Thursday, May 23, 2013

Local clothes

In recent months, I've noticed a few friends posting in social media about their projects to grow or raise fibers for making cloth. I've also had a vague awareness of efforts to create a local "fiber shed," a tweet yesterday from a friend who runs an eco-oriented non-profit caught my attention. Apparently, local fiber shed projects have advanced to the point of rustling up an inventory of who's making what.

This trend, if it continues, could do for clothing what localism has done for food. The local food movement is still young but has already succeeded in getting people to rethink their food choices to such an extent that giant corporations have been getting on the bandwagon, and debates on both the virtue and impact of local food have reached the mainstream. (I wrote about this a couple of years ago for the Oryana newsletter, but the only online version I could find is garbled).

Motivations for localizing our clothing and textile consumption abound. Ever since the industrial revolution transferred cloth production from homes to factories, the garment industry has been a focus of concern about wages and labor conditions. Factory tragedies continue, and consumer boycotts of companies associated with sweatshops seem to have little impact on curbing heinous practices.

Gandhi understood that political subjugation came from more than armies and sought to free his country from the British textile mills along with the Crown. He insisted on wearing only homespun cloth, which he promoted as a powerful act of political and economic independence. (My defunct knitting blog has more on this in the Feb. 3, 2005 entry, and a search of "Gandhi and spinning" will yield all you want to know).

As a knitter who has dabbled in spinning, weaving and dyeing, I'm a little skeptical that a local fiber movement will ever get the traction of local food, even though I would love to see it happen. The textiles industry has economies of scale that dwarf artisan fiber crafters. The cost differentials between industrial agricultural products and those of the small, mostly organic farms championed by the local foods movement is a pittance in comparison to the gap between, well, The Gap and your craft fair knitter.

A popular joke among knitters, bemoaning the high cost of quality yarn, is a tale of two friends perusing the sweaters in an exclusive clothing store, with one holding up the price tag: "Will you look at that? I could've knit this sweater for three times that price!" And this sentiment is in reference to commercial yarn; the hand-spun, hand-dyed yarn sometimes acquired from artisan spinners at fiber festivals is even more expensive. Conscientious consumers who can afford it may be willing to pay a 10 to 30 percent markup for organic food, but I doubt there are many who could afford to buy a hand-knit sweater from me if I wanted to value my time beyond 10 cents an hour.

The afghan in the photo on the right was crocheted with yarn produced entirely in the fiber shed in which I lived at the time I started the project. I purchased the skeins at Tierra Wools, an artisan cooperative in northern New Mexico. The fibers are from sheep -- including the endangered Navajo-Churro breed -- raised in the high mountain meadows surrounding Los Ojos and are spun and died in the cooperative's workshops. The yarn is magnificent. My family members fight over who gets to wrap up in this afghan, so warm and soft and lovely. It's not the only blanket in the house, but it's the most treasured. I can't estimate the cost or value; I know it contains between $200-$300 worth of yarn and probably hundreds of hours of my time.

Of course, a local fiber shed needn't have as its objective the hand-production of every item. We could make use of the best tools and processes of the industry with local inputs. An excellent example of small-scale use of machinery is the fiber processing service of Zeilinger Wool Company in Frankenmuth, Michigan. If you shear a sheep (or buy the fleece of one from a rancher or at a fiber fair), Zeilinger's will wash it, card it, and bundle it into ready-to-spin roving. After once attempting to wash and card a fleece by hand, I can testify that this service is so, so worth it. The non-spinner can also have Zeilinger's further process it into yarn and dye it. Perhaps if the local fiber shed movement catches fire, every community will have companies such as Zeilinger's; we already have a small one in the northwest lower Michigan area with Stonehenge Fiber Mill in East Jordan.

A local fiber movement could establish new regional identities expressed through localized fashion. Traditional costumes such as the kimono of Japan and the dirndl of the Alps may never regain common use, but I can envision a region being known for its blue clothes if it grows indigo, for example.

For a region to be self-sustaining in textiles, even with the judicious use of machinery and other industrial processes, I strongly suspect we will need to sharply reduce our consumption. We have externalized the costs of our cheap goods and lost our sense of relative values. A clothing locavore may need to be content with a minimal wardrobe, and by all means, learn to darn those socks! But while we're waiting for the marketplace of local fibers to fully emerge, I suggest hitting up the area thrift stores to at least avoid sending any more money to the Abercrombies of the world.

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