A Thread In A Fabric By: Martha Brummitt
Most days, everything I wear is either knitted or woven, and so is the bedding I sleep on. With the exception of synthetic materials such as a “fleece jacket” (not to be confused with a “sheep’s fleece”), knitted and woven materials dominate fabric construction. Knitted fabrics, which includes most cotton shirts, socks, nylons, sweatshirts, pillow cases and bed sheets are made up of one continuous thread that starts with a loop pulled through a loop, pulled through a loop, and so on. If you pull the tail of the last loop, the knitted fabric effortlessly unravels*. Woven fabrics, i.e. most duvet covers, rugs, jeans, and plaid shirts, are made up of many threads over-‐ and under-‐lapping each other at 90-‐degree angles. Fold your hands with your elbows out like wings. Keeping your fingers interlaced and your elbow wings out, slowly straighten your elbows and your fingers will weave. Why does this all matter? Because clothing is the second most consumed human good (after food)1, and today it is the cheapest in price and quality of the garment in history. The textile industry – producers and consumers in the U.S. and abroad – treats clothing as a disposable good. Clothing manufacturers use cheap, international labor in order to produce and sell massive volumes of clothes. In 1990, 50% of the clothes bought in the U.S. were manufactured in the U.S., but now only 2% of what we wear is made in our country2. Cheap production costs drive retail prices down, allowing consumers to readily buy clothing and keep up with society’s fast-‐changing fashion trends. Clothing is so inexpensive that instead of mending or repurposing what we have, the new norm is to throw out the old and buy new. The average American owns over * If knitted fabrics unravel so easily then why does it not happen more often? First, the knitted fabric, say the cotton T-‐shirt, is sewn along the perimeter of the fabric securing the end of the thread. Second, when a hole appears it means a loop has fallen out of another loop. The loop at the site of the hole and each loop beneath it – like a ladder – will de-‐loop when stretched, which is why nylons “run” up and down. 1 Cox, Stan. “Dress for Excess: The Cost of Our Clothing Addiction,” November 30, 2007, www.alternet.org.environment/69256. 2 Cline, Elizabeth L. Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2012. 5. Print.
350 garments3 and spends less on her/his wardrobe relative to income than ever before. After World War I, the average American household expended 17% of its annual income in clothing4 whereas where as that fraction fell to 3% in 20095. Learning more about the clothes we wear could help us improve the economy, the livelihoods of the people who make our clothes, and the environment.
In 2012 I showed up to Merck Forest and Farmland Center for a four-‐month internship. My knitting projects and I arrived at the cozy Lodge, welcomed by a fellow intern and a creaky Ashford Traditional spinning wheel. I jotted down goals for my brief time at Merck, one of which was: “wool production: carding, spinning, shearing, loom!” with an arrow directing the word ‘shearing’ to the front of the chronological list. I knew very little about wool and the production process of this vital, natural resource. My first few weekends off I ventured to meet local fiber artists and to tour fiber farms raising alpaca, sheep, goats or rabbits. When I told people this they usually looked confused. A few times I was asked, “what do you mean: fiber farms? Celery?” My weekend visits and newly acquired knowledge energized me, so I went into production washing, picking, carding, and spinning raw wool into yarn from the MFFC sheep. My lanolin-‐covered hands picked out bits of hay, burrs, and grass, and I soaked the wool in hot, soapy water. After it hung to dry around the perimeter of the Lodge, I passed the washed wool through a (hand-‐cranked) drum carder, which aligns the fibers in similar orientation in preparation to be spun into yarn. As I rhythmically cycled through these steps on repeat, I began to synthesize the existence of another important environmental, economical, and social movement. It is called the slow clothes movement and it parallels the modern slow food movement. Upon leaving MFFC with one sheep’s worth of wool (about 11 pounds dirty or 7 pounds clean) and with a great deal of determination to process it all into garments, I continued seeking out more fiber artists and farms. I discovered and volunteered for Fibershed, a movement started in California that strengthens local economies and 3
Cline, Elizabeth L. Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2012. 5. Print. Cline, Elizabeth L. Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2012. 20. Print. 5 Cline, Elizabeth L. Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2012. 12. Print. 4
communities by supporting production of fabric whose fibers, dyes, and labor are regionally sourced. Fibershed communities are popping up across the U.S. in order to unite knitters, weavers, spinners, etc, with plant or animal fiber farmers on a regional scale. Each fiber artist and fiber farmer plays a vital role in a regional textile industry, similar to how different threads construct a single fabric. My life is like a fabric made up of many threads, as well. Making a new friend, visiting an unknown place, or improving a rusty skill is like adding threads to a fabric. Each new experience reinforces, overlaps, and intertwines with past experiences. Recently, I reinforced my fabric with a thick thread that I know will never break. I invested in a spinning wheel and have spun one MFFC sheep’s fleece into yarn, which is enough to knit a sweater. I requested two more sheep’s fleeces so I can continue my education and provide workshops to others on how to wash, pick, card, and spin the raw wool into yarn to be knit or woven into garments. The process is soil-‐to-‐skin, operated by my own hands and with simple tools. Thank you to Merck Forest and Farmland Center for supporting my wooly endeavors. This summer I will knit my first MFFC sheep sweater and perhaps I will add a thread of celery into the fabric, too.