The Fiber Tent returns to the 158th Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Fair to teach sustainable practices and promote local farming.
The brainchild of Katharine Long, her husband Tom Vogl, and Glenn Jackson, the tent started almost 20 years ago with just a couple of fleece animals and their owners.
Now the tent is filled with all things fiber: weavers working diligently on looms, textile artists crafting intricate shawls and sweaters, and quilters stitching together patches of colorful fabric.
But the real stars of the tent are the alpaca, sheep, goats, and other animals that provide the fibers necessary to create these unique masterpieces.
Melinda Rabbitt DeFeo, organizer for the Fiber Tent, said her focus is getting people excited about natural fiber, and the arts and skills that go with it. “That includes raising the animals and caring for them,” DeFeo said. “Fiber animals are a lot of work, and require great care if you want to get a good product.”
Up until recently, the tent has been independently run by various participants, but now the fair is taking an active role in organizing and setting up the tent. “We recently started working with Amy Coffey and other members of the fair administration to implement their vision of what the tent should look like, and what purpose it should serve,” DeFeo said.
If an artisan or farmer wants to be a participant in the tent, DeFeo said, their exhibit must contain a hands-on, educational component alongside their vending. DeFeo said she hopes when people leave the tent, they look at clothing from a different perspective.
“We want people to know where their clothes come from. If you understand the complete cycle of something, you can make more educated decisions,” DeFeo said. “That’s why we try to teach people about fiber, even before it is turned into yarn or made into some type of clothing.” According to DeFeo, understanding how fiber animals are raised and cared for is essential in determining whether a farm or company is practicing sustainable farming. “We want people to see natural fiber as an environmentally friendly, renewable resource,” DeFeo said.
Synthetic fibers like polyester, acrylic, and nylon are, according to DeFeo, nonrenewable because they come from plastics derived from fossil fuels. She said synthetic fibers are often cheaper and easier to maintain, but natural fibers will always be the best choice. “We want to teach people about the durability of wool, and the many uses of organic fibers,” DeFeo said.
Although adults are the ones making decisions on whether to buy local, organically-made clothing, or mass-produced synthetic clothing, children are the most receptive to the concepts the fiber tent attempts to convey each year, DeFeo said: “We can make the biggest difference with kids. Not only are they the next generation of consumers, but they are persistent.” Once children make the connection that a wool sweater comes from sheep, DeFeo said they gain an appreciation for the animal, as well as the product.
“If children actually learn where things come from, how they are made, and how the animal is taken care of, it builds ownership and responsibility. Once you have ownership of a concept, you have that for life,” DeFeo said.
It was in this Fiber Tent where Island Alpaca owner Barbara Ronchetti discovered alpaca. An off-Island alpaca farm brought some of their animals to the tent, and Ronchetti said when she first saw them, she was “mesmerized.”
“In that moment, my focus transitioned to how it would be possible to introduce the alpaca to the Island community and our visitors on a year-round basis — the answer was to have my own farm,” Ronchetti said in an email to The Times.
Ronchetti said the tent will feature a table with animal fibers and plant fibers, where people can feel the differences between llama, sheep, and new this year: yak, camel, hemp, and bamboo.
Ronchetti said alpaca fiber is unique in that it’s a hollow-core fiber, making it a terrific insulator, and it is hypoallergenic, for those who are allergic to wool.
Whether you are looking to learn more about fiber and fiber-producing animals, or just want a warm and one-of-a-kind chunky-knit sweater, the Fiber Tent is a must-see at the Ag Fair.
Here is a tentative list of participants for this year’s Fiber Tent:
-Anna Marie D’Addarie, fiber artist
-Barbara Ronchetti, Island Alpaca
-Carol and Rich Tripp, Windy Hill Farm (spinning and weaving)
-Donna Young and Pam Hiser, From Fiber to Fabric
-Elizabeth Toomey, textile artist
-Glenn Jackson, Stoney Hill Farm
-Katherine Long, M.V. Quilters Guild
-Mark and Kathy Stephens, Biltmore Wool Barn (weaving and spinning)
-Melinda Rabbitt DeFeo, Edgartown School Farm and Garden
-Rebecca Gilbert, Native Earth Teaching Farm
-Rebecca Sanders, FARM Institute
-Tim Connelly, Island Grown Schools