Fibersheds: Regional Textile Systems

Reader Contribution by Cindy Conner and Homeplace Earth

Food, clothing, and shelter are the three basic necessities of living. Sustainable food and shelter seem to get a lot of attention these days, but not so much for clothing. Unless you live in a nudist colony, you wear clothes every day. The choices you make when acquiring clothing support the textile system that made it available. Even if you buy used clothing, ultimately you are still supporting the system that produced it, but that’s another story.

What is a Fibershed?

Unfortunately, the textile industry could use an overhaul to make it friendlier to the environment and to provide better working conditions to its workers. We need to ask how the land and the workers that produced this clothing are compensated for their efforts when we spend our money, because each dollar spent is a vote for how we want our clothes produced.

In the above photo, you see my homegrown, handspun, handwoven, naturally-colored cotton vest with a shirt I made and dyed with black walnuts. I already had the skills to grow and sew the cotton for the vest and to sew the shirt. I had to learn to spin, weave, and work with natural dyes to complete the vest and shirt. It has been a fun journey, but to clothe a whole society I realize it is not realistic to expect it all to be done in the home. You can learn more about my fiber journey and purchases of fabric that I didn’t produce myself at Homeplace Earth.

How Big is Your Fibershed?

In 2010, Rebecca Burgess formed the nonprofit organization Fibershed. She was concerned about where her clothes came from and set out to see if she could develop a wardrobe that came from within 150 miles from her home. She didn’t go it alone; she had friends to help her. Fibershed has since moved on to more projects that you may be interested in. It takes a lot to transform an industry, or to build a new one from the ground up, but you have to start somewhere.

Just as you may have stopped buying prepared food in favor of cooking and maybe growing your own, you can work to move your textile consumption to a more local and/or sustainable level. Start asking where your clothes come from. How big is your fibershed?

Even if we could produce enough cotton, wool, and flax for linen in our regions, there are not enough textile mills to take it from fiber to cloth and on to garment. If you have a small flock of sheep you can send your fleeces off to wool mills to be cleaned and spun into yarn. However, if you have cotton from your own field, you would be hard-put to find somewhere to send it to get ginned (seeds removed) and spun into fiber. Not a problem if you are doing it all yourself for your own family’s consumption, but to clothe a society we have to think bigger.

Take Back Your Textiles (System)

There are many opportunities open to those who want to help develop regional fiber systems. Burgess’ Fibershed is taking the lead to identify the opportunities and to promote regional textile systems. Maybe you will find a niche in there that you can fill. I know two people who have ginned their own cotton, but cannot find a processor to spin it into fiber. Fibersheds developed to handle the needs of each region — wouldn’t that be great?

Cindy Conner is the author of Seed Libraries and Grow a Sustainable Diet and has produced DVDs about garden planning and managing cover crops with hand tools. Learn more about what she is up to at Homeplace Earth. Read all of Cindy’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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