Farm to Fashion: Accessories from the Soil

The Fibershed wardrobe is growing, and as it expands, so does our story of  bio-regional textiles.  The most recently created pieces highlight the aesthetic brilliance of knitwear designer, Zara Franks–the creator and visionary behind Venn apparel.  The sheep that Franks is kindly reaching out to in the above photo, is the source for the one and only ingredient in her 1920’s inspired hat.

All of the materials for Franks Fibershed pieces were created with raw wool from WoolyEgg farm located in Mill Valley, California.  (WoolyEgg is opereated by the charismatic Kenny Kirkland and his wonderful partner Judith–who we will document exclusively in our next entry.)

To give you some geographical context for how these accessories came to be– the life-cycle flow chart above chronicles the locations where raw materials were sourced, and how those raw materials were moved across the landscape to become a finished garment within the Fibershed wardrobe.

From WoolyEgg farm in Mill Valley– the wool travelled to the Yolo Mill for processing– to Fairfax for a little indigo dye work–and then over to Berkeley for design and production.  A small-distance supply and production chain encompassing 182 miles of roundtrip travel within the Fibershed.

Our feature story today starts at the end of the production process– and highlights the artisanship of Ms. Zara Franks.

 Franks learned her craft during her time at her alma mater  California College of Arts, in San Francisco, CA.  She studied  with long time eco-textile designer, Lynda Grosse– and during a one semester course learned to operate a knitting machine.  ‘It was during that class with Lynda when I began to conceptualize Venn apparel, I started selling my work the same year I graduated,’ Franks said, during our interview in her North Berkeley backyard.

In the picture above and below Franks begins to thread the equipment.  Scattered on the table below her hands, lays the foundation for her Fibershed pieces– the indigo dyed Mill Valley wool, and some of Sally Fox’s color grown cotton weaving yarns.

During my first conversation with Franks, we discussed the gamut of our design tastes and preferences– from our love of French farm towns, to the benefits of re-kindling a new American aesthetic.  I remember saying how I’d someday like to see or our textile traditions become as respected as the older Fibersheds of Europe and Asia.  Franks added, ‘It’s also about renewing traditions from our American heritage; we once had a craft culture that made useful and meaningful everyday objects, and provided jobs for people.‘  She went on to say, ‘Our country was founded upon people who were once leaders in innovation, who were hard-working, and willing to get their hand’s dirty.  I say, let’s be American again.’

Her ethos is as refreshing as her designs– with a combination of hard-work and the ability to focus her creative passion–Frank’s pieces are both well constructed and visually stunning.  After two interviews with her, I’ve had the visceral response on both occasions to get home immediately and start work on my loom.  She exudes creativity–to be around her, is to feel inspired to make things.

Franks has created a mentorship program for young adults, alongside her work at Venn Apparel.  She understands the importance of craft education, and knows that these skills rely on apprenticeship, hands-on practice, and the development of experience, if they are to endure through the generations.  ‘I’m still looking for studio space so I can expand the program, young people benefit a lot from working with their hands, it is so different from what they normally spend their time doing.’

Threading her machine is a delicate process, and yet, compared to warping a loom, or knitting by hand– the knitting machine offers much greater efficiency.

Her hand pushes a sliding device that moves the thread back and forth, knitting row after row.

Casting off was done by hand, thread by thread.  A ten inch wide sample took approximately 15 minutes to remove from the machine.  After she was done, the piece came off and was bound perfectly at each end.

And Voila!  The local– indigo dyed–and natural color wool has been masterfully constructed into our first Fibershed accessories.  These pieces are now apart of the one year challenge wardrobe– I will be happily wearing them throughout foggy summer mornings and evenings, and cool fall and winter days.  Thank you Zara and Venn apparel!

The scarf in particular has unending possibilities for how it can be placed upon the body, it can be angled to warm both shoulders, or just the neck.. draped to the back, front, or even the side–as seen here.  The quality of the wool is spectacular and feels soft upon the skin– I foresee wearing these pieces at every cool weather opportunity.

Venn apparel and the Mill Valley sheep proved to be perfect collaborators–‘I love the body of this wool,’ Zara commented while at the WoolyEgg farm.  As a limited production item– Franks is making these hats for those who are interested in having their own custom Fibershed piece.  We are currently having the CO2 footprint for this hat accounted for– that should be available in 3-4 weeks… What we do know is that this hat travelled a small fraction of the miles of our mainstream garments, and was created by some lovely local hands and sheep.

The hat highlights the local and very new relationships that are being forged between working farms and urban designers. We foresee continued textile innovations from these emerging dynamic partnerships, that will carry on beyond my personal one year Fibershed challenge.  For more information on Fibershed hats.. email Zara, at