Home » fiber

Category: fiber

Mending: A Simple yet Radical Slow Fashion Skillset

In Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Ma Ingalls has a weekly rhythm of work: “Wash on Monday, iron on Tuesday, mend on Wednesday, churn on Thursday, clean on Friday, bake on Saturday, rest on Sunday.”

How many of us still have a mending day? How many of us are still in the habit of mending clothes?

It’s the very antithesis of the 21st-century consumerist mindset, isn’t it? We’ve normalized thinking about clothes as a disposable. We’ve normalized updating our wardrobes once a year, if not once a season. If a garment has one defect on it, we tend to give up on it and toss it — something our grandparents and the people before them would have considered obscenely wasteful.

 

Making Slow Fashion Affordable, Even Thrifty

It’s easy to equate “slow fashion” with buying expensive designer clothing labeled as “sustainable” or “organic.” But at the core of a slow fashion wardrobe is something much less glamorous: the habits and skills of taking good care of your clothes, and fixing what we already have so we can use it again and again. In other words, mending our clothes.

It starts with investing in the best quality you can afford. It starts with choosing natural fibers: cotton, linen, wool, silk, hemp. It starts with properly caring for your clothing: wash cold, line dry, and air out woolens in sunlight instead of washing. (Download Fibershed’s free Clothing Guide for more info.)

But when the inevitable happens and your garment has some wear or tear…  that’s where mending comes in. Think about it: if you have these 4 skills in your toolkit, you can extend the usefulness of your favorite pieces of clothing for a long, long time:

  • Replace a button
  • Darn a sock
  • Patch a tear
  • Fix a running stitch in a knitted garment

 

A Mending Mindset

If you need some inspiration to get you started on your mending journey, check out Katrina Rodabaugh’s Mending Matters. Not only is it full of easy-to-follow tutorials for visible patches and other cool ways to mend clothing; it’s also an insightful reflection on the mindset of mending what we own and taking responsibility for what we use — what Rodabaugh calls “mendfulness.”

When we mend, we’re not only mending clothing, Rodabaugh says. We’re mending our personal relationship to fashion.

Mending helps us to understand better how clothing is constructed. It makes us think more about where our fiber and our clothes come from.

Mending is a form of activism. It’s a choice that allows us to step off the fast fashion treadmill of buy, buy, buy and slow down our consumption. But mending is also inherently satisfying. Anyone can learn to do these basic repairs.

As Rodabaugh writes,

Fixing the clothes I already own empowers me in self-reliance, helps me understand the value of the garment and its construction, and pushes me to commit to keeping my clothing in wearable condition for as long as possible. I think this might be the opportunity for the most radical act: honoring what we already own… We need to accept mending as a natural aspect of owning clothing. Fibers fray, fabrics break down, knees tear, and cuffs wear thin. If we can start to shift our view of this from imperfect to inevitable, we might start to see the value in quality fibers, French seams, and well-fitted garments.

 

It can be that simple. Clothes break down. We mend them. Here are four basic mending skills we should have all empower ourselves with:

 

Sew a button

sewing a button

I confess that replacing buttons is one of those tasks I tend to put off indefinitely. But once I actually pick up the garment with the missing button and do it, I feel pretty silly, because it takes all of 5 minutes to sew a button. What took me so long?

If you’re new to sewing a button, see tutorial here.

 

Darn a sock

darning a sock

In her knitting basket next to her rocking chair, my grandmother always kept an old wooden cooking spoon, perfect size for holding a sock while darning it. Just like Ma Ingalls, my grandmother simply took it as a given that as clothes wear and tear, you fix them. Now, when I need to darn a sock, I first go to get a large wooden spoon. Any other implement that gives you a comfortable, wide platform to sew your stitches over works too.

If you’re new to darning a sock, see tutorial here.

 

Patch a tearmending

There are so many patching techniques, each one more beautiful and inventive than the other. Lately, I’ve been partial to the visible patches that I learned from Mending Matters, especially the hand-stitched patch technique called sashiko (right). How clever: you don’t have to try to hide a patch, instead you can use it to embellish your garment and make it more unique.

