I love your look! Who’s the farmer?”
Toronto, Canada: Imagine this: you’re out on the town and looking fabulous. A woman approaches you, smiles and says “I love your look! Who’s the farmer?”
Do you know the answer? Not likely.
In the world of fashion, even ethical fashion, we love to focus on designers, on influencers, on troubling statistics and even on scary factory conditions. But we don’t know how the sheep that produces wool for our favourite sweaters are being raised. We can’t name the farmers growing the flax for that delicious linen dress. Beyond abstract statistics around pesticide use and water consumption, few of us consider the fields and the farmers that mark the very beginning of fashion.
It was this gap in our collective ethical fashion discussion that compelled me to attend The Farm to Fashion Runway, a panel discussion near Toronto, Canada in January.
The Farm to Fashion Runway
Hosted by the Guelph Organic Conference, a very popular conference on Canadian organic farming, this event stepped beyond the Conference’s traditional topics of market-gardening workshops and organic crop-rotation. Observing the growing interest in ethical fashion, as well as the clear disconnect between farming and fashion, conference organizers had decided it was time to reach out to the sustainable fashion community and hopefully bridge this gap.
Leading the evening’s discussion was Becky Porlier, co-founder of the Upper Canada Fibreshed and an expert in rural development. Representing farmers was Jennifer Osborn of All Sorts Acres, a shepherd and permaculturalist raising “happy sheep” through ethical and sustainable practices. Deborah Livingston-Lowe, a master weaver from Toronto known as Upper Canada Weaving, brought her deep understanding of textile skill-preservation and knowledge transfer. Finally, Peggy Sue Deaven-Smiltnieks, an award-winning ethical fashion designer and founder of the Peggy Sue Collection, offered a designer’s perspectives on creating hyper-traceable runway fashion that quite literally began in the fields.
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Equal parts brutal honesty and pragmatic optimism
The panel discussion, delivered to a full house, did not disappoint. The conversation was both interdisciplinary and challenging. Can we scale natural dye production by partnering with market gardeners? Is local and sustainable textile production still possible in Canada? How do we integrate fibre and food production into small-scale organic agriculture? These questions, and others, dug deep into the challenges facing sustainable fashion today.
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I appreciated the equal parts brutal honesty and pragmatic optimism that flavoured the hour long conversation. Tough questions were asked around animal welfare and shepherding. We learned that sheep are incredible sensitive to high-stress situations and produce good wool only when they are at ease and well cared for. We discovered that in Canada the controversial practice of mulesing, or the removal of wool-bearing skin from around a sheep’s breech, is not allowed. We heard about Tap Root Fibres in Nova Scotia and their gutsy work in single handily bringing linen production back to Canada.
Nobody on the panel pretended that revitalizing local textile production was easy or even guaranteed to work. But the willingness to try, and keep trying, was clear. The farmers in the room were quietly hopeful with their “next year’s harvest will be better” mindset. In a world afflicted by climate change and ecological destruction, it was refreshing to hear a perspective that focused on hope for the future.
Remembering how to wear natural fibres
Perhaps my most favourite part of the evening came as the discussion drew to a close. Peggy Sue told us about one of her customers remarking on the unexpected weight and warmth of her new organic cotton shirt.
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“We’re so used to poor-quality cottons and synthetic blends,” Peggy Sue explained to the crowd, “that we don’t even know what real materials feel like anymore.” The room nodded in agreement. “I assured my customer that her body will remember how to wear natural fibres. And it will. Your body will remember what it’s like to wear clothes that actually breathe and allow for your body’s innate temperature regulation.”
Murmurs rippled through the crowd. Many absent-mindedly fingered their shirt sleeves, perhaps assessing its synthetic content.
“And,” she continued “there’s always a farmer to thank for that opportunity.”
Title image credit Emily Nicole Neill
Video filmed by Alicia Marques Paquette
Video music credit: Adventures by A Himitsu