Wool fabric dream come true

Before I started farming, I wanted to have sheep, so I could have wool and make a fine suiting fabric. I’ve always loved textiles, and on a trip to England with my best friend Julia more than 2 decades ago, we were visiting Hadrian’s wall, and surrounded by sheep on pasture. We saw twin lambs, one white and one black, who were extremely cute. A museum staff member who overheard us cooing over the twins said that the black lamb was a cull, because no one wanted black fleece. I have no idea if that was really true then or not, but inspired by the main character in Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Prodigal Summer, I wanted to collect everyone’s cull black sheep to make a flock of my own, and produce naturally coloured fabrics from their fleece. Many years have passed since that first idea, but eventually I did start a farm and a flock of mostly black sheep, and now I have fabric.

Black Sheep Farm’s straight twill 100% wool fabric.

This fabric had a very long road. First, there needed to be enough sheep, to have enough raw fleece. Then there needed to be a mill which could take my fleeces without me having to pre-wash them. And finally, the mill had to have a mechanized loom which could weave the fabric. Wave Fibre Mill in Parry Sound started in 2022, and my sister-in-law Brittany went to work there for a summer. They have a wash train for the fleeces. And they received their mechanized dobby loom in early 2023 (for which they waited 2 years from the American manufacturer). I already knew from the beautiful yarns they spun from my 2022 fleeces, that they knew what they were doing. So when I brought my 2023 clip in to be weighed, we determined that I had enough raw fleece that we could go all the way to fabric. Wave Fibre Mill was just working out the kinks of their loom and didn’t have exact weaving prices set yet, but we both took a risk and agreed to go ahead with weaving fabric from my fleeces. In early September 2023, I drove to the mill with my sister Benita, and picked up my fabrics.

Black Sheep Farm’s herringbone twill 100% wool fabric.

Two twill weaves were made, straight twill and herringbone. And we were able to weave with two different colours, a dark charcoal brown 2-ply warp yarn made from just all the darkest fleeces, and a light grey brown single yarn for the weft, made from all the white fleeces, with a few mottled ones mixed in. With Wave Fibre Mill’s eco-friendly scouring process, and my farm’s intensive pasture management, this fabric has been fully grown and processed within Ontario using regenerative farming and processing practices. This fabric is truly the first of its kind in Ontario. And it won’t be the last, as Wave is diligently sourcing raw fleeces from other ecological farms to make fabrics for her own clothing line. At this point in time, Wave Fibre Mill is probably the only place in Ontario, maybe even Canada, that goes from raw fleece all the way to finished garment, 100% Ontario grown and processed.

While the fabric was being woven on the loom, Julia Gray found Wave Fibre Mill. Julia had started a journey to make a line of jackets which could fit her, with materials and labour which matched her values. She discovered that this was no easy task. While she was working with pattern designers and sewers to come up with a jacket prototype, she started to source local fabric, only to discover that it didn’t really exist…until a relative pointed her to Wave’s, and Julia paid a visit. After some discussion with Wave, Wave had discussions with me, and the end result is that part of the fabric produced for my farm was sold to Julia to make her jacket line. You can check it out at Julia’s clothing store in Toronto, Gray’s in Toronto (@graystoronto on Instagram).

Single box pleat skirt made from Black Sheep Farm’s herringbone fabric.

Just like our yarns, this fabric is warm, lustrous and durable. It’s ideal for mid to outer layer accessories and garments. I had a skirt made, which is pictured. Gray’s has made cropped jackets with it. The seamstresses who sewed the garments say the fabric feels like it’s living. The fleeces are minimally scoured, so the fibres still have some lanolin. And the bloom of the yarns mean stitch lines can be picked out, the garment altered, and the fabric looks like new. This is the fabric for the making of heirloom pieces, which can be passed down, taken in, let out, altered to suit the next wearer. I had my skirt made with extra wide seam allowances, so it could be easily altered. And I chose a classic pattern, so hopefully Emma would want to wear it too one day.

Of course, there’s a cost to making dreams come true. This fabric costs a lot to make, and so it costs a lot to buy. I’m not sure if I can ever afford to make fabric again. I’ll have to see if there is any retail demand for 100% Ontario grown and processed wool fabric. Perhaps a CSA (community supported agriculture) model will need to be used for any future fabric runs, with people pre-paying for their portion of fabric. After years of marketing food grown on my farm, marketing yarns and fabrics from my farm is a whole new world. Now I need to find the people passionate about slow fashion, the makers and designers, who sew and knit and crochet and care deeply about the materials used to make their clothing.

Pre-polyester, Canada was a major producer of wool fabrics, but now barely has any textile making capacity. As our society weans itself off all things fossil fuels (yes, polyester is a fossil fuel product – it’s plastic), we need to start growing and processing natural fibres again. This isn’t only wool, though Canadian farmers already do raise a lot of sheep, where the majority of their fleeces are treated as garbage because there are so few places to process them. We could also grow flax to make into linen. Or hemp (though North America’s obsession with the ‘war on drugs’ means hemp growing has always been a minefield of regulation) which can also be made into fabric. Canadian agriculture can do more than grow food and bio-fuels, it can also make clothing. Will I see the Canadian textile industry grow within my lifetime? I don’t know, but I sure hope so. A worsted fibre mill would be my next farm dream, but I would need to find a few million dollars to make that happen. Anyone want to be an angel investor?

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