How one museum is working to support the local economy – Fibershed and The Textile Museum of Canada [Case Study]

Today’s Guest Post is by Susan Fohr, a museum educator and maker living in Toronto where she works at The Textile Museum of Canada.

The local food movement has transformed the ways in which people consider the origins of their food and the impact that food production has on the environment, but less known is a movement that is cultivating local economies of clothing production. Similar to a local watershed or foodshed,

a fibershed focuses on “the source of the raw material, the transparency with which it is converted into clothing, and the connectivity among all the parts, from soil to skin and back to soil.”
What is a Fibershed? Image copied from Hemp Business Journal

The Fibreshed Movement

In 2013, the movement’s founder Rebecca Burgess, a textile artist and educator, decided to develop and wear a wardrobe whose dyes, fibres, and labour were sourced from a region no larger than 150 miles from where she lived. Living in northern California, the fourth generation of her family to do so, she had access to wool, cotton, and alpaca fibres. However, she learned that there were few places in her region that could process these fibres into yarn and woven or knit fabrics.

As in many places across North America, fabric manufacturing and garment construction work had migrated offshore after the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Rebecca profiled the talented group of farmers and artisans that helped her build a wardrobe by hand on a blog documenting the project. She provided a strong case that regionally grown fibers, natural dyes, and local talent, when nurtured, could provide our clothing in ways that are ethical and regenerative.

Rebecca Burgess keynote address as part of Conscious Consumption series at Textile Museum of Canada in January 2016. Photo courtesy Textile Museum of Canada.

The project grew into a not-for-profit organization, first centered in northern California, and growing to support affiliates to do similar work according to their own unique geographies around the world. As their website states:

Fibershed develops regional and regenerative fiber systems on behalf of independent working producers, by expanding opportunities to implement carbon farming, forming catalytic foundations to rebuild regional manufacturing, and through connecting end-users to farms and ranches through public education.

We envision the emergence of an international system of regional textile communities that enliven connection and ownership of ‘soil-to-soil’ textile processes. These diverse textile cultures are designed to build soil carbon stocks on the working landscapes on which they depend, while directly enhancing the strength of regional economies. Both fiber and food systems now face a drastically changing climate, and must utilize the best of time-honored knowledge and available science for their long-term ability to thrive.

Fibershed: Growing A Movement of Farmers, Fashion Activists, and Makers for A New Textile Economy (from which the quotes above are taken) was published by Chelsea Green Publishing in 2019, and this year the Fibershed Learning Center was established at historic Black Mountain Ranch in Point Reyes Station, California.

The Learning Center

While the Learning Center has not yet been opened to the public due to the pandemic, they have been using the space to host virtual workshops on topics such as natural dyeing, processing flax, and tips for sewing jeans and shirts. Over the past few months they have hosted an excellent webinar series, Regenerating Our Textile Systems, that has explored the connections between such diverse topics as ranching, garment worker wages, plastics in the water systems, and indigo farming. They have also supported a session on regenerative agriculture and local fibre ecosystems as part of Slow Factory Foundation’s Open Education series this fall;

this series provides equity-centred education for “Black, Brown, Indigenous and minority ethnic communities taught by Black, Brown, Indigenous and minority ethnic scholars, thinkers and educators.”

A Local Example – The Upper Canada Fibreshed

While the Fibershed website is a wonderful source of information about how these practices are being implemented around the world, I actively participate in the activities of the Upper Canada Fibreshed, which is building these systems in the southern Great Lakes region of Ontario. In addition to serving as a member of their board, I access their network of producers to acquire local yarn for my own crafting and garment making. I have been a regular attendee at their annual Land Made event, a marketplace for local fibre and yarns produced on southern Ontario farms. While many of the yarns have been milled in Michigan, all the fibres are local and only natural dyes are used to colour the fibre.

Wool products from the Upper Canada Fibreshed on display at the Textile Museum of Canada in January 2016. Photo courtesy Textile Museum of Canada

I have slowly been processing a Cotswold fleece that I acquired at the 2018 event at the Gladstone Hotel in downtown Toronto. 

Susan’s handspun yarn using fibre from Ontario farms. Photo courtesy the author.

How Can A Museum Support the Fibreshed Movement?

In my role as a museum educator at the Textile Museum of Canada, I have had the opportunity to engage with many people engaged in the Fibershed movement through the Museum’s ongoing Conscious Consumption series. Rebecca Burgess was our keynote speaker in 2016. Other speakers have included Patricia Bishop from TapRoot Fibre Lab in Nova Scotia, who is developing new technologies for spinning flax fibre to support a resurgence of domestic farming of this crop. We profiled the Peggy Sue Collection — every one of their textiles begins as raw fiber sourced from a North American farm, spun in a North American mill and is woven, knit or felted by a North American artisan (including fabric woven by Upper Canada Weaving). 

The Museum’s role in this series has been one of educator, helping participants make better informed decisions about the things they consume on a daily basis.

This is important work, but I believe that museums should more actively seek out opportunities to support local economies beyond the art world.

Susan Fohr, Museum Educator

As a museum educator, I am drawn to the work of Fibershed for the ways in which it uses traditional and indigenous knowledge as well as contemporary science to find practical solutions for our most pressing issues. It considers whole systems, and the cyclical nature of garment production, consumption, and disposal. It provides models for building local economies while considering global impacts of these activities. It celebrates intangible cultural heritage and celebrates artisanal skills in the production of beautiful, practical, long lasting everyday objects of use.

Susan Fohr. Photo courtesy the author.

Susan Fohr is a museum educator and maker living in Toronto. She has 21 years experience working in art galleries, community museums, and historic sites in Southern Ontario. While working as an historic interpreter at Black Creek Pioneer Village, she learned to spin the fleece of the Border Leicester sheep that lived on site. This interest in textiles has been cultivated during the 13 years she has worked in the education department at the Textile Museum of Canada. As an advocate for learning in informal settings, she is proud that her professional training is mainly the result of experiential learning working in her field of practice and her own self-directed learning. She serves on the boards of the Upper Canada Fibreshed and Canadian Art Gallery Educators.