The Sustainability Imperative - Why We Need to Re-set our Textile Industry by Emma McLellan


The Sustainability Imperative - Why We Need to Re-set our Textile Industry by Emma McLellan

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Textile student & Langholm resident Emma McLellan shared the following essay in response to the â€˜infinite hands’ short film programme


There is a sustainability imperative to rebuilding our post-pandemic world, and textiles can provide a key means to do this. We face a mental health crisis, and an increasingly complex economic crisis as well. We need to support generations of workers, who have lost key work skills, due to reliance on being able to buy, rather than make do and mend. We are also facing a time when manufacturing will be increasingly achieved by automation and robotics that will have a significant impact on job sustainability. However, it is argued that textile production can provide meaningful employment that enhances well being, and with a radical change in thinking, might also be able to address some of our economic challenges, and all within a context of addressing our climate crisis.

The Wellbeing Imperative

Many of us are passionate about sustaining our textile knowledge and industry, and even more so, with the Co-Vid pandemic. A key imperative will be to support our community, especially our young people, who have experienced a fundamental and sustained life event, with an as yet unknown impact on their development and well being. Being creative through textiles has many recognised benefits. For example, craft can “alleviate the symptoms of anxiety, depression, and even dementia,”

In addition, the repetitive action of knitting and crochet can induce relaxation, and the sense of wellbeing at producing something can release natural endorphins associated with happiness (Riley, Corkhill and Morris, 2013,

In the author’s own journey to re-train, it has been essential to learn brand-new skills from scratch, and often as the only older learner. This has given insight and understanding into the challenges of new learning, and the obstacles that we can all face, if trying to learn, modify and then perfect a skill. For example, as well as personal barriers such as lack of confidence, we also have significant social and economic barriers such as lack of space, lack of access to equipment, restricted time to retrain, a ‘social media culture,’ that drives the need for perfectionism and constant success, and extreme uncertainty about the future of work and employment. 

It is therefore essential that we provide support for people of all ages, to feel safe to learn skills that give a real sense of meaning, to help cope with adversity, and to build resilience and self-esteem. By promoting wellbeing, we will inevitably build social sustainability.

The Economic Imperative

A second imperative is that of economic sustainability. ‘Fast Fashion, ’is the inevitable consequence of the mass-production of textiles. It has led to the view (at least in Western Societies) that textiles are cheap to produce, and so are easily replaceable. 

However from both a climate crisis and from an ethical point of view, there are now calls for us to become conscious consumers: to be conscious of how our clothes are made, where they come from, and how much energy is used in the mass-production of these items. For example, the film ‘The True Cost,’ (directed by Andrew Morgan, 2015),is a documentary that depicts the textile industry as one of the most polluting and socially exploitative global industries, (

 Sustainable Fashion is a world wide movement that started in response to the Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh, where over 1000 textile workers were killed when the sub- standard factory they were working in collapsed and we are not immune to poor working conditions for the production of ‘fast fashion’ in the UK either,

It is now recognised that constant growth, fuelled by mass-production, is unsustainable, and instead we will need to progress to a more circular economy with extensive re-cycling. Mark Carney, previous Governor of the Bank of England, talks of the need to reset our value system, to ensure that we acknowledge the true impact of manufacturing on society and the environment, if we are going to be able to sustain ourselves and our planet (Carney, M. Value(s), building a better world for all, 2021).

We will need creative minds to enable this to happen, and there is huge potential for this within the textile industry. It is also true to say that textiles can be inherently sustainable, if using traditional fibres, fabric and construction methods. For example, prior to mass-production, we were once adept at repairing clothes, as well as making our own garments (and furnishings). Natural fibres are also long lasting if well cared for. Whilst this does not mean that we will have to resort to making all of our own clothes, re-establishing the link between textiles and where they come from is essential for a deeper appreciation of textile provenance, the true value of textiles, and how they can be kept from landfill. Wool in particular is recognised as providing a highly sustainable source of fibre (Wool for the 21st Century, on line seminar,9/02/2021, The Bradford Textile Society in conjunction with the Worshipful Company of Woolmen).

