Here in the Bay Area, it’s all about going local. Especially when it comes to food. But what about other things in our lives? Like what we wear, for example? The fact is, few of us know exactly what goes into making our clothes, the chemicals, fibers, and dyes. But one Bay Area woman, Rebecca Burgess, is determined to take Localism to her wardrobe and has set out to live a year wearing clothes made completely within 150 miles from her home in Marin County. And for each article of clothing Burgess wears, she knows where the animals were raised, or where the cotton was grown, what plants were used to give it color, and who designed, knit, wove, and sewed it.
“So this is my coffee berry sweater which is hand-spun wool from the Chileno Valley and also the Redwood Valley in Mendocino,” says Rebecca Burgess, a natural dyer and the author of the book, Harvesting Color.
Burgess is also the creator of a project called Fibershed. It’s sort of like the concept of a watershed or a foodshed. According to Burgess, it’s an awareness of where one’s clothing comes from. So, for one year, Burgess has pledged to wear clothes made from materials and labor all sourced near her home in Marin County. She’s assembled a team to help her accomplish a pretty radical goal.
“We are going to be going from seed to skin,” she says.
What does that mean exactly? Well, now eight months into her Fibershed wardrobe challenge, Burgess’ home has transformed into what could be a museum exhibit for natural dyes and fibers. There are baskets and wood bowls dappling her living room filled with balls of hand-spun and hand-dyed yarns. They’re all slightly different shades of rich earth tones. The labels read like poems: “Sky Blue, Indigo, Winter Fermentation, Gray-Brown, Staghorn Sumac, Iron Mordant, and Fall.”
For each article of clothing Burgess wears, she knows where the animals were raised, or where the cotton was grown, what plants were used to give it color, and who designed, knit, wove, and sewed it.
“My socks were made from Windrush Farms,” she says. “My skirt is a color-grown organic cotton from Sally Fox’s farm in the Capay Valley.”
Burgess now has about 18 garments in her personal Fibershed wardrobe (including the socks and underwear). So, right now you might be thinking what many of Burgess’ critics say when they first hear about her Fibershed wardrobe: that no one else can do it.
“But then I remind them that it was only 100 years ago maybe even 200 years ago, and to this day in many places in Asia, and some places in Central Asia, and even parts of Europe people are living in Fibersheds,” Burgess explains.
It wasn’t just homegrown aesthetics or a nostalgia for the simple life that led Burgess to take on this project. She saw two pieces of a puzzle that needed connecting—a wealth of local resources and a lack of jobs in her community.
“We’re importing wool from China and we’re throwing it away in our own communities,” she says. “Why don’t we have a freaking mill where people could be employed? There’s tons of fiber here! I won’t even explore it all in this year. We have a ton of sheep raised for meat. And they’re getting sheared but very little of their wool is getting dealt with or manipulated. 22,000 pounds is discarded in my county annually.”
And beyond the raw materials, there is the dying process that takes place almost exclusively overseas. So Burgess traveled to Southeast Asia to see how denim, for example, is dyed to make our blue jeans blue.
“Two hundred eight five million of our jeans in the United States are produced annually in the tributaries of the Pearl River in China,” she says.
In her research, Burgess has found that synthetic chemical dyes are one of the top polluters of freshwater resources on our planet.
“And I saw a lot of it first-hand,” she says. “I’d go to a remote village on the border of Thailand and Vietnam. There were women growing indigo, growing cotton, processing all of their own fibers, spinning them, carding, weaving, dying them, and then wearing those clothes. And all of that was happening within a 20-mile radius of the teak hut that they were living in.”
This is the kind of model Burgess wants to replicate here.
“There’s 2,000 synthetic chemicals that are listed, synthetic meaning these are not naturally occurring substances, that are associated with finishing a garment,” she says. “Formaldehyde and flame retardants are most famous and infamous and there are studies on those. What goes in the body is such an awareness we carry. But what’s on the body, worn on it, what’s absorbed by it is somehow missing in action. The research is not available, the awareness isn’t there, the dots have not connected in our brains yet.”
Burgess intends to create an alternative to the more harmful synthetic blues that you commonly find in blue jeans. She’s starting her own one-acre indigo plant farm this year. And it fits into her bigger vision of building a sustainable clothing system that will last beyond the year of her experiment. But to do that, she’ll have to build a mill, because there are actually zero cotton mills in this area. And just one for wool.
“So, in response to that, it was like if it has to happen, it has to happen,” she says. “And I’ll do whatever I can to help make that happen.”
Sounds radical, yes, but at one point, maybe so did the idea of “Farm to Fork.” So why not “Seed to Skin”? At least Burgess is trying it out where radical ideas these tend to take root.
This story has previously aired on Crosscurrents.