For Becky Porlier, the epiphany came in 2012. An environmentalist and recent graduate from a masters program in capacity development at the University of Guelph, she was working on an organic farm and “having all these conversations with like-minded people,” she says, when she stumbled across a blog by Rebecca Burgess on creating value-added clothing from agriculture. “Nobody in my sustainability world was talking about fashion,” Porlier says. “It wasn’t on our radar.”
Burgess had launched her Fibershed project in 2010 to craft a wardrobe made entirely from materials and labour within a 240-kilometre radius of her California headquarters. While it began as a personal challenge to shrink her own environmental footprint, the initiative soon became a movement. “I fell head-over-heels in love with this idea,” says Porlier, who co-founded the Upper Canada Fibreshed, whose hub is Toronto, in 2013. “I thought, this is a great way for farmers to make use of a product that is undervalued and support their bottom line.” Porlier acknowledges that the group’s name is a problematic reference to a colonial legacy that they would like to evolve beyond, and notes that discussions about changing the name are ongoing.
A fibreshed is a geographic region for textile production. Think 100-mile diet, but for fabric, dye and yarn – as well as the farmers, spinners, weavers, dyers, knitters and tailors who bring it all together. The idea, says Burgess, whose book Fibershed was released in 2019, is to create intimacy within the textile system. On top of that, it’s about lessening the environmental and social impact of the fashion industry, which is implicated in some 5 per cent of global carbon emissions, not to mention widespread pollution of water and land and rampant labour injustices. “You can think of this as being something that is supporting life, not just being extractive,” Porlier says. “What is innate in a fibreshed system is this reciprocity with the local ecology and the landscape and a respect for the people that live there.”
For Merrily Corder of British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast Fibreshed, the development of a local textile economy goes hand in hand with the fight against climate change and pollution. “There’s this dissociation between what people wear and their thoughts about the climate,” she says. “They don’t really think that this bright orange jacket might have originated in Thailand where the waters are running orange.” Education is among the group’s mandates, including participating in initiatives such as the community gardening event Seedy Saturday and encouraging attendees to grow natural dye plants such as marigolds and zinnias, and hosting an annual fibreshed day with demonstrations of skills like spinning and weaving. It goes deeper, too, teaching about techniques for healthy soil development and about carbon farming, using crops to sequester carbon from the atmosphere into the soil. “We’re not just little old ladies sitting around with a spinning wheel having fun,” Corder says. “There’s more to it than that.”
If fast fashion is like fast food, then slow fashion, using thoughtfully constructed and locally produced textiles, is the equivalent of a meal well prepared by a skilled chef using only the best seasonal and regional ingredients. Price-wise, it’s not accessible to everyone, or attainable all the time. But unlike that meal, an item of clothing from your local fibreshed is not ephemeral. Indeed, that cozy sweater handmade with local, naturally dyed wool could last for decades if it’s well taken care of and mended when needed. And when it’s no longer wearable? Unlike synthetic textiles, it’s biodegradable, ready to break down in the compost pile to help fuel the creation of the next sweater.
This “soil-to-soil” cycle is a key tenet of the fibreshed movement. The circle starts, or ends, with compost, followed by crops and livestock, fibre and dye processing, and designing and making garments. It’s with this whole process in mind that the Upper Canada Fibreshed created its Farm Raised Fashion project. Launched in November, the initiative brings together farmers and makers to create and sell both kits and finished products: Think mittens, shawls, hats and scarves, all woven or knitted from Ontario wool. While a couple of farms in Ontario and Nova Scotia are growing some flax for linen – a crop that used to be a staple here, says Porlier – and there is potential to grow plant fibres such as hemp and nettle or to produce silk, the bulk of Canada’s textile production is currently wool.
One of these farmers is Allison Brown, who has been raising sheep and goats for fibre since the late 1980s on her property in the Norwood area of Ontario, east of Peterborough. For Farm Raised Fashion, Brown worked with Toronto weaver Deborah Livingstone-Lowe to create a kit to weave a wool-and-mohair blend shawl; the pair also collaborated with fashion designer Wave Weir to develop a cape-like wool coat. Livingstone-Lowe has also been offering a weaving class at Toronto shop Eweknit to create a similar shawl using Brown’s wool, though classes are currently on hold.
The beauty of the fibreshed, says Brown, is the sense of community, of meeting like-minded people and collaborating on projects – and of seeing the results of her labour in a finished product. Besides Farm Raised Fashion, one example is a blanket made of her wool that was presented to Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall on their visit to Ontario’s Prince Edward County in 2017. “I just love knowing that my sheep grew that wool, and look what became of it,” she says.
Porlier’s dream is for the fibreshed model to become more mainstream and accessible. That means integrating technology: not the large-scale mills used in mass-market textiles, but the next step up from hand-worked looms. “We need to grow it out of a cottage industry and get into some light manufacturing,” Porlier says. “But to do that we need to demonstrate that there’s demand, and right now we’re struggling with that.”
If the growth of the local food movement is anything to go by, that demand might be within reach. Porlier notes that while opportunities for farmers to sell their fibres to the public used to be rare, “now there’s a fibre festival every weekend.” Of course, many of these are currently postponed or taking place virtually. Brown, for her part, points out how much more educated people are about where their clothes come from than decades ago, and believes that interest in local textiles is growing. “I’m getting near retirement age now,” she says. “I wish I was 30 again, because I see a lot of really exciting things happening.”