12/20/2011 - Growing Asheville's fiber economy
by Carol Motsinger - Asheville Citizen Times
ASHEVILLE -- When Karen Donde wove cloth with thread sourced from a local alpaca farm for the first time, it simply felt better, she said.
Her skilled fingers weren't just satisfied by the physical softness of this strong material. The experience prompted an emotional fulfillment.
"It just felt good making something with local fiber," said Donde, a River Arts District artist and teacher. "It made it feel closer to home."
Keeping all of the elements of the fiber economy closer to home -- from, say, alpaca farming to the final fashions made from alpaca cloth -- is the focus of a major HandMade in America initiative.
One thread of this project is the year-old Growing the Fiber Economy group of about 30 artists, farmers and smallbusiness owners that meets monthly at the nonprofit's downtown headquarters to forge new relationships and develop strategies.
These creative entrepreneurs from across Western North Carolina are the force behind the educational "Farm to Fashion" exhibit on display at the HandMade in America gallery. The show, up until Jan. 25, is the public's first chance to interact with this innovative collaboration and is likely to be just the first project goal accomplished.
For Judi Jetson, director of economic development for HandMade in America, the region's diverse assets built on a tradition can be interwoven to create almost countless productive patterns. Donde's purchase of alpaca thread from a fellow group member is one of those new links and the first step, Jetson said.
What has been missing is a formal mechanism to connect the estimated 500 fiber farms raising 5,000 animals with the estimated 4,000 fiber artists and hobbyists in the 100 mile radius around Asheville.
"My vision is that we have a buy local fiber movement that's just as robust as the local food movement," said Jetson. "I think it would make an enormous impact on the economy ... there are all these hidden resources in our region, and I think that if we can pull them together, it would be significant."
And the new economy is going to have a totally different look, more entrepreneurial-oriented than mass production. Maybe we will call it Textile 3.0."
Jetson has been working closely with local food champions, Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, to develop a model similar to the nonprofit focused on supporting area farms.
"First, we discussed the value of simply labeling products local," said Peter Marks, ASAP&rs quo;s program director. "Our research, as recent as spring of this year, shows that consumers overwhelming favor local products and believe that when they cost more, they are worth it. For fiber products, there is an additional challenge in that we almost always see on a label where an item was sewn, but we almost never see the source of the fiber.
"People are not used to even asking these questions," he added. "There's a lot of untapped potential in the possibility of awakening people to these issues and getting them excited about local farm sourcing for more than just food."
The promise of a new mill
Fiber and local food are related by more than just the farm: In both local economies, "we have lost processing capacity that was once in every community or region," Marks noted. "To build a local economy in the areas of food or fiber, people have to recreate distribution, processing, and production knowledge and systems."
And the cost of local fiber increases if in even one step of the processing, the fiber has to be shipped out of the region and back again, he added. But the lack of a regional fiber processing mill in recent years gives fiber producers no other options than to ship material else where.
Julie Jenson's vision is about to change that. A member of the Growing the Fiber Economy Group, Jenson plans to open her Echoview Fiber Mill in February, she said. The Weaverville-based, full-service fiber mill will custom process wool, mohair, angora, alpaca and other exotic fibers.
Jenson said she hopes the mill will also become a sort of hub for the industry, with space allocated for a library and classrooms for workshops, demonstrations and summer camps. Programming that goes beyond the processing will be aimed to introduce new people to the tradition.
"We hope people will just come and hang out," she said. The fiber tradition "is part of the fabric of the community here," Jenson added, "there are still a lot of people who know how do to do this.
Elke Spirakis, of Wellspring Farm, a fiber animal farm in Burnsville, is one of those people.
"I pretty much do everything from the ground up," she said, noting the farm houses about 60 animals, including sheep and alpacas. She shears sheep, spins thread and knits.
A child of New York's suburbs, Spirakis relocated to WNC 20 years ago partly because of the region's rich arts tradition, as well as the vocal support of small businesses.
Like Jenson, Spirakis emphasizes education at her operation. She hosts tours, classroom visits and workshops, and also teaches knitting in the community.
