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Embedding sustainability concern in the curriculum


Sustainability, Sustainable materials, Woad, Alpaca and Shearling.


I was at a seminar recently describing to colleagues the initiatives we are making at Norwich University College of the Arts to embed awareness of sustainability issues within the BA (Hons) Textiles curriculum. At the end a colleague from another institution suggested our efforts were ‘niche,’ and that the problems concerning sustainability and ethical practices were so widespread and deeply entrenched in the fashion and textile industry that there was nothing educators could do to change things. In this paper I will describe the student projects promoting sustainability that we have implemented, and argue that it is the educators duty to ensure that future designers are aware of the issues and are equipped to facilitate change.


The B.A. (Hons.) Textiles Course at Norwich University College of the Arts is in the centre of Norwich, a city with a long and rich textile history, in the centre of Norfolk, a rural county with its own urgent concerns about the environment.

As a low-lying coastal county with a growing population, Norfolk is particularly vulnerable. Higher sea levels, heatwaves, drought and storms are all more likely as global temperatures rise (

As textile educators the course team has recognised a responsibility to help students to look ahead and face the challenges that designers will face in terms of developing a sustainable future. This involves not only looking at hard facts and research already out there about the changes we can predict in terms of material availability and sustainability and likely demands of clients in ethical production and recycling, but also encouraging students to imagine what might come beyond that.  How they can influence consumers and influence what they, in turn, demand from manufacturers in the textile industry?

This is a huge challenge; the fashion and textile industry is deeply entrenched in unethical practices and use of unsustainable materials is widespread. Our students themselves buy fast fashion, wear once and throw away.  Can we change or influence that? Small changes are happening, there is a growing awareness and excitement around alternatives such as slow fashion, vintage, and other ways of prolonging the life of a textile. We have embryonic designers in our Universities, can we educate them to recognise the influence they might have on future consumers and ultimately changing ways of producing and buying textiles? A designer’s role is to create products that are desirable and that people want to buy and own and therefore our young designers need to possess the tools to bring about that change.

Staff on the course have research interests in sustainability and have participated in the development of sample books of natural locally grown dyes and a database of regional sustainable materials all of which support this initiative. The Textile Course is unit-based and all students in the first year receive inductions in print, dye (including natural dyes), knit, weave, stitch and associated digital practices. The second year of the course involves refinement of technique, process and concept and exploration of context for practice.

Developing live projects to develop sustainability awareness

The following describes projects the course team implemented during the last academic year for year two students, and took place between January and March 2010. All students took part in at least one project and were all working concurrently on entries for the Bradford Textile Competition. All students took part in the final collaborative project described later in the article.

Woad Inc: Natural Norfolk Blue

We began to look for suitable partners for a live project and met with Ian and Bernadette Howard who run Woad Inc. Ian is a Norfolk farmer who has diversified into natural indigo pigment extraction following five years growing woad as a diversification project. Initially involved in growing several alternative crops, woad is the one that he has now developed into a full-time business.  Ian has also developed a visitor centre on the farm and sells a range of high quality wares dyed with natural indigo pigment from woad grown and processed on the farm. He also has an online business.

We began with a group visit to the farm where the students were able to both look at the crop and listen to Ian describe the process of harvesting and preparing the dye. With its obvious links with denim and its fashionable aesthetic, the students were fascinated and were able to bring dyestuffs back to the workshops at the University.

This visit dovetails and extends inductions the students receive at the outset of the course in natural dyes and all take part in workshops using mordants and a variety of natural dyestuffs including indigo.  Some have taken this further, using natural dyes as an integral part of their practice incorporating their instability as a positive characteristic in contrast to mass production and the uniformity of chemical dyes.
Woad Inc have been active in offering student placements, working on dyeing fabrics with woad: One student describes her experience in her personal journal:

I spent two days working with Ian Howard, I learnt lots about working with woad but was also able to share my knowledge about working with other natural dyes like weld and madder. Earlier in May I was invited to spend the day indigo dyeing with a designer called William Kroll who is launching his label, “Tender”, classic styling with Japanese denim made in England and sold in high end boutiques around the world.

It is interesting that this student talks about being able to share her knowledge from the course with Woad inc making her placement a learning experience for both parties. The experience, shared through a presentation to her peer group also underlines that this material and method of production has an application in high fashion. That William Kroll is using the fact that his garments are hand dyed on a Norfolk farm with woad adds value for the consumer. His label ‘Tender’ is sold in Priscilla Carluccio’s shop ‘Few and Far’ in Knightsbridge and ‘Tenue De Nimes’ in Amsterdam, and has featured in August 2010 Selvedge journal.

This project has been ongoing for a number of students who now work regularly with the woad farm. Their influence has informed and extended their product ranges introducing a more contemporary edge.

AzSu: Pure Alpaca

The BA (Hons.) course at Norwich offers students the opportunity to experience a broad range of textile processes and techniques and to inventively combine materials and techniques. Therefore, to complement the woad project, staff wanted to extend the student experience of materials and invite students to work creatively with natural sustainable fibre.

