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Review: “Fibershed” by Rebecca Burgess

I just finished reading Fibershed: Growing a Movement of Farmers, Fashion Activists and Makers for a New Fiber Economy.  Reading this book was like reading a book I wish I had written – I am completely on board with the author’s concerns about our current clothing system and vision for a new one.  I hope this book increases awareness of the value of local fibercraft.

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Burgess begins the book by outlining the environmental and ethical morass that is current Fast Fashion.  She outlines all of the pain and environmental destruction inherent in petroleum-derived fashion, including pollution from manufacture, dyeing and weaving/sewing of clothes.  She also notes emerging evidence showing the polluting properties of microfibers.  She tackles the environmental and ethical concerns about conventional cotton production and sheep production, including non-point pollution of fresh water as well as land use concerns.  I had not considered just how large the environmental footprint of clothing really is because I am not an active shopper, but she rightly points out that clothing manufacture is a huge sector of the global economy. No person or environment is untouched by the effects of our economic choices.

Her solution to the issues of our current wasteful and destructive clothing habit is simple enough to envision, but a challenge to implement.  She believes, and I agree, that we should go “localvore” with clothing as we should with food.  De-globalizing clothing economies and changing our habits around clothing would drastically slow the consumption of resources currently deployed to making flimsy garments meant only to last for a month or two.  It would also provide revitalizing economic opportunity in rural areas.

Her critique of the increasing rate of “planned obsolescence” in clothing really hit home for me.  I have struggled with this myself – I want to buy sturdy, comfortable jeans to work in, but in women’s clothing, jeans have become so flimsy that it’s hard to find a pair that will last me a year.  Men’s clothing is a little sturdier, but it doesn’t fit me at all and I feel like I shouldn’t have to compromise on fit to get properly dressed.  It’s even more of a struggle for me lately because since my surgeries, I can no longer tolerate a tight waistband across my tender pelvis and stomach.  That rules out a lot of brands of work pants.

The segment of the book that spoke to me most was (of course!) the segment on the potential for a California wool renaissance that would create a market for local raw wool, mills to spin and weave or knit it, and manufacturers to create top-quality finished garments.  I am totally on board with this vision.  Frustratingly, the only way this would really work would be if the environmental costs of globalized manufacture weren’t hidden from consumers or charged to third-world countries for clean up of environmental damage.   If the lifecycle price of carbon better matched the price at the pump, local clothing would be instantly competitive.

I am furthermore grateful for all of the groundbreaking lifecycle analysis that Burgess has done looking at local fiber’s carbon sequestration potential.  We should all wear wool with pride, knowing that every stitch of wool that replaces something made of petrochemicals is a little gift to our climate.   I only hope that we will rectify the artificial cheapness of imported fashion and imported food before it’s too late – I can safely assume that Burgess wishes very much for the same.  We furthermore agree that lab meat and lab fibers are a false hope which only serve to further centralize production while still hiding their carbon and ethical costs.

My critique of the book is twofold.  While the author’s citation of statistics and examples is commendable and thorough, so many are cited that it sometimes detracts from the narrative of the book.  The many credits she gives to people she visited and talked to while exploring her fibershed causes a similar narrative issue.  I appreciate that she wants to give producers their due, but I admit I found it distracting.  Also distracting was the organization of the book, which I would describe as distinctly “Californian-informal”.  Perhaps because I tend to favor textbooks, I struggled to follow the occasionally-meandering threads in this book.  I also wish she had more thoroughly examined the impacts of natural dyes.  It is my understanding that when mordant is added, many natural dyes are as polluting as synthetics or are worse.

Nevertheless, I feel that this is an important book for anyone who wants to explore the implications of their clothing choices.  She has groundbreaking information about new techniques for growing clothing crops more sustainably and with fewer labor rights infractions.  The book is full of striking illustrations and inspiring side-notations about farms and operations she has visited.  I would recommend it as the fiber-world equivalent to Omnivore’s Dilemma and other groundbreaking works endeavoring to spark change in our systems.

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Lamb Enterprise Calculator

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I recently read a conversation on the Vermont Sheep and Goat Association listserv on the topic of calculating a profitable lamb production enterprise.  Some producers hadn’t calculated their production costs, while others weren’t sure what market prices looked like.

