Crafting Textiles and Fashion in a Globalised Industry

Craft, Handloom, Art, Cultural, Creative Industries, Fashion, Livelihoods

Crafting Textiles and Fashion in a Globalised Industry

Black, Sandy


Issue #002, Winter, 2019                                                                            ISSN: 2581- 9410


The creation of textiles from animal, plant and man-made fibres through technologies of spinning, weaving, felting and knitting is fundamental to clothing, whether worn for utilitarian or more aesthetic purposes.  The embellishment of basic cloth through dyeing, printing, beading and embroidery is a cornerstone of fashion, creating uniquely visual and tactile products for a clothing industry that has moved in the last century from handmade to machine manufactured, from elite to mass market, and from high value to disposable goods.  Fashion has become a global industry, and clothes are now well travelled items with very brief lives. Perhaps surprisingly for such a fast-moving sector, fashion remains one of the last craft-based industries, that still relies for its mass production on skilled individual workers operating manually-controlled machinery. Whilst textile production is highly automated in industrialised countries, hand weaving and embroidery of cloth, and craft-based production of fashion accessories (bags, scarves, belts, jewellery, etc) is still significant in many countries in the global south, particularly for women, who form the majority of the workforce. However, the recent acceleration of fashion cycles has created more demand for cheaper products, which is incompatible with the labour intensive reality of much of the fashion manufacturing process where people at the lowest level in the value chain ultimately suffer through increased pressures to meet shorter lead times. In the face of major industrialization stimulated by a contemporary global fashion industry, what is the place of handcrafted products and how can their heritage and the livelihoods of artisans be sustained?   

     As a reaction to the increasing speed of fashion and the dominance worldwide of a handful of major fashion conglomerates (including LVMH, Kering and Richemont) that control most of the major luxury and designer brands, there has been a return to an appreciation of a slower pace for fashion.  This is aligned to the developing public awareness of the environmental and ethical issues endemic within the fashion industry, which is notorious for its complex and multiple-level chain of production, spanning the globe, that nevertheless has remained largely invisible to consumers. The need for new narratives to connect consumers of fashion products with the supply chain has been recognised, especially in academia. In our digital information age, where communication is instant, and following continued exposés of malpractices in the media, transparency and social justice have become crucial issues for major brands that now must be seen to be accountable for their products through the entirety of their production processes.  The artisans, makers and smallholder farmers who are at the furthest distance from the consumer of fashion now have an emerging public profile; their stories are being highlighted by a small but growing number of enlightened companies, enabling the inherent value of products and the labour of production to be understood by consumers. For example, businesses as diverse as Bruno Pieters’ Honest By (Antwerp) and Eileen Fisher (New York) are working towards the goals of social justice and complete transparency. This re-evaluation of the craft and ethics of production begins to shift the paradigm towards more mindful consumption practices and ultimately towards a sustainable fashion industry. 


Fashion and sustainability – a complex issue 

The notion of sustainable fashion seems to be paradoxical, an oxymoron – how can fashion ever be sustainable, with its focus on novelty and inbuilt obsolescence? The business of fashion has many contradictions: the craftsmanship of couture and bespoke set against high volume cheap fashion; the luxury of New York’s Fifth Avenue or London’s Bond Street contrasted with the poverty of many producer communities; inherently wasteful cycles of seasonal change, that also sustain livelihoods and provide economic prosperity; an obsession with the new and at the same time the valorisation of vintage.  Whether we are involved in the creation, production, communication or representation of fashion or are simply its consumers, we all contribute to this endemically unsustainable system. 

     There is increasing awareness of issues such as climate change and depletion of natural resources, and a growing consensus that over-consumption in developed countries through faster and faster fashion cycles has to stop. But fashion seems part of our DNA, bound up with concepts of identity and personal expression, a cultural construct embedded in the collective psyche that will not suddenly disappear – nor need it. 

