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A Slow Fashion Challenge Aims To Grow Cleveland's Local Textile Industry

A bag of raw Icelandic sheep's wool (left) and a bag of Lincoln-Merino wool on the floor of "One Year One Outfit" participant Alexa Vicario's home in South Euclid. Her Boston Terrier, Mango, sniffs the wool. [Alexa Vicario]
A black and white Boston Terrier sniffs at two plastic bags filled with sheep wool. [Alexa Vicario]

Many people picked up new projects to stay occupied during the pandemic shutdown. But here’s one that’s pretty audacious. About 50 people – mostly women, most from Northeast Ohio – signed up for a challenge: make an outfit, from scratch, using only natural fibers and materials sourced within 250 miles of Cleveland.

It’s called One Year One Outfit and ideastream’s Amy Eddings spoke with co-creator Sarah Pottle, who is also the co-founder of Drift Lab Textile Co. in Cleveland Heights, and two participants, Celeste Malvar-Stewartand Alexa Vicario. Celeste is a Columbus-based sustainable fashion designer with her own brand, Malvar = Stewart. Alexa Vicario is a crafter who lives in South Euclid.

Sarah, this initiative is being organized by you and your sister, Jesslyn Boeke, and your group, Rust Belt Fibershed . You’re advocating for a local, sustainable textile industry. Tell me why.

So, the textile industry as we know it today is really on a crash course for unsustainability. The industrial practices of the fiber supply chain, where we all wear clothes and we all get our textiles from, is really unsustainable. It relies on plastics to create textile goods and super-cheap labor from overseas that is sourced far away, so we can’t make that connection to our clothing and where it comes from. And therefore we sort of accumulate more. And we want more and more and we fill up our closets because they’re inexpensive, but they’re not actually inexpensive. They actually have a really high cost. But that cost doesn’t show up in the price tag. And with Rust Belt Fibershed, we hope to reconnect folks to where their clothing comes from.

Sarah Pottle, left, and her twin sister Jesslyn Boeke, prepare to make natural dyes from black walnuts, pokeberries and goldenrod in Cleveland Heights. [Emily Millay]

How do you determine what’s a fibershed?

So, a fibershed – and I’ll kind of explain it like a watershed. So, you know, at my house, if I were to wash my car and the water runs down the driveway and it runs into the little bank on the side of the road. And that runs into the Rocky River. The Rocky River eventually runs into Lake Erie. I’m in the Lake Erie watershed. So, it’s sort of like that concept with a fibershed.

It’s not a set thing, right?

Right, yes. We chose that sort of boundary. And it’s kind of a very rough boundary of 250 miles because we wanted to be sure that we were including some folks from some of those bigger cities, and the countryside, and just, frankly, folks that were already interested and we could get that momentum built.

You’ve got participants not only in the Cleveland area, but Cincinnati, Pittsburgh…


Wow. Detroit?

Yeah, there’s some people in the Michigan area, yeah.

How does the One Year One Outfit challenge get you to that goal of creating a bioregional textile community?

What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to figure out how local we can get. And that means local labor, local fiber, and local dyes. Right now, there aren’t really industrial infrastructures to allow for us to really do that. So much of the processing mills and that sort of thing have gone overseas when it comes to natural fibers. But right now we have lots of people who are interested in the idea of slow fashion, thinking about where things come from, thinking about stewarding their materials a lot better and they needed something to do! We wanted to give them the opportunity to do it.

A pair of black-and-white mittens knitted by Alexa Vicario. The black sheep wool is from a Karakul-Lincoln cross-bred sheep and the white wool comes from a Lincoln-Merino sheep. [Alexa Vicario]

Sarah, you know my next two guests because they’re two of the people taking part in the challenge. Celeste Malvar-Stewart has her own clothing company, Malvar = Stewart, in Columbus. Now, you’ve been working in sustainable fashion for many years. Why were you interested in this challenge?

I was really drawn to this One Year One Outfit project with Sarah and Jess because I just really admired what they are doing with Rust Belt Fibershed. It also gave me this opportunity, a wonderful opportunity, to collaborate with a couple of other wonderful fiber artists. So, on my team there’s Janette Knowles as well as Xuena Pu. And I really just believe that working inside of this platform instead of staying within my own brand gives me a really nice, in-depth challenge of creating more as a community.

Why did sustainable fashion become your calling?

Starting off as a conventional fashion designer, I did the whole cut-and-sew technique, which, you know, most conventional designers do. But when I was doing that, I was creating a significant amount of textile waste, which I immediately realized when I was producing one-of-a-kind garments. So I quickly had to learn that I needed to implement a more sustainable approach to my design process, one of which was zero waste, and also working with local fiber sources, which I’ve really been able to fine tune here in Columbus.

Celeste, you’ve chosen, as you’ve mentioned, to team up with two other women to create your outfit. My third guest, Alexa Vicario, lives in South Euclid and is working alone on hers. Alexa, you describe yourself on Instagram as a collector of hobbies.

Oh, my gosh, before this, I actually didn’t have much of a fiber background. I learned how to crochet when I was about seven or eight. And during this pandemic I was doing all the things. I was learning to make sourdough bread. Learning how to, like, walk around the neighborhood, identifying plants. I figured this was a whole area I didn’t know much about. I’ve heard about farm to table things where you can, like, go to a local farmers’ market. And I’m like, I really don’t know much about this with clothing. Like, let me dig in, let me take the time to learn a little more about this.

Alexa Vicario wearing her handspun, handmade "sheepish" woolen mittens. [Alexa Vicario]

What I’ve been impressed with by following you on Instagram is, you’re learning how to spin.

The yarn that I’m making, it looks like I picked it up from the store. And I’m like, I can’t believe, not even six months ago I started doing this. It’s just been an incredible journey to learn how to literally process something from the back of a sheep and now I can make it into whatever I want.

Alexa Vicario is teaching herself how to process raw sheep's wool into yarn using an Electric Eel Wheel Nano spinning wheel. [Alexa Vicario]

A spindle of woolen yarn and small bundles, or rolags, of carded Suffolk-Tunis sheep's fleece. Alexis got the pale orange color dying it with onion skins and used black beans for the blue. [Alexis Vicario]

Sarah, you’re managing participants with a wide range of skills and knowledge. How are you keeping this together so people don’t crash and burn?

Sort of speaking to what Celeste said there, you know, when we are bringing together people with so many different interests and talents and just really allowing them to talk to each other and setting up the structures for that, they’re really managing themselves. All we did was set up the structures to be able to help them participate.

And we’ll be able to see everyone’s creations this fall at Praxis Fiber Workshop in the Waterloo District? 

Yeah, in November. We’re still working out the details but it will at least be a static show. We’re hoping to co-create that with this cohort of people. So, getting their input and seeing how they feel like we can tell this story best in that way.



Expertise: Hosting live radio, writing and producing newscasts, Downtown Cleveland, reporting on abortion, fibersheds, New York City subway system, coffee