I move fast and am clumsy, so I break and tear things more often than I’d like to admit. I tore my favorite jeans on some wire fencing while chasing after a runaway chicken. The initial patch I attempted didn’t work. The jeans got pushed in the back of my closet for months until I finally tried the sashiko mend — and now they’re my favorite jeans again!

If you’re new to patching or darning tears on fabric, see tutorial here.

 

Catch a dropped stitch in a knitted garment

If a single yarn wears or breaks in a knitted item of clothing, the entire thing will start coming apart. The sooner you can catch it, the better.

I couldn’t really find a suitable tutorial for this one. If you can find the two ends of a broken yarn, try to go in there and tie them back together, then add enough stitches with similar-colored yarn to patch whatever hole has already formed. Understanding knitting, and how to catch a dropped stitch while knitting, definitely helps.

 

* * *

When we mend, a piece of clothing may get fixed. But the most important work is the work we do on ourselves: patching our urge for easy consumption and disposable, learning to honor what we already have, reminding ourselves that we have the skills to fix things that are broken.

cardigan from sheep wool

Sheep to Sweater, Part II

This is the second part in a two-part series about the process of making a knitted garment out of raw sheep’s fleece. Read Part I here. In this part, we focus on spinning and knitting raw wool.

 

My sheep-to-sweater project is complete! Actually, it became a cardigan, but “sheep to sweater” sounds better, don’t you think?

I’m one of those people who are always cold. Layers, two pairs of socks, huddling close to the wood stove all winter long — you get the picture. I’ve long been dreaming of a long wool cardigan, long enough to cover my waist and bum. I tried to find one second-hand on ThredUp, where I buy most of my clothes, but guess what: it’s nearly impossible to find one that is 100% wool. And I’ve made a commitment to transition out of using synthetic fibers, for many reasons.

So, logically, I called up Sebette, a local sheep farmer I know.

With this cardigan, I’ll never be cold again. Not only is it 100% wool and thick the way hand-spun garments often are, but the wool retains some of its natural lanolin, which insulates and even repels moisture. (Actually that was sort of unintended. Washing the wool is meant to remove the lanolin, but my washing process was not perfect — I didn’t get the water quite scalding hot enough. As a result, I now have an extra warm cardigan.)

 

Spinning the wool

All through the long winter evenings, I spun wool. Spinning is a meditative “flow” activity if there ever was one: the motion of the wheel literally pulls the fiber, pulling you along. You can focus on the craft yet at the same time let your mind wander a bit, in a way that is soothing and relaxing.

spinning wool

spinning wool

Spinning is definitely a craft that must be practiced and learned. (It took me about 3 weeks to get the hang of it when I started 9 years ago.) But once you do, you get into a rhythm with the wheel, you develop an instinctive feel for when to keep your grip tight or relaxed, when to go fast or slow.

If you’re new to spinning but curious to get started, here’s a comprehensive “How to Get Started with Spinning” resource.

Each strand of the yarn is spun separately, and then the individual strands are plied together to make the final yarn. I spun a two-ply yarn. The cardigan pattern called for sport weight yarn; I actually spun extrafine most of the time, but the strands bloom a bit when they are plied, and the end result was sport- to worsted weight most of the time, with some thick-and-thin bits that I happen to like.

This was my first time spinning Cormo sheep wool. Cormo is a breed developed in Tasmania, a cross between Corriedale and Merino. I’d heard spinners and knitters get excited about Cormo wool before, and now I know why: the wool has softness, luster and a well-defined crimp that gives it elasticity.

 

carding wool

Knitting the cardigan

The knitting pattern I chose is Naima cardigan by Ankestrick (Ravelry link). It’s knitted from the top down, with eyelet rows that go all the way down, as well as pockets, which allowed me to learn a couple of new techniques.

When you and you alone are responsible for all the steps (except for raising the sheep), you begin to realize the value of solid preparatory work. Your knitting is only as good as your spinning. Your spinning is only as good as your carding. And your carding won’t be good unless you took good care in the preceding steps, skirting and washing the wool.

 

The final product

Here, at long last, is my Snow Flurry cardigan, named after the sheep whose wool I used.

cardigan from sheep wool

cardigan from sheep wool

The cardigan has that live, handspun look I happen to love. And it is so. warm.

