A Good Yarn: Old rags into new threads

We throw away 100 million black bags' worth of unwanted clothes every year. Anthea Gerrie meets the designer who aims to change all that
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The Independent Online

She may cut a quaint figure at her spinning wheel among the slick designer showrooms of the Oxo Tower, but Annie Sherburne is looking to the future. Eco Annie, as Mayor Livingstone's luvvies have dubbed the star turn of their recycling plan for London, is Britain's foremost proponent of sustainable textiles. It's a second, mid-life career for the designer whose witty accessories for Jean Muir made the dowager duchess of British fashion purr with pleasure whenever Annie turned up with a new collection.

"Then it was about making stuff for someone else at the right price," explains the 49-year-old, whose swirly-print felts figure in a book on Jean Muir's work published last month. "Now it's about much more than designing and making - it's about creating change."

Changing for the better the stuff we put on our backs and under our feet is at the top of the agenda for this ecopreneur, who has harboured environmental concerns for 25 years. "I was hand-painting buttons and making wooden jewellery for JM, and when a friend started making paints in a completely closed loop system, recycling their water and with no waste escape, reclaiming the excess, I switched to using them [as a supplier]."

She could not, however, do anything about the demise of the British textile industry - "the felt business was in its death throes, and I felt that the loss of skills would be a very bad thing. And so it has proven - if the Chinese get a monopoly on clothes manufacturing, they will use whatever fabrics and manufacturing processes they like - and it may be bad news for all of us."

What particularly exercises Annie is the problem of the million tonnes of textile waste tipped into Britain's landfill sites every year: "Not necessary when it's so easy to recycle clothes, and for countries like Zambia, redistribution of textiles makes a vital contribution to the economy."

But so long as millions of us are throwing out worn shirts and the like, instead of tearing them up to use as rags, Annie is doing her bit by getting them respun into yarn: "I've taken two tonnes out of landfill so far," she says, indicating dozens of balls of yarn, a few coloured bright with natural dyes, which share a wall of her new showroom with pure Cotswold wool and other organic knittables. "The idea is to inspire other designers, give them a place to buy sustainable materials and show them what can be done with it - but I'm not averse on getting in on the act myself," she admits. "Sustainables are going to get huge."

That has been evident since 2001, when, having been under the radar for a decade following Jean Muir's death, she burst back on to the scene with her soft cobbles for floors and walls, which took the Peugeot Prize and other awards, such as Elle Decor.

In the past few years, Annie has created dozens of collectable rugs, along with accessories using everything from horse hair to hemp, jute and raffia as well as the wool and recycled textile yarn that are at the heart of her practice.

Helping to save the planet became a serious concern for the St Martins and Goldsmiths graduate in 1994, when she started investigating sustainable fabrics: She joined the Textile Environmental Network, more of an academically focused internet newsgroup than a practical force for change, and fretted about how hard it was to put environmental theory into practice: "I was reading about all this great stuff and not finding any of it to use. You could get hemp - but it made no sense to bring it all the way from Nepal."

Postgrad research at Kingston University brought her to the conclusion that recycled yarn was the way to go. In an another feted design, her white horse rug, she shows how well this yarn works when woven with wool, linen and factory yarn ends. The rug was a finalist in this year's Homes & Gardens Classic Design Awards.

For the past several years, Annie and her partner, Mark Gladwell, whose Pure Fabrication company recycles vintage materials into jewellery and fashion accessories, have wholesaled their wares and restricted their own retail activities to a Sunday morning shop in Columbia Road, site of east London's famous flower market. It has been a family affair, with 13-year-old Joe and their younger son, Charlie, 11, designing too. But now Annie, whose work hangs in museums from London to Paris, New York and Trondheim, has removed herself to fashionable riverside Southwark to raise the profile for her work and the cause: "I felt I had a responsibility to stick my neck out."

Enter various recycling initiatives, including London Remade, which introduced her to waste management groups and awarded her a £6,000 grant from the London Development Agency's new product development fund to make her initial batch of recycled yarn from the capital's textile waste: "It's a miracle I found a spinner - most thought I was small beer, others were afraid of rocking the boat in an industry where supply is tightly controlled, but although he thinks I'm mad, the man who did take me on secretly feels I'm on to something."

The Oxo Tower unit followed, and Annie says it feels like squaring the circle to be sitting at a spinning wheel overlooking the Thames: "The hatters and other rag trade suppliers used to work in [this part of] Southwark in the 19th century; it wasn't such a smart part of London then."

Into her shop Annie has brought some of her husband's jewellery, spilling enticingly out of an antique filing cabinet, to jazz up what's basically a workshop in the back and a right-on wool shop in front, as well as hanging her rugs on the walls and laying them out on the floors. She's also displaying some of her own inventive furniture, such as a chair with a seat made from recycled money and legs of wool built up in layers to resemble turned wood - typical of the wit and pizzazz that so entranced Ms Muir 25 years ago.

The hope is that given a more prominent showcase, sales of her rugs and wallhangings will subsidise an educational effort: "I'm going to set up a lunchtime knitting circle and hold workshops for kids and generally get the word out about recycled yarn so other designers will feel encouraged to come in, pick some up and see what they can do with it."

She would like to see designers better educated to specify environmentally friendly fabrics and processes from the start: "We should take lessons from nature, in which there is no waste. That means separating materials derived from oil, minerals and metals from those which can be grown and replenished and biodegrade naturally."

Alas, going green in fashion and furnishing is not as simple as sticking to wool, cotton, silk and other organic fabrics - it's been discovered, she admits with some regret, that sheep may contribute to global warming, while growing cotton can pollute watersheds. She warns that saving the planet could ultimately come down to renouncing all fabric not based on man-made cellulose fibres: "They are compostable - and the future for recycling is being able to dispose of our clothes as safely and effectively as our food leftovers."

Annie Sherburne's new shop is at Unit 1:10, Oxo Tower Wharf, Bargehouse Street, London SE1, and her recycled yarn can also be bought online at www.fabrications.com

Where old clothes go

Textiles make up 3 per cent of the average household bin.

100 million black bagfuls of textile waste goes into UK landfill every year.

50 per cent of these textiles could be recycled through clothes banks (which currently operate at only 25 per cent capacity), charity shops or jumble sales.

Over 70 per cent of the world's population use second-hand clothes.

In Zambia, the redistribution of recycled clothes provides 2 million jobs - a lifeline in a country where indigenous textile manufacturing has been rendered unviable.

Natural fibres release methane in landfill as they decompose.

Polyester and cotton should not be mixed, because they cannot be separated economically for reuse.

If each person in the UK purchased one item of clothing made from recycled wool, it would save the nation 371 million gallons of water, 480 tonnes of chemical dyes and 4,571 million days of an average family's electricity needs (Source: UK Government).

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