Slow Fashion Citizen: Rebecca Burgess & Fibershed

BY KATRINA RODABAUGH // Sometimes individual contributions to the slow fashion movement result in larger systems thinking, advocacy, and even establishing a nonprofit organization to better support this work. As was the case when Fibershed founder Rebecca Burgess embarked on a local wardrobe project aiming to source her clothing from a 150-mile radius that would become the seeds of launching the now internationally recognized Fibershed. I’m fortunate enough to have met the small staff behind this massive effort and I’m thrilled to share the story of the organization — and its creation by natural dyer, author, and leader Rebecca Burgess.

As the slow fashion movement gains momentum, expands to include multiple voices, priorities, practices and professions, it’s thrilling to see an organization like Fibershed support these efforts through various programs and projects. I’ve been eyeing the biannual fashion shows and annual symposium, and each newsletter — spotlighting a new initiative or highlighting a new member — is like a mini course in sustainable fiber farming. I’m grateful for the sharing of knowledge every time.

But mostly, Fibershed is a great reminder that a group of focused and committed citizens can absolutely spark and sustain change, and sometimes two of the most important things we can do as concerned citizens are to better educate our selves and to support the tremendous efforts of the organizers forging the way. I applaud the efforts of this incredible organization in so many ways. Welcome, Fibershed—

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Fibershed is such a hub and an incredible advocate in the sustainable fashion movement. How do you describe the organization and its work?

A fibershed is a strategic geography, akin to a watershed that traces how tributaries flow into streams and lakes in a hydrological system, or how a foodshed describes the movement from farm to table. By defining our natural textile resource base we begin to understand the people, processes and places that contribute to our clothing and shelter, from soil to skin, in our home region.

As a non-profit organization, Fibershed works to advance bioregional fiber systems that build healthy soil, sustainable livelihoods, and account for the true cost of textiles. We do this through public education, research and prototyping on “soil to soil” goods and garments, and cultivating economic and social connections between urban and rural communities. The Northern California Fibershed is our home base, where we organize an active Producer membership of nearly 150 farmers, shearers, spinners, weavers, knitters, designers, manufacturers; we host an annual Wool & Fine Fiber Symposium to cross-pollinate educational resources and hands-on skills; we support a biannual fashion show including this past September’s Climate Beneficial Fashion Gala; and we loft supply chain collaborations that strengthen our regional fiber system, such as the Community Supported Cloth program.

Engaging with our fibershed fosters a systems-thinking approach; we like to think that in the Northern California Fibershed we are putting forth a new approach to decentralized textiles – bringing production back home and drawing on ancient technologies while being firmly rooted in the place, context and community of today. We are honored to support a grassroots network of over 50 Fibershed Affiliate communities around the world, who share these values and are self-organizing and adapting this approach to revitalize their regional fiber system.

Fibershed grew out of your founder, Rebecca Burgess, launching a project to dress locally — within 150 miles of where she was living. Did the project bring the awareness of the need to organize and create systems within slow fashion or was she interested in launching an organization before she started?

The 150-mile wardrobe began as a personal project – a challenge to truly embody a fossil-fuel-free closet with known origins and really rely on one’s community. The wardrobe was a functional experiment in that Rebecca wore it for 18 months or so, but really it was a catalyst for building community through the collaborations that resulted in clothing: taking California College of the Arts students to meet the farmers and sheep as a source material for a design, learning the history of naturally colored cotton breeding from Sally Fox, and sharing feedback from knitters with fiber producers and mills to make softer and more consistent yarns.

Community members who gathered together through and for the 150-mile wardrobe hatched the mission of the organization to continue to grow this work, and Fibershed became a 501(c)3 non-profit in 2013. Although it wasn’t a premeditated trajectory, the challenge of dressing locally served in a way as the initial needs assessment for organizing Fibershed, by tracing the supply chain from soil to skin and asking questions like “Who grows or raises fiber? Where can it be milled? How and where and by whom does it transform into clothing?”

Slow Fashion Citizen: Rebecca Burgess & Fibershed

I’m in such awe of the work that Fibershed creates from beautiful newsletters, annual events and member spotlights, to national organizing, and constantly forging new pathways for farmers, textile mills, and producers of sustainable cotton, hemp, and wool. Can you tell us about the vision for the future of Fibershed? What’s the dream for, say, 5-10 years?

First of all – thank you! We truly appreciate your kind words and support. The strength of our work speaks to the incredible talent, skill and vision of our community, from our Producer members to the affiliated Fibersheds around the world, and the many individual supporters who share with us the ways they are engaging with their regional fiber system.