Since this is slow fashion, I had a lot of time to think. As I scoured, sorted, carded, spun and knit this wool, I thought about the fact that this is how clothing used to be made — how much labor and time went into a single garment, and how much value was placed on that garment as a result. I imagine that our forebears would have perhaps just one warm woolen item like this every winter, and that they cared for it accordingly. A far cry from the present fast fashion culture of buy-wear-toss.

One thing you can be sure of, now that I’ve definitely put 100+ hours into this garment: I will care for it well.

sheep at a farm

Sheep to Sweater, Part I

This is the first in a series of posts about the entire process making a knitted garment out of a raw sheep’s fleece. In this first part, we’ll focus on processing raw wool: skirting, scouring, sorting, and carding to get the fiber ready for spinning. If it sounds like a lengthy process, that’s because it is. But it’s not undoable. This is slow fashion in action: exploring alternatives to unsustainable fast fashion, one item of clothing at a time.

sheep at a farm

The best of sweaters begin this way — with a visit to a sheep farmer and her sheep.

I met farmer Sebette and her flock of Cormo sheep earlier this year through my carbon farm planning work and our regional Fibershed affiliate, Local Cloth. As the temperatures began to drop and we were looking at a winter of mostly staying at home, I decided it was time for another sheep-to-sweater project. So my daughter and I headed over to Wooly Ridge Farm to visit Sebette and her sheep, and came back with a fluffy 5.4 lb bag of white wool from a small Cormo sheep named Snow Flurry.

raw unwashed wool

The name tag on the wool is a reminder that this wool comes from a living, breathing, warm animal whose heartbeat, along with the grasses on the pasture, made this wool grow. Here and there among these finely crimped, soft fibers are little bits of grass, seeds, and burrs that tell the story of this sheep’s wanderings in the pasture.  And this entire billowing mass of wool still carries the smell of the animal and the barnyard. There’s nothing like working with raw wool to fully feel our fibers’ and clothing’s connection to land.

 

First step in Processing Raw Wool: Skirting the Fleece

The first step is called skirting the fleece: going through the entire fleece and cutting off the dirtiest bits. As you see in the picture above, the raw fleece has a fair amount of dirt on it. Take the entire raw fleece and lay it on the floor or a table, and cut out all the very dirty wool on the edges of the fleece. The underside of the sheep is obviously going to have the most dirt and crud. This is where you should also remove as much plant matter — seeds, bits of grass, burrs — as you can. Use the sharpest scissors you have!

 

Washing/Scouring the Wool

The goal of scouring the wool is to remove both the remaining dirt and the lanolin, the natural wax that’s on the wool. You could of course opt for spinning in the grease, which is much less work and results in a very natural-looking and semi-waterproof garment. But most people prefer to spin scoured wool.

To wash the wool, you first have to separate the fleece into smaller bits and bag them in mesh bags to contain the wool. I’ve used small squares of tulle, made into little bundles closed with rubber bands, as well as larger mesh bags with zippers that I also use for dyeing. The smaller bags are more tedious and time-consuming to prepare, but result in cleaner wool.

Now, for the washing part. This guide to washing the wool is among the most thorough and at the same time easiest to follow, in my opinion.

Here are the key points to keep in mind:

  • To remove the lanolin, the water must be hot hot hot — 140 to 160 F — for the entire soaking time
  • You must not agitate the wool at all while it’s in hot water, otherwise it gets felted. Drastically changing the water temperature will also cause felting.
  • Optional: you can pre-soak the wool before washing to remove more of the dirt. Soak for up to 24 hours in cold water, then drain.
  • Soap: There are special scouring soaps; otherwise you can use regular dishwash detergent, provided that it cuts grease. How much to use? The internet gives maddeningly varying answers. I did a few squirts of dishwashing detergent following the Woolery’s guideline, “enough to make the water feel slippery.”
  • Scouring time: 30 minutes. If the wool is very dirty, do two rounds of washing.

One option is to use a washing machine to soak and spin the wool. Note: you absolutely can’t let the washing machine wash, i.e. agitate, the wool, otherwise it will felt. You fill the tub first with hot water, then add detergent, and then carefully lower down the wool to soak for 30 minutes. Then spin.

