The Future is Fiber

So I’ve been on a journey in the analog world that hasn’t ceded much territory to this digital platform, but I wanted to share some of what’s been transpiring, and what might unfurl in the coming seasons. First of all HEY, I’ve missed keeping in touch here, thanks for seeking this work out.

At the start of the pandemic, I joined a startup team as their textile expert looking to finesse clothing insulation from milkweed floss (think puffer jackets). We lucked out with an adventurous Canadian mill willing process our floss and ran a few blends looking to hit a sweet spot of warmth and practicality, and, eventually landed on one, in my *expert opinion*, but more on that later.

Then last spring, I teamed up with uvm extensions’s northwest Crops and soils team to assess the viability of hemp as a fiber crop in Vermont (you all know how biased I am, the challenge was wholeheartedly accepted). We grew 13 fiber and dual purpose varieties in our variety trial. Seeds were sown in early june and two harvest dates were set in august and September to compare fiber at different stages of the lifecycle. After each harvest, fiber was retted one of two ways: Field retting is a process in which the hemp is cut and left on the ground to grow bacteria who break down the pectin layer binding the bast fiber (outermost layer of the stalk) to the hurd (woody core of the stalk). Water retting is a process where plant bundles are submerged in water to achieve the same. Subsamples of each variety underwent both retting practices for scientific comparison.

After the small successes of retting came the more daunting task of getting the retted plants processed into fiber. In 2021 America, we have become accustomed to a certain ease around manufacturing products that just doesn’t exist for hemp. In a nation where growing fiber hemp was once mandated to keep up with development and war, currently there is not a single long staple fiber mill to speak of. “Long staple” refers to the length of fibers belonging to bast fiber plants like hemp and flax. After NAFTA and CAFTA were implemented, textile manufacturing and other non-perishable industries were moved overseas where they could be done at a lower price point, and mills and dye houses subsequently closed.

It is important to mention here that hemp is our strongest fiber on earth, and processing it isn’t easy. When garments are being made at less cost, it is because someone isn’t being adequately paid. Runaway capitalism in our global fashion industry has created a host of issues, where Americans are consuming 60 % more clothing items than they did in the year 2000, and are keeping them half as long. Where we each throw out an average of 80 lbs of clothing a year, and only 15% of it is recycled. Where waste streams cause up to 20% of our fresh water pollution, and only 30% of clothing is still made from natural , non fossil-fuel-derived fabric. At this rate, by 2050 the textile industry will account for 26% of our global carbon budget.

Back to the trials, after the word went out that we were looking for milling equipment for our retted fiber hemp, the historic Old Stonehouse Museum in Brownington, VT offered to lend an old timey flax break and a scutching knife to the cause. A good bit of the fiber was processed this way, yielding beautiful horsehair-like sliver for spinning. The rest is destined to be milled with the modern aid of electricity at a minimill in Nova Scotia this winter. Fingers crossed that customs will be kind to us and our vanload of cannabis sativa when the time comes.

At the research farm we wish to begin to carve a trail into the modern times that bypasses the danger of the current fast fashion model, where clothes are treated as disposable (while consisting of materials that never break down in thousands of year’s time). If there is anything that you, reader, take away from this post let it be this: clothing is agriculture. It is revolutionary to grow and support local fiber because it is to believe in an alternative future where humans work symbiotically with nature instead of in spite of it. When our clothing comes from the soil, it can return to the soil, thus, building soil. When we build soil we sink carbon.  . In an era of climate breakdown, the revival of fiber in agriculture offers a lot to believe in.

I read my notes from the growing season and I am so tickled to be doing the work professionally that I was doing the year before for free. My cup truly runneth over with this one. My shop has been closed to sales for the past few months in order to pursue these dreams. I’m not sure when I’ll be selling art again but I know I’ll know when I know.

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Blessed blood moon to all. Remember the analog world and stay there as long as life allows