plant-based in the north

this month’s resource is a little bit different - rather than a video episode, we’re going to be delving into the world of plant-based options within the canadian fibreshed through a series of outside links, many of which are not canadian-based.

photo by jessica bruce photography.

photo by jessica bruce photography.

if you’ve watched past episodes, you’ve probably heard me grumble at some point or other about “the vegans.” i used to be vegan, and the person i was then is exactly the type of vegan that frustrates me now. there are so many reasons that someone chooses to live a plant-based life - health, ethics, resources, to name a few broad categories - and based on those reasons, there are just as many (if not more) ways to live that life. what i do not have time for are vegans who willingly choose to not look at the wider implications of their decisions and the privileges and/or access they have to make that decision in a healthy manner, and who disregard the fact that even if you could sustain it, your body might not function on a vegan diet. also, i would be remiss to not mention that the very vocal minority of vegans who fall under the single issue animal rights activist umbrella are often spouting incredibly classist and racist arguments (if i had to count the number of times peta has made derogatory comments towards indigenous communities all over the world, i’d get bored of counting pretty quickly).

here in the north, unless you are growing your own food and have a greenhouse for year-round access to every nutrient you need, it is not possible to eat fully vegan all year long without importing some significant sources of nutrients, resulting in massive carbon footprints and also making it significantly trickier to track each step of sourcing to ensure it’s environmentally responsible and not exploiting any labour. if organic almonds are your source of protein and are coming from a giant monoculture farm in california that exploits migrant labour and uses massive amounts of water for irrigation in the middle of a drought, i’m going to challenge you on the idea that your diet is better for the planet than the local hunter catching rabbits along a trapline or the farmer living just outside the city who oversees a humane slaughter on the farm after caring for an animal since birth. in the same way, a vegan who lives in the city and wears “vegan fleece” to keep warm (as you’ll see through some links below, most “vegan” textiles that aren’t cotton/hemp/linen are various forms of plastic and/or require huge amounts of chemical processing to become useable cloth) is not automatically better than someone wearing locally made mukluks using smoke-tanned deer hide or wool sweaters.

there is often not “better”, just different.

what i do love are the vegans who do acknowledge how complex so much of this conversation is, and who figure out how to honour their own values without shaming others. if you’re wondering why there haven’t been any episodes featuring hunters or trappers yet and why the furs/skins portion of the map looks so bare, look to peta’s tactics to get a quick answer of why very few are comfortable publicly outing themselves and/or their locations.

now that we have some context for where i (and therefore this resource list) is coming from, let’s talk about the canadian fibreshed and how climate impacts our plant-based options.

unsurprisingly to most of you northern dwellers, our growing seasons are exceptionally short. although canada is a vast, beautiful landscape with many different micro-climates and huge variety of geography, we’re also just really far north. while some valleys and rainforests on each coast do create slightly more favourable growing conditions (much of southern british columbia manages to skip snow almost entirely, instead dealing with large amounts of rain), our plant hardiness zones are primarily 0-4, with only the southern-most regions getting into the 5-8 category. for large-scale production (as opposed to small-scale home/hobby production), this obviously limits what can grow here.

so what grows well in canada that can become a useable textile and is plant-based?

  • hemp

  • flax (linen)

  • nettles (usually foraged and turned into cordage, can be processed through industrial methods into ramie cloth)

  • cedar (also usually foraged, more of a traditional item that isn’t used nowadays)

  • lemme know if i’m missing something, but i’m pretty sure that’s it

ok, let’s pretend that we have convinced the government to invest more into helping farmers divert some of their crop fields into growing the strains of hemp and flax specifically that will create good cloth (many of the food-based strains do not work well for this, so in the way that meat sheep farmers may need to adjust genetics and/or land management practices to get better fleeces for a by-product, hemp/flax farmers would need to invest time and resources into managing new fields of textile-focused yields). also let’s pretend that the fields ideal for growing hemp are seen as being valuable enough to the fibreshed to offset the fact that cannabis strains are more likely to be chosen.

cool, next step: how do we process plant-based fibres into useable textiles?

this is currently one of our biggest hurdles within the canadian fibreshed. while there is a growing resurgence of plant-focused textile mills in the states, like huston textile mill, currently the only processing mill in canada is taproot fibre lab in nova scotia. you can get an idea of what their equipment looks like here, which helps highlight some of the complexities of getting good cloth on a larger scale. processing plant-based fibres is highly labour- and time-intensive, especially when you add in the need for drying fibres at the right stages to ensure a good cloth. until there are more mills operating to process plant-based fibres, we will be relying more on imported options here in canada.

