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Review

Cover: Fleece & Fiber: Textile Producers of Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands

Fleece & Fiber: Textile Producers of Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands

By Francine McCabe

Review By Kate Darby

February 28, 2024

This winter, certain corners of social media exploded with a side-by-side photo comparison between the luxe fisherman sweater Billy Crystal wore in When Harry Met Sally (1989) and actor Ben Schwartz’s recreation of that look with a recently purchased, ill-fitting and plastic-filled designer sweater. In “Your Sweaters are Garbage”, Atlantic journalist Amanda Mull details how “changes to trade regulation, the decline in garment-industry wages and working conditions, the rise of synthetic textiles” have led to a consumer sweater-scape dominated by plastic-filmed, flimsily-knit garments (2023).

In the richly photographed Fleece & Fibre, Francine McCabe provides stunning photographs interspersed with descriptions of fibre-producing farms on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. McCabe’s work in describing regional textile producers gives tangible vision to more sustainable, aesthetically-pleasing and higher quality fibres – materials that might create sweaters more like that one Crystal wore when he courted Meg Ryan and less like the ubiquitous fast fashion options available today.

While much attention has been paid to the value of local food, and the environmental and social benefit of eating within our foodshed, there has been less focus on the sources and consequence of fibres in our daily lives. Yet, just as with food, the fibres that make up our clothes hide a variety of social and environmental ills: they lead to tremendous waste and plastic pollution, they are typically produced using cheap overseas labor, and producing them accounts for 10% of annual global carbon emissions. Also as with food, there is an aesthetic case to be made for using local fibres, as well.  And this is where McCabe’s book really shines: through her use of stunning photographs with pages of sweet sheep staring inquisitively back at us, she makes a strong aesthetic appeal for a local fibreshed.

This is the sort of book that you might leave on your coffee table and find yourself flipping through as you walk by. But it is not solely a coffee table book. Interspersed with the rich photographs of sheep, alpacas, and pastoral landscapes is a critique of the current state of textile production, a description of the challenges of small-scale textile producers, and a call to action.

The book is organized by type of fibre: sheep, alpaca, llama, angora rabbit, goat, flax, hemp, and invasive species. The beginning of each fibre section includes a short description of the material, often with fascinating cultural background. For example, at the beginning of the sheep section McCabe describes significance of the Coast Salish Cowichan sweater to wool production in the region. After each of these introductory sections, McCabe provides profiles of producers in the region who are utilizing that fibre. The bulk of the book is made up of these profiles, including photographs of producers and their farms, livestock, and plants.

Through these profiles, we meet producers like Heather Hanning at Conheath Farm, who has been raising sheep and processing fibre on her farm since 2001, and Shawn and Katy Connely, who have created a diverse agro-system that includes alpacas that eat their garden waste. These producers are united by a passion and commitment to local fibre production and their struggle to find local or regional fibre processors. Just as grain mills have become centralized, requiring farmers to ship their raw grain to far-off destinations for processing, the local and regional fibre mill is also a dying breed. Producers deal with this challenge by working with local artisans to process their fibres or shipping their fibres for processing; in some cases, producers cannot sell the fibre at all and end up using it for other purposes such as building insulation or road construction (to prevent soil erosion).  Though economically practical, these cases highlight the difficulties facing small-scale fiber producers.

Some of the most inspiring sections of the book describe how individuals and communities are overcoming the limited fibre processing options in the region. For example, McCabe describes a flax-to-linen experimental growing project in Victoria that aimed to provide a learning laboratory for textile artists, producers, etc. Similarly, the section on invasive species describes Juliana Bedoya’s Plants are Teachers workshops, in which she teaches participants how to use foraged invasive plants to create baskets and other handcrafted items.

McCabe’s Fleece & Fiber serves as an important conversation starter about the value and possibilities of local fibresheds, and would be enjoyed by readers who think about local food systems, artists and craftspeople who work with fibre, and anyone interested in learning more about the possibilities for local fibre production.

 

References

McCabe, F. (2023). Fleece and Fibre: Textile Producers of Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. Heritage House.

Mull, A. (2023, October). Your sweaters are garbage. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2023/10/sweater-clothing-quality-natural-fibers-fast-fashion/675600/

Publication Information

McCabe, Francine. Fleece & Fiber: Textile Producers of Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. Victoria: Heritage House Publishing, 2023. 224 pp. $34.95 paper.