The Sustainable Craft Project
Craft tells our story. It speaks to our understanding of how humans have used the materials available to them to make things of worth. Craft is shared across generations in methods and processes; every time someone casts an ingot, carves a totem or draws up a loop with a hook, they are repeating the motions of their ancestors. Craft can be an industry. It can facilitate spiritual growth and healing. It can connect us to our communities. Craft literally sustains culture by carrying forth our knowledge, skills and values.
I believe in turn that craft itself must be sustainable.
My earliest academic and professional approach to crafting came in the form of metalsmithing. Metal is a fascinating medium; it can be worked either cold or hot, producing endless results from only a handful of base elements. Working with metal shows us that the hardest substances in the world can be cut, drilled, polished, tarnished, stretched, folded, etched, hammered, poured and fused. Metalsmithing taught me how to make my own specialized tools, to break open objects and examine how they work, and how to construct functional 3-dimensional items. I have taken these lessons far beyond jewelry making and still use them with great frequency today.
For a number of reasons, my time working with metal came to an end. Some of the substances I was using to clean my materials were making me ill, and I was having more and more difficultly reconciling metal and precious gem extraction and treatment processes with my conscience. In 2009, I took some time off from my creative pursuits to travel and to learn about gardening (an art form in its own right), before eventually beginning to dabble in knitting. It took the near social isolation of residing in a tiny, remote village and countless hours stuck inside avoiding winter rains for me to develop a true appreciation for needlecraft.
Knitting, and eventually crocheting, provided me with a new creative outlet, filling the void that metalcraft had left behind. Needlecraft also came with the unintended benefit of increased personal resilience. Living as far away from a metropolitan center as I did at the time, I was somewhat limited by my shopping options. When my clothes wore down, or if I found that I didn’t have enough layers, I was S.O.L. until my next trip to town. Knitting separated me from the buy-cheap-wreck-toss-buy-more cycle as I learned to make my own garments and manage minor repairs.
When I started out, much of the yarn in my stash was gifted to me second hand. I had a Rubbermaid full of rainbows of short-lengthed scrap busters, a couple of skeins of earthy-toned bison wool and all the other weird materials and colours of my friends donated junk yarn. This was great because it was free and I had a huge variety to pick from for every project I took on, but not great because if I ran out, there was no getting more of the same lot.
When I moved back to the city and started taking on larger projects, I began purchasing yarn. The cheapest and most readily available stuff was the acrylic yarn found at big-box craft stores like Michaels, made further attractive by weekly promotions. Sure the fibre wasn’t as REAL as that bison wool, but it certainly was less itchy. And it came is so many beautiful colours!
I kept this up for a couple of years, but had to give myself a bit of a reality check when I started searching for materials for my wedding dress. I went to great lengths to buy ethically sourced Egyptian cotton twine for my sustainable nuptials, but what about the impact of my everyday pactice?
I already knew that the textile industry, like the metal industry, has a significant environmental footprint. What I later learned was that whether it comes from a real animal or is created in a lab, the sourcing, processing and byproducts of fibre production have far-reaching and often unseen negative side effects. Cotton growing is associated with pesticide use. Mass wool production requires large quantities of land to devote to rearing sheep, which can cause erosion, plant life degradation and excess methane production. Worse still, the acrylic yarns that I was purchasing consisted at least 85% in part of acrylonitrile, a plastic requiring fossil fuels for synthesis. Ultimately, acrylic garments will take hundreds if not thousands of years to break down, leeching microplastics into our environment all the while. (knitcraftandknittery.com)
I accepted that it was time to start making changes. I quit acrylics cold turkey on Jan 1, 2019. Excluding what is already in my stash, I will begin no further projects with synthetic fibers. I started signing myself up for more community fibre-sharing events, buying locally made products from small-business rather than purchasing from the store or online. This is in all honestly much more expensive (and rightly so), and it is worth mentioning that economic security is also a part of my personal journey towards sustainability. For this reason, I decided I would further supplement my craft by making instead of buying.
Without really having any clue what I was doing, I promptly enrolled myself in a spinning class at my local yarn-hub. Over the course of two weekends I met with a small group lead by a master spinner and got to experiment with a genuine spinning wheel. I am grateful to have been able to carry my new knowledge home with me by practicing spinning techniques with a portable drop spindle; although I do hope to allocate a second-hand spinning wheel in the not-too-far-distant future. Externally, I am working to forge new relationships with farmers in my community so that I can familiarize myself with harvesting, cleaning, combing and processing small-production sheep wool.
This blog post is the first in short series about Sustainable Needlecraft. In following entries, I am going to further examine wool harvesting and dyeing processes, spinning techniques, needlecraft tools and the socio-economic-environmental values of fibre arts. Over the next few months, my goal is to completely permaculturalize my practice, documenting the steps I am taking to make my craft sustainable. I will also have a few free patterns coming out! Please stay tuned and join me on my journey from sheep to sweater (or goat to garment. Alpaca to apparel…and beyond!).