In the latest in our Life as I know it series, our Sustainable Fashion and Textiles Assistant, Philippa Grogan, shares her journey in sustainability so far and the impact it has on her career and daily life.
It is probably my mum who is responsible for my love of patterns and colours. Growing up around her endless supply of crayons and paints (she’s an artist), I was never going to be a mathematician and studied Textile Design at uni in Brighton. I remember really enjoying tie-dyeing squares of kitchen roll with food colouring as I child, so was incredibly excited about the prospect of scaling this up at uni. I was in awe of the myriad colour possibilities in the dye lab and was always trying to create the craziest, most colourful textiles humanly possible. The only trouble was, you could always smell the chemicals long before you were even on the same floor as the printing studio. After some very rudimentary Googling, I was startled to learn the effects the chemicals we were surrounded by could have on the planet and human health. To be honest, I really should have seen the warning signs when our print technician was forbidden from setting foot in the studio for the duration of her pregnancy!!
I’d done secondary school projects on sweat shops and the Aral Sea (or lack of), and although a part of me always knew the textile industry could be dodgy, I don’t think I’d quite realised the extent (or maybe I just wanted to bury my head in the sand and sustain my velour addiction).
I’ve always been a massive fan of documentaries, especially ones about the impacts of the fashion and textiles industry. Just so you know, it’s not the content of them I enjoy (some of the things that go on in the industry are hard to watch), but I think it’s important we understand the impact our choices have on people and the planet. In second year, I was faced with the decision of interning as a print designer in London or Jaipur in India, so knowing that I could see real life textile production with my own eyes – and that my student loan wouldn’t last long here, I went to India. My internship was at Mehera Shaw, a Fairtrade artisanal block printing company and coincidently enough, my time overlapped with an old friend from Art Foundation – it’s such a small world. Everyone was so friendly and it didn’t seem to matter that there was something of a language barrier. It was so interesting to see the full process from designing in the studio in Jaipur, to carving blocks en route to Sanganer – the local dyeing and printing district where (you guessed it!) printing and dyeing took place, and back to the studio for stitching, pressing, quality control and finishing. They even had an upcycling scheme where offcuts were hand sewn or crocheted into beautiful toys and jewellery by women who couldn’t machine sew.
We got so close to those ladies over the three or so months we were there, we always had chai and lunch together and we taught each other some of our languages (well in our case, they tried!), and they gave me rings that I still wear every day. It was brilliant to be in a company that held the health, happiness and safety of their staff so highly, and it was magical to see my designs eventually come to life – an intricate design can take 5 days to carve by hand. Honestly, those carvers are so talented that the carvings were IDENTICAL to my designs – it was like seeing someone else with the exact same handwriting as you!
I always loved the trips to the rural and rustic printing unit in Sanganer to see the hilarious and wonderful Ghanshayam ji – who was so good at block printing, it was sometimes hypnotic. I enjoyed my time at Mehera Shaw so much, I returned for another intern stint the following year and am still friends with Shari, the lovely founder and Creative Director.
I love hand block printing because as a process it requires no fuel, emits no carbon, uses no water and is the perfect candidate for natural dyes – and those are just the environmental benefits! Socially speaking, this process preserves traditional handicraft through working with artisans, as well as preserving the local air, water and soil quality for those living nearby.
That’s not to say that everyone prints and dyes responsibly in Sanganer – it’s actually astonishingly polluted and much of the groundwater is unfit for drinking, washing or growing food with. There are so many little dyeing units lining the river banks and peppering the countryside that it is difficult to govern their practices, especially in a nation so vast that already-loose environmental regulations can be difficult to police.
There are some units I have visited during recent trips where the nearest river is a thick and opaque, dyed dark green with white bubbles of actual bleach – you can pick up the unmistakable smell of sodium hypochlorite long before you see the river. It was no wonder that Prakash, a member of staff involved in the wet processing at this particular unit, complained about the condition of the water and explained it sometimes makes him sick.
