7 Northeastern Fibersheds Showcase the Future of Our Regional Textile Systems

Written by Amy DuFault, Coordinator of the Southeastern New England Fibershed. Photos contributed by various fibersheds.

Author Ayn Rand was once quoted as saying: “The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me?”

I think about this a lot around what a fibershed can be; the potential for a region to be transformed starting with soil, or a farmer, or a new way of making a t-shirt. It’s this smashing apart of all we have built and believe to be true economically and ethically that’s truly exciting. It’s this revelation from what appears on the surface to be “old-fashioned” but is instead forward-facing enough to be considered science fiction. It’s flipping the supply chain on its head and putting the farmer first; it’s redefining “waste” through innovating products using waste wool, diverting wastewater to grow natural dye plants, to creating long-lasting yet biodegradable garments from a local farm; it’s rebuilding community and culture back into our textile system.

Add 58 fibersheds working passionately to change this fiber, fashion, and soil status quo, and the world should be shaking in their shiny, synthetic boots.

Seven of the 58 fibersheds recently joined forces at the New York Sheep & Wool Festival in Rhinebeck, New York, to showcase a glimpse into the future: climate beneficial wool yardage and sweaters from a fully traceable supply chain, regional blankets whose design tells a deeper story of place, wastewater natural dye farming to rethink how we irrigate and grow, and a mending library that if replicated, could probably shut down fast fashion.

“I think mending can change the relationship to our clothes from something we buy and discard to a deeper kind of stewardship,” says Jennifer Duff, who does social media and outreach for the Connecticut Fibershed and taught mending to visitors that visited her booth at Rhinebeck.

The festival, which many just refer to as “Rhinebeck,” started out as a bred ewe sale by local shepherds back around 1980. The Northeast’s thriving sheep industry is showcased and celebrated each year in this famous festival that draws a multitude of visitors from across the country to the lovely village of Rhinebeck. It has blossomed into a 23,000-attendee event, with more young people coming out in droves, cladded in some not-so-traditional patterns, colors, and design theories on the future of knitting. The New York Times wrote, “Among the seasoned knitters and local 4-H clubs that the event has long attracted was another, newer contingent: young people dressed in bold knitwear, many of whom made their clothes themselves.”

Many of this new generation of knitters and makers spent lots of time talking with the local fibersheds present. Even the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) got a grant to bring students and teachers by bus to the event and specifically to come and talk with all of us.

While hobbies like knitting, sewing, and natural dyeing surged in popularity cross-generationally during the pandemic, so did individual style and a focus on supply chains, what FASHINNOVATION calls “a lasting legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic,” with domestic fashion brands increasingly turning away from global-spanning supply chains and low-cost manufacturing hubs in Asia, to as much made in the USA as they can get.

The popular consensus within our 7 fibershed micro-group was that what we are all doing in our regions has never been more perfectly positioned to provide the traceability consumers and brands are looking for. In fact, based on the feedback from many attendees, we were “the coolest part of Rhinebeck this year” — we must be doing something that’s resonating with the masses.

Marian Bruno — co-founder of the Chesapeake Fibershed along with Gretchen Frederick and Martha Polkey — says, “I think many people were surprised that being local or sustainable didn’t mean you had to be boring. The energy created by the fibersheds being together and the keen interest of the younger people who stopped by was incredible. They wanted to have a conversation, not just hear a few words and walk on.”

Are all things Fibershed a safe space as we transition to more sustainable fiber and dyes, and is Rhinebeck, the nation’s largest sheep and wool festival, a canary in the coal mine for what’s to come?

Laura Sansone, founder of NY Textile Lab (the New York Fibershed), has created regional pathways in textile production for most of her career. Laura says the green light for traceable textiles is here, but we should still proceed with caution as to how we are navigating it. “Our network operates through democratic governance, enables collaborative value creation, and supports the distributed growth of small to mid-scale businesses.” This way, she says, everyone has a stake in the cultivation and marketing of Climate Beneficial™ textiles and clothing. Laura was swarmed all day by visitors flipping through her wool and alpaca swatch books and trying on sweaters and hats made by her network.

Side note: If you’ve never heard of Climate Beneficial™ Fiber, it’s a Fibershed verification achieved by farmers and land stewards who are enhancing carbon drawdown through agricultural practices that regenerate soil health. It’s basically the benchmark most fibersheds are striving for.

The New Jersey Fibershed believes that promoting sustainable, small-scale fiber farming is an integral component of environmental conservation projects and programs in their region. Laura Chandler, treasurer and coordinator of the New Jersey Fibershed’s Blanket Project, says that by focusing on two main concepts – building relationships between fiber artisans and small farms, and educating the public about sustainable farming practices – these projects can contribute to fighting economic pressures and environmental degradation from large-scale farming.

“Our artisan-farm cooperative projects, such as the New Jersey Fibershed Blanket Project, help to develop meaningful interactions between fiber farmers, artisans, and customers who want to contribute to local and regional microeconomies. They help small farms financially while fostering a local/regional fiber-based microeconomy,” says Laura Chandler.

At Rhinebeck, Western Massachusetts Fibershed proved these local fiber economies can also evolve. Their own regional fiber project, now in a third production cycle of yarns, blankets, and cloth, is part of their local woolen cloth project begun in 2018.

“Our fourth production cycle is at Green Mountain Spinnery, being spun this month. In addition to the sheep farmers we have worked with in the past, we are excited to include UMass Amherst’s wool clip and some alpaca in the fourth production cycle yarns,” says co-founder Michelle Parrish.

Northern New England Fibershed (NNE Fibershed) had lots of information on their classes and natural dye projects but want to keep an eye on their region’s future. The NNE Fibershed asked Rhinebeck visitors ways they would work around common challenges in their fibershed, from what’s missing to create bioregional textiles to farmers and infrastructure.

“We are focusing on building our community first before we start on anything specific because we think it’s really important to get community buy-in to ensure the success of our programs. We hope that this strategic planning will help us to understand where we want to be in 10 years and what we want people to be saying about us,” says Lea Rossignol, co-founder of the Northern New England Fibershed.

While education at events like Rhinebeck connects the various fibersheds to current challenges and opportunities, it’s also a great excuse to come together as a group.

Fibershed booths at festivals and events like the New York State Sheep and Wool Festival can be integral to the mission of some of the Fibershed Affiliates, says New Jersey Fibershed’s Laura Chandler. “Rhinebeck is a great illustration of how fiber artisans and fiber producers can meet each other, exchange ideas about their projects, and plan new collaborations. Most of all, Fibershed members can meet members of the public who are interested in learning more about regional and local fiber production and who want to support small businesses.”

Marian Bruno agrees. “While each of us focuses on supporting our regional textiles, when fibersheds work together, we share our learning and broaden our scope. Together, that one small step that each of us is taking can be a giant leap for all.”

Based on the late-night conversations with the seven fibersheds around our farm table after the festival, I’m going with Ayn Rand and Marian’s sentiment — Fibershed is unstoppable.

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To find Fibershed Affiliates in your region, visit our Affiliate Directory. To learn more about our Affiliate Program, visit our website.

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