gather and grow

Homestead skill-building and simple living

Earlier this year, I joined the One Year One Outfit challenge: to create one outfit in 2015 that is entirely sourced from my fibershed. I wrote about it here as I initially began to envision what I wanted to do for the challenge, and it’s time for an update.

No, I’m not done with my outfit yet. I’ve been doing extensive research on materials and suppliers, and then making some decisions. I decided I would get cotton fabric grown and processed in the Southeastern U.S. (regional) for a shirt and either a skirt or pants; and South Carolina grown alpaca fiber (local) for what will be either a knitted tunic or cardigan.

The alpaca wool was the easy part: a visit to a friendly local alpaca farm, coming home with bags and bags of fiber, and then slowly washing it and carding it (using my friend Barbara’s drum carder to make the work go faster) in preparation for spinning it and knitting it.

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Finding Southeast-grown organic cotton has been the more challenging part. That’s the irony — we’re in the middle of America’s traditional cotton country here in the Carolinas, after all, yet it turns out to be really, really hard to find locally grown, ginned, and milled fabric that a regular consumer keen on sewing could buy. I thought I’d share here the research I did, in case it ever turns out to be useful for someone else.

  • The place to start, for me, was TS Designs — a North Carolina-based small company specializing in custom-printed t-shirts made out of sustainably produced cotton fabrics. Their “Cotton of the Carolinas” is made out of cotton grown in North Carolina, but it is conventionally grown. When I inquired, I learned that they have struggled with growing organic cotton in NC because of weed issues, but are working on being able to re-introduce it. For the time being, though, they only sell the t-shirts, as they are not set up to process small fabric-only orders.
  • Gaia Conceptions is a lovely eco-chic clothing company also located in North Carolina that sells clothing made out of organic cotton. Among their fabric options is a NC Grown Organic Cotton that is “Farmed, Ginned, Milled, and then finally turned into your garment of choice all within a 60 mile radius in beautiful North Carolina.” However, I learned that their local supplier is no longer producing this fabric. Besides, they too do not sell their fabric, only the custom cut and sewn garments. (Some of them are really lovely, actually, and I would pay a visit to their boutique NOMAD in Greensboro, NC, if I find myself there. But for my purposes, this too was a dead-end.
  • Next, my investigations led me to Alabama Chanin, a well-known and classy “slow fashion” company specializing in hand-sewn garments made from organic cotton and very committed to the sustainability of textiles. Located in Florence, Alabama, it’s definitely regional rather than local for me, but is still included within my fibershed. Their organic jersey cotton is domestically grown in Texas, processed in North Carolina, and dyed in Nashville, TN and Florence, AL.

There were some other avenues I explored, too. Alabama Chanin has collaborated with Billy Reid to produce garments such as socks, t-shirts and scarves using organic cotton grown in Trinity, Alabama. But due to the limited amount of organic cotton produced for this project, they don’t have enough yardage available for customers. This article describes the clothing brand American Giant working towards re-localizing the textile industry supply chains to create all American-made clothing. Their cotton is ginned and knitted in North Carolina and then dyed and finished at Carolina Cotton Works in Gaffney, South Carolina. When I contacted Carolina Cotton Works to see if I could purchase some cotton through them, I learned that the minimum order was 2,000! So, not exactly the appropriate scale for a “one outfit” project…

In the end, I settled on the organic jersey cotton from Alabama Chanin. Not quite as local as I would have liked, but it seemed like the best option for now. Besides, supporting organic growing practices was important to me. And when the shipment arrived in the mail — oh goodness, it was perfect. So soft, the perfect weight, natural colored (undyed). It made me — and my little assistant — very happy.IMG_1166

Next steps in this project: Decide on local dye plants to use to dye the cotton fabric, and dye it in at least two colors — one for the bottom, one for the top. Research sewing patterns and find something that I would really love, and that would work as an outfit. Spin that alpaca fiber into yarn. Knit that yarn into something warm.

We’re moving forward with this!

The Permaculture Design Course that I am co-organizing and co-teaching is nearing its end — we just completed weekend 5 out of 6, and the students have embarked on their final design projects.

It has been, hands down, one of the most intense and most rewarding experiences of my life.