      We need to respect the power of fashion and adornment and acknowledge their significance in cultures throughout the world, from the earliest peoples to the present day. Fashion can perform many roles, from a social catalyst to a communication medium, functioning in both personal and public realms, simultaneously inward and outward facing.  Fashion enables us to enhance our self-esteem and express our identity, playing out in various contexts our status or our sexuality, via messages that can be encoded or explicit. Through our clothing we can show we belong or proclaim our difference; we can make radical statements or be part of the crowd. In many professional contexts, appropriate clothing can make a real difference to success and individual well being, whereas the ‘wrong’ clothing can stigmatise the wearer for being inappropriately dressed or ‘out of fashion’.  Of course, we may just want to be seen to be ‘cool’ or on trend in the latest fashions. 

     The concept of time is part of the essence of fashion, but different forms of fashion work at a different pace: one off or limited edition hand crafted pieces may be treasured for years to become future heirlooms; conceptual fashion pieces now move beyond the catwalk moment into the art gallery or museum, and are celebrated in the academic record; designer fashions inspire and stimulate mainstream fast fashion, now one of the most significant global industries. Fashion provides livelihoods – fashion manufacturing currently accounts for a large proportion of many South Asian countries’ gross domestic product and export earnings. However, sustainable fashion has to reconcile many areas:  it must continue to provide economic sustainability and meet our personal and symbolic needs, whilst addressing the inherent problems associated with the current fashion system. Sustainable fashion does not though mean the end of fashion; it can instead become a catalyst for systemic change, particularly through small fashion businesses that can more easily retain an overview of their supply chain and have direct knowledge of their manufacturing processes. 


The textile and fashion industries

Since the mid-1990s and the abolition of the Multi Fibre Arrangement and trading quotas, increasing globalisation of manufacturing has taken place, and faster fashion cycles have pushed the price of fashion products down, while simultaneously increasing production volumes and the resulting environmental impact. As a direct consequence of mass production and faster fashion cycles, we are consuming ever growing and unsustainable volumes of products and resources, especially in the global north. The textiles and clothing industry is now worth $2.4 trillion, 1 million tonnes of clothing are consumed annually in the UK with 70% waste sent to landfill, of which 50% could be recycled. Taken holistically, textile and clothing life cycles consume more energy and water than most other industries except construction and agriculture.  For many everyday garments, it has been shown that the major environmental impact comes from consumer use – clothes cleaning, drying and ironing – according to individual practices. (Allwoodet. al 2006, WRAP 2012, 2017)

     In addition to the extensive environmental costs (for example water, air and land pollution from toxic wastes) there has also been a severe human price paid for the rapid expansion of low-cost fashion in the global north – pressures felt most keenly by manufacturers, garment workers and subsistence farmers growing fibres such as cotton or cashmere, mainly in the global south. The Rana Plaza disaster of 2013, in which 1138 garment workers in one factory building in Bangladesh died, was not the first such tragic loss of life in the fashion manufacturing sector, but with the worst death toll, it has become a defining moment for the global industry, a long overdue turning point. As a direct result, the grass-roots campaign Fashion Revolution was started in the UK to campaign for industry change with a simple message “Who made my clothes?” and has grown into a global campaign about respect for workers and transparency in the garment industry. Massive media coverage and high-profile campaigns exposing malpractices have continued to raise the bar; there is now increasing consumer demand for transparency and trace ability in the production of clothing, following the lead of similar successful campaigns around food production. An uncompromising global agenda has been set and radical action within the fashion industry has now become an imperative, particularly with reference to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, agreed in 2015.  