There are so many ways to make, colour and print cloth – especially in India – and I left every practice I visited either brimming with enthusiasm after learning about a new natural dye or handicraft, or consumed with dread after seeing sub-standard working conditions or yet another unnaturally coloured, viscose river. “Imagine how great it would be if more people did this,” I’d think, or “blimey, this is just one small factory how much damage do all of them do in a day?!” I returned to Brighton to finish third year full of design inspiration, but also with a burning desire to learn as much as possible about the state of the industry and use my findings to make my own collections as ecologically harmless as possible.
That was the first of 3 textile trips to South Asia and, if anything, I’m more confused than ever about the ethics of the industry. During my most recent trip last year, I focused on visiting as many locations as possible and investigating the widest variety of producers possible. A great day was touring the first and only Fairtrade certified hand weaving company in Sri Lanka – where they treat their effluent so efficiently that the water is used to cultivate the staff vegetable garden.
A not-so-great day was in Gurgaon – the vast, grey industrial district that encompasses Delhi – where I met with the enormous company that supplies fabrics to Calvin Klein, Walmart and everything in between. As the owner and I spoke of the issues she faces today surrounding compliance, the environment and demands from brands, I couldn’t avoid feeling confused and annoyed that this company produces fabric for brands that sell t-shirts for $2, all the way up to brands that sell garments for up to 100x that – if the fabric is produced by the same company, then what to what extent are some brands just marketing and branding?
Luckily, I also visited multiple artisans who eased my feelings of annoyance and confusion – natural dye block printers, tiny family-run tie-dyeing practices (my past kitchen roll-dyeing self was in Seventh Heaven), rural Nepalese hemp and Allo (giant Himalayan nettle) processors and many more. It would be so nice if the future of fashion involved more artisanal work, not just because it preserves traditional craft, but because it generates income for rural communities without the need for rural-urban migration. Wherever the location and whatever the practice, I collected as much fabric and information as possible for my uni projects when I returned home.
The last project I did for my MA involved 1680 swatches of fabric that I’d collected from trips and naturally dyed using plant-based, locally sourced mordants. Previous projects had used potassium aluminium sulphate (alum) or ferrous sulphate (iron) as mordants to fix the natural dyes onto the cloth, but they can have negative effects on the environmental and human health. Much to my best friend and flatmate’s disgust, I was constantly hoarding all sorts of fruit and vegetable skins and even struck up an alliance with a local sandwich shop – avocados can be pretty pricey for a student and I relished in arriving at my front door to find ice cream tubs full of avo skins! Natural dyes are by no means the magic wand that’s going to fix the dye industry, but they are an interesting avenue to explore because they vary so greatly in processes, impacts and outcomes.
It’s hard to say who’s at fault for the state of the fashion industry today. When startling reports or documentaries show us the horrible things that take place it can be easy to blame the brands, suppliers and producers. But witnessing my sister’s insatiable appetite for buying clothes (sorry Ju!), it is clear that we as customers have to change as well. We are simply buying too much stuff, and even if it feels if we’re offsetting in some way by giving unwanted clothing to charity, a fraction of these garments are actually sold in the country where the initial donation took place. A large proportion of donations are not sold for whatever reason in the charity shops and are sent overseas to be sold at markets where the sheer volume of clothing desecrates local textile industries. Once I actually saw somebody in Jaipur wearing a T-shirt saying “Helen’s Hen Night 2009”…
There have definitely been recent and promising changes surrounding the whole area of sustainability – from Greta Thunberg’s brilliant efforts to the Green Carpet Challenge, from Extinction Rebellion to the UK’s Environmental Audit Committee. However, for the world to even begin to rectify anthropogenic pollution, we need to make less, buy less and care about money less. Whether you are a brand, a buyer, a supplier, a producer or a customer, every action counts, and we mustn’t forget that.