Is Locally Sourced Clothing Possible?

By Radha Marcum
Senior Editor

Is it possible to know a garment’s journey intimately from seed to skin? To clothe yourself regionally and sustainably, as you might eat locally? These are driving questions for Rebecca Burgess, founder of Fibershed, a California-based nonprofit devoted to making local clothing as available as local foods. Burgess established Fibershed just a few years ago, shortly after she undertook a personal challenge to clothe herself only with fibers, material and labor all from within a 150-mile radius of her headquarters in Marin County, California.

Burgess’s passion for clothing traces back as far as she can remember, she says. “Growing up, we didn’t have much income in my family. My dad was disabled and my mom was a nursing assistant. I shopped at thrift stores—picking through, sorting, modifying.” As a teen in the 1990s, she started drawing clothing she wanted to make by “upcycling” secondhand materials.

But it wasn’t until decades later, after the publication of her book Harvesting Color: How to Find Plants and Make Natural Dyes (Artisan Press, 2011) that she began her personal journey to find sustainability along the entire fiber chain. She dug into the backstory of clothes: where the fibers were sourced, how they were grown (or synthetically manufactured), harvested, distributed, processed, dyed and woven, before a single stitch was sewn.

Discovering Hidden Resources

“I started looking into the materials available in my local area, which in fact included millions of tons of wool from sheep grazed here—enough fiber to dress me and thousands of people.” Burgess was inspired. She realized that so much more was possible. Usually when people consider clothing choices that reflect their values, they think of labor, says Burgess. But labor is just one small segment in the last stages of transforming plant, animal or synthetic fibers into garments, she explains.

Farmers, artisans, all kinds of people, came out of the woodwork to knit and sew and create the wardrobe sourced within 150 miles, Burgess relates. The wardrobe required zero toxic dye run-off; zero pesticides or herbicides, genetically modified organisms or synthetic biology; and had six times less CO2 impact than conventional equivalents. “Once we had created a prototype wardrobe, we realized that is was possible. It was a foundational experience.”

After she saw what was possible by succeeding at her own challenge, Fibershed as an organization “grew itself,” says Burgess. The Fibershed vision is bigger than a return to cottage industries of the past. We envision the emergence of an international system of regional textile communities that enliven connection and ownership of “soil-to-soil” textile processes, the website explains. These diverse textile cultures are designed to build soil carbon stocks on the working landscapes from which they depend, while directly enhancing the strength of regional economies.

More Than a Return to Cottage Industries

In Fibershed’s model, establishing thriving local textile economies means building mills powered by renewable energy to process fibers grown sustainably in the region—such as wool, alpaca, cotton, hemp or flax (linen). Each region will be completely unique. “For example, in Colorado there is so much opportunity to capitalize on the legalization of marijuana for hemp growing.” Hemp grows with far less water inputs than cotton. In fact, Fibershed is currently involved in a sustainable plant-fiber research project in the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado.

Citing the durability and versatility of wool and the drought-tolerant properties of hemp, Burgess says that she’d like to see much more innovation in natural fiber blends. “There are lots of fibers being created in labs, but you can’t beat 30 million years of evolution that have resulted in wool’s outstanding properties.”

Finding Your Fibershed

To capture the insights that the Fibershed project has uncovered—and to inspire more and more people with solutions—Fibershed offers downloadable materials via their website and provides dozens of hands-on textile workshops each year.

You can also participate in Fibershed principles via new partnerships with established national brands, like The North Face. For its “Backyard Program,” the iconic outdoor company partnered with Fibershed and producers from Northern California, where they are headquartered, to create a limited-edition Backyard Hoodie as a first step toward raising awareness and offering more sustainable active wear.

“Our approach is to look at what communities have already, what they’re already growing,” says Burgess. “Then we can work toward creating manufacturing infrastructure.” Eventually it will be more affordable to buy clothes and eat locally, she concludes. “At some point, localism will win out again because that’s what makes sense energy-wise.”

For more about Fibershed, visit www.fibershed.com and find numerous Fibershed affiliates all across the US, Canada and the UK (see www.fibershed.com/affiliates/ for details).