Clothing (partially) made in Vermont
So many people have started talking about local food that the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary named "localvore" their 2007 "word of the year." A localvore is a person who eats locally grown food, generally from within a specified radius, say 100 miles. Someone who aspires to immortality, at least through a footnote in the dictionary, could invent a similar word for a person who purchases locally in general. The concept of local purchasing is gaining cachet; Buy Local Vermont, formed in 2006, is one of dozens of similar organizations around the country.
The "buy local" movement is (so far) primarily about patronizing locally owned businesses. The clothes and books and bikes sold by those businesses usually come from as far away as similar products in chain stores. In fact, the products are often identical. For example, Michael Pollan's paean to local food, "The Omnivore's Dilemma," is published by Penguin, and no matter where you buy it, it is printed wherever it is that Penguin prints their books.
Buying locally makes a surprising economic difference even with non-local products like books. According to a study in Austin, Texas, buying Pollan's book for $16 at a locally owned, independent book store keeps $7.20 in the local economy, while buying it for the same price at a chain store means only $2.10 is kept local. (Contrary to a popular belief, locally owned stores often offer similar prices to the chains.) And buying the book online, of course, keeps hardly any money local — mostly the wages of the people who deliver the book to your door and the people who service the delivery trucks.
Finding locally made products is the next logical step in the localvore and buy-local movements. Local production is a security issue as much as an economic issue. Global supply chains using trucks, railroads, planes and container ships depend on cheap oil, good international relations, healthy economies elsewhere in the world, and other things we often take for granted. The more of what we use is produced locally, the more resilient our economy will be to disruptions like reduced energy availability after peak oil.
I asked around to find stories about local clothing and fiber production in Vermont or the region. It seemed like an economic niche closely related to local food. It is farmers, after all, who produce natural fibers like wool, flax, hemp and cotton. As with foods, some fibers are easily produced here, and others not so easily, for reasons related to both the climate and the law. Wool and flax grow well in our climate, like strawberries or parsnips or potatoes; heat-loving cotton is more like oranges or bananas. Hemp grows easily here, but farmers are no longer allowed to grow it. (Hemp is in a thornier regulatory thicket than even raw milk or chickens slaughtered on the farm. At least farmers are allowed to produce, possess and sell small amounts of raw milk or their own chicken meat. A Vermont farmer who produced the hemp that goes into clothing sold a few blocks from the Statehouse could be thrown in jail for years.)
The fiber farmer I talked with is Kimberly Hagen, who raises about 20 merino and merino cross sheep in Washington County. Hagen turns the wool into yarn for local knitters; she has not yet found a way to get her wool into locally woven cloth.
Her sheep are sheared on the farm. Shearing takes a lot of practice to do well, and shearers from the large wool producing countries New Zealand and Australian shearers are so skilled that they find jobs around the world. Hagen says, however, that she has no problem finding good New England shearers to separate the wool from the sheep in the spring.
The next step, washing the wool, is one of the biggest challenges in local wool production, Hagen says. The process frees so much of the fatty lanolin from the wool that the wastewater is hard to treat in large quantities. Hagen solves the problem with labor-intensive hand washing, four to five pounds of wool at a time. She soaks it in soapy water heated to near boiling in a big soup pot on her stove, and then rinses it a couple times with warm water. Each batch produces only a small amount of the lanolin-rich wastewater. It takes so many batches to wash her wool this way, however, that Hagen usually doesn't finish until July.
Green Mountain Spinnery in Putney takes the wool the next steps toward clothing. They card the wool, using metal brushes to work out the clumps, and then they comb it, to align the fibers in the same direction. Finally, they spin it into yarn. The spinnery can make quite a variety of yarns, according to Hagen, of various thicknesses and either single- or multi-stranded.
The spinnery sends the yarn back to Hagen's farm, where she dyes it. At least some of the natural dyes she uses, like goldenrod, grow around here, but she purchases them in bulk from elsewhere in the country. The skeins go back into the soup pot with the dye, and they emerge wet and colorful.
After drying the skeins, Hagen sells them directly to knitters she knows and through two local knitting supply shops. Presumably, the yarn is knit into some of the more beautiful hand-knit sweaters and scarves and caps we see this time of year.
At the other end of local clothing production is the Cheshire Cat in Montpelier. You can walk into the store on Elm Street and walk out with ready-to-wear, regionally produced clothing — no assembly or knitting required. And no one else will have anything quite like it, as each piece of Cheshire cat "art wear" is uniquely decorated.
Cheshire Cat owner and clothing designer Lucy Ferrada starts out with cloth, mostly cotton, from Away. After that, the work is done in Vermont and Massachusetts, with the clothing shuttling back and forth for different stages of production. Ferrada designs four seasonal lines of clothing each year, creating prototypes in the workshop in the back of her store. When she is satisfied with the fit of the design, she sends the patterns to a cut room in Massachusetts. They send the cut pieces to a stitcher in Boston, who sends it back to Ferrada in Montpelier.
The stitched garments are still the natural color of the cotton when they return to Montpelier. Ferrada sorts them into dyeing lots, chooses colors for the cloth, and sends them back to Massachusetts, to a dyer.
When the colored garments return to Montpelier a second time, Ferrada finishes them. "That's the fun part," she says. "I'm now working with a Vermont artist who is making hand-made ceramic buttons for my spring line. And I get to embellish, hand paint and appliqué." Each piece of clothing is decorated differently, with a painting or hand-painted patterns or sewn-on, hand-made textile flowers. If you're wearing clothing from the Cheshire Cat to a party, someone might show up wearing a garment of the same cut and color, but the detailing on yours will still be unique.
I don't have much experience using local clothing or fiber. The only locally produced clothing I'm aware of in our house is my wife's hat and scarf knit from the soft wool of our late Great Pyrenees dog. A neighbor spun the wool into yarn, and my mother-in-law knit the hat and scarf. I buy most of my clothing at the Salvation Army. While the donors to the Salvation Army are all local, I presume, they have bought the clothes they donate via fragile supply chains dependent on cheap oil and other things out of our hands.
For the sake of economic resiliency, though, I'm glad to see fiber producers and clothing producers working in Vermont and the region. I'd like to see more of them. It's difficult to know how to promote local production of something that is so much less expensive when imported from far away, manufactured by low-wage workers under working conditions we wouldn't allow Vermonters to be exposed to. Yet the time may come soon when the imported clothing becomes, once more, a rarity. People like Kimberly Hagen and Lucy Ferrada are keeping alive the skills and markets for what could be a resurgent domestic textile industry.
One thing our Legislature can do to promote local fiber production, without costing a cent of public money, is to allow our farmers to grow hemp for fiber without fear of being jailed. As the Vermont Council on Rural Development explores the future of Vermont, perhaps it can consider fiber and clothing production. For both fiber and clothing, we have skills and resources to build on.
Carl Etnier, director of Peak Oil Awareness, blogs at vtcommons.org/blog and hosts radio shows on WGDR, 91.1 FM Plainfield and WDEV 96.1 FM/550 AM, Waterbury. He can be reached at EnergyMattersVermont@yahoo.com.