We are always looking for sustainable partners to help us make the most beautiful, highest quality products for YOU. We use cotton from the southeast region we call home (and extra-special cotton for our new t-shirts!), we use local friends to embroider bandanas, and of course we dye most of our own stuff!
I wanted to learn more about sustainably sourcing local textile materials, and how natural dyes are made, so I asked the Director of Piedmont FIbershed, Courtney Lockemer, a few questions.
What is Piedmont Fibershed?
Piedmont Fibershed is a community organization dedicated to building a regional fiber system in the Piedmont of North Carolina centered around local fibers, local dyes, and local labor. The Piedmont Fibershed encompasses the area roughly within a 200 mile radius of Durham, North Carolina. We seek to support and develop a regional fiber economy that benefits the environment, workers, and the local economy.
Piedmont Fibershed is a regional affiliate of Fibershed, a nonprofit based in California. One of Fibershed's initiatives is supporting an international network of regional fiber-system communities, and we're really happy to be one of them. Fibershed's values provide a foundation and framework for what Piedmont Fibershed does. Fibershed provides affiliates like us with great support, like monthly affiliate networking Zooms, toolkits, and a nicely-designed website template.
When did you start the role of Organizer with Piedmont Fibershed? What does that entail?
I took on the role of Organizer in 2018. For that first year I focused on mapping small, sustainably-focused fiber and textile producers in central North Carolina and doing a needs assessment. I figured a good place to start was by figuring what fiber resources our region has, and what our region and community needs.
In 2019, a small group of us came together to form a steering committee to lead Piedmont Fibershed and carry out our mission. We use a shared leadership model, so we all have equal status as leaders. At this point the "Organizer" title mostly means I'm the main liaison with Fibershed—and that I schedule the Zoom meetings, of course.
Our focus as a team has been on developing Piedmont Fibershed into a hub that connects the people and groups across the fiber community. One of the key needs we identified in that first year was to make it easier for different kinds of fiber producers and artisans to find each other. For example, a local farmer would raise sheep and create wonderful yarn, and a local handweaver would want to work with locally-produced yarn, but they just didn't know how to find each other.
Can you elaborate on some of the projects you all are working on?
Fibershed Resource Directory
I mentioned the mapping and needs assessment project a bit above. One of the results of the mapping and needs assessment mentioned, is this Google Map of producers and organizations. That map has evolved in the Piedmont Fibershed Fiber Resource Directory. We invite farmers, fiber processors, fiber artists, shop owners, guilds, etc. to submit information and photos so people in the community can find local fiber and fiber/textile products. It's an ongoing project, and we hope to double the number of listings in the directory this year and add some filtering tools to make it easier for people to find the material or service they're looking for.
One Acre Exchange was a 2019 exhibit of fiber and multimedia art made by local artists from locally-grown hemp at The Carrack, a contemporary art space in Durham. The exhibit was curated and organized by me and two other sustainable fiber enthusiasts, Tyler Jenkins and Katie Berman. Tyler acquired locally-grown hemp to distribute to the artists. Because hemp hadn't been grown in the U.S. for decades, there were no locally-available facilities to process the plant into fiber and yarn. The curators and artists together sourced and built tools to do basic processing. The artists then took that rather rough fiber and created incredible works of art, from woven wall hangings to sculpture made from hemp bioplastic.
A project that definitely deserves mention is BIPoC* Fiberways: Where Culture Meets the Land. This project was led by adé, a multimedia healing artist and member of Piedmont Fibershed’s Steering Committee. The purpose of the project was to catalyze a bioregional network of BIPoC fiber and dye practitioners and identify resources for local BIPoC growers and makers to pursue financially-viable fiber and dye farming and supply chain infrastructure. That work is ongoing through efforts like the BIPoC Fibershed Connections Network, a community of BIPoC growers, producers, and makers across the textile supply chain.
Okay, so how did Fibershed and Jenni Earle get connected?