Your second option is soaking the wool in a bathtub or a sink (scrubbed clean, of course). This makes it much easier to manage the temperature of the water. Keep big pots of extra hot water simmering on the stove in case your water heater doesn’t make it hot enough. Again, the washing water has to be minimum 140 F to remove the lanolin, and must stay that hot until the end of the 30 minutes soaking period — otherwise the lanolin might get re-absorbed into the wool.

Let the wool sit in the hot, soapy water for 30 minutes. Then gently squeeze out the hot water out.

Rinse: fill the tub again with hot water — this time the water doesn’t have to be quite as hot. Gently lower the wool in again and let sit for 30 minutes, then drain. If the water is very soapy,  do a second rinse.

Gently squeeze the water out of the wool bundles again and lay them out to drain and dry. An old door or window screen, or hardware cloth laid on top of a drying rack works well.

washing raw wool

When most of the water has drained, I move the wool bundles onto a towel, and when they’ve dried some more, take them out of the mesh bags.

 

Carding the Woolcarding wool

One of the most labor-intensive parts of processing raw wool is now done!

When the wool is completely dry, you can begin carding or combing the wool. This is where you achieve those fluffy, light rolls of wool that are easy to spin because the fibers are all aligned.

I use hand carders. A carding machine is amazing if you’re more of a pro — but if that’s the case, you probably already have one.

The key to carding, in my experience, is to do small amounts at a time. It’s tempting to stuff the hand carder with all the wool you can fit… but the result won’t be as smooth. Slow and steady — remember, this is slow fashion! You might as well brew a cup and light a fire and take your time. Carding is one of those activities that involve repetitive movements, just like knitting, and can feel incredibly relaxing and soothing because you’re fully absorbed in slowly and methodically doing just one thing, over and over again.

carding wool

Because you really need to see it in action, here’s a video tutorial of carding with hand carders.

Now you’re ready to start spinning! To be continued, in Sheep to Sweater Part II!

 

 

 

 

naturally dyed yarn

Colors from the Garden: Growing Natural Dyes

How would you like to be able to grow not just food and herbs, but also dye plants? To have non-toxic, natural dye pigments for dyeing textiles, wool yarns, or even children’s art supplies and soaps? Here are some resources for planning — and planting — a beautiful natural dye garden.

If you have a garden, chances are that there are already some plants there you could dye with. Some of the most common garden plants can be used as dyes since they release pigment when simmered in hot water:

    • marigold
    • Black-eyed Susan
    • coreopsis
    • tansy
    • purple basil
    • fennel
    • marjoram
    • onion (skins)

Even if you don’t, many so-called weeds — plants that grow wild by the roadside or in wild patches — make great dyes:

    • stinging nettle
    • pokeweed
    • goldenrod
    • yarrow

You could easily get started with these plants.

But if you’re really drawn to the idea of über-local, non-chemical colors on your textiles, and if you have access to garden space, I encourage you to create a designated dye garden. You get to participate in the process of choosing your plants/colors, growing and tending them through a growing season, and then experimenting with different combinations, plant parts, time of harvest, and the various mordants and afterbaths that help to modify your colors. You’ll be one step closer to a truly ecologically mindful wardrobe.

 

dye plants from the natural dye garden

Planning Your Natural Dye Garden

Choose a site that gets good sun, ideally at least 6 hours a day. Decide on the shape of your dye garden area. It’s better to start small the first year, and then expand later if you find that you can manage what you have so far.

Many dye plants tolerate poor soils, but they’ll be more productive in rich soil. Prepare the soil as you would a vegetable garden bed: remove any plant debris and the sod, then dig deeply to loosen the soil. Work in compost, aged manure, or other organic matter to improve soil structure and drainage.

Then the fun begins: what plants — what colors — will you grow? Take a look at the list of common garden plants above: many of them are incredibly attractive as they bloom in the summer, and provide nectar for pollinators. Even if you just plant marigolds, Black-eyed Susans, zinnias, and purple basil, you’ll have a striking flower bed all summer long, and can harvest colors ranging from sunny yellows to sweet pinks at the end of the season.

zinnias in dye garden

But besides these plants, there are some that are usually specifically grown as dye plants — and for a reason: they have unusually strong and colorfast pigments:

  • madder root (reds)
  • Japanese indigo (blues)
  • woad (blues)
  • weld (yellows)

You’ll probably have to source the seeds or the plants from a specialist seed company or nursery (see Resources below). But it’ll be worth it.