Our course site, City Roots Urban Farm, is not only our venue and the backdrop for the experiences we go through together, but I like to think that the growth happening on the farm mirrors the growth that’s happening in and among us. Just as these little chicks that joined us earlier this spring are now grown and loud pullets…PDC6

Or just as the farm’s plantings have gone from seedlings to harvest as the spring has progressed…PDC8

…I dare say we have each been growing, as permaculturists and teachers and learners and team members.

On the first day, Matt and Nick and I, as facilitators, encouraged the participants to find and explore their “stretch zone” during this course. The stretch zone is not quite the comfort zone, but not the panic zone either — just that place in between where they find themselves having to push themselves a little, taking risks, trying something new, perhaps feeling a little unsure or even uncomfortable at times, because that is where real learning happens. I can personally say that I’ve joined them in that stretch zone much of the time in this course. I’ve done a lot of teaching in the past, but this course has forced me to face entirely new situations. I’ve cooked for big groups before, but never for almost 30 people. I’ve been involved in organizing events before, but nothing on this scale — a six-weekend certificate course, from start to finish, being involved on every level of event planning and logistics.

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I have so much gratitude towards everyone who has been a part of co-creating this experience — from squinting in our greenhouse on bright mornings to double-digging garden beds to jamming while making solar-dehydrated sweet potato chips to singing songs I brought to this course from my own permaculture roots, the Regenerative Design Institute. The biggest thanks, though, go to my dedicated husband who has made it all possible for me, taking on baby care for the entire weekend several times in a row.

Foraging for nettles is a sure sign of spring in our home. I bring nettles home by the bagful and use them for tea, or grind them into pesto, or use them instead of spinach in a feta quiche.

This year’s variation was using wood nettles instead of the regular nettles. Wood nettle, or Canada nettle, is a perennial that grows in moist, rich woodland soils. It belongs to the same nettle family as its more familiar cousin, the common stinging nettle, but it has fewer stinging hairs and larger, rounder leaves. (It does still sting, though. Wear gloves.)

My little assistant slept in the stroller while I harvested a couple of bagfuls at my favorite spot in this whole town (apart from our home): the Riverwalk, a long, shaded series of walking and jogging paths along the Congaree river. My friend Matt took us here for an edible wild plant walk a year ago, and ever since we’ve come back regularly, enjoying finding something to snack on from nature’s grocery. For free, naturally.IMG_1139IMG_1143

Nutritionally, the wood nettle is just as amazing as the stinging nettle: it packs in more protein than any other leafy green, is also high in vitamins A and C, and is an excellent source of iron, calcium, and a host of other minerals. Add to this the fact that it also has medicinal properties, and can be used as a dye and fiber plant… and I think you’ll agree with me that we’ve got here a true Plant for the Future.

While we’re on the subject of nettles…

It’s been The Year of Critter Woes in our garden. I don’t give up easily, but this time I came very close to throwing away my trowel and watering can. While the occasional rabbit chowing down our greens has been depressing, the biggest problem are the squirrels. Apparently, the squirrel population in our city exploded a couple of years ago, and now they are everywhere… including our front yard garden. I would sow seeds in the raised beds with great hope and excitement, and just as the tender seedlings started to reach out to the sun… the squirrels dug and trampled their way through it all, and I had to start from scratch again. Often, by the time I got something to grow beyond the seedling stage, it was already getting either too cold or too hot and the plants either bolted or froze.

I admit that I was slow to react and re-strategize. Partly because of being in that new-parent daze, partly out of foolish hopefulness that the squirrels would understand and change their ways, I kept planting — and being disappointed.

Finally, this winter, I started investigating squirrel-deterring methods:

  • Home-made pepper spray repellent, with hot peppers such as Scotch bonnet, is an organic option. It doesn’t kill plants, and is quick and affordable to make. But such sprays are toxic to beneficial critters like spiders and bees, so that wasn’t an option I wanted to pursue.
  • Some methods involve actually killing the squirrels, but again that was not something I was willing to do. It’s not just that I’m a softie — which I am. Squirrels play an important role in the ecosystem: among other things, their digestive tract is home to a living organism called microriza, which supports tree growth.
  • Natural squirrel deterrent pellets
  • Mechanically blocking the squirrels

In the end, Dan and I settled on mechanically keeping the squirrels out of the garden beds by suspending bird netting over the planter boxes. Simple as it was, it did the trick.

