Meet the Dyer Series IV : Deborah Barker
We continue our journey, highlighting tremendous natural fibre and dye artists nationwide.
This month we had the pleasure of interviewing Deborah Barker co-founder of Southeast fibreshed who has been exploring natural fibres and dyeing for over 25 years.
When not in the dye studio, she is consultant for Pasture for Life. This movement champions the restorative power of grazing animals on pasture and educates on regenerative agriculture. A topic very close to our hearts.
Thank you, Deborah, for finding the time in your busy work schedule to take part in our knicker challenge!
Please can you tell us for those that don’t know what is South east fibre shed? And a little bit about how you came to set it up?
The fibershed movement is a grass roots US non profit organisation that is supporting the development of regional regenerative fashion and textile systems around the globe. There are now over 60 affiliates including 6 in the UK. Fibreshed clothing is based on the principle of ‘ soil to soil.’ The textiles come from the earth and return to the earth at the end of their useful lives.
I co-founded the Southeast England Fibreshed in autumn 2019 with my daughter, Gala Bailey Barker, a live stock farmer who produces yarn and products from the Plaw Hatch Flock and Harriet Miler an international knitwear designer and farmer.
We were all deeply disturbed by the environmental and social cost of the fashion and textiles industry and the increasing use of synthetics while at the same time seeing wool which is abundant in the Southeast of England being discarded and devalued. The fibreshed offered a model for moving towards a more socially and environmentally equitable system of production.
The Southeast fibreshed encompasses London and the counties to the South and West of the City. It was really important to us that London was included in the geographical area so that we could link with designers, makers and journalists in the City who get the majority of the media attention while centering the work of farmers who have been marginalised and undervalued. We need farmers to grow the dyes and produce the wool or we don’t have the raw material to create Fibreshed products so that is where we are focusing our work at the moment. The raw materials need to be farmed in way that nourishes the people, animals, plants, soil and ecosystem that produce them so we are working with farmers who share our vision to demonstrate what is possible.
What brought you into the world of natural fibres and colour?
I studied the history of fashion and textiles with Professor Lou Taylor and it was encountering handcrafted textiles while I was at University that brought me into the world of natural fibres and colours, it was love at first sight! there is something so nourishing about beautifully made textiles which reveal the hand of the maker in the subtlest of ways. The textures and feel of natural fibres, they way they age and hold memory can be incredibly nourishing.
When you study the history of design it is very clear that synthetic textiles and dyes are a very recent invention. It gives me hope that we can turn things around and mitigate some of the harms that industrial chemical production committed in the name of fashion.
My daughter learnt to spin when she was thirteen and I dyed the wool she spun with plants I foraged from the fields around us. It is such a thrilling experience to work and co create with plants, each colour a unique expression of a particular season, geography, plant, moment. Unlike synthetic dyes plant dyes are made up of many colour pigments and they express themselves at different times in different lights and have a particular warmth and depth.
What natural dyes did you decide to use to dye our knickers?
Can you tell us the process you went through?
I knew I wanted to work with madder which I grow both at my studio and at Plaw Hatch Farm. I also wanted to do something that really valued the preciousness of materials and dyestuffs. Historically and to this day, the true costs of textiles and colour has been subsidised by enslaved labour or by the labour of people in the global south and by exploiting their landscapes. When you grow colour yourself it really makes you appreciate how precious it is. Companies like Bedstraw and madder are the rare exception.
I also wanted to do something that people could do at home. I used my scraps of linen and cotton from past projects and solar dyed them in madder from garden.. Solar dyeing is very simple, I harvested the madder roots and cleaned them and chopped them, put them in a kilner jar and poured boiling water on them and left them over night. The following day I removed the madder roots and put in the wetted textile scraps. I left them on the windowsill and moved them around every few hours.
Next I played around to create a pattern on the knickers with the different textures and hues of the madder scraps until I had a pattern that I liked. If I decide I want a change I can easily unstitch and create another pattern.
The Regenerative agriculture movement is now starting to get a lot of awareness.
Can you tell us a little about the work you are doing in this area in the UK?
I am programme Manager for a new project with Pasture for Life . With the support of a fantastic project manager I have set up and am running a farmer to farmer event and mentoring programme to support farmers to transition to regenerative grazing. By adopting adaptive grazing systems suited to the needs of the animals and landscape we can begin to restore biodiversity and the carbon and nutrient cycle, and as importantly the water cycle. There is too much attention paid to carbon and not enough attention paid to the potential of the water cycle which is hugely affected by agriculture, for better or worse depending on the approach, to mitigate rising temperatures. It is very clear working with farmers that they are on the frontline of the climate crisis and while agroindustrial chemical farming is still doing terrible harms there is growing body of farmers committed to working with nature and reversing the damage.
Is there a way we can get involved in learning more about natural fibres, natural colour and regenerative farming through fibreshed?
Southeast England Fibreshed recently partnered with South West Fibreshed to make a Three Part Podcast about the fibreshed movement in the UK and Reconnecting Farming and Fashion. It was produced by farmerama radio and can listen here https://soundcloud.com/farmerama-radio/sets/farming-fashion You can also find it on any platform where you listen to podcasts.
I highly recommend reading or listening to Rebecca Burgess book Fibershed which you can buy on on bookshop.org .
Visit fibershed.org to find out if there’s a fibreshed in your area and what is available. If there is not a fibreshed in your area then consider setting one up!
These are the bodies that are informing our work and thinking around agriculture.
It is an ongoing debate as to whether there should be a regenerative certification but the farmers I work with are a long way from agreeing a definition so beware of greenwashing and simplistic answers.
In the Southeast we are mapping the fibre producers and working out what the criteria are for using the fibreshed logo. Fibreshed producers work with local fibres, local labour and local dyes so we need to establish a resource base for fibreshed products. Once that is in place we will create a membership directory that people can join.
We are working on a toolkit in partnership with South West England Fibreshed to connect farmers and designers who want to work together that will launch in January 2023
What is your vision for the future of fashion?
Fashion that is playful, creative, joyful, sombre or utilitarian, a whole spectrum of styles produced by designers working with inclusive, resilient regional networks of fibre and dye plant farmers, designers, makers and fibre processors. The garments will be produced within an equitable economic system so that everyone is paid fairly but also textiles will be valued and cherished so consumption will be within planetary and regional boundaries. The fibres would be grown within an agroecological system and processed using renewable energy. The hubs could include facilities for upcycling, mending and swapping as well as composting facilities. It might sound like a pipe dream but it is within our reach now if we want it, we have the knowledge and technology we just have to believe in a better system and act on our beliefs!
You can follow Deborah @field_folk on instagram