Two Minnesota Flax Stories

Flax is an ancient fiber, cultivated for over 10,000 years and used for the production of textiles. Linen, the cloth made from flax, is incredibly durable and renewable making it an environmentally friendly choice for clothing and other household items. Flax is also a popular fiber among hand spinners, knitters, weavers, and papermakers. Flax grows well in our region, being well suited to flourish in our medium-heavy soils and cool temperatures. However, it is time consuming to harvest and process. To further complicate matters, no regional infrastructure currently exists to process flax into linen and other finished products. But this has not stopped two local women from delving into the revival of locally grown flax.

In the spring of 2017, Andrea Myklebust, the proprietress of Black Cat Farmstead, was awarded a grant by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Sustainable Agriculture, Research and Education program to grow textile flax in western Wisconsin and to have a portion of the crop processed on newly-developed machines at Taproot Fibre Lab in Port Williams, Nova Scotia. The development of Taproot’s processing machines has eliminated the historic barrier of lacking the appropriate flax-processing machinery. Andrea’s project is exploring the feasibility of developing a local linen industry. Her vision includes: growing flax in an organic rotation on a diversified farm, then utilizing mechanical processing equipment to turn that flax into linen products such as line flax, tow fiber and roving, and handmade paper. If you’d like to read more about Andrea’s project including an in-depth progress report, check out the SARE project page here.

In 2017, the Duluth Hand Crafters Fiber Guild (DHFG) announced an experimental project for members to grow flax. Terry Andre Dukerschein, a member of DHFG, was gifted some flax seeds from another fellow member who had grown flax in that first year. During Memorial Day weekend of this year, Terry scattered her flax seeds onto a 9 x 10 foot plot in her garden. The day was hot and dry, but by the end of the week rain had fallen and shortly after flax seedlings had emerged! With more rain, the flax grew fast and Terry found that it was at least knee-high by the fourth of July. By the end of the month it was covered in tiny blue flowers. In September the plants were pulled up and thus began the long process of converting the flax plants into fiber. Terry is hoping to be able to spin her flax and turn it into exfoliating pouches for soap and bath products.

The possibilities and approaches to growing and working with flax in our region are endless as these two experiences within our local fibershed highlight. Are you growing flax in the Three Rivers Fibershed region? Would you like to see flax play a larger role in our regional fiber system? Leave your comment below!

Bios:

Andrea Myklebust is a sculptor, shepherd, and textile artist living in rural Stockholm, Wisconsin. In addition to her work with flax, she tends a mixed flock of about eighty sheep, and turns their wool into a variety of products for sale. She is passionate about working with local fiber and strengthening local and regional textile infrastructure. Follow her on Instagram at Black Cat Farmstead, or www.blackcatfarmstead.com and catch her via email at myklebust.sears@gmail.com.


Terry Andre Dukerschein belongs to multiple regional fiber guilds and arts organizations. She knits, crochets, felts, hand-spins with wheels and spindles, and hand-processes some of her farm’s wool. Terry and her husband live on Glen Tamarack Farm in Wisconsin, where they raise fine-fleeced Shetlands and are focused on Conservation Grazing. Find more information about her farm at https://www.glentamarack.com and reach her at glentamarack@gmail.com.

Producer Directory Spotlight: Libby London of Northern Dyer

Written and photographed by Libby London

Hello! My name is Libby London and I founded Northern Dyer in 2014 (previously Born and Dyed in MN) where I primarily focus on researching and growing natural dye plants for pigment, fiber, and art.

I first learned about natural dye when I was 16 and had the opportunity to apprentice with an artist specializing in handmade paper.  The studio was called Cave Paper and is still around today.  It is located in the North Loop of Minneapolis in a cave-like underground studio.  During this unique experience I learned about using handmade paper for book arts, textile design, installation art, and interior design. I spent my time turning raw flax fibers straight from a straw-colored bale of flax into gorgeous sheets of handmade paper, and afterwards the artists would dye the paper with natural Indigo and Black Walnut.  

As a novice, I was prohibited to actually dye these gorgeous rich purple and deep brown sheets of paper, but I remember watching the artists boil up Black Walnut hulls and dip the bare neutral colored sheets into the Indigo vats, and sometimes I’d be allowed to hang the sheets up to dry in a large breezy room filled with hundreds of drippy purple and brown sheets of paper hanging to dry.