We needed some “hoops” to support the netting, but wanted to avoid a trip to a big box store. Instead, we decided to use bamboo, which grows here in abundance (and in some spots in excess), so we could harvest it with good conscience. I did a bamboo-harvesting trip with my friend Barbara, who has a small collection of very nice Japanese bamboo crafting tools and knows of an enormous bamboo patch she has permission to harvest from:
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We selected bamboo rods that were sturdy enough, but still flexible and green so that they could be bent over our 4 x 8 ft raised beds without breaking. Over these hoops, we spread bird netting.

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Although almost invisible from a distance, the netting has kept the furry creatures away (except when we’ve forgotten to tuck or staple the net securely). My faith in the possibility of gardening, even along the Squirrel Highway that our street has become, has been restored. Which is good, because the snap peas, rainbow carrots, and collard greens have been a sweet reward for our efforts.

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The best part about trying to create a network of local fiber artists is actually getting to know these incredibly talented and inspiring people, and watching how one connection leads to another.

That’s what happened when I connected with my friend Caroline, a fellow natural dyer. She found out about my natural dyeing classes in the fall and got in touch, and before long, we were sitting around my dining room table doing an excited show-and-tell together with my spinning and dyeing friend Barbara, whom I introduced to Caroline. Caroline, in turn, told me about Donna, who is reviving the indigo growing tradition in the South Carolina lowcountry, and put me in touch with Shanika, another active DIYer and dyer from whom I learned about dyeing with avocado pits. And there you have it — the beginnings of our local natural dyeing and fiber craft network.

Caroline is a talented textile artist and the creative force behind Chi Design, an indigo arts studio specializing in the traditional Japanese techniques called shibori. Shibori comes from the Japanese word root shiboru, “to wring, squeeze, press,” and indeed shibori designs are achieved by various methods of applying some kind of a resist to the cloth prior to dipping it in the dye vat. The methods range from intricate stitching work and stenciled rice paste designs to simply experimenting with rubber bands or threads that squeeze parts of the fabric together, preventing it from absorbing the dye. Last fall, Caroline traveled to Japan to study shibori indigo dyeing. Upon her return to Columbia, she launched her business, bringing a bright splash of blue (in the form of pillows, scarves, table linen etc.) to the weekly farmers’ market, and began to offer dyeing services and workshops.shibori-6

shibori-5This past weekend, I attended Caroline’s indigo and shibori class. The class was a total delight for the senses: patient folding and wrapping of cloth that could be either playful or precise; the earthy smell of the indigo vat, which I love; feeling the warmth of the dye solution while slowly working the submerged cloth, rubber gloves in hand — and then, the final results, which had us oooh’ing and aaaah’ing as the beautiful designs unfolded:

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When first dipped in the indigo dye vat, the fabric appears turquoise-green. It turns indigo blue only when exposed to air.

When first dipped in the indigo dye vat, the fabric appears turquoise-green. It turns indigo blue only when exposed to air.

shibori_finishedI came home with three cotton hankies I’d dyed during the workshop, each with a different technique and a different design. (If you know your shibori vocabulary, the techniques I tried were the arashi, itajime, and kumo.) I couldn’t get over how satisfying it was to get such beautiful results in just one afternoon. And I dare say I managed to impress my husband, too.

If you want to check out Caroline’s wares, visit her online boutique. Everything is made with natural fibers such as linen, cotton and silk, and combines the ancient dyeing traditions of Japan with Caroline’s own creative vision and careful craft.

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A few weeks ago, I wrote about participating in the One Year, One Outfit challenge to create one entirely regionally sourced outfit this year. I’d already been planning to research local fibers, mills, and dyes in order to make my fiber crafts as local as possible, but this challenge was the kick in the butt that I needed to get more serious about it. With this post, I launch a new series, “Local Fiber,” in which I’ll be reporting about this process.