     In the first decade of the 21st century, sustainability initiatives began to emerge at different levels, notably the UK government’s Sustainable Clothing Action Plan, launched in 2007, that involved over 300 stakeholders including large retail companies such as the UK’s Marks and Spencer and Tesco, companies with the scale and potential to impact the wider industry and its supply chains. At London College of Fashion (where the author is Professor of Fashion and Textile Design and Technology), the pioneering Centre for Sustainable Fashion was set up in 2008 with a remit to work with both industry and education. Further multi-stakeholder and government initiatives towards sustainability in fashion have included the Nordic Initiative Clean and Ethical (NICE) founded in 2008, and the US Sustainable Apparel Coalition which was formed in 2011 between major global brands including Nike, Puma, H&M, GAP and Li & Fung, together with academia. Since 2009, the Copenhagen Fashion Summit has promoted actions towards sustainability involving many major fashion businesses.


Researching solutions for sustainable fashion

My work (and that of colleagues in the Centre for Sustainable Fashion) involves developing new narratives for the design and creation of sustainable fashion – through research projects, education and publications, raising awareness of issues but also celebrating and helping to empower the visionaries, entrepreneurs, designers, makers and artisans that create sustainable fashion inspiration and delight for consumers around the world.  Micro and small businesses in the UK and elsewhere have begun to acknowledge and tackle the complex issues of sustainability to demonstrate possible ways forward, often becoming highly influential – far more than their small scale might suggest. The ability to innovate is key, and particularlyr elevant here is that many fashion businesses utilise artisan and craft skills within their production process. 

     Having run my own design-led craft-based fashion knitwear business for 15 years, working directly with individual makers in the UK, I have a personal understanding of both the creative freedom and the challenges of running a small entrepreneurial business. The wonderful freedom to experiment with ideas and innovate must be balanced by maximisation of human and material resources, minimisation of waste and careful management of cash flow, one of the most difficult aspects for any small business, but particularly troublesome in the volatile fashion industry. My recent research has focused on the evolving role of textile and fashion designers who lead micro and small businesses and supporting designers as facilitators of innovation and change for sustainability through their creative entrepreneurship. 

     In 2005, as part of a UK Research Councils initiative, Designing for the 21st Century, I set up the Interrogating Fashion project, gathering an inter-disciplinary group of academics and industry representatives to question the status quo of fashion, and identify an agenda for future fashion research, investigating new paradigms for fashion business operations. I identified three themes to structure discussions: The Fashion Paradox interrogated fashion in relation to transience and sustainability; Digital Fashion examined the potential for emerging digital technologies in tandem with the craft of fashion design and production; and Fashion in Context addressed the importance of the cultural and symbolic aspects of fashion and current practices with prominent fashion theorists, artists and curators.  A further project followed entitled Considerate Design for Personalised Fashion Products (2007-9) that tested three new concepts for fashion production utilising both digital and craft-based technologies, including the integration of 3D body scanning data with 3D printing processes to create a flexible glove, with industrial knitting technology to develop personalized seamless knitwear, and with hand-crafted products to create an ergonomically shaped leather backpack. (fig 1) The Interrogating Fashion project directly inspired my first book on sustainable fashion, Eco Chic: the Fashion Paradox (2008), and also the academic journal, Fashion Practice: Design, Creative Process and the Fashion Industry (Routledge Journals), which I established to foreground practice-based and practice-informed research in fashion. My co-editor Marilyn Delong and myself are currently celebrating its 10th year of publication. (fig 2)

     In Eco Chic I profiled some of the innovative strategies in both creative design and business models that pioneering design entrepreneurs in eco-fashion and textiles have implemented. These included Katherine Hamnett who has campaigned on environmental issues since the late 1980s, and Linda Grose, who was responsible for developing the US brand Esprit’s groundbreaking Ecollection in 1992, and has worked with many other sustainability projects such as Art for Artisans in Kyrgyzstan, Peru and Armenia. Also featured were the independent designer, Sarah Ratty, whose first label Conscious Earth wear crossed the invisible line into fashion and debuted at London Fashion Week in 1996, plus People Tree, a pioneering fair trade clothing brand. However, whilst small design-led pioneers and large fashion businesses such as those mentioned earlier, could certainly be seen to be taking action on the sustainability agenda for fashion, many high end and luxury designer brands still remained relatively silent. My next book, The Sustainable Fashion Handbook looked particularly at this designer brand level of the industry. (fig 3)

