Textile Terroir

After reading a book called Desert Terroir, by one of my favorite authors, Gary Paul Nabhan, I casually mentioned the word on Twitter and found out that several other knitting designers and fiber artists have been using it to try to capture that je ne sais quoi found in certain textiles made by careful craftsmen and women in various times and places. I’ve rewritten the prologue to the book, which is about the foods of the South West United States, to make it be about knitting, fiber, and textiles… Let’s see what happens.

Once upon a time, in a yarn shop not far from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, I heard a knitter, a weaver, a shepherd, a dyer, a gardener, a fiber artist, and a spinner discussing the term terroir.

“It’s the very touch of the place—the ranch’s own geological, ecological, and cultural history—embodied in the wool,” the woman who raised and sheared sheep asserted.

“But it’s not limited to the wool alone, for the dyes also reflect the place as they transform the wool into a rainbow, argued the dyer. “The dye is the broker for all of those colors from the earth, bringing them out from the blooming flowers and buried roots.”

“Well, you talk as though terroir only occurs in wool yarn,” said the weaver. “You need to see some of this cotton fabric that has just come off of my loom.”

“And you speak of it as if it’s only found in raw materials,” said the knitter. “You ought to try on my hand-knit sweater, just finished and off the needles.”

“But it’s the parent materials and the processing—the spinning—that really defines the spirit of the yarn,” the spinner said with an air of authority.

“Well, if rain and sun and heat and cold didn’t nurture plants that grow,” argued the gardener, “you’d never have those natural dyes, or the versatile plant fibers to work with.”

The fiber artist had begun to assert that all these factors were threaded together in every fiber and fabric we touch, when into the yarn shop staggered a wild-eyed storyteller. Although she barged in on them uninvited, they had the generosity to welcome her just the same. The gardener turned to her and offered, “You may be able to help us resolve our argument about terroir. We just can’t agree whether it’s the soil, the climate, the flora and fauna, or the skill of the producer which makes a garment or a textile come alive.”

The storyteller looked at them and began to laugh like a mad woman, slapping her thighs and waving her arms.

“No, no, no! It’s the genius loci caught in the fabric….It’s the stories in the spinning, the myths in the wool, the dreams in the dyeing. It’s when they enter your memory and lodge in your dreams…that’s the essence of a place, that’s the terroir…”

The journey I’m about to take will test those hypothesis against the weight of evidence uncovered in museums, craft fairs, and living rooms around the world. As I explore these stories, I hope the true story of the essence of place becomes revealed to you.

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