 

My Dye Garden

For me, choosing the location for my dye garden was easy. On one side of our property is our neighbors’ retaining wall, built out of railroad ties that likely contain creosote. I’ve done enough research on creosote to not want to grow anything edible near them. So I turned that entire strip, behind and surrounding our greenhouse, into a dye garden.

 

natural dye garden in summer

In designing my dye garden, I started with a handful of dye plants that both look gorgeous in the garden, and make strong dyes: marigold (for yellow), weld (for yellow), madder root (for red and orange), Japanese indigo (for blues) and zinnia (for beige to light yellow).

In future years, I can easily expand and add new plants. Elsewhere in the garden, I also grow purple basil (for pink), fennel (for green/yellow), and stinging nettles (for green/yellow).

Here are a couple of my favorite dye plants that made their way into my dye garden plan without any hesitation.

Japanese indigo (Polygonum tinctorium) is, like the name indicates, a source of blue color. It has pretty pink flowers in the summer and the leaves can be harvested for the loveliest blues — not quite the strong dark blue of real indigo, but a strong dye nevertheless.

Space the plants about 10 inches apart. You can harvest the leaves several times in the course of the growing season.

Japanese indigo plant

Madder root (Rubia tinctorum) is an age-old dye plant (pigment from it was found on cloth in Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s tomb!) for reds, ochres and oranges. As the name suggest, you harvest the dye from the root. Madder roots have to be minimum 3 years old before you can harvest a strong red dye from them. Madder is a sprawling, vigorous plant that will spread, so it’s best if you either give it plenty of space, or plant it inside a raised bed box to confine the roots. Other than that, it’s one of the easiest plants to grow: you can virtually ignore it and it will thrive.

madder plant

 

My 6-year-old is now old enough that we can work on dye projects together. We play witches, stirring potions in big pots and magically creating colors. I promised her that if we get a range of colors on wool yarn, I’ll knit her a rainbow hat and mittens with colors from the garden.

dyeing textiles with natural dyes

So far we’ve got blue from Japanese indigo, yellow from marigold, green from marigold with iron afterbath, and pink from purple basil… We’re well on our way!

Resources

Books on natural dyeing:

Online suppliers of dye plant seeds and starts:

Fibershed book and climate-beneficial wool scarf

Climate-beneficial Wardrobe

Everyone is talking about the carbon footprint of food, and the search for the most “climate-friendly” diet sparks lively debates. But clothes, too, are something we choose and need daily. Clothing is an intimate matter. It touches our skin all day long. It keeps us warm and protects us from the elements. For that reason alone, it matters where our clothes come from and how they were made. But our wardrobe choices also have a climate impact, whether we think about it or not. It is possible for our wardrobes to actually be “climate-beneficial.”

Of course, there are already plenty of garments on the racks of clothing stores labeled “sustainable.” The slow fashion movement encourages us to ask where our clothes come from, and put pressure on clothing manufacturers to address the massive ecological and ethical issues in the industry.

But the regenerative fiber movement goes further. Instead of minimizing damage in the current processes of clothing production, it boldly insists that our clothes should be produced in a way that actually restores degraded ecosystems and soils. The raw materials of natural-fiber clothing — unlike synthetic fabrics — come from the land. They come from fields where cotton, hemp or flax grow, or from pastures where fiber animals graze. Our clothes come from the ground up. The regenerative fiber movement focuses on what happens at the ground level on these farms.

sheep running to pasture

 

What is Regenerative Fiber?

It’s an innovation of the most old-fashioned sort. Clothing production that has the potential to help slow down climate change is happening, not in the high-tech labs and factories of major textile manufacturers, but at the grassroots level — literally. Where the hoof of a fiber animal meets the soil on the pasture. Where the farmer is monitoring the health of the grasses and forbs and the soil and the animals.

