Just fifteen minutes from my front door, mills used to transform locally-grown fiber into beautiful fabric. All that capability is gone now, off-shored in the 1990s. As someone who is interested in local sourcing, I had to ask the question, “Is it still possible to dress locally?” So I decided to see for myself what it would take to make a garment – a little black coat – from resources right in my own area.
Where I live, the person to talk to about local fiber is Rebecca Burgess, the founder of Fibershed. She put me in touch with a group of independent women who collaborated to bring this single garment into being.
Making the Local Coat
The team included a rancher, a textile maker, a fiber artist, an alpaca, and a client – me.
Vicki Arns has been raising alpaca for 27 years, almost as long as alpaca have been imported into the United States.
Her Alpaca Shire ranch in Sonoma, California – about 26 miles from my home – provided 2.2 pounds of beautiful black fleece for this project. Alpaca was the team’s choice for local fiber because it can be felted thinly into a drapey, tailorable fabric.
The fleece travelled to local textile maker and inventor Katharine-Ellen Jolda in Piedmont, California, about 22 miles from my home. Because we have no commercial means of processing this fiber locally, Katharine’s ability to card fiber and turn it into usable fabric was mission-critical to this project.
Katharine is renowned as the inventor of the Cyclocarder, an ingenious device that uses a stationary bicycle to drive two carding drums. For Katharine, every garment has a “mpg” – miles per garment. She calculates that she rode 9.4 miles to card the alpaca for my coat.
Katharine laid the carded batts in two layers – one horizontal and the other vertical – on top of sheer black silk chiffon. The silk was an element we could not source locally, and it acted like “rebar,” adding strength to the finished felt and becoming completely invisible in the process. Katharine poured hot water with a little olive oil soap over the fibers, rolled them in a bamboo window blind, and agitated them, repeatedly repositioning the cloth as it shrank and formed. The process produced two lengths of felted cloth – one about 2 yards long, the other about 1 1/3 yards – both about 30 inches wide.
The finished fabric lengths – less than 1/8 inch thick with a texture something like handmade paper – were delivered a few miles away to Mali Mrozinski, an artist and designer who is an expert at creating avant-garde wearables from unconventional materials.
I had three fittings for my garment in Mali’s Oakland studio. The first two included adjustments to custom muslin patterns that Mali made just for me, the third was fine-tuning the garment itself. The coat included two things we could not source locally – cotton thread and tiny magnets (genius!) that Mali used for closures to avoid puncturing the felt with buttonholes. Her design – “sort of masculine from the front and feminine in back” – is original, perfectly fitted, lightweight, windproof, and warm. I love it.
When the coat was completed, we realized there was someone we needed to thank.
The last stop on the project included a team visit to Alpaca Shire ranch to meet the girl who started it all, a black alpaca named Chamomile. Chamomile is a sophisticated stylist herself, producing fleece from nothing but sunshine and grass.
The Economics of Local Sourcing
Right about now you might be asking, “So what did all this handmade wonderfulness cost?” This coat, including all materials and everyone’s time, cost me about $900, placing it roughly in the mid-price range of similar hand-felted coats I have seen on Etsy. It is by far the most precious and expensive thing in my closet.
Some of you may be thinking, “Most people cannot pay $900 for a coat, so this is just not realistic.” I hear you. I can’t afford more than one garment like this myself. But some of you may be thinking, “I’d love to make $900 on a coat. Tell me more.”
And maybe right there – right between what we want to pay as buyers and what we want to be paid as makers – is where we can begin a conversation about a new economy, an economy that we invent and own ourselves.
What do you think this coat should cost? It took Vicki about 20 minutes to shear Chamomile, but she has invested 27 years in land stewardship, husbandry, and vet bills. Katharine carded and felted for 12 hours; Mail designed and sewed for 35 hours. What do you think that knowledge, talent, and effort are worth?
And I wonder: are there ways some parts of this process could be mechanized – even on a very small scale – to make it more affordable and allow us to use what we grow right where we live? Could we live happily with fewer, better made things, exchanging our money directly with one another? Could that work as the beginnings of a new economy?
Karen Brown is an award-winning designer and creative director of the Center for Ecoliteracy. Her work has been included in the Smithsonian Institution and Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and featured in The New York Times, Architectural Digest, House Beautiful, and on Today on NBC. She believes that the handmade movement is a fundamental force for transforming society and the economy.