FARM TO CLOTHING

  • Different samples of weaving patterns hang on Peggy Hart's wall. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Peggy Hart's weaves fabric on her ancient looms and other equipment at her Buckland farm. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Peggy Hart picks impurities out of raw wool at her Buckland farm Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Just about every part on Peggy Hart's 80-year-old loom seems to move as the shuttle zips back and forth threading the weft through the warp that is attached to the loom. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Peggy Hart's spare bobbins tell a history of colors used. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • A Holyoke Bicylce Shoe made by Daphne Boerd, of Holyoke, through the Western Mass Fibershed. Contributed image

  • A coat produced thorugh the Western Mass Fibershed. Contributed image

  • A coat produced through the Western Mass Fibershed. Contributed image

  • Products produced by the Western Mass Fibershed. Contributed image—

For the Recorder
Published: 7/12/2020 1:53:14 PM

A group of weavers, natural-dye makers and clothing designers from around the Pioneer Valley began spinning the first threads of the Western Mass Fibershed a couple of years ago, as it became clear to some that “locally spun and woven” makes as much sense as locally grown food in an era when sustainability matters to more and more people.

WIth help from a 10-year-old California nonprofit Fibershed, a Western Massachusetts affiliate won a demonstration grant to involve farmers, weavers, dye-plant gardeners and fashion designers in showing potential for what the region could be doing to develop a viable grass-roots industry.

“We wanted to have a concrete project,” explained Michelle Parrish, of Amherst, who with Lisa Batholdi, of Conway and Nur Tiven, of Shelburne Falls led the creation of the affiliate here. “There is already an incredibly vibrant fiber arts community in Western Mass., with lots of shepherds as well as the Western Massachusetts Sheep and Woolcraft Fair in Cummington, and a network of knitters and weavers already in place. We wanted to have something distinctive that wasn’t yet happening.”

Fibershed, which had begun in California as a way to reduce use of fossil fuels, supports farmers, correcting the fashion industry’s status as the second greatest world polluter, and remedying having only 2 percent of this nation’s clothing produced here, contrasted with 95 percent in 1960.

As many as about 20 craftspeople in the roughly 50-mile radius around Greenfield set their sights on producing locally sourced wool and wool cloth  into garments as a way of demonstrating what could be made here in Western Mass. now as well as what are the missing elements to develop a fiber industry that could help the region’s economy. The effort brought together 10 fashion designers to make 25 to 30 one-of-a-kind items.

The Fibershed affiliate — one of several in New England, including southeastern Massachusetts/Rhode Island, Maine, Connecticut chapters and one being created in Vermont/New Hampshire — is anchored around Buckland weaver Peggy Hart’s Bedfellows Blankets business, the Green Mountain Spinnery in Putney, Vt., and a variety of sheep farms around the four western counties, even though most of those farmers now discard their fleece as compost  because it hasn’t been cost-effective for them to sell it.

Hart said she hopes that one goal of the Fibershed could be to convince those sheep farmers it’s worthwhile to change livestock management to keep their fleece free of sawdust bedding and burrs that can be hard to remove. 

The Buckland weaver, who has been making blankets and woven cloth since 1982 in her converted barn studio, produced 40 yards of herringbone and plaited fabric from fleeces from Brooks Bend Farm in Montague and Winterberry Farm in Colrain. 

“Once we had the cloth in hand, we wanted there to be a range of applications, showing what’s currently available,” said Parrish, explaining that the group called for submissions using word of mouth, without setting parameters for their demonstration projects, she said,

“We felt these other people’s expertise would take it to the next stage, turning this cloth into something beautiful,” added Parrish, who apart from being an elementary school teacher is a weaver who grows plants for making dyes.

“We were so fortunate to find shoemakers, someone to make a cape, another person to make a bag, and trousers, a dress, jackets, tops, a work shirt,” said Parrish.

Shoemaker Sarah Shields, of Shutesbury, made a pair of woolen boots, while Daphne Boerd, of Holyoke, created a Holyoke Bicycle Shoe about which she says harken back to “self-sufficiency” shoes of the 1940s and incorporates traction soles from used bicycle tires and trim recycles bicycle inner tubes.

Katie Cavacco of South Deerfield, a seamstress and fashion designer who returned to the area after finishing a sustainability-oriented Fashion Futures program at the Fashion College of London and was “excited to get involved in applying those ideas and ethics in a local setting” created a woolen jacket with a circular pattern of naturally dyed, multicolor triangles on its back.

The array of Fibershed fashions was displayed last fall at Hitchcock Center for the Environment in Amherst and had been scheduled for an exhibit at Hancock Shaker Village in April before being canceled because of the coronavirus.

Instead, Fibershed members — continuing to meet over the Internet — have been planning how to proceed with about 200 pounds of fleece, which is twice as much as the last batch. The Montadale wool, purchased from Tim and Dorothy Storrow of Gill, is in the process of being spun by Green Mountain Spinnery to produce yarn that Hart plans to weave into blankets, throws and cloth for sale to clothing makers around the region. (The group is accepting pre-orders at westernmassfibershed@gmail.com from anyone interested in purchasing the goods.)

“We’re actively moving forward,” said Parrish, who said the 28 fleeces should produce a denser, heavier material than is more suitable for outerwear. “Wool for a coat in New England makes perfect sense

In the future, some fibershed members say they’d like to compile a database of resources in the area and even see flax grown to produce linen as well. 

As it continues, Cavacco said, the work of the fibershed is “finding a sweet spot of scale. Because if we continue to scale up, we’re just going to end up with a system that’s global, and things that are shipped all over the place.How do you keep it small and regional, but not keeping it so small that it’s pricing people out of affording those products? You can oversaturate that area, and run out of customers and that sweet spot of finding a viable economy in it that’s also sustainable and respectful of people and the planet.”

“Sustainable fashion is now reaching the mainstream,” Cevacco added.

Although early discussions considered whether there could be a formal “fibershed certification” if a product was made entirely with locally sourced material, Parrish said, “We knew right away it was an unreasonable expectation to use only local materials. We wanted there to be a range of what’s currently possible, and if we wanted to be truly self-sufficient, there’s a lot of stuff we can’t make right now.”

Parrish, who says she’s never been able to figure out how to make a living as a weaver-dyer, acknowledged, “Ultimately, part of the mission is to create economic opportunities for small businesses that can be a livelihood for people. There’s a huge need around here for the creation of viable businesses, and in a dream world, creation of jobs is definitely a goal.”

Along the way, there are certainly obstacles, like the cost of the end product and finding people to buy it, she added, but those might be overcome through decisions on how to contain production costs and how to teach people the value of choosing locally made products.  

“It doesn’t help anybody if we’re not able to further the viability,” Parrish said. “I just want people to know about local fiber, and I think that’s worth it. The more people who know, the better.”

Now retired, Richie Davis was a writer and editor f or more than 40 years at the Greenfield Recorder. His website is richiedavis.net.




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