     In the face of the inhibiting scale and complexities of sustainability as a whole, I felt it was important to highlight inspirational and positive stories of the work being done, as well as raise serious concerns at the scale of the issue to be tackled. Often unknown to the consumer, many companies are striving to develop environmentally aware and socially responsible practices within their business operations. I interviewed high fashion designers including Hussein Chalayan and Dries Van Noten, and profiled values-led businesses including Eileen Fisher, Patagonia and Edun, plus high street brands such as Monsoon, H&M and New Look to report on their journeys towards the goal of sustainable fashion.  Major themes explored in The Sustainable Fashion Handbook cover a wide range of areas – 

  • Self and beauty: culture and consumption 
  • Desire and fashion: design and innovation
  • Speed and distance: ecology and waste
  • Craft and industry: transparency and livelihood
  • Everyday clothing and enduring design
  • Techno eco: new fashion paradigms utilising novel technology and applications

I posed a number of questions including: 

  • How can fashion become more environmentally and ethically sound?
  • How can designers make a difference? 
  • How can we slow down fashion?
  • How do businesses reconcile conflicting priorities in a fast-moving industry like fashion?
  • How can ethics and aesthetics be integrated?
  • Ultimately – can fashion ever be sustainable?

The often undervalued role of artisans and makers around the globe was something I wished to highlight in the book, and to return to the question posed earlier, identify the place and value of handcraft in contemporary fashion and investigate how livelihoods can be sustained in today’s globalized fashion industry. To demonstrate this, the next part of this article presents examples of design-led strategies currently being implemented within global textiles and fashion production that aim to reconcile fashion, craft and cultural value with environmental and economic sustainability. 


Design strategies for sustainability

Key design strategies for sustainable fashion include:

  • The use of recycled, vintage, organic and sustainable textiles to prolong the life of materials, maximise their use and create more circular systems for resource utilisation.
  • Elimination of waste from pattern cutting and manufacture, for example with zero waste designs that utilise the entire cloth (like kimonos or saris), or by creating one-piece or seamless designs. 
  • Designing for longer life and re-use, using high quality materials and crafted manufacture for longevity, ease of repair, replacement of sections, and also transformability – giving clothes a new life by designing in different configurations or layers. In addition, hand-made items that are treasured can become heirlooms, wearing their age with dignity.
  • To reduce the considerable impact of clothing aftercare (high use of water, chemicals and energy in washing and dry cleaning) designers are considering the clever use of colour, pattern and modular functionality to reduce the need for frequent cleaning (eg separate collars).
  • To aid recyclability, designing for ease of disassembly is important so parts can be reused or recycled. This includes the use of mono materials throughout an entire piece (eg 100% cotton or 100% polyester) so used garments can easily be returned to fibre for new textiles through collection and recycling systems.
  • New ways of making things using innovative design thinking and new technologies, often alongside craft processes, and new systems such as fashion on demand. 
  • Develop personalised service and customisation for the individual consumer to meet their preferences and create a closer relationship with clothes, reducing the tendency for disposability. 
  • Create fewer but smarter clothes with multi-functional textiles and technology-enabled fashions can delight the consumer for longer, so needing fewer clothes. These must be designed for disassembly otherwise a new waste stream is created. 
  • Slow fashion: local, artisanal production related to specific communities, resources and needs, whilst also providing unique goods for a wider market.

These are some of the ways that the fashion and clothing industry is moving forward towards sustainability goals, although more research and infrastructure for collection and recycling of textiles to new textiles is certainly required.  Of course, a great deal of used textiles and charity donations are bulk traded on the international market and many European and US textiles find their way to markets in the global south. Panipat in India is one of the world’s largest textile recycling centres, creating ‘shoddy’ yarn from mechanically shredded textiles, then rewoven into shawls and blankets used in disaster relief.  An exhibition in London in 2012 Everything Must Go documented the journey of used clothes from the UK to sorting, spinning and finding new markets in India. 