Alpaca fleece is a natural fibre. Alpaca fleece produces a luxurious textile similar to cashmere.  It is light weight or heavy weight, depending on how it is spun. It is soft, durable, luxurious and silky.  While similar to sheep wool, it is warmer, not prickly, and has no lanolin which makes it hypoallergenic.  Alpaca is naturally water-repellent. The natural colours of the alpaca yarn are varied and beautiful used in the natural state.

AzSu is situated in west Norfolk on a farm of about 55 acres. The owner Su Lenk runs her herd, harvests the fleece and produces products for her shop and online shop including clothing and homeware.
The student’s task was to work with the Alpaca fleece in a creative and experimental way and produce a collection of ‘products’ that challenged the currently ‘traditional and obvious’ use of the fleece and bring the material into the 21st century making it a more commercially viable fashionable textile ’product’. The concept was sustainability and the product needed to be:

  • Environmentally Friendly
  • Have a lower Carbon footprint
  • Sourced locally where possible (East Anglia, United Kingdom, Europe)

Students were also encouraged to blend with other sustainable materials to create new fibres.  Dyes must also be natural and students were also encouraged to look at the textile traditions of Norwich and reinvent.

Again there was the opportunity for the students to visit the farm to examine the production processes and look at current products on sale.

The response from the students was very positive with a group of 12 students presenting ideas for production. These were mainly handwoven naturally dyed samples using a variety of weave structures and inventive use of materials and combinations of materials. The response from AzSu was also positive and again students have influenced her product line, and have been able to continue working with Alpaca through the BA (Hons.) Textile placement programme open to year 2 students.

Nursey Sheepskin Project: Shearling a natural luxury

To continue and extend the theme for year two the staff team also initiated a project with a sheepskin company in North Suffolk. Again the emphasis was on the sustainable nature of the material, the treatments available for the product, and the opportunity to research and develop a contemporary product using natural sustainable materials from an ethical source.

The story of Nursey is one covering 200 years of tradition, experience and uncompromising craftsmanship. Back in 1790, Samuel Nursey opened for business declaring that, first and foremost, he would work with only the finest lambskins. It’s a principle that successive generations of Nurseys saw no reason to divert from, and one which Tim Nursey, the current Managing Director, adheres to to this day (

Although once a local product, skins are now mostly sourced in Europe. Once the skins have arrived at the factory, they’re examined and sorted, according to colour, texture and weight, and are then hand cut for a quality and highly crafted product. One sewing machinist is responsible for sewing the whole garment. All skins used at Nursey are a meat industry by-product.

Working alongside the company PR firm, the aim again was for the students to create a new product for the company that referenced forthcoming fashion trends or to design an imaginative ‘show stopping piece’ that could be used for promotion purposes, at trade shows, etc.

All the materials provided for the students were off cuts so there was no waste of viable material and the quality and variety of materials offered an unusual and challenging opportunity for the students to use their textile skills in a different way. Students needed to experiment with dyes, ways of joining the material, disrupting the surface and pile of the furs to create interesting texture and combining with other materials to create drape, etc.

The response from the students was impressive and came by shortly before the appearance in the September/October fashion journals of the winter 2010 trend for all things shearling! The company was impressed with the inventive and contemporary ideas and there were things they could see could link with, and update their current product range. Again involvement with the company has been extended through student placement opportunities.

Collaborative Project: Sharing experience

Finally, to finish the year students were presented with a non-assessed two week brief:
Students were divided into design teams of five individuals. They were then presented with the brief:

Together you must write yourselves a design brief on the attached form identifying a context for your work, a client and a product. In addition you must consider issues of sustainability and how your product might demonstrate your client’s commitment to these issues. You must then address the brief producing research, drawing and two coordinating design solutions each in different materials to create a team collection. You will not be using the workshops so together you must think of innovative ways of demonstrating your ideas, producing samples, etc, to communicate your ideas effectively.
Norwich University College of the Arts 2010

This brief brought together students who had previously been involved in the Woad, AzSu and Nursey projects to exchange ideas on sustainable issues and use and share knowledge to develop a new product.

Discussion revealed an impressive awareness of the issues explored through the live projects and a genuine commitment from many students to keep sustainability concerns as a key theme in their year three practice.


Through live projects and the resonance they have with students, we are ensuring students develop from the outset of their careers an awareness and understanding of sustainable and ethical issues within textiles. This will help them develop an ability to combine good design with responsible use of materials to ultimately make sustainability attractive to manufactures and consumers. As sustainability becomes a priority for manufacturers employers will be looking for designers with this sort of awareness and experience.

The challenges of sustainability are complex but students need to know, or imagine, what the challenges might be.

Contact Information

Jill Rodgers
BA (Hons) Textiles
Norwich University College of the Arts
3-7 Redwell Street


Jill Rodgers, MA, is a Senior Lecturer on the BA (Hons) Textiles and FdA Surface Design within the School of Design at Norwich University College of the Arts.

Current research is focused on the development of an Interactive Textile Resource containing handling examples of contemporary textile work aimed at extending experience of textiles and materials through touch. This is a collaborative project with Grainne Swann, Senior Lecturer in Textiles.


M. Braungart W. McDonough (2008) Cradle to Cradle: re-making the way we make things. Vintage Books London
M. Lee (2007) Eco Chic. Octopus Books, UK
Textiles Environment Design