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Fiber crops to heal and revitalize the rust belt and its people | The Homepage

Updated: Aug 31, 2022

By Matt Peters

Close-up of a young flax plant with a hoe blade for scale. Photo by Matt Peters

Vegetables for the kitchen table are just one way gardening can contribute to a household’s economy. This year, Hazelwood Initiative’s Urban Ag Team has joined Rust Belt Fibershed, a collaborative network of regenerative fiber farmers, processors, and designers from western PA to southern Michigan. Rust Belt Fibershed seeks to create jobs and opportunity in this ancient trade while building community and economic democracy. They do this by growing fiber crops like flax, raising sheep or alpaca for wool, and cultivating plant dyes, to create a “farm to fashion” local textile industry.

Detail of the cloth Matt Peters wove with flax fibers grown and spun in Sweden. Photo by Matt Peters

Here in Hazelwood, we are growing a test patch of flax at the community garden on Monongahela Street, and our harvest will be pooled with others from around the region. Just a few square feet are enough to grow a significant amount of fiber. Our plot is about 48 square feet, although we did not plant early enough to take advantage of the spring rains. Fortunately, there are several other growers in the Pittsburgh area as well.

The small plot of flax growing at the Hazelwood Community garden. Photo by Matt Peters

The industrial revolution has its roots in the fiber arts, with the industrialization of ancient labor-intensive spinning and weaving. Humans have been weaving flax into cloth for at least 34,000 years. There is evidence our Neanderthal forebears made three-ply twisted plant fiber rope or cordage. This shared labor shaped social organization over tens of thousands of years; it must certainly be fundamental to how we relate to one another. Careful study of the Industrial Revolution and how it changed those relationships can offer insights into possible solutions for the problems we face today, be it gun violence or climate change.

Perhaps the meditative quality of the repetitive work provides the human brain with what it needs to prevent mood disorders that afflict so many in society. Perhaps the act of collaborating on the tasks of post-harvest processing provides social bonding that weaves together communities of mutual aid. What if the pride of wearing a garment grown, woven and tailored by people you care about were an antidote for the body-shaming of fashion advertisements? What if the sound of lawnmowers were replaced by the rustle of summer breeze in amber stands of flax in every yard? The questions we are raising in our test patch of flax won’t all be answered by the analysis of soil chemistry. Find out more about the Hazelwood Urban Ag Team and our flax project with the Rust Belt Fibershed on our Facebook page, the Hazelwood Sustainability Forum.

As the price of food goes up, interest in gardening grows and we have plenty of growing space available. Whether you want a bed for your own personal use or are looking for a place to set up a larger scale growing operation, we have sites for you. Sign up now for next year! Find out more at

Matt Peters is community gardens manager for Hazelwood Initiative.

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