Making the Ontario Shirt: A Local Project from Fleece to Finished

8 December 2021
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Inspired by the textiles of Ontario’s past, a locally sourced shirt models a sustainable future.

“We often think about the source of our food and water, but we rarely think about where our clothing comes from,” explains James Craig. “I met someone at a conference who had a sustainably made tweed suit, and I thought, ‘That gentlemen looks like a billion dollars.’ What would my version of that suit be?”

As a farmer with a passion for regenerative agriculture, James was struck by the idea of commissioning his own sustainable garment. “I’m not a tweed suit kind of guy, but I kept thinking I like flannel shirts. My shirt would be local, very local.”

image description: a full length photograph of a man wearing a blue and white checked flannel shirt

James Craig in his Ontario Shirt. Photo courtesy of James Craig.

Upon the recommendation of Becky Porlier of the Upper Canada Fibreshed, an organization that builds relationships between farmers and textile artisans to promote the sustainable production of textiles using locally produced fibre, James contacted Deborah Livingston-Lowe. Deborah’s business, Upper Canada Weaving, specializes in custom-made textiles using techniques from 19th century Ontario.

“James was dedicated to the process. Meeting him was a delight,” said Deborah, “He drove two hours to see me in Toronto, and we spent several hours talking.”

“Deborah is talented and it shows,” James said, recounting that first meeting in 2019. “I wanted my shirt to reflect working culture, but I also wanted it to be modern.”

“I told James that I can make other kinds of wool cloth, but I haven’t made flannel as it requires a very specific kind of wool that will rise up and make a nap. We think of flannel as cotton, but the origin is from Wales. It was a coarse cloth to increase warmth. To make flannel, you need to use a fibre that has bristles on it that you can brush up to create nap, which is a warmer cloth.”

Flannel first appeared in the 16th century; it spread from Wales to the British Isles before it arrived in the Americas . Deborah started the project with some wool from New Zealand in mind, but she kept thinking, “it is not quite right… it should be from Ontario.”

“So, I decided to do my homework,” said Deborah. “What kind of wool could we use? Every kind of sheep’s [wool] is a little different. Some are glossy and suitable for upholstery; others are fluffier and good for blankets. Eventually I found that we have a breed in Canada called Suffolk.”

Deborah asked the farm with the Suffolk sheep to mail a fleece to her that she could test. She sent the fleece to Wellington Fibres, a fibre mill in Elora, Ontario, which processed the fleece and spun it into yarn, and returned it to Deborah in November 2019.

“As soon as I started weaving it, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is flannel.’”

Deborah wove the fabric on her Canadian-made Leclerc loom. “For flannel, you only need a basic four-shaft loom. The fabric is a plain weave, which is just under, over, under, over…”

After experimenting with the Suffolk fleece and working within the constraints of COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, Deborah looked for a fleece supplier that was closer to her. She discovered Rideau Arcott, the first purebred sheep developed entirely in Canada. It was released to producers in the 1980s after fifteen years of development by Agriculture Canada.

image description: a weaver at her loom

Deborah Livingston-Lowe, of Upper Canada Weaving, at work with her Leclerc loom. Photo courtesy of Deborah Livingstone-Lowe.

image description: a small flock of Suffolk sheep in a field

Rideau Arcott sheep. Photo courtesy of Deborah Livingstone-Lowe.

The Rideau Arcott is a uniquely Canadian purebred sheep whose wool makes beautiful flannel . The breed is genetically 20 percent Suffolk, 9 percent Shropshire, 14 percent East Friesian, 40 percent Finnish Landrace, 8 percent Dorset Horn, and the remaining 8 percent is Corriedale, Romnelet, North Country Cheviot and Border Leicester.

“This breed made it even more Canadian,” she said. “Early on, I asked James his favourite colour and he said blue. Coincidentally, indigo, which is used to create blue, was very common in Ontario and you can often find it on general store ledgers from the 19th century. His shirt was dyed in indigo because we had to be authentic.”

Liam Blackburn of Iron Cauldron Colour Works, a small-batch dyer in Toronto, dyed the yarn, and Deborah was finally able to start weaving the wool in August, 2020. The project, which had begun before the pandemic, began to unfold slowly through correspondence. James reviewed a few different samples of weave, choosing a pattern that Deborah had sourced from an old British pattern book of checks.

image description: a close up of flannel fabric being woven on a loom

James’s chosen pattern, on the loom. Photo courtesy of Deborah Livingstone-Lowe.

There were three people involved in the shirt,” said James, “Deborah; Liam, the dyer; and Jennifer. It wouldn’t have complete without them. They each brought so much to it.”

As a theatrical costume designer with decades of experience, Jennifer Triemstra-Johnston now focuses on sustainable textiles in the businesses she runs in Blyth, Ontario: Fashion Arts Creative Textiles (FACTS) Studio, an innovation hub devoted to teaching fibre art fashion; and Pick a Posie, a store of theatrical vintage fashion.

“Because of my background in costume, I can build almost anything, and I take on side projects. James was the perfect client because he understood that the shirt would take time.”

A traditional flannel has a pattern that lines up, but Jennifer and James decided to give the shirt more flair by placing the collar and pockets on the bias. James chose a number of delicate finishing details on the shirt, which meant that the flannel needed to be a shirt weave in order to be able to be sewn in this style.

“It is a very snazzy shirt now,” said Jennifer, “very different from your traditional flannel. I like to do my historical research first, so I know what’s what and then I have the freedom to play.”

When asked about the thread and buttons, Jennifer explained that most of the buttons were sourced from her upcycled collection, but thread was another matter. She had considered cotton, but “when talking about sustainability, there are certain things you have to let go of. We want the shirt to last decades, and cotton thread is strong, but it will not last that long. Silk was too dainty. In the end, we did go for a polyester thread for longevity. It is the only non-organic piece of the shirt but will support the wear and tear of the shirt.”

With these choices, James’ shirt has been designed to last through the decades. While he is currently in his thirties, the shirt was designed with a looser fit to accommodate a body that might change through the stages of life.

“It is not like your modern fitted shirts with darts and shaping,” said Jennifer. “It is very square, and it has a pleat on the centre-back to allow for movement across the shoulders. As he grows, it just might become a fitted shirt.”

While it is not a shirt he wears every day on the farm, the working garment has become part of his regular rotation and he wears it on walks with his family.

“I hope that over time, this shirt will reduce my clothing footprint,” said James. “Clothing is a symbol of family and community. My daughter and my nephew were both born this year, and Deborah gave them baby blankets from the same cloth, so I’ve already been able to gift my daughter part of the shirt.”

Not only did James receive the blankets, but also other scraps that will ensure that the shirt has longevity.

“We should be able to repair garments,” said Jennifer. “I imagine that at some point the shirt will need that, but that’s also part of the beauty of slow fashion. James has kept all the scraps so we can do that if it happens. With plaid, it is very easy to do invisible mending.”

image description: a full length photograph of a man carrying a baby in a carrier strapped to his chest; the man is wearing a blue-checked flannel shirt

James and his daughter. Photo courtesy of James Craig.

The Ontario Shirt is, beginning to end, a locally sourced shirt that took the creativity of three artisans and the dedication of a client who remained patient during a process that took over two years, complicated by the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. When asked what he would like to teach others about the process, James responded, “We have incredible talent in Canada; I’d like to see more of a focus on locally made clothing. Many people have told me that they would love a similar shirt, and I want to wear it to inspire others. I call it my fifty-year flannel.”

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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