For our lamb enterprise, I calculated our cost of production and then did a bit of research on comparable products.  Comparable products are lamb produced by other enterprise farms (farms where vegetable and animal enterprises make money, whether or not the farmer farms full-time or not).  Local lamb in grocery stores counts, but not imported lamb.  A quick google effort is all that is needed to see what other farmers are charging.  I then deducted my cost of raising lamb from the prevailing price, and calculated how many lambs I would need to raise to make the amount of money I would like to from my lamb efforts.  Lamb needs to pay about 2/3 of my annual income.

Predictably, I would need to charge much more for my lamb than the market would support to make something close to the median US income, but farm life has other benefits.   We breathe fresh air, eat local food, do enough work to avoid needing a gym membership, and we get to spend our time together.  It all comes down to what kind of lifestyle is enough.

I have a spreadsheet to share with any sheep raiser who needs a little help calculating the cost of raising their lamb.  This calculator is only as good as the accuracy of the numbers you have, so be honest with yourself about how much the lambs cost to keep.  If you are trying to calculate what it would cost to start a sheep operation, there are lots of resources online to help you estimate how much hay your sheep will eat and how much fencing might cost.

Download Your Lamb Enterprise Calculator

Please feel free to customize your copy with additional info pertinent to your farm and to share this resource.  I love writing a good spreadsheet, so this is my gift to you.  If the sheet that downloads has format problems for you, I am happy to send you a copy of the form in Google Drive – just get in touch with the form below:

 

 

 

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Cloverworks Farm in the Media

If you’ve ever ridden in the car with me, you probably know that I’m a bit of a public radio buff.  I am a huge fan of VPR, and particularly of Brave Little State, which is a podcast about questions about quirky Vermont topics.   Recently, a question I asked was featured on the program!

My question is answered on Brave Little State

Matt and I spent a lot of time driving all around the northeastern part of Vermont on our search for a suitable farm to buy.  We noticed Star Pudding Farm Road in Marshfield more than once, so I wanted to ask about it.  Turns out that the answer brought a tear to my eye because sometimes it feels like my farming efforts are rewarded with dining on wind pudding.

Our other major media effort is a new children’s book about lambs growing up on our farm.  April and May: Two Lambs at Cloverworks Farm tells the charming story of two lamb sisters who explore their surroundings, with educational commentary for adults to enjoy.  The book is appropriate for pre-readers and early readers.  Buy a copy through the link above, or come see us at the Craftsbury Farmer’s Market on Saturdays!

In other farm news, Mary Lake came to shear the lambs who aren’t slated for retention yesterday.  We got over 50 pounds of top quality fiber, so I am debating whether to have roving made or whether to hold out for more yarn….what do you think?

 

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Our BFL Yarn is Here

I am so happy with the BFL yarn that came back from Battenkill Fibers this year.

In past years, our BFL clip has been too small for me to send it to a mill.  Bluefaced Leicesters are bred to have light fleeces.  In the UK, this was done with the idea of reducing the fleecy bulk of Cheviots and Scottish Blackface ewes.  The ewes from these crossbreedings are known as mules, and they are famous for having better wool and more lambs than their mountain dams, but more fleece and ruggedness than their BFL sires.

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We just love our BFL sheep!  Here, Sally gets all of the petting she wants from farmer Matt.

In the US, where BFLs are not used as much for creating mule ewes, the small fiber clip is a bit of an issue for mill processing, which requires minimum amounts.  This year, with 17 adult ewes contributing, we finally have plenty of lovely yarn to sell.

The yarn itself is something else.  I have never had yarn so smooth, shimmery and soft, while not being ropey or hard at all.  I love how it shows off the dye efforts I’ve made.  It’s easy to envision this yarn as a luxury shawl or treasured scarf.  Slouchy hats would also be a great use for it.  I’m not saying that your BFL socks won’t stay up, but I am saying that this yarn deserves to be used doing what it does best, which is draping beautifully without pilling.  I chose colors that I thought would lend life and interest to single-color projects, though the colors complement each other well, too.

Our BFL yarn is fingering weight, 200 yards per skein.  

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Cloverworks Farm Greensboro Bend Yarn

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The Yarn is Here

Most years, I have sent my wool to the mill with the expectation that my yarn might come back just a few weeks before the festivals I regularly attend.  Usually, that was just enough time to count it and dye it while Mom might knit a sample or two.

