It’s 1834. A mill owner from Bradford goes to Liverpool to buy some wool. In the dockyard, he comes across some 300 bales of alpaca fibre. They’ve just come over from Peru as soft packing for the ship’s cargo, and have been abandoned on the quays as waste packaging. Our mill owner spots an opportunity, and buys the lot. From it, he’ll spin a cloth to put Bradford at the heart of a highly profitable worsted textile industry.
This is the story of Titus Salt – and it just goes to show what you can do with recycled fabrics and an ambitious mind. Today, the likes of Elvis & Kresse grace the catwalk with clothing and accessories made with anything from car interiors and hosepipes, to bicycle inner tubes.
Finding the raw materials is one thing; making them into something you’d be happy to sport is quite another. Salt spent over a year trying various blends of alpaca, cotton and silk, and tweaking his looms accordingly, before he came up with something both durable and chic. When Queen Victoria started wearing it, he knew he’d won.
But a good yarn is only half the battle when it comes to sustainable fashion. The conditions in which its spinners and weavers live and work can be ‘make or break’. And in this, too, Salt was a pioneer.
In 1851, the centre of Bradford was damp, cramped and just recovering from a cholera epidemic. So when Salt set out to build a new six-storey mill which would produce 18 miles of cloth a day, he looked further afield. The spot he found is on the banks of the River Aire, just beneath Shipley Glen: a popular site then and now for greenery and scenery. Not only did he build a mill here, but also a village to accommodate its 3,000 workers, complete with terraced houses, schools, a hospital and a church.
It's an inspiring example of ethical business – but one that gradually declined with the local textile industry. Today, Saltaire is a World Heritage Site, and Salt’s Mill a vibrant arty space, boasting an extensive collection of canvases, sketches and opera sets by David Hockney – another Bradford man. I grew up just a mile or two down the road and often find myself back in the vast galleries of the Mill, browsing books laid out for sale on antique tables, around huge ceramics bursting with lilies.
It's a fine use of a beautiful space, but certainly not what Salt had envisioned. Does this make his enterprise a bit of a failure in the long run? Should he have foreseen the dramatic shifts that new transport and technology would bring?
If there’s a lesson to learn from Salt, it’s that however good your wool, it’s always part of a broader tapestry (excuse the pun!). The pioneers of the future – in fashion and textiles, transport and travel, or any industry – will be those who look beyond their own patch, asking difficult questions about the sustainability of the wider system and how they fit into it. It’s these questions that lead to real innovation, as Forum for the Future is recognising with its new systems-led strategy.