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One freezing night a couple of winters ago, as a bracing wind swept through the streets of Asheville’s River Arts District, a group of textile artists gathered for a class

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One freezing night a couple of winters ago, as a bracing wind swept through the streets of Asheville’s River Arts District, a group of textile artists gathered for a class

One freezing night a couple of winters ago, as a bracing wind swept through the streets of Asheville’s River Arts District, a group of textile artists gathered for a class inside the cozy Local Cloth studio, surrounded by baskets of soft yarn and shelves of bright fabric. The organization’s founder and CEO, Judi Jetson, was leading a team in washing and dyeing wool sheared from sheep in the region. As a pickup truck pulled up outside, someone peered out the studio window and shouted, “Judi! It’s one of your farmers. He’s dragging a … body bag?”

Judi Jetson holds a stack of Blue Ridge Blankets

Judi Jetson unites fiber farmers and artists through Blue Ridge Blankets, on sale at the Local Cloth shop, Grovewood Gallery, and the Southern Highland Craft Guild. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

Jetson recalls the moment. “I walked out, and holy moly! It was 200 pounds of wool,” she says. For months, she’d been gathering fiber — almost one animal’s worth at a time, from farms around western North Carolina — for the most ambitious effort in Local Cloth’s history: the Blue Ridge Blankets Project, intended to unite farmers and weavers and create the foundation for a new fiber economy in the region. Last fall, after three years of work, the first production run of blankets went on sale. Made with fiber from within a hundred miles of Asheville, the patterns are named for the communities where the animals that contributed their fleece were raised.

“This is ‘Asheville,’” says Jetson, running her fingers over a fabric swatch in a thick binder she holds on her lap at the studio. The fleece from that “body bag” — and from more than a dozen other farms across the region — has been translated into a lustrous, luxurious yarn spun from a mix of sheep’s wool, mohair, and alpaca that Jetson calls “the Blue Ridge Blend.” Local Cloth members used natural dyes to create the gentle colors — walnut brown, madder red, tickseed yellow, indigo blue, and a quiet green created by overdyeing the latter two — that run in stripes through the ivory background. Jetson turns to another sample. The same soft shades appear in thicker, crisscrossed bands. “This is ‘Black Mountain.’”

The blankets represent a triumph for Jetson, a self-described fiber activist and lifelong lover of textile craft. Her grandmother taught her to knit when Jetson was 5, and she has continued learning new skills ever since: tie-dying and batik in the 1960s, weaving in the ’80s, and spinning in recent years. Over the decades, she also built a career in economic development, working for agencies like the U.S. Small Business Administration and nonprofits like HandMade in America, which combined her passions for community and craft and brought her to the Asheville area.

Handmade textile shirts, wraps, and accessories inside the Local Cloth shop in Asheville.

Beyond the Blue Ridge Blankets, people seek out one-of-a-kind textile pieces and yarn from regional makers at Local Cloth. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

In 2011, Jetson launched Local Cloth to connect farmers, artists, and customers, and to create a model for other traditional crafts. “When we started, nobody was talking about supply chain,” she says. “Now everyone is. And I don’t look at the world like an artist. I look at the world and think, ‘Where are the economic opportunities?’”

Her ambition is to put Appalachian resources, like fleece and clay and wood, into the hands of makers and artists who can create finished goods, like fabric and pottery and furniture. Those goods can bring cash into the craft economy and ensure that both agriculture and artisans continue to thrive in the region. To fulfill that mission, Local Cloth has a shop selling yarn and art by local makers. It has a classroom where community members can learn skills like mending and textile printing. What Local Cloth didn’t have during its first decade was local cloth — that is, fabric made from regional fiber.

“It was time for us to grow into our name,” Jetson says. Her vision for the future hearkened back to the past: Asheville had once been home to a vibrant textile economy. But post-World War II changes in American industry meant that most regional mills had closed by the 1980s and ’90s, and many farmers began to sell their wool elsewhere.

Local fibers

Fleeces collected from farms throughout western North Carolina turn into warm, colorful pieces at Local Cloth. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

With the help of a grant from The Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, Jetson and her colleagues collected fleeces from farms across the countryside. She found a Vermont company — “at the tippy-top of the Appalachians,” she says — to spin the fiber for a run of 19 sample blankets, created in partnership with a designer in South Carolina, a professional weaver in western Massachusetts, and student weavers from Warren Wilson College and Haywood Community College.

Those samples hit the road, and after more than 2,000 votes by visitors at craft fairs and the Local Cloth studio, five designs were selected for the 2023 production run: the patterns named for Asheville and Black Mountain, as well as Barnardsville, Pisgah, and French Broad River. Jetson hopes to scale up production every year and make the project self-sustaining. She wants to bring more farmers into the fold, and more customers, too.

“I want anyone who visits this region to be able to take home a piece of it,” she says. “Asheville is known for its local, farm-to-table food. Why can’t we be known for local cloth?”

Local Cloth
408 Depot Street, Suite 100
Asheville, NC 28801
(828) 774-5134

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This story was published on Jan 01, 2024

C.A. Carlson

C.A. Carlson is a writer and editor living in Asheville.