April 2022 Studio Hours: On Sustainability in Craft

27 April 2022

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For the April Studio Hours, we shared a vibrant discussion on sustainability in craft in honour of Earth Day this month and we welcomed new members who joined D&T after learning about the magazine at Knit City Montreal.

We started with some polls set up by Kim and Kate to gauge the opinions and actions of the group and to inspire conversation. When asked whether we think about environmental sustainability in our craft materials and tool purchases, over 80% agreed that we did, at least some of the time, whether the product description mentioned it or not. Of course, that led to discussions of what, exactly, does “sustainable” mean?

We then looked at various options when starting a new project. Most of us try to use materials and tools that we already own and supplement them with shopping locally. Many are less concerned about sourcing certified organic materials, partly because of the ambiguities around the term “organic.” Cotton is clearly more sustainable from organic sources. Wool, however, is more problematic, as organic certification bans the use of some products which are important for fibre sheep welfare (some vaccinations and worming medications, for example). In addition, organic dyes are rare and natural dyes may use a lot of water in the dyeing process. It is complicated.

And then, what does “shopping locally” mean? From an environmental sustainability view, we are trying to reduce the distance travelled by our materials. Canada is so large that shipping materials across the country probably makes a lot less sense than reaching out to a supplier just to the south. Can we buy from a local store that aggregates materials, rather than having products shipped to our individual homes?

We briefly discussed the compromises we sometimes need to make when the sustainable choice is much more expensive. One member brought up a shipping option that Small Bird Workshop has started where the purchaser can choose to spend a little more for biodegradable shipping materials.

When asked whether we feel like we know enough to make good choices when it comes to shopping for environmentally friendly craft supplies, only one-third of us said yes. There are so many confusing stories out there and so much green washing. How far does your yarn travel? How much processing really goes into the different options? And is it even possible to consume our way to a climate positive/sustainable state within capitalism?

Members identified issues they’d like to know more about. Many were interested in the relative eco-friendliness of different textiles and fibres: from fibre production, through processing into yarn, dyeing (with its water use and wastewater treatment concerns), transport to market or consumer, and issues surrounding end-of-life. We want to learn about options for upcycling and recycling of textiles near where we live and then finally, when those are no longer a possibility, about how different materials will decompose.

We want to read stories about people and places that are doing things well. Sharing success stories can encourage others to advocate for change: how can this project be adapted to my locality? Who can I talk to and how do I encourage a movement toward more sustainable practices?

We didn’t have a formal show and tell, but we did briefly talk about projects we’ve done that reminded us of the intersectionality of craft and environmental sustainability.

A new member shared his experience working with Bluefaced Leicester wool roving from a sheep farm just an hour outside his city. Another member shared that she works exclusively with recycled woollens in her fibre arts—mostly rug hooking and knitting. She reminded us that recycling textiles is not new—shoddy fibre in the UK was, and continues to be, an active industry.

One member shared her weaving guild’s Virtual Sheep to Shawl in 2021, where groups on Vancouver Island all worked with local fleeces, some groups using local mushroom and plant dyes, to experience connection to each other and the local land.

We were reminded of the many uses for local wool beyond yarn, such as wool carpets, mattress pads and pillows, building insulation, and wool pellets for use in gardening.

We talked about choke points in the processing industry with few large mills working with Canadian wool. Many dyers are interested in working with Canadian wool yarn, but they cannot find it at a volume and price-point that is sustainable for their businesses.

Of course, there are natural fibres other than wool! Many areas of Canada have a perfect climate for growing flax (for linen) and hemp. We were reminded of TapRoot Fibre Lab (NS) as a source for Canadian flax fibre (see the recent D&T article) and members shared the wonderful resources produced by the Flax to Linen Victoria project (see Facebook group and YouTube video explaining processing) and a book about growing your own flax: Homegrown Linen by Raven Ranson. Some members are thinking of their own “dirt to shirt” projects!

This Studio Hours session just scratched the surface of this topic. We could have talked for hours more. We look forward to future articles from D&T that will shine a light on where we want to go, sharing positive stories of sustainability in Canadian textiles!

Other Resources Shared by Members

Fabcycle (Vancouver) and Artsjunktion (Winnipeg) are stores that sell fabric and yarns that would have otherwise ended up in the landfill (deadstock).

Textile decomposition: there is a quick clip of composting a wool vs a synthetic sweater in the new “Why Wool Matters” video (clip at 15:33).

The Shave ’Em to Save ’Em project in the US is working to maintain diversity in livestock breeds. Deb Robson produces videos and books about rare sheep breeds and the importance of saving them.

A member recommended the book Worn—A People’s History of Clothing as “a big eye-opener.”

Cotton is a “natural” fiber, but the way it is grown in many places is quite devastating. Check out Sally Fox’s work with organic and naturally colored cotton.

Issues surrounding textile sustainability are included in some courses in the Fibres department at Alberta University of the Arts.

Interesting article about Catherine Mick, a Vancouver Island artist who recycles fabrics into yarn.

One challenge in getting local wool yarn is that farmers don’t have the time or resources to get their wool processed and marketed. There are a number of Canadians (e.g., Small Bird Workshop, Lone Sequoia Ranch) serving as that link between farmers and yarn consumers. One member recommended this podcast about Bobolink Yarns in New England which gives a clear picture of the issues and a success story to celebrate.

Where to Find Canadian Fibres

Small-batch Canadian wool yarn and spinning fibre: Small Bird Workshop on Vancouver Island.

Small mills: That Darn Fibre Mill (BC), Long Way Homestead (MB), Mariposa Woolen Mill (ON), Wellington Fibres (ON).

Larger mills using Canadian wool: Briggs and Little (NB), MacAusland (PEI), and Custom Woolen Mills (AB).

Direct from the farmer:

Database at CanadianWool.org.

Producer directories on Fibreshed webpages ( Pembina Fibreshed, Upper Canada Fibreshed, Vancouver Island Fibreshed).

Resources on Vancouver Island PDF link .

Featured image by Anna Hunter.

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The articles, tutorials and patterns we publish about Canadian fibre and textile arts, crafts and industry are made possible by our members.

Copyright © Sarah Thornton except as indicated.
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About Sarah Thornton

Sarah Thornton is a connector - she loves bringing people and ideas together, especially over local fibres and foods. When not teaching college Biology labs, she knits, spins, designs, teaches, and occasionally weaves in her new studio space on Vancouver Island. She's also a cyclist, skier, hiker, and gardener! Find her patterns and classes at sarahthornton.ca and @sarsbarknits on Instagram.

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