In April 2022, The Aviary Studio founder Sarah Ward was granted funding by the Theo Moorman Trust for Weavers to delve deeper into her research and practice of traditional denim weaving.
The main objective of this on-going project is to create a strong, durable pair of jeans from scratch, without using any virgin cotton or toxic chemicals.
Using waste yarn discarded by the UK textile industry, and only natural ingredients in the dye vat, Sarah endeavours to honour traditional denim weaving & dyeing methods used before the advent of synthetic dyes and industrial production processes.
As an environmental activist, the main focus of her work is to share knowledge through craft. She uses her woven work to advocate weaving as an art form, encouraging the learning and passing on of skills in traditional crafts, but also to raise awareness about waste, and the impact of fast fashion on our planet.
Since April 2020, Sarah has been developing her practice and with the support of the trust has now achieved a cloth that can she can confidently call denim! From this cloth, a jean prototype has been produced, equipped with rivets, selvedge turn ups and a classic stitched arcuate on the back pocket.
The prototype, cut and sewn by Sally Holditch was exhibited at Flux: The Experimental Weave Lab in September 2022, sparking much dialogue about denim production, then and now, and also about the environmental & social impacts of todays industry, about how our clothes are made, and the journey they go on before they arrive in our wardrobes.
Alongside her weaving practice, Sarah gives talks on denim and indigo, their histories and the industry's relationship with the environment.
This project is intended to be educational, encouraging knowledge and skill sharing, spreading appreciation for hand craft, which has never been more important than now, with a nod to our ancestors in our industrial and fast paced world.
The process and outcomes of this project are shared publicly, and you can follow the journey by visiting The Aviary Studio Instagram or checking for updates on the Crafts Council Directory.
Most denim these days is made with virgin cotton grown with pesticides, and is dyed using synthetic indigo, using chemicals such as Lye and Sodium Hydrosulphite as the reduction agents - not to mention excessive water usage during the dyeing and finishing processes. With todays demand for denim - along with the rest of the fast fashion industry - the level of damage to the environment and its inhabitants is significant, and of course there is so little transparency in the supply chains, that it is often not possible for brands themselves to know exactly what the provenance of their product is.
Honouring traditional and natural methods, Sarah has chosen to eliminate synthetic or toxic chemicals from her dye vat, opting instead for plant based pigment from the Indigofera Tinctoria plant (native to India) and Persicaria Tinctora (native to Japan), using lime to raise the pH, and moving between the iron vat, the fructose vat and the organic henna plant vat. Besides obvious environmental reasons, using natural ingredients makes the vat much safer for to use and dispose of.
All of the yarns used to make the denim are 'waste' that have been discarded by the UK textile industry and diverted from landfill. Using waste cotton eliminates the extra water and pesticides that are usually used to produce virgin cotton. The cotton arrives as 'end-cones', the last small amount of yarn left on the cones, which the factory cannot use in their machinery.
When one waste yarn has run out, it's time to move on to another, making a few meters of a slightly different denim quality. Thats the beauty of using waste yarn, when it's gone, it's gone, each cloth unique, each yarn a slightly different twist.
Of course this would not be workable for todays denim industry - but this project isn't about mass production, dye consistency, uniformity or perfection, it's about keeping this ancient craft alive and passing valuable skills down.
In the garment industry there is little tolerance for imperfections - every garment must be the same, must pass the test. Machines have been developed to provide automated solutions for human error, creating regimented uniformity and consistency - no slubs in the yarn, no slight variations in colour, no evidence of a fixed warp thread or human touch.
For Sarah the beauty is in the imperfections, the colour variants, the tell tale signs and scars that connect the cloth to its maker.
Once the waste yarn has been wound into 'skeins' and dyed, the skeins must then be transferred back onto cones ready for warping.
This hank-to-cone winding machine was funded by the Theo Moorman Trust For Weavers, a fantastic organisation supporting UK weavers to enjoy artistic freedom so that they may contribute to the development of hand weaving and the education of future weavers.
This single headed machine was crafted using parts from old, industrial multi-headed machines from mills that have either shut down or moved onto faster technology.
Hand made by Paul Holliday from Tortex Engineering, it features both the 'swift' (for initially winding skeins of un-dyed yarn) and cone winder (for winding the dyed skeins back onto cones).
Dyeing skeins rather than full length warps is a much easier and more efficient process for two reasons; skeins introduce less oxygen into the dye vat as they are smaller and easier to handle, plus, using multiple cones of dyed yarn to wind a warp ensures a more evenly spread distribution of dye across the width of the warp, with less obvious striping.
Once the warp has been made, it is wound firstly onto the back beam of the loom, and then each individual warp yarn is threaded through individual 'heddles', which sit in each 'shaft' (shafts are the harnesses that lift and drop during the weaving process). After that, the yarns are threaded through the 'reed' or 'beater', and you're ready to weave!
Traditionally, denim was woven with white 'selvedges' down each side. These would be visible on the inside hem or 'turn ups'. The word selvedge comes from the term 'self-edge', referring to the way in which the edges are secured by the weft passing back and forth.
These days, industrial looms cannot achieve the self edge, and edges must be overlocked to prevent fraying.
This is how the denim looks when it comes straight from the loom. Without any finishing processes applied to the cloth, it is referred to as 'loom state', 'raw' denim, or 'dry' denim.
Originally, before the weaving process begins the warp would be starched to protect the yarns from becoming brittle during the weaving process. This is why jeans used to be so stiff when they were new. Today, most denim undergoes softening and shrinking finishes to give them a worn in feel, straight off the peg.
This denim has not undergone any finishing processes, as this is something more in line with modern denim manufacture. Today, 'off the peg' jeans are subjected to many chemical and water intensive processes to soften, shrink and fade the cloth, typically for the purpose of creating 'instant fades' whereas traditionally denim would be worn dark and stiff, the fabric softening gradually over the years.
People would buy jeans two sizes too big and then wear them wet, so that the jeans mould to their body shape. Watching these jeans change over the years will be very much part of this story as the making of them!
To find out more and to follow this denim journey, please get in touch via our contact page or visit the Instagram.
You can also access repairs, talks, and weaving workshops here.