Fibershed & the Return of American Yarn

Eating My Words

Funny how I find that when I actually dis something, very quickly there after I find myself diving deep, learning and falling in love with the very thing that I put down previously.

I’m a natural skeptic, and yes, to return back to the original putdown, from a consumer point of view high-end, eco-conscious wool is not really in my budget, and not even possible to anyone who lives below a certain income (having socialist friends makes me conscious of the different levels of poverty and accessibility in this country) and that’s truly an issue-just as it is with organic, sustainable locally produced food (a comparison I will make again below). That’s what I was criticizing previously, but that’s not a fair critique of any particular industry, it’s a critique of Capitalism.
But looking at the issue of “sustainable yarn” from the opposite end-the production end, it’s a WONDERFUL thing.
Here’s how it started for me. I’m a life-long knitter who’s now retired so I finally have time to knit-and to learn more about what I’m knitting with. I work mostly with moderately priced wool yarn, but recently I’ve gotten into podcasts and learned that many yarn companies have a dirty little secret-their yarn is all produced in China and is superwashed-which is a very toxic nasty business. This article by Woolful is what woke me up to the issue.
So now I’ve realized I would rather have half or even a third of the sweaters than buy yarn that, just like buying conventional food products, is either unsustainably produced or toxic and detrimental to us, our health and our planet.
I had heard of Fibershed perhaps a year ago, but it didn’t sink in at the time. Honestly it seemed like just something for the wealthy folk in the Bay Area and I switched off. (Sorry Fibershed!) It wasn’t until recently when I somehow found the very affordable “Barn to Yarn” event that the Hopland Research and Extension Center was putting on that I re-connected with what Fibershed was doing (mainly because several people in attendance at Barn to Yarn work with that non-profit) and realized this is no small movement and this is about way more than the end user.
Concurrently with finding knitting podcasts and learning more deeply about individual designers, certain local names kept popping up, like Rebecca Burgess (the creator of Fibershed) and Lani Estill. Even my husband, Alder remembered that we saw Lani’s booth for her little company, Lani’s Lana at Lambtown Fiber Festival last year.
Then one of my favorite yarn companies, Brooklyn Tweed (founded by knitting designer Jared Flood who had a desire to source only American raised and processed wool) came out with a new “ranch specific” yarn.  His first several lines of yarn were “breed specific” meaning he was sourcing the wool (mostly Targhee) from all over the American West to get enough to make what he needed. But this first batch of ranch specific yarn is from a ranch that has been using “carbon farming” techniques to create more sustainable wool production (better grassland, happier sheep=better wool) and the farm is owned by Lani Estill and this whole thing was orchestrated by, you guessed it, Fibershed!
So by the time I reached the Barn to Yarn event I was totally tuned into Fibershed and wanted to learn what they’re all about. You can dig into their website, but long story short, Rebecca Burgess is the one who thought about trying to buy “locally grown” clothing and realized there wasn’t any.  I know from experience even trying to find American grown cotton or American made clothing is difficult.  She coined the name Fibershed-just like a watershed or foodshed-it means using what’s produced close to you, and the movement has very quickly created a LOT of change.
It Feels Familiar
Meeting the people involved in Fibershed strongly reminded me of something from my past-the genesis of the Georgia Organics movement that Alder and I were so involved with when we lived in Georgia. You go to an event and you see the same faces and names, over and over. They’re the ones doing all of the hard work, organizing, speaking and even setting out the punch and cookies and filling out name-tags at midnight to make an event work. I know this feeling. I’ve been those people. We did the same thing with teaching Permaculture. If you’re passionate about something you wear all of the hats and do all of the things.
Alder was on the board of directors with Georgia Organics for many years before I met him so I learned all about it’s origins and history, and it was still small when I started working with them as a volunteer. Now it’s a huge movement, twenty-one years strong. It’s a successful non-profit that has made a huge difference in the state of organic food in Georgia. Where once it was a small room with maybe a few dozen farmers and a potluck, now their Conference is a huge event lasting several days, netting high-profile speakers like Joel Salatin, Michael Pollan and Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini. Their banquet is attended by all of the heavy-hitting “foodies” in the South, and as of 2015 they had a paid staff of 13 people.
And I see this potential in Fibershed. I’m quite sure that these hardworking people who are so passionate about sustainability and ranching and sheep and clothing and our planet and their children-I’m quite sure these people will be taking Fibershed to the same heights-or higher, than Georgia Organics.  I mean, Vogue magazine has already profiled women shearers.  The world is already paying attention.
To me these people are rock stars. They are doing great things-and quickly. And one thing I know is where there are knitters, there is a market for great yarn. I am sure that whatever specialty ranch wool Brooklyn Tweed or any other American yarn company can put out, knitters will grab up.
As a knitter who lives in a very rural, very conservative part of California, that is pretty polar opposite of Silicon Valley, one thing I absolutely LOVE about this movement is that it’s creating a bridge between conservative ranchers and the people who buy their end product. It’s slowly and with respect, teaching ranchers that there are benefits to moving into a more sustainable mindset-not only for the land and the sheep but for their bottom income dollar as well. Many ranching families sell out because they can no longer afford to run the business-the work, the lifestyle that their families have done for hundreds (or in the case of many Western ranchers of Basque heritage maybe thousands) of years.
Many ranchers just seek to sell whatever part of the sheep they can to put food on their own tables, and I’ve heard that some will let wool molder away in a barn because it’s too expensive to ship it to NM and they would only get something like $0.80 per pound.
Fibershed connects those people, through sustainable practices to the end users who will go to great lengths to obtain good local fiber. This makes me ecstatically happy as a life-long knitter, and as someone who was born and raised in California-someone who spent 22 years in the South but always longed to come back to the place I call home.  What I see in Fibershed is all of the things I’m passionate about: Sustainability (and really this is Permaculture just by another name), sharing information and educating people about better options, caring about your local everything-shed, and of course, yarn.  It feels like Fibershed is drawing all of the parts of things I love into a cohesive whole, which is good for the state, good for ranchers and good for knitters. If it means less but far more sustainable sweaters, it also means a healthier place to call home.

Footnote: After I finished this post this morning I listened to this Woolful Podcast with Rebecca Burgess. She hit every point I made here.






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