sustainable farming

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.

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.