I went on to study papermaking, fine art, art history, and sustainability in college at the University of Minnesota -  in Minneapolis.  During college I spent time on an organic farm, and afterwards focused my attention on sustainable farming and went on to Co-Found an organic "young farmer incubator farm" called Sandbox Center for Regenerative Entrepreneurship (Sandbox) in Ham Lake, MN and served as Co-Director of the Permaculture Research Institute - Cold Climate, a Minnesota non-profit that provides organic farming workshops, learning programs, apprenticeships, and facilitates cold climate farming research.  These experiences opened my eyes to the realities of our current ecological challenges with climate change, water access, and environmental pollutants, as well as the possibilities for addressing these challenges through economic development and community-based solutions.

  Marigold flowers stewing over an open fire for a dye bath

Marigold flowers stewing over an open fire for a dye bath

At Sandbox, we supported emerging farmers in starting their first businesses, and it was there that I started my own practice of growing and cultivating plants for fiber and natural dyes.  I wanted to try my hand at growing my own flax for papermaking.  While talking to my grandpa who spent his life in Fargo, he told me that decades ago Minnesota and North Dakota used to be the home to many thousands of acres of flax, but it is not common anymore.  At Sandbox, I started with a small portion of a field, and grew two flax varieties, two cold climate indigo varieties, and native and hardy annuals used for dye.

  Japanese Indigo flowering

Japanese Indigo flowering

Currently, I’m focused on researching organic production of cold climate natural dye varieties, designing dye garden plant guilds that have multiple purposes for animals and insects as well as humans, planning a larger-scale indigo farm-site, creating custom dye orders for clients, and creating natural dye recipes that use 100% compostable materials so that no chemicals are part of my processes.  

I believe that designing and implementing a healthy fibershed in Minnesota means incorporating perennial systems, plants for food & medicine, animals, drought tolerant native plants, and regenerative economic and social systems as we address a changing ecosystem and climate here in Minnesota.

  Madder and Indigo dyed linen napkins

Madder and Indigo dyed linen napkins

Libby London is an artist and gardener based in Minneapolis.  She specializes in researching cold climate natural dyes, teaching, and growing dye plants. She runs her natural dye business, Northern Dyer, and serves as co-chair of the Permaculture Research Institute - Cold Climate. You can follow her on Instagram @northerdyer.

Calling all fiber producers within the Three Rivers Fibershed!

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In August 2017, the Three Rivers Fibershed was awarded a micro-grant from the Northern California Fibershed. The focus of the grant centers on local producers who are isolated from resources and sustainable fiber production communities. By beginning to facilitate a network of producers who can find support within the Three Rivers Fibershed region, we hope to see the fiber aspect of their farm not only sustain them, but flourish. Producers will have support to work together to build fiber community that is making a profit off of their fiber products with ample access to avenues for markets. There will be a system of active, engaged local fiber producers working together to support the collective fiber community within our Fibershed, with some fiber producers willing to step into leadership roles to facilitate ongoing producer education around any of the challenges producers within our Fibershed are facing. This local producer support system will be built on a foundation where it is self-sustaining and self-regulating: what can local producers do for local producers? Empowering local producers to rely on each other for insight, guidance, and community building.


So what will the project look like and when is it happening?

Three Rivers Fibershed will host and moderate two, in-person local producer workshops, offered at no cost to producers, with presentations by members of our fiber community. The first workshop on October 21, 2017, from 10am-5pm, will place a focus on our Fibershed’s collective strengths and challenges, marketing, branding, product presentation, telling the story of your farm and its fiber, and connecting with consumers and appropriate markets for optimal financial value. This workshop will be held at the farm of Lydia’s Flock in Harris, MN, lunch and workshop materials will be provided.

The second workshop, slated for January 2018, will focus on basic regenerative grazing practices to improve pasture health and sequester carbon, fleece health and shearing for high value fleeces, raising sheep for high value fiber, funding opportunities to grow your fiber operation, tracking fiber sales and expenses, and utilizing the MN State Colleges Farm Business Management program.

These workshops will be paired with one-on-one farm visits by our Producer Outreach Coordinator, who will, using a basis analysis for each producer’s fiber operations, assist producers in identifying internal and external successes and challenges of their individual operation. Information collected on farm visits will be used to determine the top five needs of producers in our area. By determining the top needs of our producers and providing free resources through our workshops, we believe a network of producers will be created. Within this network our producers can find support from their fellow producers and access to consumers within our Fibershed to sustain the fiber aspect of their farm.


Why focus on local producers?

Our project is designed to address the needs of aspiring and established local fiber producers within the Three Rivers Fibershed. Many of our producers are looking for a support system in order to sell value-added products while connecting with consumers who will pay a premium for locally grown and produced fiber as well as share information around small-scale sustainable shepherding–including but not limited to optimal grazing practices, finding a shearer, parasite management, insight as to which fiber animals flourish in our climate, and locating a mentor.

