As the farmer, designer and garment producer at Loopy Ewes, Katie Allen has created a one-flock collection of clothing, homeware and accessories using wool from her own rare breed sheep.
Having recently graduated from Bath Spa University with an MA in fashion and textile design, Allen has launched a range of award-winning ‘soil-to-soil’ knitwear that has all been grown, spun and made within the south west of England.
As part of a wave of small-scale textile producers and makers championing British wool, she sees a new trend for regenerative fashion that builds soil health, sustains a local economy and produces garments that are truly biodegradable. Now, she’s calling for greater provenance across the fashion industry.
So what does regenerative fashion actually mean? Is it just another buzzword?
While there’s no official definition, regenerative fashion is a reimagination of our relationship between clothes, the people who create them and the surrounding landscape.
It goes way beyond how fibres are grown and encompasses everything from carbon sequestration to ethical working conditions throughout the supply chain. This drastic move away from the extractive, exploitative model that enables the fast fashion industry to dominate is picking up momentum, as Allen explains from her Gloucestershire farm.
“A regenerative fashion system needs to begin and end with healthy soil, by using raw materials that are grown or farmed in a way that encourages soil health, and ensuring that garments can return to the earth at the end of their life, not just without doing harm but with qualities that actually enrich the soil microbiome,” she explains.
It all hinges on natural fibres. “Only by using materials that nature both provides and then happily reclaims can fashion really contribute to the regeneration of our ecosystems,” she continues. “In stark contrast, synthetic fibres such as acrylic, polyester and nylon don’t belong in a regenerative fashion model – not only because they are made from non-renewable fossil fuels but also because they release damaging microfibres.”
But more than just the wool, Allen also considers every impact her business might have on the environment and the role it can play in rejuvenating the system. “That begins at the farm level and needs to be community-based,” she says.
“From my vet to my shearer, his wife who handles my wool clip, the mill that processes my fleeces into yarn, the printer producing my tags and the retail partners who help sell my garments, there’s a whole network of people and businesses who are a vital part of my supply chain and I work directly with every one of them.”
Her garments are made without chemicals that cause harm to the environment or human health, right from the farm, the processing of fibres, and to the dyes and finishing. “There are many stages where harsh toxic chemicals can be removed from the fashion system to reduce their environmental impact,” she says.
But without a thriving local textile economy, scaling up Allen’s model could be tricky. Production and processing skills are being rapidly lost at a regional level, for wool and other natural materials such as flax, hemp and nettle fibres used to make textiles.
“We need more small artisan mills that can process small batches in order to create a more visible supply chain with stronger accountability, better resilience and more opportunity to really connect people to the production of their clothing,” says Allen, who explains that the industry would need farmers growing dye plants at commercial scale too.
“There are some incredible grassroots projects running all over the country but taking it to the next level is definitely going to require some investment into some big processing facilities.”
According to Allen, a regenerative fashion system must be circular. “My South West Fibreshed collection demonstrates it’s possible to bring a level of biodegradability to clothing that the environment can benefit from. I really wanted garments that would last a lifetime but not forever. At the end of life, you can put [these garments] on your compost heap and decomposition will release nutrients back into the soil.”
Some wool producers breed sheep to create certain textures or shades of wool and most farmers need to focus on lambing come springtime so wool production can’t be maintained at the same level all year round. Allen says she wants to make sure people understand the seasonality involved in wool production, especially for Loopy Ewes’ single-farm yarn: “It takes time to grow these fibres so it has to be slow fashion.”
So far, her greatest challenge has been encouraging the fashion industry to involve farmers in conversations about sustainability: “I’m not sure how to break that wall down,” she explains. “Farmers are overlooked in their role as fibre growers – they want to see where their wool is going and at the consumer end, there’s a disconnect from the reality that our clothes come from farming.”
Over recent years, people have become more engaged with where food comes from and perhaps now that mindset shift is starting to happen in fashion.
“We all wear clothes, so we all have the power to ask questions, buy less and make it last,” says Allen. “If a brand can’t tell you how that garment was made, and how the farm supplying its natural fibres works in partnership with nature or looks after the soil, then move onto the next one.”
As London Fashion Week approaches, Allen wants the industry to embrace this new appetite for regenerative fashion and believes designers could lead the way, if only they connected with the farmers producing their raw materials: “It all starts and ends with the soil and listening to those who spend their time caring for it,” she adds.
Find out more
To find out more about rare breed wool, The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook by Deborah Robson and Carol Ekarius is worth a read.
For more information about an EU-wide call for sustainable labelling for clothing that informs customers about environmental impacts of garments, go to #MakeTheLabelCount.