This past weekend, I went to visit an alpaca farm just 40 miles outside Columbia to get some fiber from them. Ed and Vicki Hinshaw, the owners at Sea Ayre Suris, raise Suri alpacas known for the fineness, density and luster of their fleece. Ed kindly showed me around the farm and took me to meet the animals — the 44 alpacas, ranging in color from white to brown and black, and the one lone llama, Little Mister.

It’s endlessly entertaining to watch these animals — somehow a little awkward and at the same time so graceful, with their long necks, like giraffes. Don’t you just love their faces with those enormous, alert eyes?

alpacasOr the way they are often all looking in the same direction — with the exception of the one oddball (what is he looking at, anyway?):

seaayreIt was while we walked and greeted the alpaca that Ed explained to me how alpaca fleece is evaluated and ranked. I’m a spinner, not an alpaca connoisseur, and I was frankly quite stunned to hear about the intricate process of determining the quality of the fleece: among other things, it involves sending samples to a lab to get a histogram, a fiber analysis report that calculates the average fiber diameter, and therefore the fineness of the fiber. I’ve only learned to judge fiber by my fingertips, by my words — “soft” or “fuzzy” or “shiny” — and I’m happy to stick to those imprecise methods, but I realize that professionals must resort to qualitative measures. Ed’s own herd is carefully chosen based on fleece characteristics and health, and he is proud of the bloodlines that go back to some of the finest Suri alpaca sires in this country.

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I came home with bags and bags of some of the most exquisite fiber I’ve ever seen. Each bag came tagged with a name tag, bearing the name of an animal. Many of the names I recognized from the same afternoon, as Ed had been introducing his alpacas to me by name. Now, as I embark on the task of cleaning, sorting, washing, carding, and spinning, I feel that this is a good beginning for my “local outfit” creation process: bags of fleece from animals whose furtive, warm bodies I’ve petted, from pastures where I too have walked, with name tags still on.IMG_0363

I feel a bit sheepish admitting this, but… Even though I’ve been dyeing fibers with natural dyes for years, I’ve never tried making naturally dyed Easter eggs until this year.

I know, I know. It’s the ultimate easy, accessible, fun and colorful spring craft that lets you play with some of the most common botanical dyes — the kind that we already have available in our kitchens. And it’s for grown-ups, too. But somehow, for me, it took having a child of my own and wanting to make this a tradition we share from year to year to get me to finally try it.

There are a few ways to dye eggs with vegetable dyes, but I found these instructions easy and the results really satisfying. I used red beets, red cabbage, turmeric powder, yellow onion skins, red onion skins, and red Thai roselle tea from a friend’s garden.

IMG_0118What I didn’t know is that you can also use brown eggs, not only whites — the results will be a little different, but that only adds to the range of vibrant colors you can eventually harvest in your basket.

Frankly, my daughter is still too young to participate in or marvel at the transformation of plain white and brown eggs into bright colorful ones. She is mostly interested in grabbing, then smashing, the eggs. But I myself got a bit hooked, so we will surely be doing this again in the future.

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And so it was that one sunny Saturday morning in March, after months of planning and preparing, I woke up to the first day of our Permaculture Design Course. The weeks and days leading up to it were intensely busy (in case you’ve been wondering about my absence from this space) but in the end, all the details came together perfectly. A full course of 24 participants, a curriculum we facilitators were feeling really excited and solid about, and a venue so perfect we couldn’t have dreamed anything better: City Roots urban farm just down the street from me and my co-facilitator Matt.

Our course’s “home site” is the farm’s brand new events greenhouse, where we are appropriately surrounded by kale and tomato seedlings, and just across the way from the tilapias in the aquaponics system and the new chicks in their brooder. In the afternoons, if the glare in the greenhouse gets too intense, we move to a covered outdoor classroom right next to the farm’s no-till rye fields. Standing there that first afternoon teaching the session on natural patterns, I could point to nature’s patterns right there around us — a tree, a cloud, the movement of the wind — to illustrate my point. IMG_1023

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With two weekends behind us now, the course is in full swing. The participants are an inspiring bunch — coming from diverse backgrounds and interests and bringing to the course such good energy and enthusiasm and unique talents.

