Rebecca Burgess tried "the fibershed challenge"—to live for one year, in clothes made from fibers (and natural dyes) that are solely sourced within a geographical region no larger than 150 miles from her front door.
I lived for about 6 weeks in one outfit.
Our wonderful cotton farmer, Sally Fox, who now lives 90 miles from me, grew the cotton. Sally sold me cotton yarns and fabric that had been milled years ago from an era when we once had manufacturing equipment in the region. The old organic and color-grown yarns were handknit by friends and local designers. My mother sewed my first pair of Sally Fox cotton pants. The cotton was woven into a wonderful soft flannel—several of my garments are made from this naturally brown and green cotton fabric.
I had never before realized the power and importance of clothing—we wouldn’t leave our houses without it, and yet we generally think nothing of the processes that took place to create our garments.
The Fibershed project was designed to bring me into relationship with the source of my clothes. Like a food or watershed, a fibershed is the geographical region where one can source all the fibers and dye plants to create their garments.
Our region—Northern California—is well designed for a fibershed experiment. We have thousands of pounds of wool that are thrown away each year, creating plenty of raw material to make garments. We have many ranchers experimenting with raising alpacas, angoras, and mohair goats. There is a very hot growing season in California’s Central Valley, allowing us to grow a variety of color-grown cottons.
The many microclimates of our region give us the opportunity to grow a range of dye plants. We grew indigo in the first year to supplant the need for blue dye—which is petroleum-based and rich in neurotoxic heavy metals.
The project brought many artisans and farmers in our region together—it has been a community building process at every level. We made a point of connecting each designer, seamstress, knitter and felter with their raw material base.
Cotton With Conscience
How to wear cotton without wearing out the planet.
Those connections have changed the face of the community itself. At least four new textile businesses have been started this year. Fibershed is now applying for official nonprofit status so we can continue to analyze our supply chain and support improvements and advancements within it. We have cultivated a marketplace which supports individual artisans and farmers to collectively gain access to more of our community.
Sally Fox now has plans for the first farm-based, solar-powered, North American cotton mill, and the Fibershed is thriving. It is a pure example of what a community can do to manifest a sustainable material culture, beginning with the most basic of needs—our clothes.
Rebecca Burgess wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Rebecca is an ecological restoration educator, textile artist, author, and fifth-generation resident of the watershed where her great grandmother and grandfather once lived. Her latest book is Harvesting Color. More information on fibersheds at fibershed.wordpress.com
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