Growing a Chico cloth, from plant to loom and all steps in between
At the beginning of this past summer, local peace activist Linda Furr made a phone call to Sandy Fisher, a weaver and lifelong Chicoan. It was not long after an eight-story Bangladeshi garment factory had collapsed in April, killing more than 1,000 people. The tragedy had brought to light the poor conditions for factory workers in Bangladesh, one of the top exporters of clothing to the United States. Worldwide backlash was strong; Pope Francis called the conditions “slave labor.”
The two Chicoans decided they had had enough.
“It made me think not only about what I wear, but what I make,” said Fisher in her Chico weaving studio, located at the back of her home’s property behind a well-kept garden. “I’m rethinking: Where are my sources from?” Often, she admitted, the yarn she used came from abroad.
Fisher, along with Furr and weaver Wendy Ardell, began to envision a “Chico cloth,” made from 100 percent Chico-grown and -processed plant material. “[We thought] it’d be cool to make homegrown linen!” Fisher said. The cloth would feature a special weave design that would indicate its origins in Chico, similar to plaids made in Scotland. Chico is already home to fiber artists who use wool from Chico-area sheep, but this project would be the first plant-based endeavor.
The three women reached out to Chico-based Mount Lassen Fiber Guild (go to www.mtlassenfiberguild.org to learn more) in hopes of enlisting the help of local folks knowledgable about the steps needed to process flax, the plant that makes linen thread.
Next, they went to the Chico Peace and Justice Center. “They’re emphasizing the [Mahatma] ‘Gandhi way’—of local production” and local commerce, said Fisher, of the direction of the CPJC since Gandhi scholar Chris Moore-Backman took the helm as director last December. This matched Fisher’s desire to create a community-wide weaving project (one of the main tenets in Gandhi’s approach to achieving Indian independence was to create locally-made cloth). The women named their project Organizing for Fiber.
Through CPJC, Fisher found Sherri Scott of GRUB Grown Nursery, who grew a little trial flax for the women this year.
The process of turning flax into linen can be lengthy; after growing and “retting” the flax—or soaking it to the point of partial rotting—the fibers are broken up, carded, dyed and spun before Fisher can bring it to one of her five looms to weave it, a process she hopes to begin next year after flax harvest. (Scott will grow more flax for the group again next year.)
Even the loom will be local—Fisher owns a loom from AVL Looms, a world-famous loom-making company right here in Chico.
AVL Looms “has dramatically changed handweaving in the U.S.,” explained Bob Kruger, president of AVL, from the sales floor of AVL’s building on the corner of Park Avenue and Meyers Street.
As it turns out, AVL Looms founders—Jim Ahrens, from Berkeley, and his partner, Jon Violette, a Chicoan—discovered in the 1970s that handweaving in the U.S. had missed out on key innovations to speeding and automating handweaving as a result of the country being under the colonial rule of England.
“When we were a colony, England’s position was [that] all colonies provided raw materials, and bought finished goods,” he said. After independence, “we [went] immediately from non-Industrial Revolution to Industrial Revolution, and we bypass[ed] a whole layer of [handweaving] technology,” Kruger said, including the dobby loom, a system of pegs that assists a weaver in maintaining a particular pattern, which otherwise would have to be done entirely by foot pedals, which slows down the weaving.
“So you no longer have to constantly be thinking, ‘What’s the next treadle I’m going to step on?’ You can just … let the dobby do it,” he explained. The dobby, which was invented in the 1850s, was not a part of the U.S.’ crop of looms until AVL began building looms in the ’70s.
Now, the company produces a number of looms, mostly aimed at production weaving—such as making handmade scarves as a business, instead of, say, a one-off woven rug for home use. AVL’s looms range from $3,000 to more than $30,000, from a tiny portable tabletop loom to a custom loom that can take over a living room. AVL also runs the gamut from the basic non-automated loom to looms that feature computerized dobbies—what they’re currently famous for—and other modern advances to help speed up the weaving process.
AVL Loom’s Business Manager Amanda Brimm noted that fiber arts can act as a way to connect with the natural world. “There’s something very visceral about interacting with the animals and plants that produce the fibers we use and wear every day; there’s this realization that I’m connected with the Earth through these handwoven pieces,” she said by email.
“Weaving also gets you to start thinking about where the clothing and other woven materials in your life come from. You start to wonder how far these fabrics have traveled and with what sort of dyes they’ve been colored,” she said.
For her part, Fisher hopes Organizing for Fiber—which is partially inspired by Bay Area fiber artists’ collective Fibershed, which aims to create a “bioregional textile culture”—will help build community and inspire people to re-examine their purchases. Brimm points out that such endeavors are the outgrowths of the growing “sustainable, local mentality” over our food choices, saying, “Just like food, our clothing, bedding, rugs, upholstery and linens are easy to take for granted, and [we] forget the story behind them and the impact their production can have on the environment and the world.”