May 19, 2018

Somebody Set Up Fibershed Virginia, Please

     I've been talking to shepherds who raise fibre and small business owners who serve fibre artists, and I think there is a need in Virginia for a non-profit or a business to help connect sellers and buyers, and support both.  Have a look at Fibershed's Producer Program and their publicity work and education events.  I wish someone would set up an affiliate Fibershed here.  There is a Fibershed affiliate that covers part of Virginia but I've heard it does not have a producer program, only an education program.
     I think there is consumer demand for textile products that are exceptionally beautiful and functional, raised humanely, produced and delivered in an environmentally-friendly way, presented so that the customer can connect emotionally with the producer, and sold in a way that makes it easy for the customer to buy and use the product.  It probably means e-commerce and in-person sales at public markets.
     Additionally, the products and services should let people be themselves but more so, in an area they deem important to them personally.  I've seen wool let people be generous, be connected with peers, be connected with charismatic stars, show love to family, show their fandom or taste or profession, be a nature lover, be a mentor, be a planner, be a collector, be a savvy shopper, be thrifty, be extravagant or self-indulgent, be a patron, be interesting, and (of course) be a maker.  And in some cases, whatever their thing was, that was their life.  Honestly.  Marry that with a product of remarkable beauty from a seller they know, like, and trust, and (in my experience as a seller) people quit caring about the price tag and just buy.
     E-commerce can be tough for producers to arrange.  In my shopping experience, shepherds and mills are open for business but often it is difficult to see and buy their current stock of goods and services.  Right now as a customer you have to be in the know and making a real effort.  Producers will put up a static webpage (often outdated, saying things like "we're really excited about the sheep shearer coming in Spring 2014!") and expect customers to phone them and inquire.  It's like asking people to click.  Chances are they won't.  Or they are focussed on selling breeding stock or milling services, and missing the person who wants to buy yarn or a fleece.  Also, most fiber websites have poor graphic design.  In contrast, the Fibershed website is gorgeous.  Fibre buyers are highly attuned to colour and design.
     Markets are hard.  Like, farmers' markets and festivals.  I've lost sleep before vending at a market.  I've driven over four hours roundtrip to be a vendor.  I've been asked to be a vendor at a festival so far away that I couldn't make the opening time without a hotel stay, so I had to pass.  I've endured cold rainy weather vending in a popup tent outdoors.  I've had trouble securing someone to help me set up and to watch the merchandise while I take a bathroom break.  The tent and the merchant fee can be costly.  But there's nothing like being Johnny-on-the-spot for sales.
     Production challenges are an issue that the Northern California Fibershed supports.  I don't know if that is so much of a need in Virginia in the sense of wool going to waste because no one is there to mill it like in Northern California.  Money is leaving the region: I know two or three Virginia-based yarn merchants who send their wool out of state for milling, and I know of another yarn merchant that does its own milling but sends materials out of state for washing.  I once heard from a shepherd who was having trouble finding breeding stock for a rare breed.
     Customer education is needed.  I believe there are buyers out there willing to pay for beautiful textiles they can feel good about, who have no clue what to ask for, how to ask, where to ask, or how much to pay.  Or even that these things exist.  In my experience demonstrating handspinning in public, they have the most basic of questions.  Ten years ago I was like them myself.  A middleman could help.  In the Northern California Fibershed, they've been able to connect some pretty big corporate clients with producers.
     There is also an appetite for education from sophisticated buyers and from producers.  I know handspinners and weavers that travel out of state to hear speakers and take workshops, and they buy books and DVDs.  Rita Buchanan (A Weaver's Garden) is the only fibre arts author I know that wrote in Virginia.  Oh, and Max Hamrick (Organic Fiber Dyeing: The Colonial Williamsburg Method).  Equipment and materials too, the majority of the stuff used by the dozens of handspinners, weavers, dyers, and knitters I know comes from out of state.  And I see a lot of money being spent, these people have disposable income and time.  I can think of one nationally-known manufacturer of equipment in Virginia, Strauch Fiber Equipment Co.
     The director of such a non-profit or business, as I propose, would need to know about business, and consult, publicize, hold events, apply for grants, and conduct research.  Or manage a team that does.
     Before you ask, that person is not me.  My joy is systems thinking and giving people useful information: I'd do that for free.  You couldn't pay me to be in charge of other people's actions.  Or liaise for a living.
     Some of the functions of such an organization are covered in our region by local guilds, fibre festivals, and breed-specific sheep breeder associations and the Virginia Sheep Producers Association.  Other resources include
     I've learned from the SBDC, bought from Local Harvest, bought and sold on Etsy, learned from the Etsy Success podcast and Seller Handbook, learned from the SBA and IRS, and advertised on Ravelry.  I'm waiting to hear back from SCORE.
     What actions can you take, assuming you agree but you're not going to set up Fibershed Virginia yourself?  Write to VDACS to tell them about the Fibershed model, say you think there is an underserved market in Virginia, and tell them specific stories of why this is true.  Tell them why it's important, relating this to their mandates for conservation, economic development, etc.
     Wear beautiful traceable textiles in your daily life, and be prepared to do show and tell and make referrals to your sources.  Throw some work their way.  Distribute brochures for fibre festivals.  Spin yarn, knit, or weave in public.
     Talk to young people about the possibility of finding work in the fibre arts, and about the small scale production equipment available such as mechanized carding machines, e-spinners, knitting machines, floor looms, and mini mills from a company like Belfast Mini Mills.  Consider a Kickstarter campaign to buy a young person equipment and training to set them up in business.  Connect young people who need work experience with fibre small businesses who need services like graphic design, web design, photography, marketing, and social media tutorials.
     Send shepherds encouraging notes, maybe with photographs of them at events that they can use for publicity, and ask them how it's going.  Tell personal fibre stories on social media.  Help a guild or an arts centre apply for a grant.  Refurbish old wheels and looms to keep them in service.  Run a seminar or workshop for the public to show them the possibilities of fibre arts.  Develop and publish educational materials like handouts or booklets.  Pray (or whatever you do instead of praying) for take-charge people to get involved and carry through.  I'm sure you'll think of something.  Thanks.
     I plan to start by writing to VDACS, and then order some cloth reusable shopping bags to dye with indigo, walnut, and madder, to use as a conversation starter when I shop.  I plan to demonstrate handspinning at a farmers' market next weekend, knit in public for WWKIP day the week after, and demonstrate either handspinning or språng at a museum the week after that.  I also plan to read Light: Science & Magic, an introduction to photographic lighting by Hunter, Biver, and Fuqua with hopes of fixing the white balance on my online listings.
     And you?

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