Building a New Textile Economy
The worldwide textile industry’s enormous impact on human health, climate, and the environment is often overlooked in discussions of sustainability. Rebecca Burgess, a weaver and natural dyer, started her search for solutions with a project to source clothing grown, woven, and sewn within her bioregion. In her new book, Fibershed: Growing a Movement of Farmers, Fashion Activists, and Makers for a New Textile Economy, she reports on the work of ranchers, farmers, makers, and small business owners to create a climate-friendly textile economy based on economic justice.
While sitting in an airport in early 2009 on my way back from the Navajo reservation where I had been studying natural dye practice with several women and their family members, I watched the news and saw more American troops being deployed into Afghanistan. Feeling angered by the unending resource wars, I thought hard about what I could do as an educator and textile developer beyond signing petitions and speaking with my elected representatives. I looked down at the plastic chair I occupied and saw my gray stretchy corduroy pants, and I realized that both the chair and my clothing were made from the same raw material: oil. I looked at the carpet beneath my feet—it was also made of oil. The jet fuel that would power my ride home—oil. In fact, nearly everything surrounding me involved products that originated from fossil fuels extracted from war-torn lands. All this fossil carbon was then refined and burned to create these materials, in the process pumping significant concentrations of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere, creating a layer of heat-trapping gas and amplifying climate chaos. In 2009 any personal actions that generated alternatives to fossil carbon dependency felt like the most appropriate thing to do. To this day I remain confident in a “both-and” commitment to individual behavior change in tandem with support of large-scale intersectional and bipartisan climate justice movement-building efforts.
This commitment had been percolating for a few years, ever since I realized that while I was teaching people how to make textiles from natural fibers and dyes, I wasn’t wearing what I was weaving and dyeing on my own body. I had a closet full of clothing largely sourced from fossil carbon fibers, and almost all were dyed with these same non-renewing materials, originating from deep within Earth’s ancient carbon pool. (I later came to understand that the manufacture of plastic-based fibers consumes more than 300 million barrels of oil annually, while the textile industry’s greenhouse gas emissions total nearly 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide or its equivalent each year, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.) Sitting there in the airport that day, it became quite clear that I needed to do something different about the way I dressed myself. I needed to walk my own talk, interweaving my skills in processing natural fiber and natural dyes—and all the cultural and ecological integrity they represented—with my concerns about climate change, resource wars, and water pollution. By changing the way I clothed my body each day, I intended to unplug from my relationship with these unhealthy systems.
I made a decision: Upon returning home I would upend the way that I had been cultured to consume and wear textiles, and as a function of this change, I would allow myself and my body to become the center of an experiment. The airport experience was a lightning strike of sorts. I had a sudden image of a wardrobe that would be made from natural fibers and dyes grown within a strategic area centered on where I lived—a place-based geography. I later coined the term “fibershed”for this. I would focus my attention on the plants, animals, and people that lived in this fibershed with me and determine how, or if, I could create a prototype wardrobe and live in these homegrown clothing items for 12 months. It would be a test, focused upon how to create garments from the soils of the region where I lived.
I learned that in 1965, 95 percent of the clothes in the closet of a typical American were made within the political borders of our nation. Today that figure is only 2 percent. Unfortunately this offshoring of the textile industry was not prompted by a desire for higher standards of production, economic equity for workers, or tighter environmental regulation. Quite the opposite—it was done to circumvent the policies, unions, and environmental protection costs associated with doing business in America. During my teenage years and early 20s, I witnessed the lion’s share of the death-stake thrust into the heart of American manufacturing. Policies such as NAFTA and CAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement and Central American Free Trade Agreement) became a perfect storm of federal decision-making that enabled frictionless capital to quickly liquidate American assets while “reinvesting” in lower-wage nations. American manufacturing systems that processed nonperishable raw materials were much easier to move overseas—a fiber without an expiration date could travel anywhere to be turned into clothing items.
You might assume that as a consequence of this offshoring of manufacturing, the raw fiber material in my region would be in short supply. However, this wasn’t the case. As I delved deeper into the resource base of my fibershed in an attempt to source materials for my locally grown wardrobe, I learned that there was an abundance of natural fiber and dye options available. Well known to many farmers and ranchers, though new to me, was the knowledge that there was a significant underutilization of available protein fibers (wool and alpaca mainly) in my region, largely because the fibers could not be easily processed locally. Meanwhile, many people in my community were jogging, climbing, and biking in wool base layers grown in New Zealand and manufactured in Asia. During this journey I discovered that California produces enough fine fiber every year to create several million garments and durable goods.
With so much raw material readily available, it was both bizarre and frustrating to witness such high numbers of unemployed and underemployed people in my community who could be participating in meaningful work to add value to our raw materials.
Although the fibershed concept is based on a watershed or foodshed—a bounded geographic area where water or food is sourced—clothing is not as simple as food, which you can harvest raw, ferment, or cook over heat and put into your mouth and chew immediately. Creating a wardrobe involves materials that must be processed in multiple stages to become functional garments. I wondered: Did the equipment and skilled labor exist in my fibershed to make these steps possible? I knew there was a strong food community where I live that had developed over many years, but would it be possible to build a similar community for fiber?
I decided to commit to one year of sourcing all my clothing from my own fibershed, which I called the one-year wardrobe challenge. It began with a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise money to cover the costs of the raw materials and services of textile artisans, as well as to document the project’s progress with longtime friend, colleague, and natural light photographer Paige Green. I researched, interviewed, and conducted the writing projects, which included articles about farmer-and-artisan collaborations. After the conclusion of the Kickstarter campaign, the next step quickly became apparent: It was time to set up meetings with neighboring farms, ranches, design students, and community members who were interested in collaborating on the development phase of garment creation.
This excerpt from Fibershed: Growing a Movement of Farmers, Fashion Activists, and Makers for a New Textile Economy by Rebecca Burgess appears by permission of Chelsea Green Publishing.
Rebecca Burgess is the executive director of Fibershed, chair of the board for Carbon Cycle Institute, and the author of “Harvesting Color.” A vocationally trained weaver and natural dyer, she creates hands-on curricula that focus on restoration ecology and fiber systems. Burgess has built an extensive network of farmers and artisans in the Northern California Fibershed to pilot an innovative fiber systems model at the community scale. Her project is internationally recognized with over 53 Fibershed communities now in existence.