Jenni Earle, like TS Designs, has been leading the way in sustainable, local textiles and setting an example for others in our region. With my Piedmont Fibershed hat on, I see an opportunity to connect people working in this way and build even more connections and grow the local fiber economy even more. For example, Jenni Earle and TS Designs are working together and are both interested in natural dyes. Can that dye farmer I met at a Piedmont Fibershed event provide some dye materials for a new product? Is there an opportunity for a collaboration with a nearby spinning mill?
I met Eric, the president of TS Designs, through our shared Fibershed connections. That connection led to me working at TS Designs. TS Designs has been doing the things Piedmont Fibershed is about for years: building a sustainable and local supply chain for apparel. TS Designs proves that Piedmont Fibershed's vision of textiles grown and made locally can be reality. Eric has been doing this with TS Designs since way before Piedmont Fibershed existed.
TS Designs is playing a really important role in our fibershed's work because Eric is so committed to using the business to explore new local and sustainable approaches. For example, Piedmont Fibershed wants to see more small farmers growing dye plants. TS Designs recently started doing natural dyeing and wants local sources of natural dye. That means local farmers already have a customer for new, experimental agricultural products. Because I'm involved with both TS Designs and Piedmont Fibershed, I can help make those connections happen.
Talk about natural dyeing! What is this, what does it mean? How is it done?
Natural dyeing is dyeing textiles and fibers with plants, minerals, insects, and other materials directly sourced from nature. (Synthetic dyes are manufactured from, essentially, petroleum.) Natural dyeing was the only textile dyeing until the 1860's, when the first synthetic dye was discovered. Over thousands of years, people all over the world developed different intricate techniques for achieving all sorts of colors. Humans seem to have nearly forgotten all of it in a century and half.
Some people in the textile industry act like I'm crazy when I talk about natural dyeing, because they think of it as some sort of kooky hobby craft. It's really an incredible art with a long history, practiced by skilled craftspeople to make some of the most beautiful textiles ever created.
Natural dyeing for me is like a magical secret power of plants. It's like, "You mean that thing growing on the side of the road can possess the ability to make your clothing the most amazing sunny yellow color you can imagine?!" The most common process is to take a plant or other dye material and cook it in water to extract its dye, like making a really strong tea. A fiber or textile is immersed in the resulting dye bath and cooked until it takes on the dye color. Usually another material called a mordant is used to help the dye attach to the textile. Indigo, which is probably the most familiar natural dye, works differently; no cooking is needed, and the dye compound attaches to the textile when it is exposed to oxygen. It's really neat.
Tell us more about YOU outside of Fibershed. How did you come to textile work? Do you work with fibers artistically?
I am a multimedia artist, and textiles is one of the media I work in. I actually started out studying photography in college. I learned to knit and sew in my early 20's, but textiles were pretty much a hobby. I eventually did a Master of Fine Arts program and focused on photography, video, and performance. It wasn't until a couple years after I got my master's that I started wanting to design and work with textiles as a creative medium. At about that same time, I was getting into urban farming and learning about permaculture.
When I started designing clothing, I wanted to apply some of the sustainability principles I'd learned through permaculture. I discovered how difficult it was to source fabrics that are sustainably and ethically produced—let alone locally produced—and I got really interested in figuring out why and how to do things differently.
If someone wants to donate to Piedmont Fibershed, what does that money do?
Nonprofits and community organizations need money for the same reason any business does: to buy the stuff they need to do their work and to compensate the people who do that work.
For us, that means materials for workshops, website hosting, info postcards to recruit folks for the Fiber Resource Directory, purchasing equipment for farming and fiber processing, hiring experts to consult with new dye farmers, pens, all that stuff. It's also very important that we be able to pay the people who do the work, because their time is valuable. All of us on the steering committee have to work to support ourselves, so we recognize that asking someone to do hours and hours of unpaid work isn't sustainable and seriously undermines our goals of equity.