if you’re really keen, you can hand-process your harvests. check out this video to learn how to process nettles into fibre without retting (heads up: it takes a lot of time, a lot of physical work, and relies on you understanding the growing season where you live so you’re harvesting at the right stage for good fibres).

as a side note, “plant-based” textiles like rayon and bamboo technically do come from plant material (wood pulp and bamboo pulp, respectively) but require so much chemical processing to be reduced to mush and then that mush turned into cloth that it’s honestly hard to justify calling them “plant-based.” if, however, you’re looking for fabric outside the fibreshed within this category, look for tencel or lyocell, which go through the same process but are almost entirely close-looped in their processing, creating exponentially less waste than anything processed using the viscose method.

ok, now i understand that there are some pretty big limits to what we can grow and process within our own fibresheds here in canada. i’m still plant-based. how do i find alternatives that fit within this?

the answers to this will vary depending on why exactly you’re plant-based. depending on your personal ethics, you’ll have different options for honouring your vegan choices in a sustainable way that causes as little impact on climate change as possible.

if you are vegan because you care specifically about greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impact, but are not 100% opposed to using animal-based items that already exist, you’ve got a few extra options:

  • the most sustainable option is to use what already exists. animal-based products can biodegrade, so thrifting a leather jacket from your local secondhand shop uses textiles that have already been processed, doesn’t cause any further impact beyond possible emissions if you drove or bussed to the store, and doesn’t harm more animals (including the displacement and/or killing of local species for new industrial processing plants and the pollution they may put out into the environment). this applies to leather, wool sweaters (reclaim that yarn and just give it a quick steam to get the kinks out!), and fur. mend items so that they last longer, and when it comes to retrimming fur lined items, try to find secondhand fur or contact your local trappers’ association. in manitoba, this group is heavily regulated and overseen by indigenous elders in each region of the province to ensure that species with low numbers in any year are protected to maintain balance in the ecosystem.

  • find local wool. sheep must be sheared for their own health (usually annually, but it depends on the farm and the breeds), and they aren’t harmed by the process. it’s literally a haircut. local wool is always going to be better for you and the environment than any “vegan” wool alternative (acrylic/polyester = plastic, “recycled” plastic is still plastic that has gone through more chemical processing to become a new useable item). wool can be composted if it doesn’t have any further use as well.

  • thrift plant-based materials at your local thrift store. for clothing, check tags for fibre content. for home textiles, aim for heirloom pieces rather than something from the 80’s. chances are higher that those doilies are made from linen or cotton than those placemats in bright colours.

  • if you happen to be a weaver, it may be possible to find hemp twine locally, or make your own nettle cordage, but probably your most clothing-friendly option is linen yarn from taproot, as mentioned above.

  • if you need to look outside the fibreshed, look into the organic cotton manufacturing in the states. it’s a (re)growing industry, and depending on where you live, it may actually be physically closer to you than other canadian options. ah, the joys of being the second-largest country in the world.

if you are vegan because you are concerned about animal welfare, this is actually a great time for you to connect with your local fibreshed and meet up with some farmers, mill owners, and/or hunters and trappers! a lot of vegan clothing, particularly from the fast fashion world and big name brands, is manufactured overseas and so you can’t easily see the actual impact that the manufacturing is having on local species (remember, just because your shoes didn’t come from a cow’s hide doesn’t mean there weren’t animals harmed in the process of making your “vegan” shoes - did the factory they were built on dump toxic waste into the waterways and kill the fish? did they flatten an area teeming with wildlife for industrial expansion and eradicate important ecosystems? or are they actually very responsible and do their best to minimize their impact, in which case you’re just dealing with massive amounts of carbon being released into the atmosphere thanks to the transportation process?). however, you can contact a local farm and ask to come see their operation, meet some animals, and maybe even attend a shearing day or workshop on traditional tanning methods. it’s ok to do this and still decide to opt for plant-based items manufactured elsewhere. just do your best to make an informed choice wherever you can.

if you are vegan because you absolutely cannot imagine using anything from other sentient beings, that’s completely valid. it just means that your options within the canadian fibreshed specifically are limited. see the last three points in the above bullet list for your current options.


we’ll be exploring more plant-based alternatives in future episodes. in the meantime, get ready for some upcoming episodes with tanners, natural dyers, and this year’s forage collection, focusing on the alberta fibreshed!

ash alberg