Case studies

Strategies adopted by many businesses to address environmental issues often start with materials choices. These demonstrate a range of approaches to the philosophy of reduce, reuse and recycle, and include repairing, remodeling and upcycling of used clothing, and reclaiming waste materials. Many small businesses begin by identifying either pre- or post-consumer textile and clothing waste streams to develop new fashion products.  These include pioneering UK labels Junky Styling and From Somewhere, who both operated for around 15 years from the late 1990s. Junky Styling (Kerry Seeger and Annika Sanders) specialized in individually redesigning and remodelling old clothes into unique pieces, in particular men’s suits and army surplus gear, and later developed a service model of business they called Wardrobe Surgery where customers could bring in something of their own for bespoke restyling and remodelling to give it a new lease of life. (fig 4) Making new from old has been a fundamental philosophy of fashion designer Christopher Raeburn, whose repurposed military clothing and fabrics have become a signature element of his brand – “Remade in the UK” in his own London studio by skilled makers, and offering a made-to-order service as well as ready-to-wear. The Raeburn business also manufactures outside the UK for other elements of the collection, and collaborates with international brands including Victorinox and Disney. (fig 5) From Somewhere (Orsola de Castro and Filippo Ricci) originally focused on post-consumer waste knitwear and then on factory waste ie pre-consumer offcuts and surplus fabrics from Italian clothing and knitwear factories, remade by artisans in Italy and the UK. (fig 6) They have been highly influential in positioning sustainable fashion within London and Milan Fashion Weeks, and pioneered the concept of an upcycled line to UK high street retailer Tesco with their Reclaim to Wear label.  Following the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, Orsola de Castro went on to co-found the Fashion Revolution movement, to campaign for transparency in the fashion industry and the visibility and rights of garment workers. This is a pioneering consumer-facing campaign that educates and involves people in 37 countries around the globe to be more conscious about who makes their clothes, and also lobbies governments and industry organisations to enhance and enforce better regulation. (fig 7)

     Within the Sustainable Fashion Handbook I targeted some of the bigger names in fashion whose businesses and profile could be highly influential, or whose philosophy and approach aligned naturally with a broad sustainability agenda. For example, Eileen Fisher in the USA believes “sustainability needs the whole company, a whole supply chain and engaged consumers” (Black 2012: 46). Still at the helm of her business, Eileen Fisher now aims to rethink the fashion system for circularity and to produce fewer clothes, by taking back older styles to resell in their own shops, with proceeds going to not-for-profit causes, and potentially to also remake styles in house.  Fisher has always worked for women’s empowerment within her supply chain, and the company set up a philanthropic social arm that provides grants to women to support entrepreneurship and thereby independence.  

     The label Edun, founded by Ali Hewson and her musician husband Bono (from the famous band U2) was set up to focus on supporting the manufacturing of clothing in Africa, as an example to others of a “trade not aid” philosophy.  They successfully developed a line of T-shirts for the music industry 100% made in Africa from cotton seed to manufacturing – “grown to sewn”- that aimed to retain much more of the value of the resources and product in the African economy.  In 2009 they sold a 49% stake in their business to the luxury group LVMH, which gave the conglomerate an instant buy-in to an ethical brand. However, with the involvement of LVMH, compromises had to be made, and Edun production was sourced in many countries including China and Peru. Today the Edun brand produces the majority of its collections of clothes and bags in Africa, using organic, recycled, and upcycled fabric and artisanal custom-made hand-woven fabrics and embellishments made in Africa, to designs created by their New York studio design collective.

