wool symposium 2014


i am so excited to talk today about a most inspiring start to my year of knitting dangerously.  it was a total coincidence that this event took place immediately after i decided to trade in my stethoscope for my knitting needles, but i’m pretty sure if i hadn’t really committed to this year, i would have never made the trek.  in fact, i doubt i would have stumbled upon this event in the first place.  i can’t even begin to express how fortunate i am for this serendipitous timing.  attending the 2014 wool symposium at the fibershed out in gorgeous pt. reyes absolutely changed the course of this year for me.


where to begin.  i’m not sure how i came across it–somewhere in my efforts to follow/befriend more knitters/fiber people on social media i came across the fibershed and saw they were having a day-long event.  from an almost anthropological standpoint, like, “i should go observe these people who are interested in these things even though it’s not wholly applicable to me,” i really wanted to attend.  i knew that panels on breeding for fiber and diversity and sheep shearing demos would at the very least keep me entertained, and i was excited to kick off my big year with a full day solo trip to one of my favorite places in california/the world to do something to serve my recent pledge.  few better ways to say “i MEAN IT,” right?  i enlisted grandma for a full day of childcare and signed myself up.


matt gilbert shearing a jacob sheep from meridian jacob farm




angora rabbit shearing. cute overload.

i had no idea, not a CLUE what would greet me.  a room chalk full of fiber enthusiasts of all kinds, hands busy knitting and spinning, tea with local milk and honey, and endless trays of fresh bread and amazing cheese, yes, all of that was there, and all of that was great (especially the cheese).  but when rebecca burgess opened her mouth and started talking about taking carbon from the atmosphere, putting it to use in the soil, eventually to be eaten by sheep and then knit into a sweater on your back, i had to drop my knitting and start taking notes.  i thought the fibershed was some kind of co-op type marketplace.  that is such a small part of it.  the fibershed is a MOVEMENT.  a really amazing, really substantial, really researched, really powerful movement.  i’ll do my best to do it justice, but please spend some time over on the site if this interests you at all.



i, like so many americans, often act without thinking.  for many years, i bought what i wanted at the grocery store with no regard for growing seasons.  i didn’t know i liked tomatoes until i tasted a fresh one in my early twenties.  i ordered whatever i wanted from any restaurant without considering in the least where that food came from.  i bought cheap clothes because it was all i could afford, and they fell apart in a few washes and i got rid of them and bought more, trapping me in a cycle.  my life has changed significantly since then, but not totally intentionally.  many years ago i had my first foray into vegetarianism after reading through several scientific studies pertaining to correlations between certain types of cancer and animal product consumption.  i was completing a degree in nutrition at the time, and between giving up animal products and studying food systems and health issues, i accidentally learned quite a bit about our food industry, lobbies, and the general grotesque lack of regard for the wellbeing of animals or the health of humans propagated by our faster-and-cheaper-is-always-better-no-matter-the-social/moral/ethical/health/industry/long term consequences attitude toward food production (and many other things) in this country.  there are a number of documentaries (like thisthis, this, and this, to name a few), and the best book i’ve ever read about eating animals is eating animals.  i dare you to read it.  seriously.




great pyrenees, a popular form of predator friendly livestock protection.

if you’re wondering yet whether i will get back to knitting, i will.  full circle is coming eventually, i promise.

much like the issues of animal welfare and the food industry found me, i had a similar experience when i began sewing.  you would think somebody so particular about the source of their food (this is probably 2/3 of what compelled us to move our whole family to northern california, thousands of miles from everyone we know and love, so we could easily source and grow our own low impact food year round) might also consider the source of their clothing, but, not in my case.  it was not until i began sewing for myself that i started thinking about and then exploring where my store bought clothes had come from, the conditions under which they were made, why they were so inexpensive and of such poor quality (even from higher end retailers).  i think i literally, though coincidentally, sewed my first garment for myself the same month this horrible tragedy took place, which began/renewed interest in the topic, well documented by elizabeth cline.


for me, the parallels between the food industry and the fashion industry are so numerous and so disturbing, they’re impossible to ignore.  the congruency is sort of an unsettling reflection on our society, actually.  forgive me while i way oversimplify and throw around rough statistics for the sake of time, but if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.  if a pound of chicken is the same price it was in 1970 when the price of every single other thing in the grocery store has quadrupled at least, something’s amiss.  when you now get 5 shirts for 10 dollars when you used to get 1 shirt for 20 dollars, again, major, major issues have to be compromised to keep those prices down on such a large and growing scale.  in the case of meat, animals live in completely disgusting and unsanitary conditions, crammed in together in their own filth, sickly and crippled, which we combat by pumping them full of drugs, and i won’t even go into their slaughter.  and then we eat those sick, filthy, drugged animals.  i’m far from a bleeding heart–it’s terrible for the animals and that has its own weighty moral/ethical implications, but the impact on our environment and our own health should concern everyone whether they care for animals or not.


freshly sheared jacob fleece


i’m guessing this must be angora goat hair.

