Friday, March 29, 2019

Strengthening the farm-to-fashion supply chain

What is the Hudson Valley Textile Project?

Lilly Marsh, HVTP board member: The Hudson Valley Textile Project is a 501 C 3 non-profit consortium of fiber producers, processors, artisans and consumers focusing on strengthening a farm-to-fashion supply chain here along the 250 mile Hudson River watershed. Our region has a growing farm-rural tourism industry primarily organized around food, but we are working to educate consumers (and producers) that fiber products can be seen as the same fusion between agriculture and creativity. Like the local food movement, local cloth touches on a range of consumer concerns including environmental concerns around sustainable land use and carbon sequestration, responsible animal welfare management, the support of small production and regional manufacturing jobs and capacity, a growing value among artisan fiber artists for local materials and processing, and a corresponding growth in consumer value for ‘slow fashion’ over disposable fast fashion models.

We are a young organization as yet, but are currently offering a number of benefits to our members designed to assist them in connecting to retailers and consumers, including promotion on social media platforms, maintenance of a regional resource list, product hangtags identifying local production, a curated photo library for member use in their own promotional work, and organizational representation at selected craft and trade shows. We are currently exploring the idea of a sellers’ cooperative that would further knit local raw material production with processors and end users.

Our third annual meeting, March 20th at SUNY New Paltz, offered members an opportunity to network and show off their products, as well as bring themselves up to date on regional topics and collaborations. Our keynote speaker this year was Stephany Wilkes, sheep shearer and author of Raw Material: Working Wool in the West, and president of the Northern California Fibershed Cooperative.

How do you work with shepherds?

The HVTP organization offers the shepherd connections to those artisans and retailers interested in working with local wool and alpaca. Through those connections, a shepherd can begin to understand the needs and preferences of the fiber community. This can be a simple as offering a shepherd promotional space on our social media platforms, or a far deeper collaboration between members of the organization.

One example of the deeper collaborations has been between Blue Pepper Farm, a high peaks area sheep dairy operation in Jay NY, and myself, the weaver at Lilly Marsh Studios. I became interested in developing a Hudson Valley studio yarn and had met Shannon Eaton, Blue Pepper’s shepherd, through the HVTP. I worked with her one afternoon 2017 on skirting her fleeces and helping her understand the aspects of her wool that would concern a fiber artist. That year, Shannon commissioned me to weave about 10 yards of fabric for her use. I was quite impressed with her wool and I purchased her entire 2018 clip. Her work in keeping the fleeces clean and in thoroughly skirting the 2018 clip was a strong supporting factor in that purchase. Her East Friesian dairy wool, blended with Little Creek Alpaca fiber (80/20 blend), and spun in a semi-worsted process, is making up into some stunning blankets and yardage for sewing, and I’ll be marketing them this summer and fall. They will also be featured in the fall issue of Ply Magazine, a handspinner’s publication. I am planning on purchasing her entire 2019 clip at this point.

Collaborations of this kind develop over time and can grow out of the most informal of connections. As one of the weavers for the Battenkill Fiber Mill in Greenwich NY, I make myself available to shepherds who want to understand the milling and weaving process, and how to best present their wool into that process. Due to the conversations that Shannon and I had over the skirting table in 2017, Shannon’s work to keep contamination at a minimum throughout the year, and her excellent skirting in 2018, paid off. Her 2018 clip gave me an amazing 80% yield from raw weight to finished yarn on her fleeces, and made the $3 per pound price on the 32 fleeces well worth the investment.

Does a shepherd need to have a flock of a certain size before you will work with them?

No. We are fortunate in our region to have a processor who is happy to work with very small batches (even a single fleece). Battenkill Fiber Mill acts as a central hub in our work as its commitment to the small producer allows for small flocks to foster their own yarns for sale at local markets and yarn shops. Mary Jeanne Packer, the mill owner, is very experienced in working with a wide variety of breeds, and in leveraging the entire production process to the end goal of the yarn.

Is there a profile of an ideal shepherd who works with you?

Our shepherds are all very interested in marketing and selling their wool, and are often heavily involved in local farmers markets or their own on-farm shops for a variety of farm products. They are often either strongly connected to fiber arts themselves, or are at least quite knowledgeable about the field.

Are there any common misconceptions that you hear from shepherds?

Shepherds who are not themselves fiber artists are often strikingly unknowledgeable about their wool and with unrealistic expectations of the milling process to transform it into vegetable matter free soft yarn. Vegetable matter and plastic threads are very difficult to remove from the wool once they are present. As the process moves on towards yarn and an end product, it becomes increasingly difficult to remove. As a weaver, I inspect my final cloth with tweezers, picking out visible pieces, but hours spent at that task greatly increase the cost of the final product. And I have refused to work with wool that is too contaminated as such yarn can damage my power loom, causing jams and misfires.

To some shepherds, all yarn is the same, and they recognize little differentiation between a strong high twist sock yarn, a soft 3-ply baby yarn, or a woolen spun 2 ply for sweaters, or a fine worsted singles for weaving yardage. Wool is not interchangeable in suitability for specific purposes. If a shepherd has the chance to work with a fiber artist through your Shave ‘Em to Save ‘Em program, it is an excellent opportunity for the farmer to understand far more about their own wool’s properties for various end uses.

You can connect with Lilly on Instagram @lillymarsh or on her Facebook page.