It’s Week 5 of Slow Fashion October already, our final week (such as it is), and our theme is KNOWN. Let’s talk about favorite sustainable resources / the changing concept of “local” / traceable fabric and yarn origins / traceable garment origins / reference books, films, videos. How much do we know, where did we find or learn it, and how can we share both the resources and the knowledge?
At the core of “slow” anything — slow food or slow fashion — is knowing (i.e, asking) where things come from. Buying meat from a nearby farmer that was butchered just down the road is a whole different exercise from buying meat in a chain grocery store and having no idea who raised it, under what conditions; what factory it was processed in, and when; how it was handled between that factory and you. No way of knowing what exactly it is you’re buying or who and what you’re supporting with your money, other than the grocery chain’s CEO. Same thing goes for clothes. Once you start asking where your shirt or your fabric or your yarn comes from, you become more aware of the entire chain of farmers and mills and factories and global shipping companies and distributors and retailers that all have a role in getting fleece or plant fiber from the farm to your closet or your stash. And you start to make more thoughtful decisions about what you put your money into. Or you try to, anyway.
The fact is, knowing is hard — both the finding things out and the knowing what to do about what you know or don’t know. I’m exhausted and limp-brained right now trying to formulate thoughts about it. Buying clothing from a small-batch designer with in-house production instead of a mall store cuts out a lot questions and middlemen to wonder about, but they’re still sewing with fabric they probably can’t tell you much about. Fabric is the hardest, which you know if you sew. Maybe you know something about the fabric company, maybe they’ll tell you what country the fabric was made in, and you can take their word (or not) for whether that distant factory operates in ethical ways, paying their workers a living wage and providing a safe working environment. But even then, where did the fiber come from? How was it dyed? Once you start pulling that thread (no pun intended) you realize how long and tangled it is.
Yarn is the easiest. Not all yarns are transparent — not by a long shot — but a lot of them are, and listing some of those is a thing I can do! I’m focusing on the US because that’s where I am, but what I would love to see this week is a whole lot of listing and sharing. So here’s my sliding-scale overview of some conscientious yarn options, which I truly hope you’ll build on:
– Farm yarns: As I mentioned last week, farm yarns — yarns sold by the farmers who raised the animals — can be found at farmers’ markets and fiber festivals everywhere. When you buy directly from a farmer (especially a local one whose farm you might even visit), you not only support the farmer directly, but you can get to know basically everything about that yarn, from the specific breed of animal/fiber to how and where the yarn was milled. Farm yarns vary greatly in terms of how big the batches are and what the price is, depending on how big their flock is, how far the fleece has to travel (round-trip) to be processed, and whether they’re only selling it themselves or whether there’s distribution involved. You’ve got tiny little enterprises like Sawkill Farm or Green Bow Farm (or those without even a website) at one end of the spectrum and Imperial Ranch Yarns at the other end, where they’re producing significant amounts of yarn and distributing it through yarn stores everywhere, but it’s still ultimately farm yarn, bearing the label of the ranch it comes from.
– Boutique yarns (for lack of a better term): I’m thinking mainly about a breed of yarn store owners who’ve developed their own small-batch yarn, working with farmers and/or a mill. Examples: 1) Heirloom from Fancy Tiger Crafts, who developed their all-Romney yarn in conjunction with Elemental Affects. Jaime and Amber can tell you anything you want to know about the two farms where the sheep are raised and the mill where it’s spun. 2) Snoqualmie Valley Yarn, which Anna at Tolt Yarn and Wool had spun from the previously unused fleece of a neighbor farmer’s BFL–Clun Forest sheep. 3) Several yarns, at this point, from Kristine Vejar at A Verb for Keeping Warm, who likewise is gathering fleece from a variety of compelling sources and having these site- and breed-specific yarns milled, which she then naturally dyes. These include Pioneer, Big Sky, Clover and Flock. 4) She’s not a yarn store owner, but I would also put wool guru Clara Parkes’ Clara Yarn in this category, among many others.
– Mill yarns: Just like a lot of farms produce and sell their own yarn, so do some mills. Harrisville and Green Mountain Spinnery are two prominent examples of mills that spin yarn for other well-known brands as well as for their own line. Mill yarns can be a little more affordable than smaller-batch farm and boutique yarns because there’s one less link in the supply chain. Mini-mills do tiny batches of yarn from a wide variety of fleeces and farms because they don’t require the same volume of fleece in order to spin a batch. For instance, you never know what Abundant Earth Fiber might have on offer at any given time.
– Brooklyn Tweed: An example of a small yarn company with a little bit higher volume leading to a more affordable yarn but still with lots of transparency. BT discloses the entire supply chain of the yarn — from the scouring plant in Texas to the dye house in Pennsylvania to the mill in New Hampshire. We also know that the fleece is a mix of Columbia and Targhee from sheep raised in Wyoming — the only thing we don’t know is exactly what farms the fleece comes from.
– Quince and Co: A little further down the transparency spectrum, Quince yarns are a great and very well-priced option for anyone wanting to know that what they’re buying was subject to US laws and restrictions, and not shipped in from around the globe. Bigger yarn companies buy fleece from brokers. The wool comes from all over the world and is sorted by color and diameter and other qualities, as opposed to by breed or point of origin. So when you see “100% wool” on a yarn label, that’s really all you know — it could come from anywhere or be from any number of kinds of sheep. Quince, on the other hand, uses only US-raised fleece for their wool yarns, so while we don’t know the specific breed, much less the specific farm(s) raising it, we do know it’s all sourced and processed in the US.
Obviously, these yarns are a drop in the bucket. I’m leaving out dozens of great, affordable, transparent options. I would love it if you would enumerate them in the comments! Especially those specific to other parts of the world.
And will someone PLEASE do a similar roundup of conscientious, traceable fabric options? I’m begging you.
EDITED TO ADD: I realized this morning I left out the entire category of hand-dyers. It wasn’t an intentional omission but I admit it may have subconsciously been due to the fact that the hand-dyeing subset of the yarn business is complicated. Not a lot of dyers are developing their own yarns or even particularly mindful of origin. When asked, many or most couldn’t tell you where the fleece came from — they’re buying finished, undyed yarn from mills or brokers based on a huge variety of factors and preferences, and origin may or may not be one of them. On top of that, many hand-dyers use primarily superwash wools, which are very heavily processed. Hand-dyers are lovely people who adore yarn — some of my best friends are dyers! — and when you buy from them, you’re supporting small/local businesses, and that’s all good. Several dyers focus on natural (non-superwash) fibers, and there are some that offer known-origins yarns but the ones that spring to mind did so in the past and have moved away from that level of specificity. So if you want to buy from a hand-dyer and you have questions about their yarns or their process, check their websites for details and/or ask them.
EDITED AGAIN TO ADD: I’ve highlighted four dyers on Instagram this afternoon.
PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion October: Elsewhere, Slotober edition 3
Photos © Anna Dianich / @toltyarnandwool