Moreover, we have had many years of successful initiatives for promoting Fair Trade crafts and produce on a cross-cultural basis However, it could be argued that here in Scotland, we have a need to support generations of people who have lost key skills due to reliance on commerce, globalisation of manufacturing, and the unknown impact of Co-vid. We are also facing a time when production will be increasingly achieved by machinery, thereby scaling back the need for actual working people even more.

A Positive Community

We have an incredible world heritage for textiles, from beautiful dyed and printed fabrics, to multi-cultural styles of stitching, beading, weaving, and knitting, and of course Scotland has a particularly rich textile history. The author is part way through a degree on Design for Textiles at Heriot Watt University, Galashiels and recognises that if we are to adopt sustainable textile manufacture, and smooth barriers to learning new skills, then we need to prioritise supporting our communities. To this end the author is attempting to develop the following project proposals.

Examples of Project Ideas

‘Knit a Bunnet, Stitch a Bunnet’

- To support the wellbeing of our young community by encouraging people to learn basic textile skills, in a relaxed and safe way, to encourage them to build meaningful skills, and promote wellbeing.

- To harness the positive use of social media and on-line learning, to teach people how to knit and sew, using the most basic equipment and materials.

- To overcome economic barriers such as lack of access to space ,equipment, and materials, by utilising basic equipment and promoting up-cycling.

- To raise awareness of sustainability by understanding how garments are constructed and made from scratch.

- To be a catalyst for further skill development by encouraging core skill learning, and encouraging creativity 

Community Textile Hub and Enterprise Workshop

- To set up and run a Community Textile Hub and Enterprise Workshop, to support people to come into a public space, to learn and share skills in textiles, and grow their confidence to find meaningful employment.•

- This model aims to ‘up-skill’ and ‘up-cycle,’ by promoting a circular business model, with a significant social and environmental impact.

- A Hub would provide a dedicated space with equipment, materials and support, to encourage the learning and sharing of skills in textiles. There could be specific teaching for referred groups (e.g. sewing basics, intermediate classes) as well as more relaxed ‘drop-in’ times.

- A key range of high-end products made by hub-users, as well as haberdashery and supplies (e.g. tweed bundles) could be available for sale, for revenue.

- By up-cycling textiles, the business aspect would be based on a circular economy at the outset. Donations from the community and textile industry would be encouraged, and part of the role of hub staff would be to process donations for re-use and re-sale (e.g. grading quality, harvesting buttons, zips and trims, repairing articles).

Wool Processing and Fibre Festival

Within the craft community, there is an increase in the demand for locally sourced, independently crafted and dyed, wool fibre (as well as other fibres such as alpaca fleece), with known provenance. There is a corresponding increase in the number of independent wool fibre manufacturers, and wool festivals such as ‘Wool Fest,’ and ‘the Perth Festival of Yarn,’ are becoming increasingly popular commercial enterprises. The Border Mill processing is an example of a very successful independent company that processes alpaca and heritage breed wool. Their fibre is highly sought after, and they have a considerable waiting list for fleece processing. In contrast, standard wool production and recent economic challenges, have left farmers with difficulty selling fleece for profit, depressed- market

Following a recent ‘fleece residency” at ‘At Birkhill House,’ Alpaca Farm, Earlston, the author is planning to pursue these ideas at the farm, to establish a ‘fibre shed,’- a connection of places and people that grow from field to fibre to function, as well as pursue them within her local community in Newcastleton, Scottish Borders. 

Additional Reading and Links

Stella McCartney and Circular Economy

Reith Lectures with Mark Carney

Visible Mending:


Ethical yarn directory

At Birkhill House 


The author is part way through a degree in Textile Design, at Heriot Watt University, Galashiels, having had a first career with the NHS for over 20 years. Like many people, a love of making and creating became increasingly important as a way of enhancing wellbeing. This then led to a successful application to study textiles at degree level, in order to provide a re-training opportunity.