"I have always enjoyed sharing what I learn, and I thought it was important for people to get connected with all aspects of farming, not just the food," she said.
Spirakis wants to also connect people with new income opportunities.
"I have neighbors who have been struggling to survive in this economy," she said. "I would really love to bring something into this area that does more than just helps my business, but helps others by creating a cottage industry."
"There are so many talented people here," she added. "In our county, we had two major mills operating here and since I have been here, I have watched once place after another shut down. We need to bring back stuff to America, to a local level."
The Echoview Fiber Mill already employs three people; Jenson expects the employ 10 to 12 people for each shift once its operational.
Jenson moved to Weaverville three years ago, but her experience with agriculture began with her childhood spent on Iowan farm. She always wanted to own a farm, and fell in love with Western North Carolina after her children went to camp here.
Echoview Farm now operates on 100 acres of old tobacco fields off Old Mars Hill Highway; the mill is nearby. The farm's chief crop is hops, and Jenson also raises about 30 goats and 30 alpacas.
The Growing the Fiber Economy group has helped Jenson improve her animal-raising skills, as well as fine-tune the mill plans. A fellow farmer advised Jenson on how to treat a sick alpaca, for instance, and she's been able to directly market to her audience before the mill opens.
"It's been really helpfu l because some of the textile artists may give a class at the mill even if they never use our services," she said.
Bethanne Knudson, Director of The Jacquard Center at The Oriole Mill in Hendersonville, said the success of the local fiber economy doesn't just hinge on the addition of new businesses or resources. The Oriole Mill specializes in custom designed textiles and produces such home furnishings as throws and coverlets.
"I think there are a lot people who are seeking what does exist," she said, "but don't have easy access to it." Through her participation in the HandMade in America group, she's built relationships with area fine artist and farmers that she "wouldn't necessarily have any way to known" otherwise.
Building a brand
Donde said the momentum generated by businesses like Echoview Fiber Mill and Oriole Mill will improve her fiber arts business's sustainability, she said, and make Asheville more for a destination for fiber arts lovers and those interested in learning how to become fiber artists themselves.
"A lot of us in this group are competitors," she said of the Growing the Fiber Economy Group. "We are going after the same dollars. But if we are working together to bring in more buyers, the rising tide carries all boats."
She thinks that the group's efforts have only "just scratched the surface" of economic development, and that they will "learn things as we go." The HandMade in America exhibit, which includes some of her fabric design, is really the beginning of the conversation, and a way to educate the general public, Donde added.
But some issues will just take time, she said. Using local fiber is "not inexpensive," she said. "Maybe if we can continue to build the market, it could bring the cost down. A locally grown, processed, woven, sewn and sold item is going to be a luxury item right now."
Knudson said she wishes "for a return or an awakening to the true cost of things," she said.
"I think there's been a sort of disorienting effect in the last 20 years or so. Things have gotten so cheap and available, we have come to expect that (low price) and resent it if it isn't there ... the most green and responsible manufacturing is one that produces something that never needs to be replaced," she said. "If I could dictate change, I would would make it so there was more awareness of heirloom quality and a sense of seeing something as an investment. I think that all boils down to education."
Jetson said that there is a "hunger" in WNC to learn more about where products come from. "The interest of the general public is quite amazing," she said, which is why launching an educational tour of fiber-related businesses, from farms to factories, is one of her ideas for the HandMade in America initiative.
Sustainable economic development will have be diversified and seek a range of partners outside of traditional textile businesses, she noted. This means making blankets for every bed in an Asheville hotel or selling leftover alpaca clippings for use in home installation.
"We would love to develop an incubator for textile-related businesses," she said.
"I think our group will grow. The excitement is tangible; they've only been meeting for a year and they have already started to see commissions they haven't seen before," she said. "The Farm to Fashion exhibit is that same sort of thing ... we didn't think there were any galleries concentrating on fibers, so here we are manifesting what we think is missing."
"Everyone feels empowered," she added.