From farm to fashion: The lesser-known side of the fashion industry

Let me start by asking the obvious question: What the heck does farming and fashion have in common? Well, let me tell you…

The Pennsylvania Farm Show is the largest indoor agricultural exposition in the nation, displaying thousands of animal, commodity, and commercial exhibits that show off the best in the agriculture industry that this great state has to offer.

For 101 years, this event has been held in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s state capital, and runs for a whole week in the chilly month of January, when Pennsylvania’s farmers have a break to come and display their hard work before the warm weather begins and the ground thaws.

Now what you’re probably picturing is a giant barn, full of stinky animals and muddy boots. Not very appealing to your typical fashionista, right?  But what may surprise you is what many of the exhibits are all about: fashion.

When the word “fashion” comes to mind, the first things that many people think of are glamorous models, couture gowns, and a fast-paced city lifestyle. While all of these things are important components of fashion, the Pennsylvania Farm Show is able to bring the fashion industry back to its roots, with the mindset of someone involved with agriculture.

Living in New York City, it’s easy to forget the obvious fact that most fibers used in fashion come from the farm, whether it’s growing plants like cotton or raising animals like sheep for wool.  But one of the missions of the Pennsylvania Farm Show is to provide education to the masses about the agriculture industry, and fashion is no exception.

It is quite common for students from places like Philadelphia, who have maybe never seen a farm animal before, to visit the show and get the chance to pet an alpaca while learning all about how the wool fibers are spun into yarns to be used for clothing. Many exhibitors put this process on display, and bring their home spinning equipment and work on projects right in front of the visitors.  These goods are completely homemade from start to finish, and can often be purchased right there in their booth.

But not only do people get to sell their fashion goods, they get to compete with them as well. Although we don’t all have to shear our own sheep to make our clothes anymore, the art is alive and well, as seen with the Sheep to Shawl competition.

Teams in both the youth and adult category have 2 ½ hours to shear a sheep, card, spin, and weave the wool into a gorgeous patterned shawl. The teams are judged and placed, but the real prize is the money won in the auction.  Shawls can be sold for hundreds to thousands of dollars!

The whole competition takes place in an arena, so people have the opportunity to watch these people create their works of art while munching on potato donuts and deep fried cheese, and additionally the show is recorded and played on television for anyone to watch, even if you can’t make it out to the Farm Show.

There are a lot of fashion related exhibits at the Farm Show, but my personal favorites are the amazing sewing, needlecraft, and fiber arts garments. Many of these items have already been entered in county fairs over the summer and won prizes, and come to Harrisburg to compete against the best of the best.

From elaborate tailored jackets, to prom dresses, to cozy knitted sweaters, and even a pair of slippers made from fibers that came from the designer’s own rabbit, they never fail to disappoint. There’s also the opportunity to model these homemade outfits in the Fashions With A Flair competition, hosted by Barbizon Modeling Agency.

It’s a foot in the door for youth to practice being in front of an audience and display their sewing skills, and a chance for older participants to show off their handcrafted outfits that rival any designer’s couture creation.

Growing up around the Farm Show has given me an inside look on the perhaps “not so glamorous” side of the fashion industry. But despite the distinct smell of farm animals that is nearly impossible to wash out of my clothes after spending a week at the complex, and the boots covered in manure from that time (or two) that I wasn’t paying attention to where I was walking, I consider myself to be very lucky.

Knowing where my food and my clothing comes from has kept me grounded in a world that can be very pretentious. I may not be a farmer, but I have a deep appreciation for the people who make what I want to do possible, from the farmers who grow it, to the commodity princesses who promote it, to the educators who teach future generations about both the agriculture and fashion industry.

It is not despite my love for fashion, but because of my love for fashion that I believe in the future and importance of the Pennsylvania Farm Show and the agriculture industry.

Plus, I love any excuse to spend a week with my favorite farm friends, stuffing my face with the famous Farm Show milkshakes and petting fluffy animals. I may seem like a sophisticated New Yorker now, but some things will never change.

Sophie Hutchinson, '17

Mercyhurst student who is mostly studying in NYC for the dollar slice pizza places on every corner.  Wife of Zac Efron, mother of 5 pillow pet unicorns, and lover of "three truths and a lie."