A patchwork of farms, artists and producers are growing Petaluma’s local fiber system

The movement to choose local has transformed attitudes toward the food we eat, but what about the clothes we wear?|

No one could be faulted for thinking they landed in an alternate universe after visiting Petaluma’s Windrush Farm for the first time. Backdropped by the sounds of bleating sheep and views of bright green fields sits a room of more than a dozen spinning wheels, like a vignette of bygone country life or a picture found in a story book.

But the 25-acre farm on Chileno Valley Road is not a portal into another time, it’s a microcosm of a type of hyper-local movement growing within Petaluma. Fiber-producing farmers and community members are building stronger connections to encourage consumers to choose not only locally-grown food, but garments as well.

Windrush Farms provides people an opportunity to engage with each step in this process, from watching the sheep get sheared to learning how to process and dye the fibers by hand to knitting items with the finished materials.

“You are on the farm, spinning the wool from the sheep while they look at you from the other side of the window,” said Farm Manager Alissa Kaplan. “That’s the unique thing that the farm provides that you really can’t find elsewhere in Petaluma.”

Yet Windrush is not the only local player in this growing fiber system and economy, incorporating producers and consumers throughout the region.

Marin-based nonprofit organization Fibershed links many of these farms together through its web of partners, requiring members operate locally and create natural fiber products. Partners across the state span from farmers and ranchers to mill owners and natural dyers to designers, weavers and spinners.

“A local fiber system is the idea of tracing the local origin of something, like farm to fork,” said Fibershed representative Jess Daniels. “It’s very analogous to then think about where our textiles come from. In Petaluma, there’s a quite strong agricultural community as well as artists who grow and work with local material.”

Although the organization spans from San Luis Obispo to the upper reaches of Northern California, a significant concentration of participating farms are in Sonoma County. About a half dozen, including Windrush Farms, are in Petaluma.

As a result, farms like Windrush occupy crucial roles within each step of this supply line, allowing Petalumans to not only buy clothes made from locally-sourced wool, but also learn how to participate in every stage of this farm-to-garment process.

That’s where the room full of spinning wheels comes in.

“Along with producing fiber, we teach people how to process it at literally every stage,” Kaplan said. “Students go from seeing the sheep sheared to wearing a garment they made from that fiber.”

The farm’s educational programs regularly attract upwards of 20 community members wanting to learn more about fiber production and how to make their own clothes and textiles.

However, the farm’s in-house operation is an exception, leaving other farms in Petaluma to develop partnerships with studios, dyers and textile artists to find a viable market for their fiber products.

Petaluma resident Alisha Reyes operates Fiber Circle Studio in Cotati, where she teaches people how to use these local fibers, offering another point of contact between those interested in do-it-yourself and “slow fashion” methods. Reyes said studios like hers and farms like Windrush play crucial roles in strengthening the local fiber system, opening new avenues of demand with the hope of encouraging more fiber-producing farmers and interested consumers to step up participation.

It’s also a matter of introducing more people to Petaluma’s small fiber system and making the decision to choose local over commercial products that much easier.

“The issue is that there’s a lot of people producing, but there isn’t necessarily the market to sell it,” Reyes said. “It’s important to create that connection between producers and creative consumers.”

Members of Fibershed are also not the only significant participants in this hyper-local fiber system, which has some requirements for membership that don’t apply to some farms. Some farmers produce wool but don’t have a stable enough market to consistently sell, only connecting with local dyers and textile artists when they have something to sell.

“You don’t think there are many people who are into this, but once you start asking around it opens up this whole world,” said Windrush farm owner Mimi Luebbermann. “There’s a lot of local knitters around here, and there’s a lot of people trying to get local systems going.”

In downtown Petaluma, the city’s only yarn store, Judith & Lily, stocks some of these locally-produced materials, acting as a key connector between producers and consumers.

“What’s great is that the only thing that’s not based in Petaluma is the mill, unless you’re doing that by hand,” said the store’s co-owner Lily Reid. “People either send it to mills in Yolo and Mendocino counties for that, but for everything else, you can do it all in Petaluma.”

This ability to keep it all local not only feeds into the charm of the process, but is also one of the primary motivators for partnership programs like Fibershed. As farm-to-table movements encourage consumers to consider the environmental impact of their eating habits, so too does the local fiber system movement.

Jess Daniels with Fibershed points to the fashion industry as a significant global economy that contributes up to 10% of global carbon emissions, an output expected to rise.

However, as is the snag with many hyper-local movements, the main obstacles can lie in convincing consumers to take the extra step to choose local. This can mean not only a shift in what is available, but also a price increase.

“It’s about shifting people’s mindsets, since anything that is local is going to cost a little bit more,” Reyes said. “So we want to let people know the value of choosing local farmers and producers.”

(Contact Kathryn Palmer at kathryn.palmer@arguscourier.com, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.)

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