as it pertains to fashion, we have stripped america of its own textile industry and outsourced work to countries where we can circumvent taxes/unions/standards of living and produce on a far cheaper scale, compromising the health and safety of thousands of people.  we seem as a culture to be so short sighted…we are always searching for a cheap, quick fix and instant gratification and too often overlook/ignore the longterm implications of these actions.  it is NOT sustainable.  it leads to bangladesh.  and it will happen again and again and again.  it’s too easy not to think about these things because they are so far from plain view, but we have a responsibility to ask why, and where, and how.  knowing even somewhat the answers to those questions, i don’t want to be a part of it.


cashmere goats! so soft!

so, i was very happy to make my own clothes, but one major issue continued to irk me–the fabric.  i am peripherally aware of the impact of synthetic dyes on the environment (some good stats on that here), and the fact that what i wear and sew with most often, cotton, is one of the most brutal on the environment to produce.  i even have guilt about the amount of scraps i discard…i know there are a lot of creative uses for scraps, but i have to admit that often, i toss them out because i hate the clutter.  returning to the concept of zero sum, however, i felt ok about at least not exploiting any workers overseas in the production of my clothing, but i knew i could do better.


enter the fibershed.

what began as a year long self challenge for rebecca burgess (see, these are awesome) to wear only locally sourced and produced clothing transformed into a much bigger concept, one of a fibershed:

“We envision the emergence of an international system of regional textile supply chains that enliven individual community connection and ownership of ‘Soil-to-Skin’ processes.  These diverse textile cultures are designed to regenerate the natural systems on which they depend, while directly enhancing the strength of regional economies.  Fiber systems–like food systems, are dependent upon agricultural processes that 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.

As each Fibershed manages their resources with an eye toward creating a permanent and lasting textile culture; these efforts to take full responsibility for a garment’s lifecycle will diminish pressure on highly polluted and ecologically undermined areas of the world.  (China produces 52% of the world’s textiles.  The industry is the third largest fresh water polluter in the country.)

Future Fibershed communities will rely upon renewable energy powered mills that will exist in close proximity to where the fibers are grown. Through strategic grazing, integrated systems management, and conservation tillage our farming practices will create climate beneficial clothing that will become the new standard in a world looking to rapidly mitigate the effects of climate change. We see a nourishing tradition emerging… one that connects the wearer to the local field where the clothes were grown, building a system that can last for countless generations into the future…re-defining what it means to be truly sustainable.”  (http://www.fibershed.com/about/).

she’s obviously much more eloquent and knowledgeable than i, so i thought it best to just quote her.  see a nice visual representation of the concept here.




so, it was an amazing day.  i enjoyed the long car ride to and from alone in my thoughts.  i stepped outside between lectures to wander around pastoral settings.  the panels, my initial reason for going, were more than worth the trip in themselves–so wonderful to hear a variety of farmers/ranchers (almost all of them women!) talk about their breeds, their work, their love of animals and of fiber, with well over a hundred years of collective experience between them (and about predator friendly control practices, pollinators, and soil!).  all around, thoughtful displays of animals and their fibers in various forms (raw, roving, spun, knit, felted, etc), bags overflowing with soft, curly locks, tables stacked high with gorgeous fleeces, artisans selling their lovingly hand dyed and spun yarns.  for so long i have loved to shop at farmer’s markets, to ask the person who knows best what is the perfect peach for me to eat in two days, to hand them my money directly, to bring them some jam the next week.  here i had my first fiber market, and it was lovely.  in another stroke of luck, i also got to make a new friend, who has both feet WAY into this life already.  ashley (and her husband is david!) is currently living and working in san francisco as they save money to begin their own fiber mill/ farm in idaho (the land is already theirs!  it’s happening!).  she was incredibly gracious, warm and supportive, and will be a wonderful resource for me.  that too was well worth the trip.  she launched a new podcast today that is sure to be good and informative listening–i am off to check that out as soon as i post this, and you should do the same.


one of the treasures i took home, maybe my first fiber purchase for my project??


naturally hand dyed yarns using local plants

days like this will leave your heart warm and your mind buzzing happily with ideas and dreams.  of course in the time following the symposium, i continued reading up on the fibershed movement, and eventually came to the producer program. i began reading about other members/artisans, and i immediately knew it would be an amazing goal for me to devote a large part of this year to compiling an application for the program.  i’m currently somewhere between knee and elbow deep in designing my first collection of knitwear for children, and had intended to do a baby collection afterward.  i currently source my yarns for my designs from quince and co, which does a pretty solid job with ethically and sustainably producing yarns in america especially considering their scale of production (with a really nice hand and amazing palate…), but as i said before, i know i can do better.  i think it would be a really wonderful challenge for me to design a collection completely in local fibers (within 150 miles, and i clearly have more than enough choices!).  it would give me direction and conviction in conducting the farm visits i’ve been wanting to set up, and even more exciting, would allow me to weave the personal story of the land, the animals, and the people into every garment.  it gives me chills just to think about that.  it will allow me to gain entry into this incredible community around me, and hopefully make some new friends in the process (human and animal).  that there in a nutshell is basically my dream.  and it’s one that i can totally make a reality.  the best kind.

i’m pretty excited to have found a project that resonates with me on such a personal level.  the craft, the community, the ethics, the message, it ties it all up in a nice little package, and i have a new sense of purpose as i move forward.  and that is the big story from my first few weeks of knitting dangerously (there has also been a lot of knitting, which i’ll cover in future posts).  full circle.  i did it.

5 thoughts on “wool symposium 2014

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