Q&A With Maria Trumpler (WGSS) about “fibersheds”

February 12, 2023

​​Maria Trumpler teaches Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies at Yale and is a Board member of the Dudley Museum. She is a recent Environmental Humanities grant recipient who has been working on a project about fibersheds.


What is your project about?

I have just joined the Board of Directors of the Dudley Museum in North Guilford, CT, which manages a farmstead from the 1840s along with a dozen outbuildings. They own a “barn loom” as well as many spinning wheels and have sheep on the property.


My goal is to ultimately set up a demonstration area with carding, spinning, dying and weaving for visitors to the museum on high traffic days of farm market Saturdays, Harvest Day and Christmas Market. The conversations as well as informational brochures would teach visitors about the economic, labor and environmental benefits of returning to some practices of a 19th century fibershed.


You mentioned the idea of a “fibershed.”  What is it?

Analogous to a watershed, a fibershed is an area of land that provides clothing for a group of people.  Nowadays, our clothing comes from all parts of the world. Moreover, we own many garments and, as a result, often don’t wear anything for very long. In contrast, it’s fascinating to contemplate a time when you knew the sheep whose wool you spun for your clothes and blankets, when you recalled your aunts by their new dresses for a given year, and when you darned your swimming stockings over multiple summers. Today, there is a Fibershed movement active in New England—Google or look on Facebook for what they’re up to.  


What was the inspiration for this project?

So I stumbled across what seemed like an overstuffed school composition book in one of the Dudley museum’s boxes labeled “Dudley Family Treasures.” To my surprise, I realized that it was filled with dozens of little pieces of fabrics that had been sewn into the pages. The book, as I later found out, had been made by Amy Louisa Dudley (1878-1967) and most swatches were labeled with family names—Grandma Hanna, Aunt Ruth, Aunt Lois.


It was fascinating to see the diversity of fabrics Amy Dudley had collected. Such scrapbooks were fairly popular at the end of the nineteenth century. In fact—in an era before photo albums, you could turn the pages of this album, touch each piece of cloth and recall the person who wore the dress made from the fabric.  Most of the fabrics were fine cottons (likely imported from England) and I was particularly struck by how “modern” many of the patterns were.


Inspired, I dug my way through the Dudley Museum’s archive of textile collections with 

clothing historian and actress Kandie Carle.  We found baby caps, swimming stockings, nightshirts, a woman’s suit for traveling, bonnets, and aprons, mostly from the late nineteenth century.  Some were handmade and some machine-made—a transition happening right at that time—and I’m learning how to distinguish the differences between them.


How tough is it to create clothing from a spinning wheel?

There is certainly a learning curve, but I’ve been having fun! With support from an Environmental Humanities grant, I spent the month of May learning to use the collection of historic spinning wheels and looms at the Marshfield School of Weaving in Vermont.  It’s been magical to use this equipment—learning how to repair them and make fabric on them using eighteenth-century techniques has been so fulfilling.  We started with a whole fleece, cleaned it, carded it, spun it and dyed it.  As I write this, I’m eagerly anticipating using a barn loom for the next two weeks to weave a herringbone coverlet. 


Where can we visit to see some of your work?

If you want to see (and touch) some of these treasures and chat about textile history or fibersheds, come visit my table at our Saturday Farmers Markets “Textile Treasures from the Dudley Museum.”

Trumpler weaving on an 18th century Vermont barn loom

Public Humanities Grant