Textile Society visit to Kew

Last week I joined the Textile Society visit to Kew Gardens to see the Economic Botany Collection and also some of Jenny Balfour-Paul’s collection of indigo textiles housed at Kew. The group was an interesting mix of historians, conservators, practitioners and enthusiasts.

Dr Mark Nesbitt, Curator and Research Leader of the Economic Botany Collection, explained that when the collection was set up in 1847, “economic” meant “useful”. As well as encouraging people to engage with plants and their purposes, the collection acted as a hub between countries of the empire and consumers in Britain, able to advise on which plants grew best under different conditions. It collected not only raw materials (plants) but also the end products – baskets, clothing and the like.

In the 1980s the collection was moved to a new purpose-built building and became a research collection no longer open to the public. It lends over 100 items a year to museums around the world, and museum conservation students work on important pieces as part of their studies.

The collection is organised by plant type – for example, monocotyledons like grasses and palms are stored together. This is because plants in the same families tend to produce similar types of fibre, allowing comparisons to be made.

kew nesbitt

We started by looking at a few examples of plants and fibres produced from them, including New Zealand flax, ramie, stinging nettles and mulberry. The fashion in Victorian times was to show the “illustrative process”, with examples of the plant at every stage, from the original plant stems to the extracted fibres and final fabric, and Kew has a good collection of these.

Mark explained that historical attempts at commercialisation had affected the range of plants used. Processing plants by hand to extract fibre is very labour intensive, but expensive machines imported from London to New Zealand or the Caribbean, where the plants prospered, often broke down. Where industrialisation of the process succeeded, that plant was favoured at the expense of others. Maori weavers originally used around 20 plants, but New Zealand flax is the only one that survived. However, today there is renewed interest in historic materials and methods, so a collection like this at Kew can help in the repatriation of that knowledge.

Closer to home, there have been several attempts to commercially produce  nettle fibre, especially during the two world wars. Recently De Montfort University in Leicester has had another go at industrialising the process and produced some furnishing fabrics. We were all very impressed with these – until Mark told us that they were actually 75% wool!

We then moved on to some of the finished products. A stunning Maori cloak dating from 1856 is the only such garment in any museum collection worldwide. It is made from mountain daisy, also known as the “leather plant” because of the suede-like texture of its leaves. The main cloak was woven from rolled up leaves (a tricky operation), and then the surface was covered with long strips of leaves, which helped the rain to run off.

kew maori cloak

From around the same period (1853) a loin cloth, or tanga, from the north-west Amazon was made from mulberry bark cloth. The inner bark, or phloem, is separated out and pounded to make cloth (paper makers also use it to make pulp). The cloth was made by Uaupe Indians, who crimped it between their teeth and decorated with red dye.

Also made from bark cloth but in a very different fashion was a jacket from the Nicobar Islands. Made from the inner bark of a wild fig tree, this double breasted reefer jacket edged with Manchester cotton is a prime example of a fusion garment – Victorian fashion made from local materials. It was donated to Kew in 1858 by anthropologist Edward Man, and inkstains and traces of wear suggest that it was his personal garment.

kew bark jacket

Two more fascinating items rounded off the tour. A cotton Peruvian shroud, dating from around 1400, was shaped like a large bag. Apparently the body was tied into a foetal position before being wrapped in the shroud.

And finally we saw a bonnet made from Jamaican lace bark (Lagetta lagetto), which used to be widespread in the Caribbean in the 18th and 19th centuries but is now quite rare due to overharvesting. The bark was soaked to separate the inner phloem layer, which was pulled apart into layers of white netting.

kew lace bonnet

Jenny Balfour Paul’s indigo collection

We then moved on to see a selection of indigo garments donated by Jenny Balfour-Paul to the Kew collection. Jenny herself gave an introduction to the collection, explaining how she became enraptured by indigo when she was working in Yemen in 1983. Encouraged by fabric dyer and printer Susan Bosence to apply for a grant to research indigo dyeing in the country, she was then commissioned by the British Museum to write a comparative book on indigo worldwide, and never looked back.

kew jenny bp

Her donations are eclectic, ranging from the shiny indigo embroidered Yemeni dress that started her fascination to a wooden mallet used to beat the fabric to get the shine and a collection of home-made bamboo and copper batik tools from south-west China.

kew yemeni dress
Yemeni indigo dyed dress
kew mallet
Mallet used to beat indigo fabric to make it shiny
Home-made batik tools from China
Home-made batik tools from China

Highlights of the international collection include samples of labour-intensive Indian ajrakh printing, a lovely piece of Nigerian adire painted with a chicken feather and cassava paste, and beautifully textured Mali cotton patterned with stitch resist. There was also mud cloth from Mali, where the cloth was painted with tannic acid before applying mud. The mud reacts with the tannin, leaving a pattern when it is washed off.

Indian ajrakh
Indian ajrakh
Nigerian adire
Nigerian adire
Mali mud cloth
Mali mud cloth

Moving east, Jenny showed us a piece of batik that she rescued from use as a duster(!) as well as Indonesian ikat. China was represented by a jacket from Guizhou that combined indigo batik with weaving, as well as an extraordinary lustrous jacket that was dyed with indigo and then coated with persimmon juice, egg white and ox blood to make it waterproof.

Indonesian batik
Indonesian batik
Guizhou jacket
Guizhou jacket
Indigo jacket coated with ox blood, persimmon juice and egg white
Indigo jacket coated with ox blood, persimmon juice and egg white

To round off, there were a couple of contemporary pieces – a gorgeous piece of ombre dyed hemp by Japanese master Hiroyuki Shindo and a more exuberant piece from Bhutan that was produced with all natural dyes (except for the pink), including turmeric, symplocos, indigo and two types of madder.

Bhutan piece dyed with natural dyes
Bhutan piece dyed with natural dyes
Hemp dyed by Hiroyuki Shindo
Hemp dyed by Hiroyuki Shindo

All in all, a fascinating visit, after which we were free to visit the main gardens, including the Hive.

kew hive kids kew hive kew palm house kew water lilies


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Flextiles uses shibori, ecoprinting and felting to create original, one-off upcycled pieces. Extending the life of a garment by an extra nine months reduces its environmental impact by 20-30%.

14 thoughts on “Textile Society visit to Kew”

  1. Thank you so much for this excellent and interesting post. The pictures are great. I had never thought about visiting Kew on my few trips to the U.K. but perhaps next time, if I am fortunate enough to visit again, I will put this on the itinerary. I love the history and the careful preservation. I’m sure the gardens are spectacular too–the size of those lily pads! Wow!

    1. I’d definitely recommend a visit to Kew, even though for tourists it’s not in central London and is a bit of a trek. The gardens are superb, and there’s so much to see at any time of year. I especially like the Palm House and the Water Lily House. I come away inspired after every visit!

  2. Hi Kim, what a superb day to combine all of your interests in one. I would have been in heaven if I had been there. Is your head now full of inspiration? Superb photos as well, thanks for your effort in putting them up for us to share.

    1. Hi Avril,

      Great to hear from you again! It was a great day, if a little exhausting from so much information and stimulation. 🙂 Hope all is well with you.

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