 10,000 litres for 1kg of cotton. Considering we’re growing cotton in a country where 70% of drinking water is contaminated, water scarcity and protecting the cleanliness of water, is an issue we want to address head on.
We’re committed to finding fashion solutions that are kind to people and planet. When we were presented with the opportunity to pilot a regenerative cotton farm in Southern India – a programme that would benefit the farmers, the soil, and the cotton – there was no question in our minds. We had to do it, and we had to do it right.
Because this is the regeneration generation. And we won’t settle for less.
Water scarcity is very real, and very scary. By 2025, it is predicted that 1.8 billion people will be living in areas with absolute water scarcity. In England – a country known for its seemingly constant showers – it can be difficult to picture this. But let’s be clear: we’re not talking about a month-long hosepipe ban, where nosey neighbours keep tabs on sprinklers and car washing. This isn’t the grass starting to lose its emerald-green sparkle.
It’s a pressing lack of safe drinking water. It’s a lack of any water. It’s not being able to grow food; not being able to provide for family; not being able to provide for a population.
And India is one of the countries most at risk.
So what’s the current situation? Data on water efficiency indicates that India uses 2-3 times more water to produce the same amount of crop than other major agricultural countries like China, Brazil and the US. This trickles down to an over-reliance on conventional flood methods of irrigation (FMI) – which don’t make the most out of the water.
And so, through working with Fibershed, our farms are fully kitted out with a drip irrigation system – giving our plants the hydration they need, without draining the resources of the community, or putting further pressure on the planet.
Going back to the roots: what drip irrigation actually means
Drip irrigation systems draw on the resources that we’re given by Mother Nature (read: rain) to slowly drip feed the roots of plants. Water is delivered precisely, without waste. Accurate, efficient, effective.
By going directly to the roots, the systems save precious water and nutrients, meaning farmers can grow crops under conditions they otherwise wouldn’t be able to; making year-round yield a possibility, even amidst the thralls of dry-season. And the statistics speak louder than we can, with on-farm efficiency of drip irrigation systems at over 90%, a wild comparison to the 35-40% efficiency of conventional flood irrigation.
So why doesn’t everyone do it?
It can be costly, making it unattainable for some farmers & farming communities. And maintenance of these systems is critical. But for us, this is still a no brainer. A quick cost-benefit analysis tells us everything we need to know. And crucially, our organic farming methods mean we’re not only saving water, but also stopping hazardous chemical pesticides from entering the already precious water supply, because up to 77 million cotton workers suffer poisoning from pesticides each year. This must stop.
But this is an evolving learning opportunity, and we’re the first to admit that we don’t have all the answers. For our first growing season, we got lucky. With a bit of good fortune from the weather-powers-that-be, the majority of our one acre cotton field was successfully rain-fed after a record monsoon season brought the rain that the Indian soil so desperately needed. For now, drip irrigation is working. But this might not always be the case, and should something change in seasons to come, we’re ready to work with farmers and partners to rethink and course correct.
Bedstraw + Madder believes we need to think differently, and challenge an apparel industry known for being dirty. We’re creating intimates with integrity, and through clean cotton, clean colour and clean water, we’re on the way to righting the wrongs of a broken system. We won’t settle for less.
If you are into natural plant dyeing then the name Flora Arbuthnott won’t be unfamiliar to you.
Daughter of fabrics and interior designer Vanessa Arbuthnott whose floral prints bring the outdoors into your home, Flora too has been inspired greatly by the natural world and has made it her work. Living in South Devon she regularly runs a range of courses helping us reconnect to ancestral wisdom and the natural world.
Can you remember the moment you first fell in love with plant dyes?
I can remember when I first did some natural dyeing with my friend Babs in 2014. It was a dark cold winter evening. I can remember taking the fabrics out of the dye pots and being amazed with the beautiful soft colours.
What was the first dye plant you learnt about?
I started working with food waste and wild plants. We made dyes with bracken, nettles, red cabbage, onion skins, and coffee grounds, using rhubarb leaves as a mordant. Now I know that coffee and red cabbage aren’t really dyes.
What is your favourite plant to dye with and why?
I love working with tagetes marigold flowers. I love the mustard yellow colour and the smell the flowers give off. I also enjoy the colours you can create from over dyeing marigolds with iron or indigo.
Why are plant dyes better than current chemical dyeing methods?
Practicing and sharing plant dye techniques is a reaction to the dyeing industry. The synthetic dye industry is one of the most polluting industries on the planet. Globally, the textile industry discharges 40,000 – 50,000 tons of dye into water systems every year. This cocktail of polluted water and chemicals, causes the death of aquatic life, contaminating soils and poisoning of drinking water.
I like to show how we can produce vibrant and varied colours through plant based processes.
Natural dyeing is also a practice of nature connection. A process for getting to know locally growing wild plants. I also grow plants to create certain colours such as orange, red, blue, green, and purple. I love how every colour has it’s own alchemical process. In art classes at school, we were taught the colour wheel and the logic of mixing colours. However with plant based colour, each plant and colour has it’s own particular recipe and process.
