by Gretchen Frederick
I am a person who avoids the why question like…the virus. In our capitalist dominated society, the why of things is answered by profit. Since we moved to a homestead size farm in 1991, any rational, financial evaluation would tell us to give the farm up. Why raise sheep when you can get a sweater at Target for under $20? Even good wool hiking socks, which sound expensive at $17.00, are cheap compared to rare breed, hand knit ones from our Solitude Wool yarn. Why should we care and work to build a fibershed? If you try to answer that question from a financial perspective, the answer is don’t bother, it’s never going to make sense. But I’m still raising sheep and extolling the virtues of wool and local products to knitters and makers. I know it’s valuable, it’s just hard to quantify if profit is the measure of success.
Natural fibers are an agricultural product. As Rebecca Burgess, founder of the Northern California Fibershed says, “fibers come from the same soil, sun and water as food.” A fibershed and a foodshed are simply a geographical area where food and fiber are both produced and consumed/worn/used.
In our geographical area, the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the average farm size is under 200 acres. Most of the farms I know are even smaller. The farmers/shepherds that seek local buyers are very likely using sustainable practices. It makes sense at this scale and is good land stewardship. These farmers are motivated by all the same reasons you and I are—and it isn’t maximizing profit (trust me on that). When you buy local you are supporting those farms: preserving open space, receiving food or fiber grown for its flavor/character, nutrition/unique attributes and supporting genetic diversity (whether it’s in many varieties of apples, tomatoes or sheep/livestock breeds). You also get a special sense of your region, what it produces (terroir) and the seasons.
Thank you to the people that appreciate that locally grown, special variety food or fiber is worth the effort and additional cost! With food it started with local chefs (thank you Nora Pouillon!) and farmers markets. With fibers, it is the spinners, knitters, weavers, crocheters, and felters who buy fleece, yarn and crafts. We need these individuals for support both financial and motivational (farmers love appreciation for what they produce!).
We are so lucky in the Chesapeake Fibershed to have The Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival. Started 47 years ago, it is the mother of all fiber festivals! I believe we have this small but growing Chesapeake Fibershed now because of the connections it has sparked and the direct to consumer market it created for farms.
The connection between farms and those who consume/wear/use the fibers has mostly been individual to individual and generally, only accessible to affluent customers. We need to start to build on the infinitesimal infrastructure of small mills we have in the mid-Atlantic and nearby. We need to find designers and inspire them with the possibilities of working with the unique bounty of what is or could be produced here. We need local manufacturers that employ labor at fair wages to create good products at a scale that is more affordable (or at least not a luxury item).
The pandemic has begun to throw a spotlight on many of the vulnerabilities of our modern monoculture/commercial food system: its environmental harms, human/social inequalities and the vulnerable nature of our food processing and distribution systems.
The global fast fashion system is probably worse. It is one of the largest water polluters and fossil fuel consumers and it is built on some mathematical slight of hand that makes the humongous scale of commodities/clothing extremely cheap. The fashion industry often uses cheap and sometimes sweatshop (even forced) labor and child labor. The food and fashion system that has been built for maximum “efficiency,” meaning the most profit, does not factor in true cost and real value of the product or the process. Clothes that last a season and are thrown out are not cheap, they are costly for our environment and human life.
For me, the why of building a strong fibershed is to make growing, producing and buying local fiber and fiber products a smart and joyful choice for many people, not just those who can afford to do something even when it doesn’t make financial sense. When we can begin to build a healthy fibershed and see progress towards accomplishing this, then I can stop avoiding the why question!