     In contrast, the Belgian designer Dries van Noten has remained steadfastly independent as a fashion business throughout its 30 years in existence. Van Noten is well known for his love of diverse modern and traditional textiles including prints, lace and many hand embroidered and embellished pieces source from artisans in India and elsewhere. He says “Fashion covers so many things from culture to art.  I want to make clothes for people that will wear them for a long time… I think nearly everyone in the western world has enough clothes in their wardrobe to wear for the rest of their life” (Black 2012: 162).

     A somewhat surprising example of handmade fashions is found in the American label Goods of Conscience, started by a Catholic priest, Father Andrew O’Connor, in downtown New York. He believes that “the soul of the parish is making” and brings handcraft into the community, raising awareness of the value of manual work: “Let it be handmade, do it well”. He was inspired on a retreat in Guatemala to create a new “social fabric”, initially for religious garments, by supporting Mayan hand weavers with a living wage to weave local cotton using their traditional back strap looms. These fabrics are made up in New York into men’s and women’s clothes with a unique signature and have been worn by celebrities who help champion the cause. The clothes are designed to “look good, feel good and do good” as the material and social benefits are brought back to the producer communities.  Also in America, the label Alabama Chanin, founded by Natalie Chanin, revived the crafts of hand made and hand embroidered, quilted and appliqued clothing to create a fashion line with wide appeal and a strong narrative of community and place (Florence, Alabama) that captured the imagination of consumers seeking authenticity and connectedness.  

     The importance of craft within the fashion industry and transparency and ethical actions for the hidden people in the fashion supply chain is an issue highlighted by several campaigns over recent years, including Labour Behind the Label (the UK arm of the EU-wide Clean Clothes Campaign) and Fashion Revolution. Following the Rana Plaza disaster, new industry initiatives regarding standards compliance were set up and have begun to be implemented but there is still an enormous amount of work to be done. However, much hand craft labour for the fashion industry takes place outside of any organised workplace, in the home. SEWA, the Self Employed Womens’ Association based in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, is the biggest women’s trade union in India, representing a sector that accounts for 93% of the unorganized labour force. SEWA was for three years supported by TRAID (Textile Recycling for Aid and International Development) to set up two embroidery workshops as a negotiated working environment to support women workers with fair wages for work on the hand embroideries so sought after by fashion brands. This project established best practice in the supply chain and fair treatment of home workers by contracting directly with export houses, making a real difference to livelihoods. 


     People Tree is an example of a pioneering fair trade company, founded by Safia Minney in 1997, with shops across Japan and Europe. The business never works with factory production but creates partnerships with farmers and artisans in villages across India, Bangladesh, Peru and Kenya. Design and production are decided on the basis of the skills of their craft workers such as dyeing, weaving and hand screen printing.   Minney believes that, “Fashion is political. If you buy a dress from People Tree you do so in the knowledge that you are helping to distribute wealth more widely around the world” (Black 2012: 170 ).

     An increase in wealth from making batik fabrics and fashions is discussed by fashion entrepreneur Annegret Affolderbach of Choolips, an ethical fashion brand she started in 2003. Over a period of time, Annegret worked in Ghana with batik fabric makers, building relationships and generating two fashion collections that were sold by UK retailer Top Shop in 2007, providing income for the batikers and the garment makers. Annegret proudly says: “Juliana’s workshop used to have four posts and a bit of corrugated iron on top; now it’s a proper house. She’s been able to train four workers and she’s laid a water pipe” (Black 2012: 172).  However, the greatest challenge in the fickle fashion industry is maintaining some continuity of orders to provide regular income for the artisans. Keenly aware of this, Annegret aimed to create markets for different products for the quieter times. At People Tree, the designs are created to fit the artisans’ skills time frame and not in response to fast moving trends. Safia Minney has produced several books highlighting best practice in ethics craft and fair trade in the fashion supply chain: By Hand (2008), Naked Fashion (2011), Slow Fashion (2016) and Slave to Fashion (2017)