Can you tell us something about a wild plant dye plant growing in England that we might not know?
Fruit tree bark gives beautiful pinks, oranges, and yellows.
What do you feel is the most important thing about the work you are doing?
I see that a lot of the social and environmental issues that we face today are caused by our disconnection from the natural world around us.
Natural dyeing is one way through which we can start to reconnect. Reacting against disposable fast fashion culture to create objects of use that we have a deeper relationship with, that we endure, care for, and repair. Connecting with nature through foraging and growing our own materials. Empowering ourselves through learning and practicing whole processes of crafts from raw local materials through to finished usable objects.
Why is it important we return to our ancestral ways?
Personally, I have found that incorporating practices that are connected with nature have massively improved my quality of life. They create a sense of belonging and deeper relationship with the land. They also foster connection with community and kinship through sharing skills and processes with others.
Natural crafts are part of our cultural heritage. All around the world, we have been working with natural dyes and inks for thousands of years. It is only in the past 200 years, that we have started to lose this knowledge as synthetic dyes became popular. It has become evident that synthetic dyes are harmful to the environment. Causing health problems, killing wildlife, contaminating water and soils. So it is important that we keep our ancestral skills alive as these are our means to create our own crafts and culture independent of polluting industrial processes. To create our own culture woven from the materials of the land where we live, rather than taken from the exploitation and poisoning of other lands.
For those at home wanting to start exploring with plant dyes where would you suggest they start?
I would suggest that you start with looking around your garden and local area and learning about the plants there and what you may be able to use. Perhaps there is staghorn sumac, oak galls, buddleia flowers, dandelion flowers, rose petals, or nettles. Try using food waste such as onion skins or avocado skins and pips.
Choose yarn or an open weave fabric made from wool or silk. This will take the colours easily without too many processes.
What books or teachers have been most influential to you?
I am influenced by the work of Michel Garcia.
Jenny Dean’s book ‘Wild Colour’ is very useful.
I find ‘Make Ink’ by Jason Logan and ‘The Organic Artist’ by Nick Neddo inspiring.
Discover Flora's work at www.plantsandcolour.com
We officially have Jeremy Clarkson to thank for something, as piques public interest in the world of agriculture.
We officially have Jeremy Clarkson to thank for something, as Clarkson’s Farm piques public interest in the world of agriculture.
But here at Bedstraw + Madder, we’re singing from a different hymn sheet. Regenerative agriculture – a sustainable practice that does exactly what it says on the tin – is reversing climate change one cotton boll at a time.
We’re going back to agricultural basics at our cotton farm in Southern India. And we’re committed to doing so without cutting corners, all whilst giving consumers the transparency and traceability they deserve.
This is intimates with integrity; this is uncompromising underwear; this is conscious cotton.
This is the regeneration generation. And we won’t settle for less.
Regeneration means revival, renewal and restoration. Regenerative agriculture is all-inclusive R&R for the earth – and the planets’ soil certainly needs a holiday. If things continue at the current rate, there are only 60 growing seasons left until the world’s soil will no longer grow crops.
That’s why investing in something that not only does ‘less bad’, but actually does good – directly contributing to saving our planet for future generations – is the only way forward. There are copious benefits of regenerative agriculture for the planet; from sequestering carbon to reviving biodiversity.
But the benefits for people have just as much gravitas.
Regenerative methods, such as eliminating the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, increase profitability for farmers. Giving farmers more choice over what they grow enables villages to wave goodbye to overly-engineered crops with expensive inputs. Yes, cotton is the focus for our farm, but there are nine other crop varieties supporting it – making for a holistic system that quite literally breathes life back into our soil.
And we also support an entire artisan community on the ground. So once the cotton is ready, all the ginning, spinning, dyeing and weaving is done nearby. From field to fabric: it takes a village.
Because it’s the farmers that live and breathe their farms. This knowledge about biodiversity and land use is sophisticated, complex and experience-led – so you’d be forgiven for thinking that respecting this, and listening to these farmers, appears to be stating the obvious. We agree. Our ethos is based on it.
But wait - this isn’t new news.
For centuries, fast-fashionistas have been shoehorning in yield heavy, economically impractical practices. What remains, we hear you ask? Unsustainable farms, seed varieties facing extinction, and a hell of a big mess for the rest of us to clear up.
Regenerative agriculture methods have been used in rural Indian communities for years. We’re talking way back – before David Attenborough graced our TV screens; before non-dairy milk hit supermarket shelves; and before the word sustainable infiltrated our day to day lives. That’s why this isn’t a case of green-washing. This is a regeneration of regenerative farming. Clean cotton; clean water; clean colour.
Our next blog will tell you what to expect when buying intimates with integrity – who we are, what we value, and why we are different. Coming soon to a newsletter (sign up here), Instagram feed and website near you.