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One of the highlights of the course so far has been our natural building session, with four hands-on stations for learning different natural building techniques: cob wall and garden bench building led by our tireless Emily McCravy, natural paints beautifully taught by Kelley Adair, as well as slip straw wall insulation and clay plastering. Music was playing, the sun was shining, everyone got their hands and feet dirty. In other words, a good time.IMG_4334

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As a co-facilitator of the course, I have the great pleasure of sitting in on the sessions taught by Nick Tittle and Matt Kip, and I always find myself learning something new. One of my favorite new concepts lately has been the idea of “zones of brilliance” that Nick introduced, drawing on Javan Bernakevitch of Permaculture BC. The idea is to take the notion of zones used in permaculture land design and use it as a tool for life design: finding the “zones” in your life where you shine, by asking the questions:

What are my inherent natural gifts?
What am I perennially passionate about?
What pattern of problem do I see that needs solving in my community?

I have long been curious about the applicability of permaculture principles to our inner lives, and this seems to me one of the more compelling approaches. You can catch Javan himself talking about it here and here. I myself need to let it sink in some more, but I dare say this entire course experience is one grand opportunity to explore my zones of brilliance.

I spent the morning of my birthday doing what to me is the best way to celebrate: working at our community orchard with my little family and friends, spreading newspaper and cardboard and compost and leaves on the ground to make new, fertile soil for future edibles of all kinds. Especially after a week during which I’ve been, well, flat-out flat out and discouraged by a ridiculous cascade of unfortunate events — including a computer crash and a fairly significant loss of data — the morning sunshine and the physical work felt like the best way to begin anew.IMG_4255

Last month, my co-designer and I unveiled our design for this site that we’d been working on all winter. Soon afterwards, the implementation of the plan began. A couple of weeks ago, we had a work party to make pathways, laying old garden hoses to outline the new paths and filling them in with wood chips. Today, we continued the ongoing sheet mulching effort (laying cardboard or newspaper as a weed barrier, compost on top, and mulch such as leaves, straw or wood chips on top). Next, we are plotting a big group effort to hand-dig some sub-surface drainage trenches to resolve the drainage issues on site: the trenches will lead excess water to a wetland/rain garden, giving the fruit tree roots some room to breathe.IMG_4252

And so, like magic, the design map I drew this winter is starting to come to life. That two-dimensional plan, drawn and imagined on paper, is being transformed into a living landscape. The parts that, on the final design map, I colored with green pencils to mark the cover cropped areas, are now covered by clover so thick it looks like bright green velvety carpet. Where I used brown pencils to mark the pathways, we’ve now colored inside the lines with rich, brown, crunchy chips on which, we hope, many feet will tread in the future as they walk around the orchard. And amidst all of this, the fruit trees are starting to bud, with shy, pink new blossoms and my daughter, squealing with delight in my backpack baby carrier, is growing up seeing her parents doing exactly what she likes to do: playing in dirt.

It’s been a good day.

One Facebook post from one of my favorite organizations of all time, the Fibershed, and I’m already researching organic cotton grown in the Carolinas and thinking about sewing patterns and planning a trip to local alpaca farms this spring… Welcome to an ordinary Sunday evening here at the Gather and Grow urban homestead.

Here’s the challenge:

Do you knit, sew, or dye your own clothing? If you’re following Fibershed, you’re probably already very interested in knowing the source of your clothes, and the materials, supply chains, and people who make them. January has passed, but it’s not too late to set a new goal for yourself: join the One Year One Outfit challenge, as proposed by Australian sewing blogger This is Moonlight. We are excited to announce that One Year One Outfit is an official Fibershed Affiliate, and you can participate from anywhere in the world — the premise is simple: create one outfit in 2015 that is entirely sourced from your fibershed. You can also pledge to purchase no other new fabric throughout the year, as a commitment to sustainability.

OYOOAs you’ve guessed by now, I’m joining the One Year One Outfit challenge, and invite you to join in as well. You can do so from anywhere in the world. At the end of the year, you will have not only a locally sourced outfit, but also a more intimate understanding of the sources of raw materials for clothing in your region, the existing textile supply chains and the gaps (or, more likely, thousands-mile-long, fossil-fueled digressions) in them, and what might be possible if regional textile cultures and networks are revived.

I’ll be writing about the progress of my locally sourced outfit — if only because it’ll keep me accountable. Stay tuned for more updates!

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