One Fibershed Revolution Begins, at Praxis
I never really thought much about the origins of my clothes or the materials with which they were made. I’ve usually reserved that kind of awareness for food. I pick locally-grown, ideally organic produce at Heinen’s or Whole Foods. I like knowing I’m supporting a local farmer who is trying to do the right thing environmentally. I appreciate restaurants that partner with local farmers or food producers. I’m not alone in this. The farm-to-table movement that got its start in California in the 1970s is no longer countercultural. It’s mainstream.
Now, a similar movement, also out of California, is making me think the same way about clothing. I call it “farm-to-closet-to-compost,” clothing and textiles made out of local, natural—and, therefore, biodegradable—fiber, processed and made by local labor, sold at local stores and, when worn to pieces, returned to the soil to begin this chain of relationships anew.
Rebecca Burgess calls an area where locally-sourced clothing is produced a “fibershed.” She coined the term. She uses it to describe a bioregional economic network of fiber farmers, mills, spinners, dyers, weavers, knitters and other fiber enthusiasts, including consumers. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a weaver and natural dyer, and the founder and executive director of an organization that takes the term as its name.
The organization Fibershed fosters these networks. It has a Northern California Fibershed Producer Program, with one hundred and seventy members across fifty-one counties in the northern and central regions of the state.
“Why not regionalize these parts of the economy and allow our fiber culture to return to something local? Take more responsibility for ourselves in the world and create relationships in the process,” Burgess said in an address to alpaca and sheep farmers last summer. She was the keynote speaker at the third annual Natural Fiber Extravaganza in Tennessee.
By responsibility, Burgess meant reducing our reliance on clothes spun out of petroleum and manufactured overseas. The textile industry is one of the world’s biggest polluters, leaning heavily on synthetic dyes and plastic fibers, like polyester and Lycra, that linger in the environment for decades. China is tops in making and exporting clothes, comprising fifty-two percent of the world’s garment production. By some estimates, only two percent of Americans’ clothes are made in the United States.
The coronavirus pandemic, two years strong and counting, has highlighted just how vulnerable American consumers are when the things we need must be shipped to us from half a world away.
“In 2020, ‘Oh my goodness, the global economy can be turned off overnight!’ Supply chains get broken,” said JC Christiansen. He and his family used to own and operate a mini-mill near Wooster, in Northeast Ohio’s Amish Country. Christiansen ran the spinning machine. “People are waking up to the reality that, like, what if it happens again? What if it’s worse than the first time? We don’t really have a local economy.”
For Burgess, fibersheds offer a way to address that imbalance, if only a little.
“It is in the nexus of all these skills that we can start distilling clothing, textiles, durable goods, children’s toys—we can redefine material culture that is climate-benefitting, local, more beautiful and unique,” she said in her presentation. “There are a ton of hurdles, of course, to manifest this.”
Rust Belt Fibershed, founded in Cleveland by twin sisters Sarah Pottle and Jess Boeke, brings Burgess’ vision to Northeast Ohio. The group’s focus is on organizing the fiber assets within a two-hundred-and-fifty-mile radius of Cleveland. That includes western New York and Pennsylvania, Toledo and parts of southern Michigan, Columbus and Cincinnati.
Boeke sees it as more than just community-building.
“Can we pull together and localize an industry here?” she said.
I learned of Rust Belt Fibershed through its collaboration with Praxis Fiber Workshop on a “One Year One Outfit” challenge to raise awareness about local textile resources. Participants were charged with making an outfit using natural fibers and dyes sourced within the fibershed. The finished pieces were displayed at Praxis, on Cleveland’s East Side. The exhibit closed in January.
Participant Margaret Sankey, of Lake County, said the idea of making Cleveland an “eco-fashion capital” fired her imagination.
“There used to be a garment industry, you know?” she said. “It just makes me so excited about making clothes here and starting something.”
RBF currently has twenty-two producer members, including Sunnimoor Alpaca Farm in Newbury, in Geauga County; Frayed Knot Farm, also in Newbury, which grows flowers and flax; and Mitchell Wool Co. in Dryden, Michigan. Boeke said they seek collaborators committed to using regenerative farming practices, “to not extract without replacing.”
There are also two mini-mills in the Rust Belt Fibershed producer network. Neither of them are near Cleveland. Ohio Valley Farm and Fiber Mill is near Cincinnati, and America’s Natural Fiberworks is near Dayton. Northeast Ohio does not have any mini-mills, not since Christiansen moved Morning Star Fiber to North Carolina in 2015.
The two mills may be in our fibershed, but the lack of one in the Cleveland area is a problem. It undercuts the movement’s stated goal of sustainability. Without a high-quality mill nearby, alpaca and sheep farmers must ship their fiber hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of miles away to get processed.
America’s Natural Fiberworks draws clients from forty-two states. When I visited last June, the mill’s receiving area had bags of sheep and alpaca fleeces from nearby farms, but also dozens of boxes of fiber from Arkansas, Missouri and Colorado.
“We have just been inundated with fiber,” said Carrie Davis, who, with her husband Robbie, owns and operates the mill. “I don’t know, COVID? We never got caught up. And we worked all through it.”
She estimated there was enough fiber in-house to keep them busy for a year.
This is not unusual for mini-mills. Farmers typically wait six to eight months to get their yarn. There are many reasons for this. One is size. Mini-mills are not designed to push through large volumes of fiber. Another is the variety of clients this cottage industry serves. The Davises process not only alpaca and sheep fibers, but yak, bunny, and even Persian cat.
“The big commercial mills, they’ve got everything sorted and graded,” said Robbie Davis. “As you’ve seen, we do all these blends; everything is different. Everybody’s dirt comes in different. Everybody’s fiber is different. There comes a time when I have to give up quality for quantity, and we’re just not willing to do that.”
And then there is the issue of numbers. There are an estimated 140 mini-mills in the US. The backlogs at these mills would suggest there is room for more. Carrie Davis said the nature of the work may be deterring more people from entering the industry.
“It is a huge learning curve,” she said. “This is a factory job. You’re on your feet ten, twelve hours a day, sometimes more until you’re getting it.”
The physical demands of the work were one of the reasons JC Christiansen got out of the mini-mill business three years after moving Morning Star Fiber from Ohio to North Carolina.
“The death blow was old football injuries,” he said. “I’d work an hour-and-a-half, then lay down thirty minutes until the pain subsided.”
At the heart of the fibershed story, then, is a decades-old one about the declining role of manufacturing in the American economy.
“I don’t see a reinvestment in rural economics around any milling while also protecting labor and the environment,” Burgess told me. “To have that trifecta, we have to be willing to have deep conversations about how much we need, how much we are willing to pay, and what kind of lifestyle we want to support. We need a revolution in values.”
That revolution begins—like a working, vibrant fibershed does—at the grassroots. It begins with each of us becoming more aware of where our clothes come from and what they’re made of, and giving these considerations as much weight as price and style. Learning about Rust Belt Fibershed and its principles and goals have started that revolution in me.
Amy Eddings is the local host of All Things Considered, NPR’s news and public affairs program broadcast in Cleveland on Ideastream.