     The company Pachacuti, founded by Carry Somers has been working in Ecuador since 1992 producing traditional hand-woven straw Panama hats, sold in fashion markets globally. Pachacuti is a fair-trade company, working directly with a community of artisan weavers, operating high levels of transparency and is proud to say that the price paid to its weavers has increased by more than the local cost of living. Unsurprisingly, over 99% of the workers are women, with the average age of the weavers 56; only 11% have hot water in their remote houses. Carry Somers herself has now left the company in the capable hands of her husband to focus on workers livelihoods and supply chain transparency, as the co-founder of Fashion Revolution together with Orsola de Castro, campaigning to inform the public about who made their clothes.


     One of the original names in artisan-made fashion was Monsoon, first established in 1973 producing bohemian clothing from India incorporating handwoven and block-printed cotton. Monsoon is now a global brand together with its Accessorize sister company, and funds a charitable trust working on projects with disadvantaged women including supporting an embroidery workshop with SEWA in Delhi. The original hand-crafted ethos is now to be found in Monsoon’s Artisan collection, continuing to feature techniques such as batik, dip-dyeing, block printing and embroidery.

     More fashion designers from India have recently entered the world stage. The best known is Manish Arora who promoted his extraordinary and vibrant pop-culture-inspired designs in London in 2005, later moving his base to Paris. His highly theatrical designs were made possible by the skilled embroidery, beading and craftsmanship of artisans in India, elevating their status to couture level, in the manner of the Paris ateliers. In 2011 Arora took on the creative director role at Paco Rabanne, producing 2 collections to relaunch the brand, the first Indian designer to hold such a position, and now continues his own couture label in Paris, as a member of the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt à Porter des Couturiers, since 2009. 

     On a much quieter note, Indian designer Samant Chauhan entered the fashion stage in 2007.  Unlike much of Indian fashion, his collections are distinctive for their monochrome, natural colours, deriving from his commitment to championing natural undyed Bhagalpur tussah silk (raw silk), hand woven in his own native state of Bihar, where there is widespread poverty.  Staying true to his use of low key colour palettes, Chauhan launched a bridal wear collection in 2011, combining the silks with sophisticated embroideries, continuing to blend high fashion with craft and underlying social purpose.  

     Academic researcher and author, Eiluned Edwards, convener of the symposium Culture, Heritage and Sustainability and curator of the associated UK exhibition Imprints of Culture: Block Printed Textiles of India, at Nottingham Trent University (March 2016) wrote an article in the Sustainable Fashion Handbook looking in depth at the practices of block printing exemplified by the continuity of processes practiced by the 9th generation of one Khatri family of Kachchh in Gujarat. (See the contribution of Abduljabbar M. Khatri and his son, Adam, to this collection of essays). In particular, she draws attention to the evolution of traditional textiles from local consumption (eg as turbans, hip wraps and shoulder cloths) to the global market and the challenges inherent in aligning the fabric’s production with sustainability principles and environmental protection embedded in the practice. 

     As the previous examples illustrate, many initiatives have sought to protect and revive heritage crafts found in many rural communities throughout the world, and particularly in India with its vast rural population of weavers, dyers and embroiderers.  New research is continuing to examine the ways in which this can be achieved, in order to reconcile sustainable livelihoods, craft values and cultural heritage with contemporary societal needs and respect for the people and their (our) environment. Three PhD researchers at LCF exemplify the current approach.  Flavia Amadeu’s research is situated in Brazil, working with a community group producing rubber tapped from the rain forest. As a designer, herself from Brazil, she supported and documented the process of keeping more value in the community by fostering their design and making skills to create finished products such as shoes and accessories and helping develop their markets. Two researchers have focused on handwoven fabrics: the first, Umar Hassan Jan, looked at the contemporary practice and revival of khadi cotton weaving in Pakistan, and its repositioning within an emerging fashion retail context and within the tertiary education system. The second is Anna-Louise Meynell, a weaver and textile designer, who is examining the culture, practice and heritage of eri silk weaving in Meghalaya in north-east India, working with local weavers. The context of sustainable development is crucial in these studies, together with empowerment of individuals and communities to thrive by benefitting from the fruits of their own labours. These research projects seek to answer the problem posed at the start of this article – of maintaining artisan livelihoods by adding value and fair labour practices for the longer term. (figs 8 & 9)

