From Farm to Garment: Growing a Sustainable Fibershed

Brie Mazurek, CUESA Staff
October 26, 2012

If you shop at the farmers market, you probably have a sense of where and how your food was grown and you may even know the farmer who grew it. But how many of us know much about the fabrics in our clothes or the people who sewed them? Fiber—like fuel, animal feed, and timber—is a significant but sometimes overlooked product of agriculture in America.

“My own personal practice is to have my own clothes tell a story that I’m proud of, that I connect with, and that I feel is ethical,” said educator and textile artist Rebecca Burgess at a CUESA panel discussion at the Ferry Building on Monday evening.

For one year, Burgess wore only clothing made with fiber, dyes, and labor sourced from within 150 miles of her Marin home. Calling the project Fibershed (with a nod to “watershed” and “foodshed”), she sought to reduce her ecological footprint while forming relationships within her local fiber system, from the farmers growing cotton or raising sheep for wool to local fiber artisans and textile designers.

“It was an underwear-less year!” she admitted to the audience, which included textile makers and designers as well as home knitters and farmers market supporters. “We have no lack of world-class fiber in this area. The reason I was not wearing underwear for a year is we do not have fine-gauge processing,” which produces the very fine, soft yarns and threads that are found in most of the pieces in our modern wardrobes.

Burgess’s challenge illuminated the need for local, sustainable alternatives to the global industrial textile industry. The US imports about 95% of our clothing from overseas, the majority of which is manufactured in China, where sweatshops and human rights abuses are common. The most commonly used fibers are polyester and nylon, which are derived from petroleum and processed and dyed using synthetic, often toxic chemicals, such as copper, nickel, and cobalt. According to a 2010 report by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, the textile industry is the country’s third worst polluter.

Following her Fibershed experiment, Burgess founded a nonprofit of the same name, with the goal of building “a thriving bioregional textile culture that functions hand in hand with principles of ecological balance, local economies, and regional organic agriculture.” In addition to creating a network of farmers and artisans, the Fibershed Marketplace provides an online retail outlet for them to market their wares.  

One member of the Fibershed Project is Robin Lynde, a shepherd, weaver, and teacher at Meridian Jacobs Farm, where she raises 70 sheep on 10 acres in Vacaville. She also runs a farm shop, where she sells her yarns, fleeces, felt, lambskins, handwoven garments and blankets, along with other wool products.

“Fiber producers, users, and designers may not know that there are sheep 10 miles away, and they can get that fiber,” she told the audience. “[Fibershed] gets us all connected.”

Raised with “intensive grazing on irrigated pasture, low-stress handling techniques, and TLC,” Lynde’s Jacob sheep (a rare breed known for their large horns and spotted wool) all have names, like Loretta, Moon, and Sonata. While her wool scarves might fetch higher prices than those found in a typical department store, the husbandry and hands-on care is evident.

One of the cornerstones of Lynde’s business is transparency and education. She invites the public to help out at the farm and hosts classes and community farm days (like Shearing Day on November 10) to help people understand the art and craft of raising pastured sheep for wool.

Where Lynde represented a small-scale member of our local protein fiber system, Marcia Gibbs, executive director of the Sustainable Cotton Project, spoke about efforts to grow a sustainable domestic plant fiber system. The Cleaner Cotton program supports large conventional cotton growers in the Central Valley, who tend 75 to 6,000 acres, in transitioning to more sustainable practices. (View our slideshow of one of the program’s farms.)

Cleaner Cotton is grown without the 13 most toxic chemicals used in cotton production, Gibbs explained, while using non-GMO varieties and integrated pest management practices, such as pheromone disruption and beneficial insects. While the Cleaner Cotton label is not as strict as certified organic, Gibbs feels that the program has been able to make a larger impact by influencing practices without raising costs exorbitantly.

However, one of the challenges of the program has been that a market for Cleaner Cotton garments is still being cultivated, both at the manufacturer and consumer level. It’s a Catch-22: “To get [Cleaner Cotton] to a spinner, someone has to request it, and in order to request it someone has to know what it is,” Gibbs noted.

Another setback has been the lack of local domestic processing and distribution channels, such as mills, which have all but disappeared in California since textile manufacturing has been outsourced overseas. “The fact is that we have no way to move fiber through the supply chain, either on the small scale or big scale,” said Gibbs. “That is really is the crux of the problem.” There is currently one local mill, Yolo Wool Mill in Capay, but as Burgess explained, “We need value-added processing equipment that honors every farmer at every scale.”

Burgess is currently working on a project called Grow Your Jeans, which involves sourcing, dyeing, and sewing a limited run of jeans right here in the Bay Area’s backyard. As part of that project, she has planted a half acre of indigo at Riverdog Farm in the Capay Valley. While she anticipates that her first crop of denim might only yield about 50 pairs of jeans, it’s a start.

It may be some time before apparel that is grown, milled, and sewn in California becomes more available and affordable, but in the meantime, Burgess recommends simple measures like mending instead of tossing our old clothes, swapping clothing or buying it used, and resisting cultural pressure to augment our wardrobe every season to keep up with the trends.

While you might not get to vote with your wardrobe three times a day as you do with your fork, slow fashion taps into the same desire to connect with the land, animals, and people that provide our most basic necessities. “You get to choose your farmer,” Burgess told the audience. “At the end of the day, maybe you’ll have the honor of seeing the fields where your clothes are grown, and you’ll be able to make those decisions.”

View CUESA’s slideshow of a recent Sustainable Cotton Project tour to a local cotton farm and cotton gin.

Tomorrow at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, Rebecca Burgess will be doing a natural dyeing demonstration and signing copies of her book, Harvesting Color, at CUESA’s Harvest Festival. There will also be a weaving and wool spinning demonstration by Spindles & Flyers Spinning Guild. Learn more.

Photos of Robin Lynde and Rebecca Burgess by Paige Green. Photo of wool blankets courtesy of Meridian Jacobs Farm.