Our dreams for the immediate future center around doing all that we can to support the stabilization of our climate and the nourishment of right livelihoods. There’s a very exciting and tangible way that we can reverse the effects of climate change: by supporting the drawdown of carbon from the atmosphere and into the soil through a variety of techniques called Carbon Farming. These practices — like cover cropping, rotational grazing, planting a windbreak, or applying compost to rangelands — can be implemented at any scale of agriculture, from a homestead to vast ranch, and with proper planning we can actually measure the carbon sequestration and soil health benefits.

Climate Beneficial materials are those raw fibers and even dyestuffs that are raised in a Carbon Farming system, and by adding a small price premium to those goods, we can pool funding for land managers to cover the costs of these practices. This means that brands and consumers alike have a direct role to play in supporting and scaling Climate Beneficial Wool and supply chains.

California is also supporting Carbon Farming at the state level with the Healthy Soils Initiative launching this year, which will support more farmers in adopting and measuring their positive climate impact.

Scaling this work will take greater attention from all angles: land managers identifying potential Carbon Farming practices, brands designing with and investing in Climate Beneficial materials, consumers affirming these decisions and asking for more Climate Beneficial goods, government agencies like Resource Conservation Districts as well as non-governmental partners providing technical support, and communities working to weave these pieces together in their home region.

Along with the rapid adoption of Climate Beneficial fiber systems, we envision a near future of resilient, decentralized textile systems, where fossil fuel reliance in the form of synthetic dyes and long-distance transportation is replaced with local infrastructure that values the natural hues of fibers complemented by colors from organic (fresh carbon) sources. This is a paradigm shift calling on investors to recognize and fund economic actors who play a vital role in supply chains – our mills, manufacturers, and small businesses – coupled with a cultural transformation as we place value on the textile materials that are already in circulation and consciously add to our wardrobes to build the future of our fibershed.

There’s such a range of specialties to consider in slow fashion, from farming, mills, weaving, dyeing, pattern design, construction, distribution and retail, to the life of clothing in and after our closets. Fibershed focuses on the beginning of this process from fiber farms to sustainable designers but how do you research the processes at each stage to better support the systems?

Our work evolves out of needs assessments, through listening and responding to the Fibershed community. It’s really about tapping into the fiber system and the wealth of knowledge that is contained on the landscape and in our network. For instance, an early Fibershed Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) of the ecosystem footprint of clothing was created in partnership with Dr. Marcia DeLonge of UC Berkeley. Technical partnerships with researchers in formal institutions as well as those who are experienced in the field form the backbone of our research.

In the case of hemp research, we are fortunate to work alongside agricultural and mechanical partners in Kentucky, Colorado, North Carolina, Minnesota and Nebraska. Everyone is bringing skill and dedication to the table, and together we are prototyping and refining these blended textiles: gathering data from field tests, exchanging feedback on fiber softening, sharing yarn blends with local partners, and communicating the results.

So much of our work hinges on connectivity. Harkening back to the 150-mile wardrobe, where the supply chain stakeholders were literally connected to form clothing, our research now involves drawing together collaborators and open-sourcing our work to proliferate collaborations. With textile systems there can be so many gaps in any one body of knowledge – fashion designers receive incredible training without ever learning what it takes to produce cotton or how polyester is made, or fiber producers with a wealth of information about grazing their animals but little understanding what weavers look for in a yarn – we support regional, regenerative fiber systems simply by bringing people together to bridge these gaps.

Slow Fashion Citizen: Rebecca Burgess & Fibershed

If you could ask Slow Fashion advocates — the makers, artists, designers, consumers and other folks really looking to be active in this movement — to do just one specific thing to support regenerative fashion, what is that one thing that we might be overlooking?

There is so much talent and inspiration in this movement, and the diversity of activities and approaches is what makes it so strong. When it comes to regenerative fashion, or engaging with your fibershed, it’s hard to prescribe one pathway to recommend across geographies and economies.

The one thing we can (and should) all do to be active in this movement is to identify what you can contribute to your regional fiber system. As mentioned above, these forms of research, economic models and educational resources are created by connecting community members – to get involved in your local fiber community, we should consider what kind of skill or resource exchange we can offer.

Perhaps that takes the form of contributing by investing in local fiber through buying supplies for your next project from a nearby farm or mill, or maybe it means writing or photographing stories from your fiber system to raise awareness.

We can all start by identifying what we’re able to offer, and reaching out to understand what our community needs. Within the soil to soil circular system, there are so many access points to take part in growing a resilient and regenerative fiber system.

