Embracing Local Cultures of Dress- Small Exhibit

Local production of clothes has been integral to several cultures throughout time. This exhibit focused on comparing Navajo traditional, local cultures of dress and textiles, with the American Fibershed project that is creating “local” cultures of dress as part of the larger sustainable fashion movement. The Fibershed project in Northern California was established in 2011 by sustainable fashion pioneer Rebecca Burgess. “Fibershed” is a play on the word “watershed” and references clothing and textile resources available in a “geographic landscape.” A Fibershed includes natural fiber resources from fiber farms, mills, and artisan studios.

Exhibit representing relationship between Fibershed & Navajo traditions of working with local fibers; Jill Stuart Gallery, Cornell University, 2013-2014
Exhibit representing relationship between Fibershed & Navajo traditions of working with local fibers; Jill Stuart Gallery, Cornell University, 2013-2014

It is vital to compare Navajo’s historic and modern culture of dress with Fibershed because the latter draws inspiration from Navajo traditions of using local fibers and dyes. They also share commonalities in respect for fiber animals, support of artisanal techniques such as hand-spinning and weaving, educational outreach, and both foster community development—the Navajo by continuing traditions, and Fibershed by supporting sustainability. This exhibit aims to convey how these two cultures contribute to a sustainable, local culture of dress in their respective regions. Below is an image that represents the symbolic relationship between Fibershed and the Navajo regarding region specifications and fiber animals.

westfibershed_4.1
American Fibershed in Bay Area of California & Navajo reservation in parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado; Conceptual ‘Soil to Soil’ model courtesy Rebecca Burgess, 2013

The availability and absence of the sheep has dictated Navajo dress and textile traditions overtime. Historically, Churro wool was used for women’s blanket dresses, rugs, and saddle blankets. Churro sheep and the Navajo community have a long history that is marked by tragedy and loss, which altered the use of Churro wool for weaving. At different points in history, the pure Churro wool was not available. The ‘improved’ wool (Merino and Rambouillet) was not suitable to process with traditional Navajo techniques. Synthetic, factory made yarns were often used, but wool is distinguished because the Navajo gave Churro sheep cultural value for centuries.

Navajo woman with baby and lambs, 1932, Laura Gilpin Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth Texas
Navajo woman with baby and lambs, 1932, Laura Gilpin Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth Texas

Over the last 40 years there has been a re-emergence of weaving traditions with pure Churro wool. There has been an emergence of community support for Churro sheep and fiber art traditions with the Navajo Lifeways Project and Sheep is Life celebrations.

Although there are notably less Navajo fiber farms that support traditions with Churro sheep today, the Churro wool continues to symbolize the Navajo’s perseverance to conserve a part of their textile and agricultural history. Currently, Churro wool is used for casual clothing, special occasion wedding and graduation dresses, as well as rugs and saddle blankets.

Sweater made of Churro wool by Louann Kirkman and Mary Lou Egan; in Tapper & Zucker, 2008
Sweater made of Churro wool by Louann Kirkman and Mary Lou Egan; in Tapper & Zucker, 2008

The image to the left is an example of a garment made of hand-spun Churro wool from Navajo fiber farmer, Jay Begay’s sheep. Artisans Louann Kirkman and Mary Lou Egan designed and knit the “Hard Rock Snowboarder” sweater. Tapper and Zapper explain, “the double knit channels and longer shirttail were meant to protect her flying girls” while snowboarding.

The image below is an example of a Fibershed garment. It is a one-of-a-kind hand-spun knitted vest by Marlie. She used two different types of wool from local farms. The yarn for the body is from Corriedale-Finn sheep from Windrush Farm in Petulma CA. and the decorative yarns in the borders are Wensleydale curls from Starbuck Farm in Valley Ford CA. The novelty necklace is made of the natural brown colors of alpaca. The variegated textures of the vest and necklace convey distinct textural possibilities with natural fibers.

Wool vest and Alpaca Necklace by Marlie De Swart, 2013
Wool vest and Alpaca Necklace by Marlie De Swart, 2011

Marlie expresses having several farmer friends and attending shearing days to pick out fleeces. She has been doing this for over 15 years, and also supports emerging fiber farmers.

The Fibershed project has received attention with educational outreach events, and through the Fibershed Marketplace that features local artisans and fiber products.

Fibershed’s momentum with sustainability can foster the growth of an American “local” culture of dress in the 21st century.

Burgess, R. 2011. Harvesting Color: How to Find Plants and make Natural Dyes. New York: Artisan.

Tapper, J. and G. Zucker. 2008. Shear Spirit: Ten Fiber Farms, Twenty Patterns, and Miles of Yarn. New York: Potter Craft.

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