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The Sisal Project: Creating sustainable textiles using sisal fibre in Kenya
- Written byYana Kasa
- Published date 04 April 2023
An international research and development project supported by UAL's Fashion, Textiles and Technology Institute (FTTI is seeking to produce a sustainable, wearable textile from the sisal plant in Kenya.
Sisal grows easily in Kenya, requiring little water and adapting to the local environment, it is a key material in traditional weaving, such as for baskets and bags. With its low environmental impact, sisal has the potential to form a sustainable cloth product and reduce dependence on imported textiles, whilst also providing value to the smallholder farmers currently working with the crop.
However, the stiff fibre can be difficult to weave into fabric and the resulting textiles can be rough, scratchy, and generally uncomfortable for wider potential use as apparel. The Sisal Project has been working in consultation with designers both in Kenya and globally in search for an answer to these issues.
Sustainable Kenyan fashion brand KikoRomeo collaborated with UK-based consultancy Fashion Scout, who are renowned for showcasing innovative ways of producing sisal yarns for softer, more wearable woven cloth.
The team spoke with local communities and women’s groups who grow or work with sisal in Kenya, to gain a better understanding of its qualities before experimenting with different techniques for processing and spinning.
Originally the team planned to use enzymes to soften the fibres, but due to a global shortages at the time of this initial R&D, they instead tapped into local knowledge and used traditional skills of beating the fibres to soften them.
These methods were also more effective for spinning into yarn – a key challenge was convincing the craftspeople to try working with sisal in new ways. Fortunately, a talented master weaver joined the team and experimented with different methods of spinning the fibres.
The R&D resulted in the team creating two successful yarns, a pure sisal yarn, and a 50/50 sisal and sustainable cotton yarn, through the discovery of potentially viable and mechanised methods of softening sisal fibres - using larger-scale but low-technology machinery.
The research will be showcased to designers and producers, from raw fibre to finished garments and the next stage will be to scale up production of the yarns to weave them into textiles for further experimentation.
Iona McCreath, Creative Director at KikoRomeo, explains: “Kenya relies on a lot of imported fabric. Our hope is that, at scale, sisal fabrics could enable Kenyan designers to dress Kenyans in a home-grown, low-cost, well designed, and sustainable alternative.”
“Sisal fabrics could enable Kenyan designers to develop wider apparel products, and dress Kenyans in a home-grown, low-cost, well designed, and sustainable alternative.”
This project is one of 5 partnerships formed by the New Landscapes Pilot Scheme, led by UAL’s Fashion, Textiles and Technology Institute (FTTI) and supported by the British Council. 5 pairs of SMEs in the UK & ODA countries received funding, academic research support and access to facilities to work on mutually beneficial R&D projects that promote the cultural, social and environmental values of a sustainable global fashion and textiles sector.