Fibershed: a book review
by Andrea Caluori of Ashfield, MA
Over the last two decades interest in local food and how our food is grown has increased as we learn more about diverse agricultural practices and how they affect our health. So, as Rebecca Burgess proposes in her book Fibershed: Growing a Movement of Farmers, Fashion, Activists, and Makers for a New Textile Economy (Chelsea Green), isn’t it about time we start thinking about how our clothing is grown and affects our health?
As I began Burgess’ book, I started off with a few doubts. Despite the fact that I am an avid knitter and sewist with a penchant for natural fibers, I was still a little apprehensive about the book’s ideologies mostly because of cost. How could it be possible for the average person to truly curate a wardrobe of practical clothing essentials sourced from American and local farms without breaking the bank? How does fashion factor into my work as a farmer? I suppose the same concern came about when the local and organic food movement took off – yet here we are, with an increased demand and interest in supporting small-scale neighbor farmers growing produce in rural parts of the country with more affordable options offered through reduced cost CSA shares and agricultural non-profit programs. In my little sliver of the world (the hilltowns of western Massachusetts) it’s actually possible to source most of your food from area farms. I grow food, my neighbors grow food and I buy food grown by a farm less than 10 miles a way. I can’t say the same thing about clothing, however.
Yet again, as Burgess points out, clothing is an agricultural product. Something we have all actually forgotten. So much so that Burgess’ book starts off with the question, “What do clothes have to do with agriculture?” The answer? A lot.
“On average, over 80 percent of the cotton grown in the United States annually is genetically modified to withstand the use of a range of herbicides and pesticides, and less than 1 percent is certified organic.” Justifiably Burgess asks where is the discussion of how GMOs play a role in clothing and what of their impacts on biodiversity and the health of a landscape (6)? What exactly is the system and story that plays out in the manufacturing of a garment from the soil to consumer and how does it affect environmental and human health? These questions are the core of Burgess’ exploration and lay the foundation for the term fibershed. Defined as a “place-based textile system” similar to a local watershed or foodshed, a fibershed is “focused on the source of the raw material, the transparency with which it is converted into clothing, and the connectivity among all parts, from soil to skin and back to soil (7).”
Burgess begins to answer her questions by exploring the fiber farming process. In so doing, she determined her area’s fibershed by meeting with farmers growing the crops and raising the animals that create the foundation for her one year wardrobe project – for one year, the author only wore garments made from within a 150 mile radius of her home in Northern California. This challenge allowed her to explore the true cost of our clothes, the adverse health affects and the ethical implications of fast fashion consumption. It also gave her perspective on the importance of slow fashion, and thinking about clothing fashion not as a trend, but as a practice linked to agriculture, sustainability, and health. What are the ingredients behind our clothes, what dyes, chemicals and agricultural practices determine the materials we put on our largest organ: our skin?
The book’s various chapters cover a range of topics that deal with the environmental and ethical implications related to clothing manufacturing and how these issues are directly linked to human rights and sustainable agriculture. Where does your clothing come from? Who grew it? Who made it? How was it made? How was it grown? The cultural, historical and agricultural practices that define clothing span centuries, however once consumer-driven fast fashion took center-stage, fashion became more about trends and less about quality, functionality and support of the systems that encourage biodiversity and sustainability. Burgess takes a critical look at how the clothing industry churns out tremendous amounts of chemically-treated synthetics derived from oil. Upon learning the negative impacts of fast fashion, the author chooses to embrace a textile system based on natural and renewable resources rooted in the growing of plants such as cotton, flax and hemp and in the raising of animals such as sheep, goats, alpacas and other camelids. She explores the growing of these plant species and the raising of these animals in depth with detailed and careful consideration of systems in place that could help create a stronger and more resilient local textile system. She points out that these are clothes you can compost – clothes produced with the local environment in mind, dyed by plants, and sourced intentionally by small-scale farmers in her Northern California region.
Burgess beautifully weaves together a story of the textile arts and the agricultural systems that define cultural resilience – a rediscovery – of the art and science behind growing fibers in a way that sustains, nurtures and protects. Raw material handcrafted into functional expression of place; grown by the earth, mended when broken, composted when beyond repair. This is a system that replenishes resources, rather than confining them to a landfill somewhere.
So back to my initial doubts: I surely can’t afford a $150 organic cotton hoodie grown and dyed locally by my area farmer. But how can I redefine my vision of clothing the same way I see my food sourced? As Katrina Rodabaugh writes in her recently published book, Make Thrift Mend: Stitch, Patch, Darn, Plant-Dye & Love Your Wardrobe, you start with the wardrobe you have. Mend jeans when they rip, purchase second-hand clothing made of natural fibers, sew a garment or two each year from fabric such as hemp or flax. Purchase less and wear more. Inspired by Burgess’ book, I recently purchased a skein of yarn from Wing and Prayer Farm in Vermont. On the label, it lists the breeds of sheep from the farm that went into the yarn’s blend as well as the flowers and plants used to dye its color. This will be my new winter hat to wear when driving horses and milking goats. This way, I can start my own textile-based journey here in New England, one small garment, fiber, or farm at a time.
Fibershed: Growing a Movement of Farmers, Fashion, Activists, and Makers for a New Textile Economy ©2019 by Rebecca Burgess with Courtney White. 288 pages, full-color, Chelsea Green Publishing. ISBN 9781603586634