We transformed High Tea with Mrs Woo's production waste into spun yarn, overcoming our biggest technical challenge yet: recycling linen– a brilliant but brittle fibre.
High Tea with Mrs Woo is an Australian slow fashion label, designing and manufacturing superior quality womenswear at their studio in Islington, Newcastle.
The label was established in 2004 by sisters Rowena, Angela and Juliana Foong, and after nearly 20 years in the biz has garnered a passionate following of like minds who value the sisters' modern, avant garde style and slow fashion ethos– which prioritises high quality craftsmanship, natural materials, and maximising the longevity and repairability of everything they make (they've even set up a Facebook group where long term customers can resell their archive High Tea pieces; having stood the test of time after decades of wear).
By the time Dempstah connected with High Tea in early 2021, the sisters had spent years seeking ways to repurpose, upcycle or recycle the scrap fabric left over from their apparel production. And these weren't just any old offcuts– we're talking exquisite quality Japanese linens and butter-soft cottons, in a scrumptious palette of rich mustards, terracotta pinks, rusty reds and antique navies, ginghams, polka dots, and bold prints both abstract and whimsical.
However finding few local options to recover these textiles, the sisters had resorted to storing every last offcut– using these materials for various upcycling collaborations over the years, and waiting for the day they could be more comprehensively recycled.
Upon our initial roadtrip to visit their Newcastle manufacturing studio and meet the sisters, we returned to Sydney with just 30kgs of their waste fabric– diligently sorted into 100% cotton and cotton/linen blend fabrics– to relay to our fibre recovery mill in Hong Kong, The Billie, and investigate whether these scraps could be transformed into spun yarn.
From the get go we knew this was going to be a tricky trial run. Up until this point The Billie had preferred recycling knitted fabrics only; finding the more open, flexible structure of a knit jersey or knitwear item ensured a much higher fibre recovery rate, compared to the dense, fine woven fabrics provided by High Tea.
Beyond that, it was the high linen content in these scraps that proved a real challenge for The Billie team to recover and spin: the dry, rigid and inflexible character of linen meant the fibres would too easily snap when undergoing the intense mechanical 'opening' or 'garnetting' phase of the fibre recovery process– which sees shredded fabrics fed through a long procession of carding drums (big rotating drums with fine metal teeth of varying thickness and sharpness), which would gradually tease out the composing fibres.
After a lot of trial and error the team found that if they combined the linen and cotton scraps together at a specific proportion, the more resilient cotton fibres helped to carry the more sensitive linen fibres through the machinery.
Thereafter, the addition of virgin RWS wool during the blending stage assured the resulting yarn achieved suitable tensile strength and elasticity.
While this approach did produce an excellent yarn, for future runs we'd be keen to refine this blending process; our goal is to move towards blends which are purer and don't mix too many different fibres together for the sake of circularity and functionality. If these High Tea fibres were ever to be recycled again, with even more fibres remedially blended in, this may result in an incongruous motley mash-up of fibre types– and the characteristics of the resulting textile would become increasingly difficult to predict and design for.
Given the technical difficulty of recovering the linen alone, we'll likely always need to recover it alongside cotton, which we can accept– at least they're both cellulose-based fibres. It would be great if we could eliminate the need for wool entirely, although this may only be achievable by generally reducing the ratio of recycled fibre to virgin fibre– instead of the 50/50 blend we created this time, we may need to settle for something like 30% recycled linen/cotton to 70% virgin cotton.
The whole practice is a real balancing act between trying to keep the recycled content as high as possible while not sacrificing fibre purity and performance.
And while I’ve heard others decry mechanical fibre recovery for this finickiness, I find it exciting; to me this High Tea run was evidence that we still have so much to learn about this approach to textile recycling, and there are still many advances to be made.
Just for example: imagine if these fibre recovery machines were equipped with an optical detection function that could snapshot and assess the contents and weave structure of fabrics as they’re fed through, and then use AI to calibrate itself accordingly– applying different amounts of pressure and cycling through different gauges of teeth to tease fibres from the fabrics with exceptional sensitivity and dexterity, thus reducing fibre breakage and maintaining optimal fibre length.
That may sound very pie in the sky, but The Billie system already has optical detection of colours; able to distinguish between up to 9 different colours and then shunt items off a conveyer belt into a corresponding receptacle. They even have little self-driving vehicles carting materials around the facility from machine to machine. I’d say integration of AI into industrial tech may not be as far off as we think.
Anyway, back down earth, our High Tea trial produced a beautiful, silver yarn combining the smooth touch of wool with the crisp, dry handle of linen and body and weight of cotton. Upon receiving it back from The Billie, I immediately began working on a dense crochet bucket hat; anticipating that the crispness of the linen content would maintain the hat's shape and cantilevered brim better than a traditional, elastic wool might. I wasn't wrong!
Just like we did for our Salvos yarn, once we received the High Tea yarn we sent it off to Fibre Arts Shed in Jilliby, NSW– run by Clare and Paul Thornley– to have the yarn set in order to minimise ply separation when being worked with by hand. Setting the yarn included running it through a plying machine to enhance the twist, before steaming the yarn as it was wound onto a yarn swift and hanked.
We were thrilled with the reception from High Tea's audience when the yarn finally hit their webstore; each drop of yarn sold out within a few hours! The sisters did a phenomenal job sharing the story of how the yarn was created (including an especially long and arduous lead time due to endless Covid-related logistical delays and cost adjustments– all of this happening in the midst of the 2021 global lockdown).
The strong response to this yarn was a wonderful indication that people care deeply and enthusiastically about finding circular solutions to waste, and are willing to invest in projects that explore this approach even if the product is experimental and unfamiliar.
Moving forward we would love to create more recycled yarn from High Tea with Mrs Woo's production waste; ideally refining the blend to showcase their linen as much as possible, and expanding the offering of colours and weights (personally I'm dreaming of a mustard yellow recycled yarn colourway).
We'll keep you posted as things progress!
Many thanks for reading,