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Localism extends to the wardrobe

May 18, 2013

[This article appeared first on May 18 in the Herald-Times “Homes” section, in Bloomington, Indiana, http://www.heraldtimesonline.com/stories/2013/05/18/homes.localism-extends-to-the-wardrobe.sto]

Members of the Vermont Fibershed collect wild dyeing materials. Wildflowers such as goldenrod are excellent dye sources. (All photos are copyright Rebecca Burgess and Fibershed)

Members of the Vermont Fibershed collect wild dyeing materials. Wildflowers such as goldenrod are excellent dye sources. (All photos belong to Rebecca Burgess and Fibershed and are used with permission.)

The local food movement spawned countless new farmers’ markets across the nation and led to concepts such as The 100-Mile Diet. But localism includes clothing as well.

In 2010, fifth-generation California native Rebecca Burgess announced that for the coming year she would wear only handmade clothing made from fibers originating near her Bay Area home. Her goal – The 150-Mile Wardrobe – was featured in the New York Times and Huffington Post and has kept her busy ever since. Author, consultant, educator, weaver and dyer, Rebecca took time to tell me about her mission.

California horsetail is lush and green but creates a delicate rose-pink dye.

California horsetail is lush and green but creates a delicate rose-pink dye.

“I was writing my book on natural dyestuffs (Harvesting Color: How To Find Plants and Make Natural Dyes),” she explained, “and I had to research how industrial dyeing was done.” She was horrified to learn that the commercial dyeing industry, which is largely based in Asia, commits polluting using chemicals that seriously harm human health. After agriculture, the textile industry is the #2 polluter of fresh water on the planet. And as the recent tragedy in Bangladesh shows, many textile workers work in horrible conditions.

Rebecca began considering the fact that although clothes are cheaper than they have ever been, their cost does not reflect the textile industry’s human and environmental harm.

Rebecca Burgess with a hand-knit sweater dyed with coffeeberry, holding skeins of naturally dyed handspun wool.

Rebecca Burgess with a hand-knit sweater dyed with coffeeberry, holding skeins of naturally dyed handspun wool.

There’s also economic harm. In 1965, 95% of the clothing in a typical American’s closet was made in the US. Today, less than 5% of our clothes are made here. Thousands of jobs have disappeared.

“My reaction was to use my skills and try to better the world through textiles,” Rebecca said. “While I was traveling around the country researching my book, I found that there were not only incredible sources of natural color but also incredible sources of fiber. There seemed to be people popping up everywhere raising sheep and goats, and I thought, isn’t it interesting that there is so much raw material, but we don’t see it manifested on the backs of any Americans.”

Fibers such as wool, angora and alpaca come in a wide range of beautiful colors. Certain cotton varieties offer a range of soft natural colors in addition to white. Flax has been used for millennia to make linen. Many common plants including Queen Anne’s lace, pokeberry and goldenrod can yield brilliant dyes. The continent abounds with fiber and color, if only we avail ourselves of it.

The common pokeweed plant yields a fine dye.

The common pokeweed plant yields a fine dye.

Clothing shares a similarity to food. There’s the junk-food option – conventional clothing made in Asia – and then there’s the healthy option of handmade clothes from locally grown fiber.

As a result of networking around the Bay Area for her 150 Mile Wardrobe, Rebecca and her friends organized the Fibershed. Like a watershed, the word covers everything from the raw fiber in the fields to the finished garment. It includes farmers, shearers, weavers and dyers, also tailors, seamstresses, knitters, crocheters and felters. Not everyone has a loom, but many people know how to sew, knit and crochet. The Bay Area Fibershed enabled interested people to come together and find others who could help them make their own clothing using local fibers.

Rebecca with a friendly alpaca, wearing a water-resistant coat she made by hand.

Rebecca with a friendly alpaca, wearing a water-resistant coat she made by hand.

Affiliate fibersheds soon appeared elsewhere on the West Coast and in Utah, Tennessee, Vermont and Massachusetts. The idea of local clothing using local fiber has spread steadily. Members of one Bloomington fiber group, the Rebel Weavers and Spinners, have taken on the challenge of weaving several garments each by spring of next year, at which time they hope to hold a public fashion show to draw attention to the idea of handmade clothing.

“In the 1800s, jeans and pants cost a week’s salary,” Rebecca reminded us. “In England, a nice dress before the Industrial Revolution cost a workingman’s annual salary. The numbers have gotten really skewed downward and are out of touch with reality. Technology has allowed us to bring the cost of clothes down, but I don’t know if that’s good.”

One of the many children’s groups that Rebecca has taught about weaving and dyeing, with their handiwork.

One of the many children’s groups that Rebecca has taught about weaving and dyeing, with their handiwork.

Her vision of a better garment industry is less technological, more human in scale, with sustainable processing and workers who receive decent wages. Artisans hold the key, she believes; we can offset industrial pollution and slavery by learning the skills to make our own clothes.

“Re-skilling is the way we gain appreciation for the true value of things,” she said. “Even if you only do it once, you gain an appreciation for the process itself. If you do use that process in your life – sewing, dyeing, spinning, weaving – you make a BIG statement to your friends, neighbors and family. If everyone begins doing basic mending and repairing, basic construction, basic knitting and weaving, it begins to get very inspiring. You saw it with local food and restaurants: one restaurant offers local food, then another, and it spreads. Clothes are contagious as well; you can really set a standard. Making beautiful things for yourself can really make a change.”

She summed up: “Plants keep growing, sheep keep breeding, the world doesn’t stop just because Wall Street lost a few points. We’ve turned the corner on food awareness, and I hope we can turn the corner on garment awareness as well.”

Learn more at http://www.fibershed.com/. Perhaps it’s time for an Indiana Fibershed!

[See previous blogs on this subject: https://housesandbooks.wordpress.com/2013/01/24/forming-a-fibershed/ and https://housesandbooks.wordpress.com/2013/02/16/a-slave-made-your-clothing-for-you/]

Also see my new fiber blog, http://fiberfeast.wordpress.com/.

Gandhi launched a revolution by spinning his own cotton. Can the simple colors of hand-dyed coreopsis do something similar?

Gandhi launched a revolution by spinning his own cotton. Can the simple colors of hand-dyed coreopsis do something similar?

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