The need for this project is great. Within our Fibershed, the availability of in-person venues for sales and education around local fiber is significantly limited or unavailable, highly inconsistent or inappropriate for our producers. The second challenge comes through the lack of proper branding and packaging of local fiber to pique consumer interest, resulting in missed opportunities for producers to share the story of each local producer’s farm and fiber.

Producers have shared that local fiber is not seen as value-added and believe many consumers are unwilling to pay a premium for local fiber. There is a feeling that local producers are up against the commercial sheep industry in our radius who see wool as a by-product, resulting in some producers throwing away or burning raw fiber directly after shearing. Additionally, rural fiber producers often feel isolated and out on their own, without a support network in which to connect with fellow fiber producers in their area and establish markets that fit with or is fair to their price point.


What are the desired outcomes of this project?

There are four outcomes of this project. First, we will encourage and empower producers within our Fibershed to work together as a community in collaboration, supporting each other in the marketing and growing of the market for local fiber in ways and terms that best fit the needs of each individual farm as well as the overall community. Second, we will help local producers establish foundational avenues to venues that are appropriate for fiber being sold at the optimal price point. Third, we will assist producers in determining what farming practices are adding value and how to maximize it; by offering resources to connect to a local producer support system, producers can realistically adjust goals. And finally, our project will catalyze our long-term outcome of building a local fiber community that is making a profit off of their fiber products while simultaneously building nutrient dense soils on their farms through sustainable and regenerative grazing practices.


How can I sign up?

If you are interested in participating in these workshops as well as the one-on-one farm visit with our Producer Outreach Coordinator, sign-up for the first workshop can be found here. After registering for the workshop, we ask that you fill out the basic demographic survey, found here. If you have any other questions, feel free to contact us at threeriversfibershed@gmail.com.

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Reflections on the Fibershed Knitalong

Written & photographed by Jess Daniels, except as noted

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Knitting holds so much meaning for me – the simple act of stringing loops of yarn together to create fabric becomes a moving meditation that feeds my creativity and soothes my busy brain.

For me, knitting with local fiber adds even greater depth – connecting me not only to the process of making clothing and the tradition of the craft, but to place; to my Fibershed.

When the Fibershed Knitalong was conceived, I thought: what an amazing way to visualize fibersheds around the world, to see what a locally grown and made garment looks like from places near and far. I also thought immediately of a few special skeins of yarn in my cabinet, skeins that I latched onto the moment I saw them, but had been patiently waiting for the perfect project.

The idea of a ‘knitalong’ (KAL) is to gather a group of people around one project, which could center around one yarn, one pattern, or even just one theme. The Fibershed KAL was based off a unique pattern called Radiata, designed by Emily Cunetto of the Northern California Fibershed, which is beginner-friendly but completely adaptable to different types of yarn. It’s a shawl knit in triangles that connect from one to the next, allowing the knitter to change colors or even alternate completely different yarns.

The yarn I chose to use is single-ply, fingering-weight Icelandic wool raised by Lydia Strand of Lydia’s Flock. I actually bought the yarn on the first day that I met Lydia, at Shepherd’s Harvest Festival last spring, at the Three Rivers Fibershed educational table. The natural cream and midnight black hues of the yarn caught my eye immediately, as did the slightly fuzzy and thick-thin variations in the strands of yarn. Lydia had just gotten the yarn back from the mill (Northern Woolen Mill), where the fleece from her sheep was carded and spun into these lovely strands ready for my knitting needles (if you’re curious about how yarn is made, I'd recommend this series of posts on making small-farm yarn in Vermont).

 After purchasing the yarn in May, I played around with different designs, knitting little samples (called swatches) and trying to decide what to make. Over that same time, I was fortunate to get to know Lydia herself and even meet her flock one day last fall. Helping skirt fleeces with Lydia and Jared at their fall shearing, I was struck by the feeling of sinking my hands into the wool, still warm and freshly clipped from the sheep’s back.

Sometimes I think I have a pretty strong grasp on how clothes are made, where they come from, what goes into it and who is involved. But as I wound the soft and light Icelandic yarn into balls, and knit the balls of yarn into a shawl, I was reminded of that warm wool on a chilly fall morning, of the hands-on care and knowledge with which Lydia and Jared raise their sheep and graze their fields, and of the morning light as the sun rose on the drive from my Minneapolis apartment out to the farm.

In knitting this shawl, I got to know a bit more about the endless, intangible moments between the how, where, what, and who; I got to reflect on my new friendship, to witness the shift in the landscape across a piece of our Three Rivers Fibershed, and to marvel at all the meaning held in the stitches of this piece.

