Fibershed: Growing a Movement of Farmers, Fashion Activists, and Makers for a New Textile Economy
By Rebecca Burgess with Courtney White
Chelsea Green Publishing
A few years ago, when I first became interested in self-sufficiency and growing my own food, I knew only one other person who called himself a homesteader. When he told me that he had sheep and that he and his wife planned to shear them, spin the wool and sew a suit, I thought he was a bit crazy. We lost touch, and I don’t know whether he ever made it happen. There are plenty of people with similar dreams who are putting them into practice, though. Rebecca Burgess is one of them. In Fibershed, she discusses the numerous human, animal and environmental health issues associated with the “second skin” we all wear.
The past decade has witnessed a resurgence of the idea that it’s important to know where our food comes from. Perhaps not as popularly acknowledged is the fact that our clothing doesn’t originate in The Gap or Amazon (the website). This is a historical anomaly: the inspiring Foxfire books describe people in the southern Appalachians who, as late as the early 1900s, produced almost all of their own clothing. In contrast, the average American today buys a new garment of some sort every five days, and almost no one makes their own clothes. Burgess notes, “Because we have been disconnected from the impacts our clothes have on land, air, water, labor, and our own human health for such a long time, we’ve been lulled into a passive, non-questioning state of being as consumers.” She aims to change this, leading readers toward a sartorial reconnection.
Burgess outlines several reasons why we should care where our clothes come from: our health, the environment and animal welfare. Add to that the labor conditions of many garment workers—though much better than at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, work standards are still horrendous in many parts of the world. Globally, textiles are a $1.3 trillion industry employing some three hundred million people. Burgess notes that “men, women, and children who work in the industry are exposed to much higher doses of carcinogenic, neurotoxic, and endocrine- and immune system-disrupting chemicals, and higher rates of colorectal, thyroid, testicular, bladder, and nasal cancer have been documented in textile workers.”
Clothes can have a direct impact on our health. For example, many undergarments are made from cotton. Given that cotton is not a crop that people usually eat, it is one of the most sprayed agricultural products in the world— grown on 3 percent of the world’s agricultural land but using 15 percent of the planet’s insecticides. (Humans do sometimes eat cottonseed oil, used to make Crisco—another great reason to eat grass-fed butter!) As a second example, clothing manufacturers use perfluorinated compounds to make stain-resistant and water-repellent garments; these compounds “have now bio-accumulated into wildlife and human bodies worldwide and are known to have toxic effects to immune, liver, and endocrine system function.” In addition, some of the most common compounds found in modern clothes are endocrine disruptors. Evidence is mounting that endocrine disrupters affect the health not just of the garment wearer but of that person’s children and grandchildren.
Burgess details other disturbing human health issues tied to what we wear, both in the main text and in a long appendix. It’s honestly quite depressing. Just look at the tags of the clothes in your closet. Besides the aforementioned issue with cotton, many modern clothes are made from nylon, acrylic or polyester, all of which are produced from petrochemicals. Polyester is in about 60 percent of today’s garments.
The environmental impact of the clothing industry is vast and incredibly toxic. Clothing made from oil-based synthetic fibers may take up to a hundred years to decompose. Most dyes are made synthetically from fossil fuels. Plastic microfibers from synthetic fibers end up in waterways. Says Burgess, “Two hundred thousand tons of dye are left unbound to textiles globally and are lost to effluent. When allowed to enter freshwater aquatic systems, these coloring agents cause oxygen deficiencies and can heavily impact drinking and irrigation water.”
Fortunately, Fibershed is more than just a description of textile industry ills. In an effort to come to a better personal understanding of the complexities of our modern clothing system, Burgess walks her talk: in 2010, she wore only locally grown and sewn clothing for the entire year, an experience that “transformed” her appreciation of her “fibershed”—which she defines as a local plant- and animal-centric textile system. As she reports, “Biosphere-based fibers such as flax, nettle, hemp, wool, milkweed, cashmere, angora and cotton are making a remarkable comeback, and awareness is being raised on the undeniable fact that the soil that feeds us is also the soil that clothes us.” One chapter describes regenerative farming methods of growing fiber.
Short of following Burgess’s “locally grown and sewn” example, what is the health-conscious consumer to do? Some steps in the right direction are actually pretty simple. Stop consuming so much “fast fashion”—buy high-quality clothes that will last a long time. Shop at thrift stores (is it just me, or do there seem to be more of these than a decade or two ago?). Use clothes until they fall apart (wash them less, too—modern detergents make them deteriorate faster); then use them as rags and recycle or compost them. These are concrete actions we can all take.
Changing the larger system will require a wholescale reformation. This movement is already underway with food—organics make up more and more of our groceries every year. However, this conversation has barely even started with textiles. Books like Fibershed are a first step toward informing public opinion. In addition, Burgess details how she and many others in northern California have formed associations of farmers, millers, weavers, activists and other interested parties to promote a local textile industry. Similar fibersheds have sprung up in dozens of other locations in the U.S. and across the world. 62
It’s clear that fibersheds are viable on a small scale and in agrarian, or at least semi-rural, regions. Are they practicable for a world in which half of the population—likely to increase to 70 percent this century—lives in urban areas? It’s quite difficult to even find organic clothing, and what is available is pricy. Nonetheless, Burgess remains optimistic: “In the span of a few short years, what had started as a personal experiment to see if I could thrive in a locally sourced wardrobe of natural fibers and dyes has blossomed into a hopeful, community-wide endeavor to revive and expand natural fiber and dye textile production in our fibershed.” Although I’m excited by Burgess’s vision, I have to admit that I’m not quite as sanguine about the possibilities of large-scale changes—at least in the short term. I look forward to someday raising sheep, growing flax, cultivating plants for dyes and working with my family to make at least some of our own garments. But making clothes at the home scale is never going to clothe the urban masses. Burgess rightly points out that regional fiber mills will need to be rebuilt if we hope to develop sustainable local textile industries.
I am optimistic that a niche market in affordable organic clothing will arise, perhaps starting with the undergarments that are in continual contact with our skin. Although only 2 percent of the clothes Americans wear are made domestically, a U.S.-based organic clothing industry might be feasible. Burgess documents how free-trade agreements and lower costs of production elsewhere drove “Big Textile” clothing manufacturing out of the U.S. decades ago to places where environmental and labor conditions were well below what we would consider tolerable here. NAFTA and other free-trade deals worked because we’re all greedy for inexpensive stuff, and technology enabled it. Ultimately, consumer demand is the key to rejuvenating a local fiber system. For the moment, the majority of people have little inkling or concern for how their clothes are produced, but Fibershed is one of a growing number of resources that is helping raise greater awareness. For this, it deserves a thumbs up.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2019