Forum to plant the seeds for a fibre and natural dye industry in Nova Scotia
September 6, 2011

You’ve heard of slow food—how about slow fashion?

It’s a movement that’s catching on elsewhere on the planet and perhaps in Nova Scotia too. NSCAD University’s Frances Dorsey, Gary Markle and Lesley Armstrong are leading the charge, slowly of course, with help from colleagues at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College and AgraPoint, an agricultural consulting company.

In mid-September, they’ll be holding a forum at an Annapolis Valley farm to see what kind of interest there is in reviving a fibre and natural dye industry in Nova Scotia.

At its root is the idea that there has to be a more sustainable, Earth-friendly way to clothe ourselves, explains Frances Dorsey, associate professor in NSCAD’s Textile/Fashion division.

“The textile industry is among the dirtiest on the globe—second only to petroleum,” she explains. “This is a conundrum for someone teaching textiles. How can we work hand and hand with the planet instead of in opposition?”

Cotton is the most problematic of natural fibres, she informs. Growing cotton requires huge acreage, not to mention the harsh pesticides and herbicides that are poured onto fields. Then there are the implications of scouring and cleaning the cotton, then dyeing it to add colour—all toxic processes requiring vast amounts of water. Other fibres used in cloth production—flax, cellulose and ramie—also present environmental challenges to grow and process, but are not as harmful as cotton.

And that’s just the production side of textiles. Also damaging to the Earth is our souped-up consumer culture, which is based on continually buying new clothes according to the latest trends.

“What about wearing timeless fashions made from high-quality fabric that will last and look good from one season to the next?” asks Prof. Dorsey. The slow fashion movement advocates consumers invest in classic, locally made pieces made with care and from natural fibres that are grown, harvested and processed sustainably.

The issues will be explored and discussed at the Fibre, Fabric and Natural Dye Forum—that’s FANDS for short—on September 14 to 16 at TapRoot Farms in Port Williams, King’s County. Artisans, community development and government representatives, academics and farmers will gather to hear from local and international speakers about how to develop a thriving, sustainable and commercialized fibre and natural dye industry in the region.

“There are real success stories about how other jurisdictions have used natural fibres like hemp and stinging nettles, along with natural dyes from woad, blueberries and madder, to supply products for a broad range of end use, from artisanal to the textile industry, to create fabulous consumer products for direct sales or through retailers,” says Gary Markle, assistant professor in the Textiles/Fashion division at NSCAD. 

“That can only be good for our rural communities, farmers and the local economy.”

Natural fibres like hemp, flax and stinging nettles, along with natural dyes from woad, blueberries and madder, can all be grown in Nova Scotia. And, there’s also potential in extracting natural dyes from products now thrown away, for example “wine must”—the skin, seeds and stems of grapes created during the wine-making process—and prunings from apple orchards.

Hosted by farmer Patricia Bishop, the forum is still open to participants; interested folks can register through the website. Speakers include Patrick Brenac, a research scientist from France; Denise Lambert, who began a woad-growing and processing company on her farm in France; Tom Chappell, founder of Tom’s of Maine, natural-ingredients-only personal care products; and David Goldsmith, a fashion designer and educator.

“Not only are the ideas we’ll be talking about environmentally sound, but what can be created is gorgeous—the colours, the materials are beautiful,” says Prof. Dorsey. “Who wouldn’t love it?”

Stinging nettle stems yield fibre for cloth making, while the leaves can be used in dyeing. NSCAD's Frances Dorsey says the dye extracted from leaves is a celery green colour.