It’s simple, really. Degraded, eroding soil — what characterizes most conventionally managed farmland today — is a major source of CO2 emissions. Healthy soils with vibrant plant life, in contrast, draw down and store excess carbon from the atmosphere. One type of farming contributes to climate change, the other one helps to mitigate it.

Regenerative agriculture, also sometimes called carbon farming, refers to farming practices that have been shown to rebuild healthy soil. As a result of building soil, they increase the soil’s ability to draw down and store carbon from the atmosphere. The practices most appropriate for fiber farmers are different types of managed intensive grazing, compost application on pasture, and planting trees on pasture — a practice known as silvopasture.

The products of farms that have implemented these practices are not just “sustainable.” Their very production helps to slow down climate change. In the case of fields of hemp or cotton or flax managed in this way, or fiber animals on pastures managed in this way, the end product is, in fact, textiles whose very production helped to pull out carbon from the atmosphere. A climate change solution you can wear, you might say. A “climate-beneficial” wardrobe.

 

Climate-Beneficial Wool for Knitters

As I write this, I hold in my hands a skein of wool with the words “Climate-Beneficial” written on the label. Fibershed, a California-based non-profit promoting regional and regenerative fiber systems, rolled out its Climate-Beneficial™ certification program a few years ago to recognize fiber grown in regenerative farming systems. Fibershed supports farmers in transitioning to regenerative farming practices such as managed grazing, conservation tillage, and compost application on pastures, and spearheaded a pilot project to produce a fabric made of regeneratively produced wool.

What does this mean for you?

If you can sew or knit your own, you can begin to create your own climate change mitigating wardrobe, at however small a scale. Knitters, crocheters, weavers and spinners can look for yarn and fiber certified as Climate-Beneficial™ on the Fibershed Marketplace. If you sew, you can check about the availability of Fibershed’s Community-Supported Cloth woven out of wool from Lani Estill’s Bare Ranch, the first certified Climate-Beneficial™ fiber farm, and produced as regionally and sustainably as possible.

Even if knitting or sewing is not your forte, there are other ways to stay warm while keeping the climate cool. Some big-name clothing brands—most notably Patagonia and The North Face—have collaborated with Fibershed to create pilot lines of clothing for which the fiber was sourced from regenerative fiber farms.

hat, mittens and scarf knitted out of Climate-Beneficial Wool

 

Towards a Climate-Beneficial Wardrobe

Here are the beginnings of my own “climate-beneficial” wardrobe so far: an apron dress, a scarf, a hat, and mittens. (I wrote about sewing the apron dress here.)

Apron, hat, scarf, mittens. I know. It’s not exactly enough to keep me clothed year-round. But, first of all, it’s a beginning, and there is power in beginnings, right? Even more importantly, these items of clothing serve as a tangible point of connection for me. When I put them on, I’m not merely putting on some clothes. Because I know where the wool fiber comes from, and that the soil on those pastures is being revitalized through regenerative practices, I put them on and actually, viscerally feel a connection to the pastures, the sheep, and the soil from which they come. Lastly, these handmade items become a handy tool for introducing the concept of regenerative fiber to others. When someone comments on what I’m wearing, I tell them the story of where the wool comes from and what makes it different. Sometimes it elicits a mere “Oh.” But at other times, it sparks an excited conversation about the possibility of farming, of producing what we need, in ways that are not destructive but restorative.

My most recent knitting project was probably the most meaningful one yet. The lustrous, fog-colored fingering-weight yarn for it came from Heartfelt Fiber Farm in Sonoma County, California, for which I had the opportunity to develop a Carbon Farm Plan in 2016. As I was developing the plan, farmer Leslie and I walked the land of her small farm many times and I got to know her animals — the rare, tiny Ouessant sheep, Icelandic sheep, and Cashgora goats — by name.

When I cast on a knitting project with fiber from her sheep, I felt like the fibers that run through my fingers connect me to the soil I sampled and the landscape I mapped and to farmer Leslie’s hard work and dedication. The knowledge that the very production of that fiber helps to build fertile, carbon-sequestering soil and address one of the biggest challenges of our time probably warms me as the knitter and the wearer more than the wool itself.