BOOK REVIEW: “Fleece and Fibre: Textile Producers of Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands” by Francine McCabe

22 November 2023

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The harms caused by the current international textile economy are many, including exploitation of human labour; environmental degradation from microplastics, dyes, and chemical treatments on textiles; as well as the environmental impacts of shipping goods around the globe. In contrast to these issues, Francine McCabe offers hope in her new book, Fleece and Fibre: Textile Producers of Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, a resource for those seeking to embrace local textiles. Following in the tradition of Rebecca Burgess’s Fibershed, McCabe encourages a local textile economy—using what we have regionally to produce textiles that will return to soil at the end of their life.

Richly enhanced with photos, all taken by the author, the book provides information about local farmers and organizations. While the title suggests a regional emphasis, Fleece and Fibre is also an excellent resource for readers beyond the area, containing clear descriptions of fibre and fleece qualities and giving suggestions of what products to make from each fibre. The many detailed photos are a valuable resource in themselves, showing the varied fibre characteristics available and the beauty of the different sources of fibre.

McCabe starts the book with a powerful introductory essay which acknowledges the damages caused by the current international textile economy while offering an alternative, as described by the Fibershed movement started by Rebecca Burgess in the United States. People on Vancouver Island have embraced the resurgence of the local food economy. McCabe urges the same resurgence for the region’s textile economy, stating that her goal with the book is to “help bridge the gap between the farmers growing the product, the makers who produce the fibre into wearable, usable items, and consumers looking to support the local textile economy.”

She also highlights the textile history of the region, with mention of the fibres used by local First Peoples, including woolly dog and mountain goat fibres. She includes a discussion of the Cowichan sweater and the knitters that make them, discussing the difficulties they have faced obtaining fibre. The current lack of regional fibre processing mills is a challenge in this fibreshed, leading to greater expense for farmers, as they need to include shipping costs in the price of all fibre products.

The main body of the work contains a combination of reference material and lyrical stories, which introduce the sheep and the farmers who raise them. Twenty-one sheep breeds are organized alphabetically from Babydoll Southdown to Valais Blacknose. Each entry includes a brief description of the breed, including its history in the region, and the fibre characteristics and suggested uses. McCabe describes the fleece in terms of lustre, the ability of the fleece to accept dye, natural colour range, and staple length.

After each fibre description, McCabe lists the farms that raise the breed and offers personal stories from one or more of the farms. Many of the farms raise mixed breed flocks, both to enhance fibre characteristics and to match the environments they live in. Other farmers maintain pure bred flocks, some providing lambs as breeding stock to other farms. Many of the farms profiled offer raw fleeces. Some have sent fleeces off Island for processing and have yarn available for sale. Other farms are producing less common products, such as wool felt and blankets, and waste wool pellets to be used as garden fertilizer.

These farm entries are more than just bald recitations of “who raises what.” McCabe paints pictures with her words, describing the beautiful rural landscapes and farm buildings, and the families and farm animals who live there. She also shares stories from the farms. Islandia Farm on Gabriola has been raising sheep since the early 1850s, and in the past was a main food supplier to the Nanaimo coal mine industry. I was intrigued to read about their use of waste wool as an initial foundation for roads and walkways (an ancient Roman technology) which removes the need for the standard plastic membrane. Ruckle Heritage Farm has been on Salt Spring Island since the late 1870s and at one time supplied black Corriedale wool to the Cowichan knitters of the region. Other farms were established much more recently, such as Root Spell Shetlands in Nanaimo, where farmer Ea Fable is breeding for superior fibre and colouring.

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 Some farms are experimenting with different grazing methods. Tsolum River Ranch’s owner Kelsey Epp has found that rotational grazing helps to decrease the number of parasites in her flock, leading to less need for deworming medications. She raises Gotland and Suffolk sheep and, in addition to fibre and yarn, creates products such as slippers, duvets, and dryer balls with her fibre.

After the large sheep section, a smaller section profiles farms raising other animals for fibre, including alpaca, llama, Angora rabbit, and goats (both cashmere and Angora). In this section, we meet the book’s adorable cover model—an Angora goat kid from Up A Creek Farm, the owner of which is hoping to add a fibre processing mill within a few years.

McCabe also includes descriptions of plant-based fibres from the region, although there are currently no commercial suppliers. She provides extensive background information on the characteristics of flax and hemp and introduces the Flax to Linen organization in Victoria and Vancouver Island’s Heritage Fibre Mill project. One intriguing photo shows some bricks of hempcrete, a mixture of waste hemp fibre and lime, which can be used as an alternative building material.

In contrast to the agriculture-derived fibres, there is also a chapter on invasive species, highlighting the use of English Ivy, morning glory, Himalayan blackberry, and yellow flag iris as sources of fibre. McCabe quotes Sharon Kallis, who encourages us to work with “what is abundantly at hand and needs to be kept in check.” According to McCabe, using such fibres is a “revolutionary act,” restoring natural ecosystems and transforming waste materials into handmade textiles. She highlights the Comox Valley-based business, Plants Are Teachers, which offers workshops on harvesting both grown and foraged plants.

Fleece and Fibre is a detailed resource that I heartily recommend, despite a few limitations. As with any print resource, the information in the book is likely to go out of date with time as farmers change which breeds they raise (whether for reasons of husbandry or economics), but McCabe has included web links to local textile and sheep organizations for the reader to consult in the future. And, as McCabe acknowledges, she definitely does not include all the farms that have fibre producing animals! Statistics Canada (2011) estimates there are around 14,000 sheep in the region, many in small flocks of 3–10 animals, and, while most of these sheep are raised for meat, they still grow a fleece each year. The book cannot be viewed as a definitive listing, but rather as an inspirational overview of the possibilities of fibre resources in the region. In addition, the organization of the sheep section is a bit challenging for the user: The book does contain a map of farms but is missing a chart or index that links each farm to the breeds it raises. Searching by breed, such as “Bluefaced Leicester,” brings you to the farms, but there is no easy way to locate a farm in the book if you don’t know what animals they raise.

McCabe highlights the lack of processing infrastructure on the Island and the need for a local processing mill. One detail that strikes me is the diversity of wool and fibre available in the region; bast fibres such as flax and hemp require very different processing than wool, and even within the animal fibres, different fibre characteristics lend themselves to different final products. There appears to be a need for both a woollen and a worsted mill to handle both shorter fibres and the gorgeous longer wools, but multiple mills will be a challenge with Vancouver Island land costs.

I also recommend this book because it is physically beautiful and a resource you may be happy to display in your home. The publishers have used high quality paper with a beautiful tactile quality. The layout is spacious, and the text is a reasonable size. The book is larger than I expected, giving physical weight to the importance of the subject matter. The photos, all taken by the author, are rich with deep colour.

McCabe encourages us all to “go back and reset our wardrobes, letting them be a tactile rebellion against fast fashion” and provides tangible resources to makers and consumers. She tells the stories of the producers and brings to life the work that goes into producing the fibres we use. She encourages all of us to become conscious consumers and provides talking points in her rich introductory essay. The book is a valuable sourcebook for people in the Vancouver Island and Gulf Islands region. It is also valuable for those who live farther afield as a reference to different fibre types and as inspiration to seek out the fibres of their own bioregion. Overall, I am excited to have this book celebrating the farmers and the fibres of this region I call home.  

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You can see more of Francine’s work at https://www.franrenee.com/ and on social media @f.renee_fibreart.

Images courtesy Francine McCabe and Heritage House.

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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