Fibreshed Stories: Students Unravel Textile Tales to Support Our Fibre Future

20 April 2022
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While many of us think about the fibre composition of the textiles that we work with, there is a growing movement that looks beyond our supplies to the very land that they come from. The Fibreshed movement supports a “soil to soil” process. In a regional fibreshed, a finished garment made by a local designer may eventually become compost. This compost can support land where sheep feed or cotton or linen can grow. Crops can be sown to have optimum health, with growing seasons alternating between fibre, dye, or feed crops. When fibre is finally taken from the land or shorn from animals, local artisans weave, dye, cut, design, and transform the fibre into a wearable item that can be cherished until one day it again returns to the compost.

While seemingly utopian, the Fibreshed movement is a critical response to the most pressing issues of our climate crisis. Founded by Rebecca Burgess in Northern California in the early 2000s, it has become a non-profit focused on education, regional textile economies, climate-beneficial agriculture, and an education and advocacy program. Fibreshed activities have removed more than 45,550 metric tons of CO2e (CO2 equivalent gases) through four years of community carbon farming practices and created over 90,000 kilograms of climate-beneficial wool to fund ecosystem restoration. Public education is an important component of the Fibreshed network, and there are forty-five affiliate communities globally, Canada included.

When artist and educator Emily Smith came across Rebecca’s work while attending the Bay Area Maker Faire, she was transfixed. As someone who had roots in textiles and in organizing activist-maker communities such as Maker Faire, she wanted to bring the same thinking to her home region of Vancouver, British Columbia. Through her academic research in textiles and circular economies, Emily developed the Fibreshed Field School, an experimental mentorship program that invited student researchers from Emily Carr University and Simon Fraser University to look at local textile production through the lens of ecology and economically viable methods of production.

“I was interested in how students could engage with multiple ways of knowing around textile production, beyond the retail industry. I wanted to unravel Indigenous perspectives, scientific methods, and look at local industry and small businesses that focus on our local ecosystems,” she said. Emily designed the Field School to ask three questions of both students and participating mentors: “What can a local, sustainable, and equitable textile eco-system look like? How can we build deeper connections to what we wear? Is it possible for designers and makers to make a living doing so?”

image description: a scene from a small industrial textile production facility; people stand around a large automated fabric loom, a blue and white fabric is on the loom; in the background you can see cones of yarn on shelves and stands

Supported by the Shumka Centre for Creative Entrepreneurship and Material Matters at Emily Carr University, the Fibreshed Field School ran from September to December, 2000. Eighteen design students were divided into three different cohorts led by a mentor—each focused on three different topics: Reciprocity and Stewardship, which focused on unravelling Indigenous ways of knowing and learning, guided by Sharon Kallis and the Aboriginal Gathering Place at Emily Carr University; Warping and Weaving, which focused both on small-scale production, led by Pam Mcgee and Nicola Hodges in Roberts Creek, BC, and pricing for slow cloth and economic viability, with Stephanie Ostler of Devil May Wear; and Regeneration, focused on regenerative agriculture and methods of land and material management, with mentors Rebecca Burgess and Star Hoeraf.

“For me, the field school really was a process of being open and listening,” said Emily. “When you bring together a diverse group of people, you are going to discover that everyone comes solving these large problems in their own way. People will not always agree, and that’s okay. [Part of this work] is finding multiple perspectives and negotiating that space. Two groups may want to go about something differently, but we can all agree on the shared goal of healthy soil. We live in difficult times, and I think it is important to work together with a willingness to build shared goals.”

image description: a sketchbook page with a number of shapes and outlines in pen

The Fibreshed Field School culminated in the creation of Fibre Stories, a multi-media set of public resources that explores sustainability and ethical practices within the textiles industry. Fibre Stories consists of a series of DIY zines (which instruct readers on topics such as indigo dyeing and cedar weaving), eight episodes of a podcast, and an eponymous book, Fibre Stories.

“The field school was very practical and hands-on; sharing our experiences was an important part of our research. We met weekly to synthesize what we had learned, and we began telling stories about our own connection to fibres and place as we were coming to terms with how we felt taking in all of this information. At some point, midway through, someone said, this has to be called ‘Fibre Stories,’” said Hélène Day Fraser, Associate Professor of Design + Dynamic Media at Emily Carr University and co-director of the Material Matters research centre.

image description: three people standing in a field, their faces obscured by large plants of many kinds

Photo by Sharon Kallis / courtesy Fibreshed Field School.

“We often talk about the narratives related to cloth, and we also wanted to give more context to the people who were a part of this project. We were in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we had not met face to face. Three of the students weren’t in Vancouver, and one, who had never been to Canada, was living in Iran. It was a slow, iterative way of telling stories that connected us,” said Hélène.

“The publication was really about giving students a chance to tell their stories and everything they learned,” said Ash Logan, who was the Field School Project Coordinator and a co-editor of the book Fibre Stories. “It is full of a lot of beautiful storytelling and personal experiences… Anika Dixon wrote a speculative fiction piece about what the future of textiles can be. Her writing was lovely.”

When asked how the Field School experience may shape the future of textile production, Ash said, “I really love the idea of regional textiles, and I think it is ultimately our way forward. We need to move away from the globalization of textiles.”

For Logan, the experience sparked a new business venture working with waste textiles and furniture. She explained, “We don’t have regional textile manufacturing here, so I’ve used it as an opportunity to think about what is already in our fibreshed—existing textiles that can be repurposed.”

The book shares the stories of those who participated in the Fibreshed Field School. The student contributions range from graphic stories of processing nettle into dye and cordage, to an essay on the hand-arts as a symbol of resistance, to making paper with flax.

The Fibre Stories podcast, hosted by Melanie Camman, is an extension of this conversation. It focuses on regional textiles, industry, education, soil and “the tensions that arise when we examine fibre and cloth through the lens of sustainability and decolonization.” Forthcoming episodes will examine knowledge of place, ancestral knowledge, stories of soil, language of place, roving, and stories of resurgence.

“The podcast really became an integral part to the project,” said Hélène. “One of the conversations involved Elham, who was from Iran, and another one of the students Tuyen, who is from Vietnam. They both come from different areas of the world but can have this beautiful conversation about their connection to cloth.”

There seems to be no bounds for the possibilities that have come out of Fibre Stories. Hélène remarks that she has seen students take what they have learned and apply these techniques and ways of thinking to their own artistic practices. The Fibre Stories have even impacted how coursework may be developed at the university in the future.

“The Fibreshed allowed us to acknowledge that we have to shift some of our instructional models. I foresee that there will be new courses because of it. It has affected graduate research projects, and it has fed into the Material Matters Research Centre work, where we have a textile adaptation research program. It will be a seed for future work.”

Fibre Stories, the collected stories of the student participants, is now a publicly available resource that can be found on the Fibre Stories website.

image description: various pieces of spinning fibre, a spindle and a few small skeins of hand-spun yarn are on a table; in the foreground, a pair of hands is holding a small piece of wool roving

All images by Benny Zenga / courtesy Fibreshed Field School, unless otherwise noted.

Copyright © Leanne Prain except as indicated.

About Leanne Prain

Leanne Prain is the author of Strange Material: Storytelling Through Textiles; Yarn Bombing: The Art of Crochet and Knit Graffiti co-authored with Mandy Moore; and Hoopla: The Art of Unexpected Embroidery. Her fourth book, on the theme of creative troublemaking, will be published by Arsenal Pulp Press in Spring 2022.

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