The Sustainable Cloth Challenge has many stories. Here, in the words of Jillaine Smith, a supporting member, fiber enthusiast, and SC participant, we learn how her project came to life.
I’ve been a maker (with fiber) off and on since the late 1970s– quilting, crocheting, knitting. I discovered my passion for spinning, then transforming raw wool into finished product starting in 2015. I had no idea when I started working with wool how many different breeds were out there and how different the results could be from different breeds. I continue to enjoy the discovery. Since learning to spin in 2015, I have had a desire to spin as many different breeds to learn the distinctions and characteristics of different types of fiber. Over time, I have also grown increasingly interested in supporting breeders and shepherds who are practicing sustainable farming as I believe this practice is key to both addressing the challenge of climate change and establishing a healthy food system.
That is how I came to know Tracy Kirkman (who I consider a “team member” on this project). Tracy and her husband purchased Devilsbliss Vineyard in 2013. With an interest in sustainable farming practices, they purchased a small flock of East Friesian dairy sheep. Using artificial insemination with UK genetics, in 2018 they had their first Zwartbles crosses. They continue to develop a flock of this once critically endangered breed here in the U.S. and started sending fleeces to Maryland Sheep and Wool in 2018. Tracy also serves as Events Director for the Waterford Foundation.
In 2019, I purchased, processed and spun my first Devilsbliss Zwartbles fleece; the following year I purchased one of their East Friesian fleeces. Loving and even surprised by the results (East Friesian is known for its milk, not its wool), I sought to demonstrate to others that this particular family of sheep was worthy of being made into yarn. With a growing fondness for the shepherdess working so hard to raise these animals, I offered to knit Tracy a sweater of her choice. This offer coincided with the 2022 Sustainable Cloth Challenge. Starting with two fleeces– one each from her white East Friesian and her black Zwartbles, I scoured each fleece. I hand-combed the East Friesian locks and drum carded the shorter Zwartbles locks. I spun several two-ply skeins of each color. Tracy had seen a sweater vest that she liked by designer, Karen Sissel of Shisa Brand, a boutique in the Faroe Islands. When I contacted the designer, she didn’t have a pattern for purchase. With permission from Karen Sissal, I constructed a pattern for a calf-length sleeveless vest. Techniques included colorwork and steeking. As I was making the sweater, through another Fibershed member I learned of the work of local woodworker Jeff Struewing who makes beautiful useful objects from local, mostly fallen, wood. Jeff was willing to try to make buttons out of Tracy’s chardonnay vines– despite never having made buttons or using grapevines in his work. The result was a sweater vest that suits Tracy perfectly. This experience showed me how the power of the Fibershed story could lead to willingness of all these players to try something new and a generously contribute to the results.