A powerful thing happens when we purchase our meat and produce from small-scale, organic farms. Similarly, in the Fibreshed movement, the principles that underlie slow food and the creation of local food systems are applied to natural textiles—plant fibres from cotton, flax, hemp and protein fibres from sheep, alpaca, rabbits and goats. As fashion designer Peggy Sue Deaven-Smiltnieks in the Upper Canada Fibreshed likes to say, “No Farms, No Fashion”.
A Fibreshed (noun) is a concept used to draw attention and understanding to resources available for the production of natural textiles within a defined, place-based area. Fibresheds ensure that the environment is cared for and that people are respected; through them we connect with “the life-giving resources of our homelands” (Burgess, 2011). Visionary Rebecca Burgess from Northern California created Fibreshed, a non-profit organization, when she based her wardrobe on these values, working with local farmers, designers and mills to create garments whose path from “soil to soil” could be traced. There are now 18 international affiliates, with many scattered across Canada, including the Sunshine Coast Fibreshed on the West Coast, the Upper Canada Fibreshed (UCFS) in Ontario, and most recently, the Atlantic Canada Fibreshed.
Upper Canada Mercantile, a member of the Upper Canada Fibreshed (UCFS), set out to create a blanket that would represent the land, climatic and human based interactions that make a product unique, similar to the now-familiar concept of Terroir used in conjunction with French wine. Like all agricultural products, this blanket has a terroir unique to its region and people: The fabrication of these soft wool blankets depends on a wide range of talent and resources within our Fibreshed, from shearing to processing and weaving—an excellent example of what Fibresheds are all about.
To showcase the diversity of breeds our bioregion supports, we bought wool from shepherdesses within 100 km of Guelph ON, the unofficial UCFS headquarters. We chose a light gray Shetland Eesit from Chassagne in Puslinch, a dark charcoal gray Blue Faced Leicester, hand spun by Robin Thoen near Cambellville. The cream coloured Gotland / Finn Cross came from All Sorts Acre near Orangeville. The medium gray is from a mixed breed meat sheep and speckled white/gray Alpaca are both from Freelton Fibre Mill. These breeds are hearty, do well in our harsh winters and produce beautifully, soft, lustrous wool in every shade on the scale from white to black, every tone of brown. More information about these producers can be found on the UCFS website. Because the natural colours of the wool are beautiful on their own, we did not opt in this case to use the wonderful local dyes also available in our Fibreshed.
The blankets also reflect the mechanics of the remaining small-scale industrial fibre mills of Wellington Fibres in Elora, and Freelton Fibre Mill near Hamilton. These mills process one fleece at a time, ensuring that the wool you put in is the wool you get back.
It is a very technical, skill oriented, details-driven process at which each mill excels. It is an industry that once employed thousands in Ontario and is enjoying a revival, even though it currently employs only a handful of people. One goal of a fibreshed is to increase that number substantially.
After the wool is spun into 2-ply yarn, it is woven by hand by Deborah Livingstone-Lowe in Toronto, of Upper Canada Weaving. Deborah is an incredible weaver whose skill and talent are shown in every detail. She works using a 19th century loom from Quebec and has a deep knowledge of historical textile production with a fine focus on Ontario and Quebec. For these blankets, Deborah chose a pattern that employs a twill weave structure and tartan design that has historic connections to this area.
A shift to a sustainable material culture will happen when we recognize the talent in our own homeland and rely on our landscape to produce the goods that we need. In other words, craft becomes revolutionary when it becomes common place.
By relying on our region’s wool and craftspeople, Upper Canada Mercantile supports the shepherdesses whose livelihood depends on animal husbandry, the women that process and spin the fibre at the mills and the woman who weaves. The blankets are a beautiful and valuable manifestation of the soil, animals and cultures and traditions of the artists of this place and time in which we live.
All of this is possible because of the collaborative network that the Upper Canada Fibreshed is developing.
Editor’s Note: In Canada, textiles can not currently be certified as organic; the scope of the Canadian Organic Standards is restricted to food, feed and seed.