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This year is different.  Our mill, Battenkill Fiber, has a different reservation system that allows me to place my wool earlier in the queue by making an earlier deposit.  This saves me a lot of stress and hassle in the fall; a time of year when I am busy with lambs and farmer’s markets as well as yarn.

Our yarn came out wonderfully, once again.  The Border Leicester wool we sent in became our Derby Line Sport-Weight yarn.   We also sent our BFL to the mill and got back stunning, drapey, glossy fingering-weight yarn.  It’s all dyed up, but I haven’t gotten it into the online store yet.  Ditto for some hat kits we will be offering- there’s lots to look forward to!

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As you read about in The Reality of Yarn,  getting the yarn off of the cones and into skeins took a lot of time and patience.  Choosing colors and dyeing the yarn relies a bit more on some of my experience.  I took careful note of which colors appealed to people and which ones just sat.  I really like orange, but I’ve eased-up on orange a bit this year in the Derby Line.  I have also made more solid shades and fewer semi-solid.   I did choose to make semi-solids and multicolor yarn with the BFL.  It was BORN to be an art-shawl, cowl or scarf, so having an art yarn is more appropriate.    Overall, I am pleased with the palette I’ve made and eager to see how customers receive it!

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The BFL yarn – freshly dyed and now drying out.

I admit that I am a bit selfish about dyeing the yarn.   Even though it would be a potentially fun group activity, I hoard it for myself.  Dyeing is the one place where I can do a bit of artwork in a profession that is otherwise mostly physical, so I make an afternoon of it with the radio on, a glass of wine, and a drawerful of powerful dyes and my dedicated pots.  I hope that my creative outlet will be your crafting inspiration!

 

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The Reality of Yarn

Don’t get me wrong.  Playing with yarn gives me great joy.  I love the texture, the sheepy scent, the slight dust of it.  I love the whole sensory experience and I am always happy to have more yarn.

This year, instead of having our yarn made into pre-measured skeins at the mill, we elected to have it delivered on huge cones to be made into skeins at home.  Matt built a skein winder that automatically spins and measures each skein.  Such a winder would normally cost $350-400.  He made ours out of spare parts and some pvc pipe for about $150.

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But please understand that this is Day 12 of winding skeins.  I have rewatched the entirety of Ken Burn’s “The Civil War” (11 hours and 30 minutes, for those counting at home) while winding skeins, and that just covered winding the white BFL and 1/3 of the white Border Leicester.  I watched Ken Burns “The Roosevelts” as well.  I also watched the whole “Avatar: The Last Airbender” series (23 hours 20 minutes!) while making the natural color Border Leicester skeins and white mini-skeins needed for new patterns that will be released soon.

Each skein comes off the line frequently enough to make tasks more complex than television impossible.  Likewise, my hands need to stay clean, precluding anything like cooking or dyeing other yarn.  Watching something informative makes me feel like my brain is engaged with something meaningful.  I know I’m letting my nerd flag fly by admitting to my preference for documentaries and straightforward storytelling.  The current selection of human-failure-intensive prestige dramas don’t appeal: to me, the world has enough genuine sorrow and pain.  I cannot enjoy watching people suffer for entertainment.  I left human services forever in 2010 for a reason.

I am happy to report that I am winding skeins from the final cone of natural-color Border, and I am really, really happy to be so nearly done.  Stay tuned for 2019 yarn!20190521_092711

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An Ice Storm

Last night, we could hear the logging trucks trying to drag their loads up the temporary road.  At the top if the hill, the skidder helped pull the truck onto the ice-covered road using its chained tires.  The logging job is almost done, but our logger is scrambling to get the crop off the field before the thaw starts to create mud.  We are pleased by their work- the sheep will have plenty of grassy areas interspersed with shade for the hottest days.

We had a decent ice storm, causing traffic snarls in the more populated counties and causing us to go looking for the ice-devices for our boots.  Having fooled around with Stabilicers, YakTrax and other similar items, we have gone hardcore.  We use these:

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So the rule is “no walking on the deck or stairs with the ice devices on”.  Predictably enough.

