Eco-friendly fibre craft

Shetland sheep after spring shearing, Chassagne

In my effort to live more lightly on the Earth, I am beginning to review what kinds of fibre I use for knitting, spinning and weaving. Just as the organic certification of food has become increasingly dubious, complex issues undoubtedly surround the eco-friendly claims of various yarns on the market. And as with food, buying organic is not enough to ensure our purchases minimize negative impact on the environment.

Many years before I learned to knit or weave, these activities fit my ideals about getting back to the Earth. Along with other arts like soap-making and cheese-making, fibre crafts evoke a simpler time when people lived more self-sufficiently and closer to the land. My idealism did not recognize the environmental costs of growing and processing fibre, or the dangerous chemicals traditionally used to fix so-called natural dyes.

Wellington Fibres Angora goatsThe decision to move toward a diet healthier for both me and the Earth has led to some sacrifices. Buying local food restricts certain produce from crossing our threshold, except as rare treats: citrus fruits, bananas, avocados and pineapples, to name a few. Long, cold Ontario winters bring an even more limited menu. Likewise, I imagine a move toward eco-friendly fibre will cut down on extravagance and demand homelier purchases. I may have been a natural fibre snob all along, but it is hard to eschew the strength of nylon or the occasional shimmer of Angelina or Firestar.

Fortunately, many craftspeople share these concerns. Conservation of rare livestock breeds has been in the works for at least as long as people have been preserving heritage vegetable seeds. Natural dyers have moved away from metal mordants, especially the most toxic ones like potassium dichromate. The International Working Group on the Global Organic Textile Standard provides leadership in promoting natural fibre that is harvested and processed according to ecological and social criteria.

As with food, the best way to approach sustainability and environmental stewardship is to grow what you need, or at least know the people who do. Here are several local fibre producers I am watching with interest:

  • Chassagne: Carole Precious keeps the original North American flock of Shetland sheep (top, shown shortly after spring shearing) on a chemical-free farm in Puslinch, near Cambridge, Ont. She sells colourful raw fleeces, rovings and her own line of yarn. Read more in a story I posted earlier this year: Chassagne’s Shetland sheep thrive naturally.
  • Stoddart Family Farm: “Recovering industrial farmer,” Harry Stoddart, keeps a 560-acre organic farm with his family. In the Kawartha Lakes region of Ontario, it is a little too far to be considered local, but the Stoddarts are setting a remarkable example nonetheless, claiming humane husbandry and sustainable practices that “adhere to both the letter and the spirit of organic production.” They keep a flock of Romney sheep, listed as endangered. Fibre products blend the Romney with wool from a neighbour’s Corriedale flock. The Stoddarts regularly appear at Ontario fibre fairs (such as the Toronto Downtown Knit Collective’s Annual Knitter’s Frolic) offering a range of natural and hand-painted yarns, rovings and fleeces.
  • Wellington Fibres: Donna Hancock and Lorne Thomson keep a flock of 30 Angora goats (above left), which produce mohair, on a farm near Elora, Ont., where they have their own spinning mill. The colourful yarns and rovings are some of the most sought-after products of their type produced in Ontario. I do not know their approach with respect to organics, but the farm minimizes its environmental footprint using solar power to heat the goat barn and run the mill.

What wisdom can you share about environmental fibre? Also let us know about your favourite producers helping us move toward sustainable farming.

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