“My one year challenge is to live in clothes that are solely farmed, created, treated, and colored all within 150 miles of my front door,” Rebecca Burgess said in an interview last April.
Burgess is a textile artist living in Fairfax, California, a small town just north of San Francisco. Like most of the United States, her region has no textile industry. To meet her challenge, Burgess would need to find local cotton growers and sheep, goat, and alpaca farmers. She’d need to track down a local mill, something that used to be commonplace across the United States, but is now nearly extinct. And she’d need to design, knit, sew, and dye her own wares by hand or pay local artisans to do it for her.
Why would one woman undertake such a Herculean challenge?
Locavore was the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year for 2007. Across the country, people are challenging themselves to eat 100-mile diets, eschewing the tempting strawberries and tomatoes on supermarket shelves in January, and patronizing local farmers’ markets. The local foods movement is even transforming the mountains of Colorado where I grew up, a region where elevations reach 10,000 feet and the growing season is as short as 40 days.
But the sad reality is that most of us are shopping at those farmers’ markets or toiling in our backyard gardens wearing clothes that are anything but local. In 1965, 95% of our clothes were made in America. Today 97% are made overseas, often by garment workers laboring long hours in terrible conditions for little pay.
The textile industry is an environmental nightmare. Most of the clothes we wear are made from synthetic fibers, which are made from petrochemicals. They require massive amounts of energy to create and have huge carbon footprints. The chemicals used in their manufacturing pollute the air, soil and water. Even the natural fibers we don, like conventionally-grown cotton, require pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and huge amounts of water. And the vast majority of our clothes are colored with synthetic dyes made of highly toxic, often carcinogenic chemicals.
Burgess is half-way through her year-long project, which she calls the Fibershed Challenge. She’s been wearing locally-made clothes since June. Her wardrobe started with just a shirt and a pair of pants. “There were some interesting sensory moments when the clothes were being washed– realizing that without those garments– there was just me and my skin. I didn’t think of the necessity of my clothes, until I didn’t have them,” she wrote on her blog. By September, Burgess had eight garments, which you can see here:
Burgess estimates that her wardrobe for the year will cost $2,000. Of course, most of us don’t spend anywhere near that much on clothes in a year, nor could we afford to. However, Burgess hopes her project will inspire people to think more about the ecological and human costs of inexpensive clothes. Moreover she wants to inspire new business models that could eventually bring down the price of locally-sourced, sustainably-produced clothing.
She hopes people will start asking, “Hey, we don’t have a cotton mill? This is awful. What’s happening? Why can’t our small farmers grow cotton and have it milled? … Or, we have all these mulberry trees. we could feed silkworms like crazy. Why aren’t we producing our own silk? … Or, there’s no naturally produced color in this country?” she told Jill Cloutier of Sustainable World Radio. Burgess points out that in her county, ranchers raising sheep for meat compost or throw away up to 20,000 pounds of wool fleeces each year, because nobody is currently processing the material in the region.
“My prayer is that people will see this as a way to give people real jobs again, and to clothe us in a way that’s non-toxic, and that we don’t keep off-shoring misery to people trying to keep up with our consumption. The transition could be beautiful.”
You can keep up with Burgess’ year of dressing locally on the Fibershed Challenge blog. If you start at the beginning, you can take a tour (beautifully documented with photographs by Paige Green) of an organic cotton farm, a small mill, and a suburban homestead sheep farm. You can discover the community of designers, farmers, ranchers, natural dyers, and ethnobotanists that Burgess found just outside her front door, and follow them as they plant indigo, knit and sew clothes, tan skins using Native American techniques, design a wardrobe, felt wool, and dye fabric with plants and seawater.
And if you’re inspired by Burgess to change the way you dress, she pointed out in an interview that we can all do some small things to make our wardrobe more sustainable. She suggests starting with the following:
- Recycle textiles through your community. Stop thinking of clothes as something you constantly consume. Buy durable, well-made garments, and join a clothing swap to trade with others.
- Re-skill yourself. Take a knitting, sewing, weaving, or natural dyes class. Burgess insists you’ll never look at clothes the same way.
- Support a local fiber producer. Buy yarn from a provider at your local farmer’s market, if available. If you can’t knit, stop into a local knitting store and ask if someone would be willing to knit you a piece. Burgess bets you’ll find dozens of local knitters eager to be of service.
What do you think of Rebecca Burgess’s Fibershed Challenge? Do you own any locally-made clothes? Do you knit, sew, weave, or dye? I’d love to hear about it.