     Fashion can be a powerful catalyst for engagement and social change and the fashion industry, with its global reach, has the capacity to instigate and create change for good as seen in a number of examples presented here.  Hand crafted products continue to have a crucial place in fashion. Future fashion products must address the complex issues of sustainability, and still satisfy our personal, environmental, economic and social needs whilst respecting the dignity, value, craftsmanship and livelihoods of its producers.   

Creative designers and entrepreneurs are well placed to facilitate dialogue between diverse groups of interests and are becoming increasingly pivotal to development and communication towards sustainability goals. As discussed in this article, the practices of innovative businesses and researchers can work in tandem, towards common goals that maintain and expand traditional crafts and look towards a more sustainable prosperity where fewer goods are produced, but with enhanced value and respect for their making, and the people who made them.


Allwood, J.M., Laursen, S.E., Malvido de Rodriguez, C. and Bocken, N. (2006) Well dressed? The present & future sustainability of clothing & textiles in the UK. Cambridge: Institute for Manufacturing.

Black, Sandy (2008), Eco Chic: the Fashion Paradox.  London:  Black Dog Publishing.  Second edition published 2011.

Black, Sandy (2012), The Sustainable Fashion Handbook.  London and New York: Thames and Hudson.

Black, Sandy and Marilyn Delong, eds, (2009- date).  Fashion Practice: Design, Creative Process and the Fashion Industry.  Routledge Journals UK. 

Minney, Safia (2008), By Hand: The Fair Trade Fashion Agenda.  People Tree

Minney, Safia (2011), Naked Fashion: The New Sustainable Fashion Revolution. Oxford: New Internationalist Publications. 

Minney, Safia (2016), Slow Fashion: Ethics meets Aesthetics. Oxford: New Internationalist Publications. 

Minney, Safia (2017), Slave to Fashion: Oxford: New Internationalist Publications. 

WRAP 2017. Valuing Our Clothes: the cost of UK fashion

WRAP 2012. Valuing Our Clothes: the true cost of UK fashion retail 

Web sources

Sustainable Apparel Coalition:

Fashion Revolution:


WRAP Waste and Resources Action Programme: (closed down 15 October 2018)

The Centre for Sustainable Fashion, LCF, University of the Arts London, UK:

List of illustrations

Fig 1. Considerate Design Project. 2009. Hand-crafted ergonomically designed bag, by Steven Harkin with Sandy Black and Frances Geesin.  Photo Sandy Black.

Fig 2.  Eco Chic the Fashion Paradox 2008; 2nd edition 2011.  Black Dog Publishing London.

Fig 3.  The Sustainable Fashion Handbook.  2012.  Thames & Hudson, London and New York

Fig 4.  Junky Styling 2007.  New outfits upcycled from old clothes.  Photo courtesy Junky Styling.

Fig 5. Christopher Raeburn. 2010.  Dress upcycled from military parachutes. Photo courtesy Christopher Raeburn.

Fig 6. From Somewhere. 2007. Upcycled outfit made from industry waste fabrics.  Photo courtesy Orsola de Castro. 

Fig 7. Fashion Revolution global campaign poster, “Who made my clothes?”. Courtesy Fashion Revolution.

Fig 8. Eri silk yarn and fabrics handmade in Meghalaya, North India. Photo courtesy Anna-Louise Meynell

Fig 9. Handwoven eri silk shawl by Annaloom 2016. Photo courtesy Anna-Louise Meynell.




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