The sheep, geese and chickens have taken the storm in stride.  While we chip away at frozen metal, the geese walk with confidence.  Did you know that they have little claws at the ends of their toes?  Ignore the webbing for a moment, because those claws are sharp and can do damage!  The geese appreciate that warmer temperatures have kept their water thawed and entertaining.

I appreciate that Matt went down to the woodchip pile created by the loggers.  He hauled some chips back, and used them to treat our driveway when we ran out of salt.  I have to say that the chip-traction is even better than the salt-traction.  And a little friendlier to the earth, too.

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The path from the house
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And the rest of the driveway

The sheep are protected from the grim weather as they enter the final stretch of pregnancy.  They have been relaxing, eating and growing ever-wider.  I’m really hoping for lots of healthy lambs.

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The sheep were not untouched by the ice, though:

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Manure-sicles.

 

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Scarves

I am offering 20% off our scarves at Our Etsy Shop   Offer code: FLEECENAVIDAD

The photos don’t quite do these justice.  Five of the scarves are made from the last of my Cormo yarn and two from our natural-color Bluefaced Leicester.  The softness, comfort and drape is unmatched.  Even wool skeptics will find these scarves next-to-the-skin pleasant.  Dad and I are really proud of these gorgeous scarves.  We think they are a sustainable gift worth giving (or a gift to yourself- after all, you’ve worked hard this year!)

Please feel free to get in touch with any questions.

 

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Rhinebeck

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The Barn, Sunday Morning

Mom and I went to Rhinebeck last weekend to represent Bluefaced Leicester Sheep as best we could.  With my foot broken, this is largely a story of other people doing things for me.  Matt loaded Fannie the BFL lamb at 5:30 for my departure.  Down 91, picked up Mom in Brattleboro, across on 90 and down the Taconic and we were in Rhinebeck.  Again, wonderful helpers helped Mom unload Fannie into her pen, where her new friend Chloe was waiting.  I had reserved Chloe months ago from BlueLand Farm in Maryland.  I had a pleasant chat with Meredith as we signed over the papers for Chloe.

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Saturday saw steady waves of people coming up.  Most just wanted to see some sheep and learn a little, but a few were interested in becoming future shepherds.   By noon, people could barely shuffle by.  There were more people in that barn than live in my town, easily.   A big treat was a visit from the New England Border Collie Rescue folks and the chance to meet a few of the members of a Ravelry group I really love.

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Our fiber sample items.

Sunday was a little calmer, and we were able to have some one-on-one conversations with representatives of yarn shops and a few more members of the public who are considering sheep.  A lot of the questions I was asked concerned selecting breeds when you start your farm.  There are some misconceptions I want to address with that, so I am thinking of writing some posts about breeds.  What questions or thoughts do you have about selecting breeds of sheep?

SOON, as the popular meme goes

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SOON (as the popular meme goes)
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Preparing for the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival

Every year has been a little different at the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival at the Tunbridge Fairgrounds in Tunbridge, VT, September 30-October 1.  Even if you don’t knit, it’s a ton of fun with great food and lots of opportunities to learn more about fibercraft.

In the past, I have brought natural-color Cormo X yarn – soft yarn in natural white, gray and brown shades.   Additionally, I’ve brought some hand-processed batts for handspinners and felters.

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This year is a little different.  The last run of Cormo X yarn will be for sale, available in eight (yes!) attractive and wearable colors plus three natural shades.  We will be debuting our Bluefaced Leicester yarn, which is soft and silky with a subtle sheen.  I hope you are as excited as I am to touch this awesome yarn.  Our BFL yarn comes in two natural colors and supplies are limited.

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We will also be offering raw fleece in several formats.  We have small packets of hand-selected Bluefaced Leicester and Border Leicester locks for crafting.  Border Leicester fleece is on offer in larger volumes.  I know many handspinners with they could sample more fleeces with a little less commitment to a whole sheep.  I have chosen to offer fleece in smaller purchase units so that you can enjoy a pound or three of quality fleece without being tired of it by the end.  I’ve been there.

Additionally, gorgeous and intriguing pelts made by Vermont Natural Sheepskins will be on offer in both white and natural shades.

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So please come by our booth in the animal barn.  Friendly lambs want to nibble you, and I want to hear what you think of this blog.

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