Though the Fibershed KAL was held at the end of 2016, the Radiata shawl pattern is still available and makes for an excellent exploration of local fiber, and a versatile garment to wear. I mostly wear my shawl wrapped around my neck to protect against the wind and snowdrifts, but it makes a warm layering piece worn around the shoulders or chest, beneath a coat or on top of a thin sweater.

 Photograph by Paige Green

Photograph by Paige Green

Even if you don’t want to wax poetic about your local knitting experience, perhaps you’re interested in supporting locally-grown and -made yarn because it means your clothing wasn’t shipped around the world to get to you, or because it offers transparency around animal welfare, or because it invests directly in our local economy, in the farmers who manage the landscape, and in the business owners who support our community. For any of these reasons or more, I would encourage you to shop local for your next knitting project, and have rounded up a few of my favorite sources – a complement to the emerging Producer Directory which we really hope to grow as a resource throughout the Three Rivers Fibershed. 

My adventures in sourcing local fiber: 

  • Lydia’s Flock is clearly a personal favorite and has an online shop
  • Rach-Al-Paca mill offers a variety of local wool and alpaca yarns at the mill shop, open 10-6 weekdays and 9-2 on Saturdays
  • Gale Woods Farm is part of the Parks District & has a shop on site with fiber from their animals
  • Shepherd’s Harvest Festival is a wonderful weekend to get to know local fiber - check out the barn and look for the smaller vendors in the main halls (May 12 - 14, 2017)
  • Both the North Star Farm Tour and the Natural Fiber Alliance Tour are a great way to go straight to the source (weekends in the fall; or consider contacting the participating farms directly to purchase fiber)
  • Keep checking the Producer Directory as we add more local fiber listings

Lydia's Flock, Rach-al-Paca mill, and Black Cat Farmstead (part of the North Star Farm Tour) will be present at the Three Rivers Fibershed event on Thursday, Feb. 8th at the Weaver's Guild of Minnesota. It's a free event with short presentations and time to connect and chat, and we hope to see you there!

Cultivating a Fibershed

 Icelandic and Shetland sheep provide local fiber and environmental benefits. Photo by Jared Strand. 

Icelandic and Shetland sheep provide local fiber and environmental benefits. Photo by Jared Strand. 

What is a "fibershed" and why does it matter? First, we can look at what we know about our current clothing system, and then what we can do differently right here at home.

The plentiful availability of cheap clothing has come at an inordinate cost to humanity and our environment.  Increasingly, clothing manufacturers prey on societies with poor, challenged, or unstable economies, where garment work often means placing ones life at risk each day in dangerous and potentially deadly working environments, working long hours, earning the most meager of wages in order to keep their family from starvation. Disposable clothing is the order of the day with styles quickly changing with the seasons and lack of quality in materials used to make what we wear each day.  Cheap clothing wears out quickly and isn’t easily repairable. Supply chains are difficult or impossible to identify and chemicals and dyes used in garment production and construction pollute soil and waterways, destroying food and drinking water sources of communities nearby.

A "fibershed" is a strategic geography, like a foodshed or watershed, a way to engage our community and local resources. The Fibershed model allows small farms to produce fiber while maintaining a diverse and healthy ecosystem in small pockets. The Three Rivers Fibershed focuses on a radius of 175 miles from the Textile Center in Minneapolis, and includes portions of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and South Dakota.  

FIbershed places the responsibility of where our clothing comes from- its production and construction- in our hands and within our community. It offers transparency, traceability, and accountability to each individual involved from the provider to processor to consumer. Fibershed champions the use of sustainable, locally sourced raw animal and vegetable fiber which has been ethically grown and raised, purchased at a fair price from environmentally responsible producers, and finally processed in a safe environment where all workers are treated and paid fairly. Consumers are deliberate and intentional in their clothing purchases, buying less clothing, but that is made to last a lifetime, whose story and background forms a direct and personal connection between producer and consumer while supporting a local industry with familiar faces and direct contact.

By supporting local farmers we can encourage climate beneficial fiber production: decreasing greenhouse gases through managed grazing, which sequesters carbon in the soil by locking it to nitrogen in animal wastes. In addition to reducing climate-warming gases, these practices minimize methane and ammonia production rather than creating excess waste through feed lots.  Garments made of this long-wearing fiber represent carbon that is going to remain inert and out of circulation for a longer period of time. 

Lastly, a Fibershed encourages community building and connections between consumers and producers, fostering personal satisfaction by knowing we are making a difference on a small scale, as part of a larger movement.

Thus far the Three Rivers Fibershed is spearheaded by a small steering committee, and we hope you'll join in and contribute in any capacity, as we post events, resources, and more ways to connect to one another.