Lastly, what project of Fibershed’s are you the most excited about right now? I’m swooning over the reintroduction of hemp, climate beneficial wool, and also the fashion show you just hosted in California. I know it’s so hard to choose, but what currently has your heartstrings?

The annual Wool Symposium is just around the corner and absolutely has our hearts this year – it’s our “keystone” to connect to and with community, to frame the work that we’re supporting and moving forward. This year’s theme is Nature’s Resilience: illuminating the cycles and processes that clothe us, and we are exploring that through panels and presentations that touch on some of the most pressing negative impacts of the fashion industry, and shed light on examples of projects and paths that ameliorate or internalize these costs. It’s a rich day of educational exchange and a way of roadmapping a way forward for our community.

The Symposium is November 11th from 9:30 to 5 at the Dance Palace in Point Reyes Station — a gorgeous place to spend a Saturday. The programming will also be broadcast live from our website so that anyone can tune in for free; afterward, we make the video recordings available on our site too.

Another component we get excited about each year is the hands-on demonstrations and marketplace at the Symposium: for two hours in the middle of the day, the grounds of the Dance Palace showcase elements of the value chain from soil to skin, including sheep shearing, spinning, weaving, felting and more. This year we’ll have a mending circle, and specialty fiber activities like angora shearing, flax processing, and a heritage breed sheep display.

The demonstrations and marketplace are free and open to the public, and offer the best opportunity to get to know your fiber farmer, clothing designer, natural dyer, yarn producer — the people who provide for our essential need to clothe ourselves. The marketplace is open throughout the day to connect with and support the small businesses of our fibershed, who come from nearby and farther reaches. In the wake of the recent North Bay wildfires, it feels restorative and hopeful to host a communal gathering in support of one another and the landscape that sustains us.

Slow Fashion Citizen: Rebecca Burgess & Fibershed

Katrina Rodabaugh is an author, artist and slow-fashion advocate. Visit her website www.katrinarodabaugh.com or follow her on Instagram at @katrinarodabaugh

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PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion Citizen: Jen Hewett

Photos by Paige Green Photography, courtesy of Fibershed

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8 thoughts on “Slow Fashion Citizen: Rebecca Burgess & Fibershed

  1. This post brings into question the relevance of international cooperation when it comes to fibre and textiles. I live on the north shore of Lake Ontario, in southern Canada, where our climate imposes limits on what sorts of textile products can be grown and produced. In fact, New York State and New England are closer to me geographically than much of Canada, yet I cannot access American fibre without paying enormous taxes and duties when it crosses the border. I won’t even get into the cost of shipping, which is also very high here. I lived in Washington, DC for 16 years as the spouse of an IMF/World Bank economist, so we have lots of discussions around our dinner table about these issues. Let’s hope NAFTA can be updated, not scrapped!

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    • Wonderful thoughts. Yes, California is an exceptional climate for agriculture. Fibershed does have affiliate fiber farmers across the country, and even some international affiliate, I think. Of course, each climate has specific needs and I think it’s most important we just do the best we can with what we have, where we are. Sometimes just the awareness of sustainable fashion can bring very important shifts in our consumption or habits. Certainly not one size fits all! Thanks for your thoughts.

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  2. Oh, so grateful to see this truly inspiring organization showcased so beautifully. The way our Fibreshed has developed and grown into a thriving little hub is such a testament to the dedication, joy and incredibly hard work of Rebecca and her allies. We are truly blessed to have them as neighbors here in Northern California. Brava Fibreshed!!!!

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  3. Like emccarten, I live in a northern climate, colder than hers. Other than animal fibers, wearable fibers grown within 150 miles of my home are pretty much non existent. We have an embryonic fiber shed here, but the resources of California can never be matched by many of us. It is often frustrating, and…although not part of yesterday’s article…sometimes feels shaming to those of us with different resources to have the Califronia way of life held forth as this kind of an exemplar. (Alice Waters often comes to mind). We each have to live sustainably in our own way, adapted to the climate we live in, and the time we have to give to it.

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    • Absolutely agreed. Thanks for your thoughts. California has an exceptional climate for agriculture and farming. We all have to work within our means. But I do appreciate the Fibershed support systems and the affiliate programs with farmers across the country. That said, I absolutely agree with you that we each have to adapt sustainable choices to our location, lifestyle, budgets, aesthetics, and more. Thanks for your comments.

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  4. Pingback: Slow Fashion Citizen: Jerome Sevilla | Fringe Association

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