Aligned with localism and slow fashion, I have devoted the past 5 years to explore New York farm-to-fashion during my graduate studies at Cornell. This has led me to meet many members of the fiber community including farmers with sheep, alpacas, and goats, as well as fiber mill owners, and designers for yarn, fashion, and home textiles. My research included historical and contemporary research based on reading and analyzing digital archives, conducting surveys, interviews, and creative design approaches. There are over 470 dynamic fiber farms throughout New York State, and also several fiber mills that make local production feasible in the 21st century.
The historical legacy of New York wool provides context for further exploration. New York was a leading wool producing state during the early to mid-19th century. New York was a leader based on early imports of sheep from countries such as Spain, France, Germany, Portugal, and England. During the early 19th century, several New York wool mills developed to support emerging sheep farms. The mills helped scale up local clothing and textile production in an effort to help the United States become independent and self-sufficient. New York was known for its fine wool from merino sheep; however, fine wool prices reached their peak between 1830 to 1837 and never reached that level again. This led many farmers to shift toward medium or long wool sheep that produced more pounds of wool, and coincided with U.S. mill demands for longer wool suited for worsted fabric production. The Wool Depot system developed in New York to help farmers get their wool to a consolidated market and earn fair prices based on fiber quality. The Wool Grower agricultural publication, established by T.C. Peters–founder of the Buffalo Wool Depot–provided a space for farmers to share their perspectives. Although there were concerted efforts to support New York sheep and wool in the mid-19th century, sheep populations steeply decline by the 1850s as farmers shifted to other cash crops, and sheep began to move westward.
With this historical research in mind, I sought to do research with New York farmers, mill owners, and designers to learn what is the current state of New York fibers. In total I spoke with 20 farmers that have a range of sheep, alpacas, and goats, 3 mill owners and 8 designers. The following is a short summary highlighting some of my findings, for more details please email me.
Each farm has a unique narrative linked to the specific fiber animals. I got to visit many throughout the past few years, and it was always a joy to learn about the farm while walking in the fields with the farmer. Many of the farmers have a variety of products available ranging from raw fibers to finished products such as mittens or socks. Several actively participate in fiber festivals, fiber tours, and/or sell directly from their farms. A major challenge includes unpredictability of the artisan designer consumer market, which leads many farmers to constantly seek several markets to sell at, and/or develop new products. Several farmers have also developed business-to-business relationships with CeCe’s Wool, or collaborated in community-based initiatives such as the Hudson Valley Textile Project or the Local Fiber Pop Up in Ithaca. Many of the farmers are actively seeking designers who wish to source local fibers for their creative design practice. For more information please see: Hidden Alpaca Farm, Orchard View Lincoln Longwools, Blind Buck Farm, Trinity Farm, Ironwood Hill Farm, White Pine Farm, Laughing Goat Fiber Farm, Dashing Star Farm, Point of View Farm, Windsong Farm, Lazy Acre Alpacas, Nistock Farms, Rosehaven Alpacas, and Nyala Alpaca Farm.
The mill owners expressed strident efforts to support the local fiber community by continuing to offer fiber processing services. Fiber mill owners are also going above and beyond to address issues in their local communities. Mary Jeanne Packer of Battenkill Fiber Mill developed the Southern Adirondack Wool Pool to prevent wool from going to waste. She also helped initiate the Hudson Valley Textile Project, and actively participates in the annual Washington County Fiber Tour to expand knowledge about local fiber production. Michele and Rob of Rosehaven Alpacas recently developed a fiber mill to process fibers for small farms, and provide employment opportunities. Chris Riley of the New England Alpaca Fiber Pool is a cooperative that has developed collaborations with several mills throughout the U.S. to process raw fibers from several states. NEAFP offers farmers finished products to sell to their customers. The mill owners anticipate future business growth in support of local fibers. This is significant since many of the famers interviewed indicated that a major challenge was the closure of four fiber mills in Central New York, which led many to re-evaluate their fiber value chain.
Designers ranging from yarn to fashion designers have an interest in learning about the animals and fiber processing by visiting the farm and/or mills. Yarn designer AlexCreates developed his business as a teenager, after learning how to spin at Little Creek Alpacas in the Hudson Valley. Holly Henderson of Simply Natural Clothing also became inspired to develop her knitwear collection based a nearby alpaca farm in Western New York. She now creates zero-waste, seamless knitwear using industrial knitwear machinery. Mimi Prober visited and develop her unique hand-felted textiles at Buckwheat Bridge Angoras & Mill. She debut her luxury collection made with New York fibers during New York Fashion Week in February 2017, and her collection was available at the retail shop IF SOHO in NYC.
Designers are also advocates for sustainable design initiatives that they care about. Yarn designer and textile artist Sarah Gotowka has hosted several natural dye workshops throughout New York to extend knowledge about natural dye growing and dyeing. Victoria Hantout of Wooly Knit Things launched her New York farm-to-fashion line in Fall 2017, and was also instrumental in developing the Local Fiber Pop Up in Ithaca during the December holiday season.
The Local Fiber Pop Up provides a space for engaged learning with local fibers that includes demos, talks, and locally sourced fibers from Central New York farms. I had the opportunity to share several points of inspiration during a talk that I did on December 3. This included new skills such as hand-spinning, sweater knitting, fiber sorting and grading through an apprenticeship, and developing digital media content to expand the visibility of fiber farms. I plan to continue to research and creative work exploring farm-to-fashion. Special thanks to Victoria Hantout and Dana Havas for organizing the Local Fiber Pop Up and inviting me to give a talk while I’m finishing my dissertation!
Key Historical Resources
Blanchard, H. (1849). Remarks of Mr. Blanchard on Depots. The Wool Grower and Magazine of Agriculture and Horticulture, 1(2), 20–21.
North, S. N. D. (1850). Manufactory of Woolen Cloth in the United States. The Wool Grower and Magazine of Agriculture and Horticulture, 11(1), 169–170.
Nott, J. B. (1847). Letters on the Wool Trade. In Transactions of the New York Agricultural Society for the Year 1846 (Vol. 6, pp. 254–279). Albany: New York Agricultural Society. Retrieved from //catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/008898690
Peters, T. C. (1850). Buffalo Wool Depot. The Wool Grower and Magazine of Agriculture and Horticulture, 2(2), 32.
Peters, T. C. (1850). The True Value of Wool. The Wool Grower and Magazine of Agriculture and Horticulture, 2(1), 1–2.
Randall, H. S. (1862). Fine wool sheep husbandry. Albany, Printed by C. Van Benthuysen. Retrieved from http://archive.org/details/finewoolsheephus00rand
Wright, C. W. (1910). Wool-growing and the tariff; a study in the economic history of the United States. Cambridge, Harvard University Press. Retrieved from http://archive.org/details/woolgrowingtari05wriguoft