Fibershed seeks to revive Northeast Ohio’s once-flourishing garment industry
Cleveland was once a garment industry leader, trailing only New York as a preeminent center for clothing production. The Great Depression helped scuttle the local marketplace, beginning a decline that culminated with the closure of the nation’s last flax mill in the 1960s.
Jess Boeke and her sister Sarah, co-founders of the Rust Belt Fibershed, have spent the last five years trying to revive the Northeast Ohio flax-to-fiber supply chain. This work began with identifying a regional fibershed able to provide resources and infrastructure for creation of a local clothing industry. Through the Rust Belt Fibershed, the sisters want to develop a system that generates lasting economic prosperity while better connecting consumers to the origins of their clothing.
Their volunteer organization received nonprofit designation in 2022, boosting its research into fiber systems and providing training to a growing network of producers, artisans and designers. Ongoing advocacy includes the Rust Belt Linen Project, which supports the planting of flax test plots throughout the region.
Fibershed leaders are researching processing requirements on how to harvest the flax plant before it’s dried, separated and prepared for weaving. The transformed plant is then spun into yarn and woven into linen fabric, a method tens of thousands of years old.
“The reason we chose the linen project in the structure that it is, is because we knew that setting up a linen industry takes years and years, and we needed the proof in the pudding,” said Boeke. “If we can create linen garments by hand even at an artisanal scale, we can show investors what linen looks like that’s grown locally.”
Ideally, a sustainable textile industry would take root in Cleveland, eventually spreading into a 250-mile radius encompassing most of the Rust Belt, Boeke said. Flax grows exceptionally well along the Great Lakes, thanks to weather patterns that allow certain crops to flourish.
The Peninsula resident believes Northeast Ohio can be a textile hub for the Rust Belt, much like parts of the Midwest produce food for a particular population. Finding locally made clothing is difficult outside of the artisan space; building a brand new textile culture is the only logical path, said Boeke.
“The majority of people don’t even think about the labels (on their clothing),” Boeke said. “To get them thinking about that may not bring a linen industry into the region, but it can work to create a sustainable industry worldwide. Consumer purchasing habits can shift a little bit, and then we can accomplish the fibershed’s other goals.”
No more ‘fast fashion’
Beth Sheeler is proud to be one of the growers involved with the fibershed effort. Sheeler tends a 200-square-foot flax plot on her 15-acre property in Gates Mills, a labor of love that coincides each August with a flax picking party for project supporters.
Sheeler takes a community-centric approach to the yearly harvest, applying her knowledge of positive psychology – the study of well-being and human flourishing – to fuel an “experiment” that will ideally grow into something much bigger, she said.
Flax grows best in cool, damp environments, with harvesting taking place when stems begin to yellow and seeds turn brown. After harvest, farmers dry flax stalks in open air before seeds are removed. Next comes retting, a process where flax is exposed to moisture – flax bundles soaked in water generally “ret” anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks, which loosens usable fiber from the crop’s woody tissue.
Retted stalks are dried for weeks or even months before flax fibers can be separated and spun. The resulting linen yarn is woven into sheets, capping a laborious practice that Sheeler ties to ecological stewardship as much as local economic growth.
“We’ve gone to all this fast fashion – things made quickly and easily without any regard toward the impact that it’s making,” said Sheeler. “The growing of flax is the easiest part – the process of making it something you can even call a garment is not efficient, but it’s beautiful, it’s educational, and it fills that connection with nature I think is so important.”
Creating a new culture
Sara Guren cultivates flax for the fibershed project on eight acres of her Waite Hill farm in Lake County. Like Sheeler, Guren hopes to develop an ethical clothing industry in Northeast Ohio, one that respects natural resources while countering the country’s pervasive throw-away culture.
“You can buy a garment that’s been created by an artisan, because if you do it on a large enough scale, it could be created commercially, and it could be created locally,” said Guren. “It can be a deep connection for people with the place where they grew up. If you understand the thing you’re wearing comes from the place you live, you’ll hold onto it longer.”
Guren, who also makes artisanal garments from Angora rabbit wool, utilized equipment at Hale Farm & Village to spin the approximately five bundles of flax she grew this summer. Reshaping the regional textile industry does not mean pumping out cheap garments on an assembly line, she said.
“For me, reviving the industry means bringing attention to the possibilities,” Guren said. “It’s a great opportunity to grow flax on a large and small scale in Northeast Ohio. Being part of this larger project and helping gather data (from test plots) is really exciting.”
Today, flax in the U.S. is primarily grown in North Dakota and Montana for seed rather than fiber. Most flax for the highest-quality linen is cultivated in Belgium, France and the Netherlands.
Fibershed creator Boeke knows that restoring even a small percentage of this work will take years and is currently in talks with larger local farms to include flax in their crop rotations.
Although communicating return on investment is difficult without actual investors, simply sharing the concept with interested parties has its benefits, Boeke said.
“We’re telling a story about creating a culture of care,” said Boeke. “When people recognize that connection through stories about our clothing, then we can all move forward with this work in an exciting way.”