Why I Decided to Make Material from Scratch

Looking for Sustainable Options

natural tones of hand dyed cottons

I love that there are so many choices around fabrics available now and the industry has grown to be so creative and to showcase textiles in this way. But I also have a problem with it. The lack of local, sustainable options is becoming apparent to me. I’ve been working in the fibre arts industry for over 25 years. I began with my mother where we had a store and brought in top-of-the-line cotton fabrics for quilt making, all imported.

Fast forward and you can now buy cotton, jersey, fleece, designer prints, indie prints, minkie, knits, canvas, hemp and more almost anywhere on the internet, local quilt stores and large fabric supply stores. There are even organic cotton options from producers like Cloud 9 and Birch Fabrics.

The Bad News

The carbon footprint of textiles is large.  According to a 2009 article on Ecotextiles blog:  ‘the U.S. textile industry was the 5th largest contributor to CO2 emissions in the United States (after primary metals, nonmetallic mineral products, petroleum and chemicals).  In the developing world, where the textile industry represents a larger percentage of GDP and mills are often antiquated, the CO2 emissions are greater.’

cotton plant

The majority of textiles for the quilting industry available in North America (definitely Canada) are imported. Cotton fabrics come from Pakistan, India, China, Turkey. There is USA cotton available, but it is often exported for manufacturing and imported back in for distribution. The same is true for cotton thread.

Water scarcity and quality have impacted cotton production globally with climate change disasters increasing. According to an article in The Guardian, in 2010, flooding in Pakistan (the 4th largest producer of cotton) had a dramatic effect on cotton production and pricing when over 1/5th of the country was under water.

The Good News

The industry is working to adopt sustainable practices and groups like BCI(Better Cotton Initiative)  are gaining ground. Accountability and verification in standards like a Better Cotton Standard System, GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) and other certifications are also growing in popularity and making headway for a more sustainable industry.

This is a good thing but still does not address the lack of domestic options here in Canada. I looked into hemp, organic cotton, bamboo, lyocell. There is a Canadian supplier Simplifi Fabrics who carries these and more stores are carrying organic lines. They are all good alternatives, it’s exciting that there is an environmental consciousness and I am thrilled to see some alternatives becoming norms in the industry.  But it is still imported and requires lots of water use and long transport and handling.  For me in Canada, there are still no local, viable domestic options.  I wanted to find something local and sustainable.

A Bright Idea?

Stephen McRae in a field with his sheepI have a neighbour who raises sheep. I decided to take a walk across the road and talk to Stephen McRae from Blairich Farms.  His mission is to encourage a healthy environment for his animals to grow, to leave it better than when he arrived.

We got to talking about the fleece he has annually after he shears his flock. Right now he pays to have his sheep shorn( as a necessity for the good health of the sheep) and the fleece is usually sent to the Canada Wool Growers located in Carleton Place, Ontario. The fleece does not fetch the top price as a spinning wool since his sheep are primarily for meat and it is almost not worth the work it takes to drive it there.

Being curious, I liked the idea of using this resource in my art. So we struck a deal. I helped with shearing and did a test of cleaning and felting before diving into the production of processing the fleece for my intended purposes.

It is important to note here that I am not a knitter, spinner, weaver, nor have I ever felted…

Shearing

I arrived to help. He had a seasoned shearer there and a few experienced helpers, so I was just there to learn. They took off the first fleece and tossed it on the table. We then gathered around and “skirted” the fleece, removing the really gross parts. They asked me what I was looking for… I now had washed and felted one fleece, so I was more experience than they, but still had no idea of what to look for as “good” felting fleece. So we just got rid of the poopy bits( I think that is the technical term) and rolled them up. I then got my chance at tossing a fleece. I’m not nearly the expert that Titia – the helper was, but I had fun trying and got better after 20 fleeces.

Washing

I needed to set up a system for washing the fleece. In the end, I was very ambitious and took all 42 fleece. I am fortunate that I am in the country and on a well.  I set up washing sinks and drying racks in my backyard and got to work. It’s messing, smelly and wet, but I love every minute of it. It’s not for the faint of heart.  The dirty water is flushed out into the trees beyond this setup, it is nutrient and the water eventually finds it’s way back into the water table. It takes about 1 hour per fleece to clean them properly and about 24 hours of drying time. I’m still working my way through the processing, but hope to have them done by the end of the summer – hopefully, the heat isn’t too hard on them!

Table, sink and racks for processing fleece

Felting from Scratch

So I had the raw fleece, it was clean and now I had to figure out how to make a fabric I could use in my art. I knew I was not a spinner/weaver – that is a whole other line I want to try someday though! So I looked into felting, I am industrious and really committed, I am figuring it out. I talked with a friend who is an amazing felt artist Zoe Lianga and she offered a few tips and of course, I looked to YouTube. I also am totally into just diving in and figuring out what works, what doesn’t and adapting.

The first thing I needed to do before I could felt it was to card it. I looked at the process and decided I needed a little mechanical advantage over hand carders. I put a call out to my fibre friends to see if anyone had a drum carder, I was in luck! I got my hands on an antique, it’s funky, but I love it! How many hands have used this?

felted pieces in a basket

Figuring out the Basics

I was really happy with how the wet felting went. It is not likely to be a fabric that would be good as a wearable as there is still a lot of vegetable matter in it, but for my purposes it is perfect. I created some small felted pieces that seemed perfect for what I wanted. Check out the videos I made of my experimenting with this process I really wanted a fabric that I can embroider on. That was the next test. I did some trials with different stabilizer options and landed on a system that I’m really happy with!

great blue heron in thread painting on felt and pine board

Local and Sustainable, It’s a Start

This may not be a true answer for everyone, but I feel like I am doing my small part to be the change I want to see. I’m not sure where else this will lead, but I am looking forward to the journey. I am really happy with the results so far. It is local, natural and sustainable.

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