Take a look at what you are wearing and ask yourself, “Can I put a name or face to these clothes?” For textile artisan Rebecca Burgess, matching a face with a garment doesn’t stop at knowing the garment’s maker. For her, it also means knowing the farmer or rancher who grew the fiber and even petting the sheep who provided the wool.
In September of 2010, Rebecca pledged for one year to wear only garments made from fiber grown within a 150-mile radius of her front door, just north of San Francisco. Rebecca spins, weaves, knits, felts, and sews her own clothes — from organic cotton, wool, alpaca, and angora — and dyes them with plant material she grows herself or harvests in the wild. The goal of this endeavor – called the Fibershed Project — is to show that beauty and fashion can support sustainability, local economies, and regional agriculture.
Rebecca began the Fibershed Project with a single locally-grown outfit. She admits it was a little daunting at first to commit to dressing herself literally from the ground up. But as the year unfolded, so did her wardrobe as she worked with resources, talents, equipment, and skills distributed throughout her local area. She collaborates with an extensive community of fiber artisans, designers, farmers, and ranchers, like Capay Valley’s Sally Fox, who breeds her own varieties of naturally colored cotton and is building a solar-powered cotton mill. Rebecca has seen the glimmerings of a reemerging industrial base in the Yolo Wool Mill with its six employees. And she joined with others to stage a benefit fashion show featuring all locally-produced garments and accessories.
Collaboration helped to transform Rebecca’s perspective on the challenge of dressing locally. “The ‘limitation’ of sourcing materials within 150 miles,” she says, “became a ‘creative focus.’”
It is an environmental focus for her as well. A fifth generation resident of the fragile bioregion where her materials are cultivated, Rebecca stresses that utilizing local fibers and plant-based dyes for textile color are vital parts of the solution to improving the health of air, water, and soils.
“The textile industry is the number one polluter of fresh water resources on the planet, as well as having an immense carbon footprint,” Rebecca says. “The average CO2 emitted for the production of one T-shirt is up to 40 times the weight of that shirt.”
She notes that coal tar, a petroleum-derived product that is a common ingredient in synthetic dyes, is a Group 1 carcinogen.
To replace synthetic dyes, Rebecca grows many natural dye plants, like Japanese indigo for blue and coreopsis for orange. She also gathers plants in the wild. Rebecca has two degrees in education and teaches that careful and respectful tending and gathering of native plants – in cooperation with landowners – contributes to environmental restoration and opens a deeper understanding of our connection to wild places. And because “local” refers to the place you live, Rebecca has developed bio-regional maps showing where dye-making plants grow seasonally across North America for her book, Harvesting Color.
What’s next for Rebecca as she completes her one-year commitment to the Fibershed Project? “I’m keeping going!” she says.
Her emphasis may shift, however, from the making of garments to the bolstering of foundations and infrastructure that fiber artisans need. Rebecca says, “It can strip the validity of becoming an artist to be forced to work with materials that compromise your integrity. Artists need a resource base that is not commoditized and owned by large corporations. They need resources that lift their independence. I would like to see all artists have the materials they want.”
“We are surrounded by beauty as well as solutions to our ecological crisis”, she says “We just need to slow down and smell the alpaca.”
Watch a group of Fibershed friends make wool felt hats:
Karen Brown is an award-winning designer and creative director of the Center for Ecoliteracy. Her work has been included in the Smithsonian Institution and Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and featured in The New York Times, Architectural Digest, House Beautiful, and on Today on NBC. She believes that the handmade movement is a fundamental force for transforming society and the economy.