Posted 10 September 2011, by Esha Chhabra (Special to The Chronicle), SFGate (San Francisco Chronicle), sfgate.com
When textile artist Rebecca Burgess embarked on a challenge to wear only clothes that were 100 percent locally sourced for one year, she found herself dressing in one outfit for three weeks.
Her Fibershed Project, as it was named, began gaining momentum in spring 2010 with the support of a grassroots fundraising campaign that drummed up $10,000. Pieces began trickling in that summer, allowing Burgess to officially start the nonprofit effort last September. By then, more than three dozen farmers and designers had agreed to design pieces for her yearlong wardrobe of bioregional clothing.
Burgess was determined to pay farmers, mills, pattern-makers and others fairly for providing garments made, start-to-finish, within 150 miles of her home in Marin County. The goal: to illustrate that regional, organic clothing is still possible in today’s globalized climate.
“For three months, I would tell designers, ‘Please give me sleeves. I wish I had sleeves,’ because it was beginning to get cold,” Burgess said with a laugh, as she tended to indigo plants on her small farm in Lagunitas recently. “There was a time when I just had one outfit, and at that point, I had to ask myself, ‘Is this going to work?’ “
Burgess began with a team of about 40 people, including farmers, designers, seamstresses and volunteers. By the end of the year, she had three times as many folks working with her.
Now they’re building an online Fibershed Marketplace – set to go live this month – where shoppers will be able to purchase fibers, cotton and dyes from within that 150-mile radius.
Prior to Fibershed, Burgess spent more than two years researching bioregional dyes throughout the country. Her work appeared in an internationally circulated book, “Print and Production Finishes for Sustainable Design,” and most recently in her own book, “Harvesting Color.” She also works with Santa Rosa’s Post Carbon Institute, developing curriculum. She has coupled her artistry with an environmental philosophy that calls for not only a resurgence of local craftsmanship but also a reduction of the carbon footprint in the textile industry.
In her blog, Burgess often marks the carbon footprint for the pieces produced for her. For instance, a pair of organic cotton fleece pants, sourced by a local cotton farm and crafted by Thara Srinivasan, a UC Berkeley scientist with an interest in sewing, has a carbon footprint of approximately 5 miles of driving.
But Burgess believes the project has the capacity to have a broader impact than just being environmentally savvy: It can help revive local economies.
Her neighborhood of West Marin, for example, has a 13 percent unemployment rate. By bringing production back to the community, the local economy is likely to benefit, she said.
For instance, she recently hired an out-of-work neighbor to help tend her small indigo farm, which she started a year ago to produce organic natural dyes for her clothing. Demand for the indigo dye has increased in the past year, and if this trend continues, she will need more hands to help.
Then there’s Sally Fox, who resides on an organic cotton farm in Guinda (Yolo County).
“If she hires just even a few more people to help on the mill, say four or five,” Burgess said, that’s a significant boost. “Those are rural jobs. But even in urban areas, the designers have been so inspired by the materials that we’re seeing little small businesses starting, specializing in this.”
Fox, who has been growing organic, naturally colored cotton for more than 25 years, accepted Burgess’ request to contribute to the Fibershed project a year ago and is now working with her to develop a line of denims. Fox, though, embodies what has happened to American textiles as a result of foreign imports and cheap labor.
“My dream is to have a mill on the farm. But right now most of the mills left in the country are research mills because of their size. They’re not production mills. But maybe one day,” Fox said.
Burgess’ denim project, an effort to create everyday wearable jeans from Fox’s organic cotton, is under development and will help determine whether there is enough interest in bioregional clothing.
There is already significant commercial interest in the Fibershed project, but Burgess is focusing on smaller quantities of high-quality artisan products from local designers.
Sustainability is key
After all, sustainability and community are at the center of the Fibershed model: adjusting profit margins to account for the artisan work of the farm and the designer, eliminating waste and excess transportation costs, reconnecting farmers with local designers and experimenting with natural fabrics to avoid polluting waters with chemical dyes.
“This is what we talk about when we say community-building. It’s more than just a few local meals together. It’s about shifting the whole material culture. There’s a sweet intimacy between me and my community,” Burgess said. “They’re responsible for my well-being and I’m responsible for theirs.”
Read more about Fibershed at fibershed.wordpress.com.
E-mail the writer at email@example.com.
(Ed Note: Please visit the original site for another photograph associated with this article. As well, the website Rethink Social has re-posted this article with another, different, photograph from The Fibershed Project.)