Bemidji woman moves forward with goal for sustainable fashion design

There’s a few stories that everyone seems to know, from Romeo and Juliet to Cinderella to the plot of the Harry Potter series. But there’s some stories that are harder to discover: Like where do your clothes comes from?

“Buying sustainably is knowing the story of your clothing, so part of this is knowing where the clothing comes from,” said Keila McCracken, a local sustainable fashion designer.

McCracken was born into the world of fashion, as her mother was a fashion buyer and both of her grandmothers were accomplished seamstresses.

“When I was 4, my mom sat me down at the sewing machine with the goal of just teaching me how to sew, that was the goal for the day,” she said. “It was just kind of the basic skills and ever since then, I’ve been doodling, sketching on every piece of paper I could get my hand on.”

It wasn’t until middle school when she realized that her love of design and fashion could be a career. Researching higher education fashion institutions, she discovered the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

“They were the only one I applied to because I realized if I was going to make it in the fashion world, which is very cutthroat, then I need to go to the best school that I could go to,” McCracken said.

But after being accepted and attending a few classes, she realized that the school wasn’t providing her with the education she wanted.

“I would bring up sustainability and I’d bring up ethics of who's making the clothing and what type of chemicals they were using to dye these fabrics and I would just ask generally and several times it was brought that up that those types of questions were not welcome,” she said.

In the beginning of her second year, McCracken made a decision to leave the Fashion Institute of Technology. She remained in New York, studying environmental anthology and in her last semester in the city she returned to the Fashion Institute of Technology to earn a certificate in sustainable design.

Bringing sustainable design to Bemidji

Having completed school, McCracken moved back to Bemidji with a plan, to start the Northern Minnesota Fibershed.

“A fibershed is basically a movement where you try to meet your local fiber needs by whatever local fibers you have naturally in your geographic region, and so that means you're sourcing all of your local fiber, your local dyes, your local labor from this local region, and you're designing clothes for the real people and the real lives that actually live within that region,” she said.

Her first months back in Bemidji she spent time traveling and discussing this movement with local farmers and fiber artists. “And they would share their ideas, their wisdom, their experiences, what they are currently doing, what their hopes and dreams would be,” she said.

McCracken explained there are two main sources feeding this project: the growing number of sheep farmers in the area and high quality of yarn that has been produced by the Northern Woolen Mills in Fosston. But something was missing: an industrial way to weave cloth, McCracken’s preferred medium.

McCracken currently uses a traditional floor loom to weave fabric and it could take up to 36 hours to weave enough fabric to make one item: a shirt, skirt or pants. She wasn’t sure what she needed, but she knew something needed to change. She found her answer by chance.

McCracken was traveling with her family in Scotland and they were in the area where they make Harris Tweed, one of the highest quality wool fabrics made today.

“My mom and I, being weavers, wanted to see where this was all made,” she said. “Our second day in Scotland, we happen to meet several weavers and they just invited us to their houses. We walked in and we saw the looms that they had, and they were Hattersley Looms.”

Hattersley Looms were built during the Industrial Revolution, so they are human-powered and require no electricity.

“I came back . . . obsessed with these looms, like literally the second we saw one, my family was like, ‘Well Keila is going to get one of those, but we have no idea how.’ Literally, once I came home, that fall I started sending out emails to anyone that I could within Europe and the United States that might have a connection with a Hattersley loom and know where to get one,” she said.

photo: black formal dresses

After months of emailing, she learned of Daniel Harris of the London Cloth Co., because he was known for finding Hattersley Looms and repairing and refurbishing them.

“I wrote this email and I read it, like proofread it 50 times, and I sent it and within an hour he responded, like, ‘Yeah, no problem. I have several looms, you can have your pick, just let me know,’” she explained.

Hattersley Loom comes to the States

For the past five months, McCracken has been planning to find a way to bring the loom home. She and her mother will travel to London in the middle of July to be trained on the loom by Daniel Harris. Her last day in London, the loom will be packaged and start its journey to Bemidji.

“Then I fly home and then I wait for it to arrive here and it’s then arrives at my door, or at my friend’s door where it going to be for a year while I kind of get my feet wet,” she said.

In order to support her dream financially, McCracken applied for a Region 2 Arts Grant but also created a Kickstarter campaign, an online, all-or-nothing platform for individuals to raise funds for the project. The Kickstarter campaign ends Saturday.

“Technically, right now where it's sitting, I can fund it but it completely empties out my bank account and so having the Kickstarter, that allows me to have this other fund, kind of like a cushion to actually get things rolling when it comes to the States,” she said.

Once McCracken is completely comfortable running the loom, she has big plans for it.

“The long term is definitely to make and sell clothes, fibershed garments, especially garments that are designed for real lifestyles in northern Minnesota. So it will kinda be like two-pronged; where all the of the wool that’s used on the Hattersley Loom will be local wool and spun from the Northern Woolen Mills, but it's completely up to people if they just want to come and get fabric and kind of participate and weave,” she said.

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