This week is Fashion Revolution Week, an annual campaign organised to galvanise action around the anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory disaster. We created this hand painted t-shirt installation to celebrate the people who make our Brothers We Stand logo t-shirts. It features one of the women who works in the factory where our t-shirts are cut and sewn.
I made your clothes.
The Brothers We Stand T-Shirt Supply Chain
1. Sowing and harvesting
Region: Ahmedebad, western India
The first step in making our T-shirts is to grow cotton for the fabric.
Farmers in the region of Ahmedebad, western India, sow organic cotton seeds in the ground. Our supplier Earth Positive has worked with these farmers for more than a decade, and has come to know them and their families well.
It’s uplifting to see the way they farm. These farmers don’t use pesticides, which can contaminate water sources. Instead, they use traditional methods to manage soil and to control pests and weeds. These enhance the lush biodiversity of plants, worms, insects and birds.
Ultimately, the monsoon rain ensures success. Our farmers get enough natural rainfall, at just the right time in the cycle, to eliminate the need for artificial irrigation. This saves a huge amount of water and reduces the carbon footprint.
The cotton plants grow into green, bushy shrubs, about a metre tall, with pink and cream flowers. Once pollinated, these drop off and are replaced with “fruit” – green pods, known as cotton bolls. As the boll ripens, moist fibres grow and push out, splitting the boll to allow fluffy white cotton – like candy floss – to emerge.
Five or six months after sowing seed, the farmers harvest this cotton by hand.
Region: Ahmedebad, western India
Ginning is the process of removing seeds, lint and debris from the cotton boll (the fluffy white bit).
For centuries in the Indian subcontinent, workers have used handheld rollers to clean up cotton bolls. The process became mechanised in 1793 when US inventor Eli Whitney came up with the “cotton gin”, which took its name from the steam engine that drove the machine.
Modern-day ginning involves putting the cotton through dryers to reduce moisture. Operators then use mechanical cleaning equipment to remove seeds, burrs, stems, leaves and other foreign matter. This helps to facilitate processing and improve the quality of the cotton fibre.
Labourers compress the cleaned cotton fibres into blocks, and grade them according to quality. The best quality bales can be used for fine fabric. Lower quality bales are used to stuff mattresses. Nothing is wasted – even the leftover cotton seeds go to make cotton oil and cattle feed.
Many of the farm labourers who grow and harvest the cotton bolls also work as ginners, maintaining and repairing the machinery. As ginning is seasonal work, this system provides labourers with continuous employment over several months.
Region: Tirupur, southern India
From Ahmedebad, the clean, organic cotton fibre is transported thousands of miles to Tirupur, an industrial city in the state of Tamil Nadu. There, it’s turned into T-shirts.
We work with the supplier Earth Positive, which pioneered the model for a “green supply chain” – taking organic cotton through spinning, fabric production, dyeing and wet processing to final manufacturing and distribution. In Tirupur, it has a long-term relationship, based on shared values, with a firm that operates a large facility. Different units spin, knit and dye fabric. Powered entirely by renewable energy, and audited by the Fair Wear Foundation, these units use sophisticated automated machines, which helps to reduce energy consumption.
A spinning mill, which takes some of its energy from on-site solar panels, spins the cotton fibre into yarn. One machine is like a giant vacuum cleaner. It strips down the bales of fibre, enabling cotton to be sucked away, screened and cleaned further. Another machine makes a continuum of cotton sausages, each about an inch wide. These are coiled into barrels, then are stretched and wound. This makes the fibre thinner and stronger. The end result is very high quality cotton yarn, which can be knitted into textile fabric.
Region: Tirupur, India
Another of the facility’s units is dedicated to knitting.
Here, workers operate machines that combine cotton from dozens of reels of thread to make fabric. Earth Positive has known many of these people for more than a decade, since first starting to work with this producer. Five years ago, the producer relocated to the brand new, out-of-town building it now uses in Tirupur. Brothers We Stand is proud to say that it’s one of the most modern garment factories in the whole of Asia.
Brothers We Stand T-shirts are made from grey melange 100% cotton fabric, made of melange yarns. (The word melange is taken from the French “to mix”.) To make these, our cotton fibres are dyed in three different shades and blended in the “blow room”, where different machines refine the cotton.
The fibres are spun into yarn, and this yarn is fed into high-tech knitting machines. Being circular, these machines can create tubular lengths of fabric. They have a multitude of bobbins, wound with organic cotton yarn. They look a little like Daleks! As fabric is knitted from the cotton yarn, it is stored on giant rolls.
5. Cutting and sewing
Region: Tirupur, India
The organic cotton fibre for our T-shirts is processed in Tirapur - and our T-shirts are manufactured here, too. The facility Earth Positive uses produces 30% more electricity than it consumes, and sells the surplus into a grid. Electricity is produced 100% renewably, through wind turbines and solar panels.
Earth Positive is keen to improve labour standards. It’s doing this by helping to organise and educate the workforce that makes our T-shirts. For example, Earth Positive has facilitated open elections to a number of workers’ committees, enabling workers to contribute their views. Internal initiatives for improvement include a scheme to provide personal hygiene products to female workers who could not otherwise afford this “luxury”. The facility is SA-8000 certified, working to develop, maintain and apply socially acceptable practices in the workplace. It also works to raise awareness among managers about labour standards and communication.
To make up our T-shirts, workers use patterns to cut fabric (both manually and with the use of computers) then hand-sew these elements. Now nearly ready to wear, our T-shirts are shipped from the Tamil Nadu port of Tuticorin, via Colombo, to Felixstone. This journey takes nearly a month.
Region: Somerset, UK
When they arrive in the UK, our organic cotton T-shirts go to Frome-based screen printers I Dress Myself, to be printed.
This company specialises in ethical screen printing, using only water-based textile Permaset Aqua inks – the most environmentally friendly inks on the market, passing the OEKO-TEX Standard 100 Class 1 test (an independent testing and certification system for textile products) with 60% to spare!
I Dress Myself prints the two colours of our designs on a screen printing carousel, with a “flash cure” unit to dry the T-shirts between prints. A tunnel dryer with quartz elements then dries and cures the inks to make them washfast. The inks on our T-shirts contain no animal-derived ingredients and aren’t tested on animals – so they’re completely vegan. Some emulsions used to create T-shirt stencils contain gelatin. We’re happy to say that ours don’t.
Equally importantly, the inks on our T-shirts are eco-friendly. They contain no ozone-depleting chemicals, aromatic hydrocarbons or volatile solvents. Plastisol inks and some water-based inks require solvents to clean down the screens: these go down the drain, damaging aquatic life. I Dress Myself uses only water to wash inks from the screen, making it an eco-friendly system all round.
You can visit the Brothers We Stand installation at the Truman Brewery until Sun 29th April.
Tue-Fri 11am-8pm, Sat 10am-6pm, Sun 11am-4pm)
Location: The Old Truman Brewery, Shop 4 (opposite Rough Trade), Dray Walk, London, E1 6QL
There will be a series of events and discussions happening in the evenings which you can sign up for here.