You know the drill. You go to a store, maybe Forever 21 or Target, only to be confronted with a hundred different T-shirts, in every shape and color. It seems so easy. Pick out a shirt, plunk down $10, take it home, wear it a few times, and when the threads start unraveling, toss it out and buy another one.
Recent tragedies at Bangladesh clothing factories? Chinese rivers overflowing with toxic runoff from industrial garment factories? You push these images out of your mind as you leave the store, even while knowing that somewhere in the Third World, there are real environmental and human costs to your new cheap T-shirt.
Rebecca Burgess didn't push it out of her mind. Instead, she envisioned an alternative, and now heads a national network of localized farmers, textile makers and clothing producers who sell clothes not only made entirely in the United States, from sheep shearing to sweater knitting, but in one's own local region.
Burgess calls it Fibershed. Just about everybody else calls it an idea whose time has come.
Or, if you will, a time that has come and gone. Just 23 years ago, in 1990, 50 percent of our clothing was made in the United States. Today, according to Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, that figure stands at about 2 percent.
Fibershed's very beginnings were borne of such awareness. Burgess had understood the true cost of a cheap T-shirt from years of working with textiles, and in 2010, she put her beliefs about ethical fashion into action, making a personal pledge to wear a wardrobe whose dyes, fibers and labor were sourced from no more than 150 miles from the project's base.
"I was committed to using local labor, locally farmed materials and locally grown dyes," explains Burgess, who recently moved from San Geronimo to Petaluma. The project proved to be an "unbelievable endeavor," she says, if only for the sheer amount of work it took to build a functional and wearable locally sourced wardrobe—all the way down to her underwear.
"The most challenging aspect was getting the clothes," says the 35-year-old natural dye expert, weaver and educator. "We don't have a lot of people that know how to make something that fits. Just finding a garment that I could wear functionally and appear semi-normal was hard." So she reached out to artisans and farmers, building a wardrobe one step at a time.
Burgess still wears the sweaters, skirts and other items created for her by an all-volunteer labor force three years ago. And just like in the old days, before Americans had access to 100 million new pieces of clothing each year—12.7 million tons of which are thrown away—Burgess spends part of each week mending and repairing those clothes to extend their life.
The inspiration to grow into something bigger arose as Burgess wondered how to harness the community built around her project. How could she keep together the community of designers and farmers, and how could she democratize the process, making it accessible to everyone?
Working with her brother and a friend—and a budget of nothing—she launched the Fibershed Marketplace, an online consortium of clothing, kits, yarn and raw fiber from a variety of producers. What started as a personal endeavor soon grew into a nonprofit movement that's spreading across the nation; Fibershed affiliates have sprung up in Vermont, North Carolina, Utah, Los Angeles and internationally in England and Canada, all united by the goal of creating livelihoods around a garment's lifecycle, from soil to skin.
The way that Fibershed works is simple. A knitter in Santa Rosa might procure skeins of organic Merino wool from sheep raised by Sally Fox, a weaver and rancher dedicated to a sustainable approach to agriculture at her Capay Valley ranch. That knitter would take the yarn, create a pattern, knit a sweater, and then sell it to, say, a client over the hill in Forestville.
"We wanted to treat it as a place where the community could have access to one another," she adds. "If someone in Berkeley didn't want to drive to Napa for the yarn, the farmer could institutionalize the process of getting the yarn out the door."
This is clothing without the toxic runoff, the pesticides, the incredible dependence on fossil fuels, the unbounded dyes that wash off onto the skin and into waterways, and the horrific deaths of Bangladeshi garment workers feeding the insatiable American demand for cheap clothing.
While the price tag for certain items might seem exorbitant to some—Fibershed sells a coat that costs over $1,000—there are entry points for everyone. "If they can't afford a Fibershed item, they can make it themselves with the kits," says Burgess. "We can teach them how to knit. We can teach them how to dye. We can provide them with seeds to start their own dye garden, and we can provide training to learn how to do these things. Someone might say, 'I don't want to buy a $200 shirt, but I want to take sewing lessons from the artisan who made the shirt.'"