Sustainable Fashion, Hands-On Education: a Fibershed Gala

By Dani Burlison
By Dani Burlison

In our fast-paced consumer culture, on a planet that is quickly heating up, how do you spend your dollars in a way that minimizes environmental damage, especially when it comes to clothing and other textiles? Is it possible to also go one step further, and support local economies in the process? On a windy, late September afternoon, 200 people descended on Chileno Valley Ranch, a 150-year-old farm in West Marin County, California, to find out.

The sold-out, fifth biennial Fibershed Gala, an event that showcases textile that are sourced regionally, and sustainably, welcomed guests with live music, local beer and wine, and tastings from local farms. The gala also provided hands-on educational workshops and demonstrations. There were sessions on growing materials for natural dyes, the art of clothes mending, eco-printing on climate-beneficial wool, making earth-based pigments for textiles, and more.

Despite the grave climate and economic issues driving the sustainable fashion movement, the sold-out 2019 Fibershed Gala presented a roadmap for positive change, and a vision of hope. 

Fibershed, the organization that sponsored the event, is a nonprofit devoted to “developing regional fiber systems that build soil and protect the health of our biosphere.” Rebecca Burgess, the nonprofit’s founding executive director, spearheaded the first Fibershed project, in 2010, when she made a personal commitment to source an entire wardrobe produced from dyes, fibers, and labor within 150 miles of her home in Northern California. Since those early days, Burgess’s efforts have attracted nearly 50 affiliate organizations around the world, all aimed at decentralizing and revitalizing local textile economies.

A primary challenge to this revitalization, Burgess says, has been redefining the value of natural fiber.

Globally, the textile industry is rife with exploitation, and Burgess notes a certain level of consumer denial about the rapid churning-out of products that keeps the cycle of wasteful consumerism — and environmental degradation — spinning. This cycle is not helped by the increasingly quick and easy access to affordable (though often poorly made) clothing. The Fibershed Gala tried to address this challenge by providing examples of how consumers can take fashion into their own hands, both figuratively and literally.

Wild-harvested plants can be used to create natural dyes and pigments for more sustainable textiles and paper.

From all indications, the overall feeling at the event was one of hope. This year, Burgess decided against Fibershed’s usual runway show, feeling that the workshop/community education format would provide a greater sense of empowerment and creative participation. “I actually wanted everyone to come to this gala and get their hands involved in a sensory experience, to participate,” she said.

And participate they did.

In lieu of a runway, gathering areas were open for hands-on workshops and demonstrations that celebrated local fiber, local dye, and local skill.

The Gala offered six 45-minute outdoor workshops, scheduled so that guests could attend two during the course of the day. Many included the opportunity for participants to take home a finished product.

An entryway into sustainable fashion for those who lack advanced sewing skills, says Burgess, is to simply start out small, through the practice of mending. Designer Ashley Eva Brock guided attendees through the process of creative mending in her workshop, “Visible Mending: Layering Local Fibers onto Loved Clothes.”

The art of mending, nearly lost in today’s throwaway culture, can give new life to well-loved clothing. Fiber artist Ashley Eva Brock demonstrates, using local textiles and climate-beneficial wool yarn.

Rather than tossing damaged clothes or hiding stitches and repairs, Brock encouraged guests to incorporate visible mending into clothing to add a unique beauty to them. Participants were provided botanically dyed denim fabric and  yarn made from climate-beneficial wool to practice the techniques. This is wool shorn from sheep that are raised on ranches managed in a fashion that regenerates soil. When this is done properly, the land also sequesters, or pulls, carbon from the atmosphere. (For more on these ideas, see CQ’s article, “The Hidden Powers of a Sheep“).

Another popular workshop was Michelle Wilson’s “Growing Natural Dyes in Handmade Paper Vessels,” which entailed making paper out of invasive plants, then crafting it into compostable containers. Participants were given dye garden seeds to take home and grow in their new vessels.

Native plants and fungi of Sonoma County were used to create a local color palette, inspiration for natural-dyed textiles and paper pigments.

Teju Adisa-Farrar, a Jamaican-American writer, geographer, and poet who resides in Oakland, California, taught a sustainability workshop called “Mapping Clothing Toward Collective Accountability.” The workshop guided participants through the long and costly journey, both financially and environmentally, that our clothing takes to arrive in our closets. “There are a lot of opaque social and economic relations in the way we get dressed every day,” she says.

Adisa-Farrar believes that raising awareness about where our clothes comes from and who makes them — without a hefty dose of guilt — is key to helping consumers make informed decisions. When people discover the origins of the rubber on the soles of our shoes, for example, or learn about the working conditions in garment factories, more sustainable buying choices, even if they cost a bit more, can gain more appeal.

“Connecting the fabrics that we put on our bodies to things that are happening in the world is a way to help people broaden their perspectives and think of new ways to be involved in the sustainable fashion movement.” – Teju Adisa-Farrar

When not engaged in workshops, guests were welcome to walk the ranch’s self-guided, carbon-sequestering farm tour, or talk with local weavers and knitters about various handmade textiles, knitting patterns, and other items on display and for sale. Beyond wool, other sustainable materials that were available included bast fibers made from botanical sources such as nettle, dogbane, flax, and hemp.

The multicultural event also featured an a capella group that sang traditional weaving songs from Eastern Europe, and an interpretive dance, modeled on the act of weaving a rug, by an intertribal Apache and Navajo performance group.

Dynamic performances by Dancing Earth Indigenous Contemporary Dance Creations invited audience members to honor indigenous culture and the connections to sacred land, water, and sky.

While sustainable clothing still remains comparatively costly, Burgess seems hopeful, and points to successes with more sustainable materials entering the mainstream. Over the years, Fibershed has been persistently highlighting the movement to improve soil health and increase carbon sequestration on sheep farms, through practices like replanting trees in grazed pastures, water development projects, and general landscape recovery. And these efforts give participating farms a valuable story to tell, an opportunity that more and more farms are pursuing.

The Fibershed Gala was hosted at Chileno Valley Ranch, just south of the Marin County line. The 150-year-old farmstead was built within the traditional and ancestral territory of the Southern Pomo and Coast Miwok peoples. 

Wool from these farms is also making its way into the world, presenting an increasingly visible alternative to a sea of mass-produced garments. As one prominent example, outdoor gear company The North Face partnered with Fibershed to purchase climate-beneficial wool from Bare Ranch, and is now using the material in a product line called Cali Wool.

Other companies are following suit. Elizabeth Suzann and Coyuchi both incorporate sustainable wool into some of their products, and Brooklyn Tweed sells climate-beneficial wool yarn. California-based Huston Textile Company sells climate-beneficial wool yardage for home sewers.

A series of intertribal dance performances closed the evening, reflecting on themes such as rain in the desert, reclaiming the corn ceremony, and the sacred web of life.

In the near term, engaging in local fiber economies might be more accessible for knitters, home sewers, and small designers. After all, making individual items of clothing at home is more affordable than purchasing an entirely new wardrobe. And even those without sewing experience can begin with small, hands-on projects.

“What does it mean to take responsibility in a textile system?” Burgess asks. One answer, in her view, is “to participate in something joyous, celebratory, and creative. This event gives people the space to take a modicum of responsibility in a way that’s joyful.”

Dani Burlison is a writer and teacher who lives in Santa Rosa, California. She has a Master’s Degree from the school of Culture, Ecology & Sustainable Community at New College of California, and is a widely published journalist, essayist, and short story writer. Her short story collection, “Some Places Worth Leaving”, will be published by Tolsun Books in February 2020.

All photos by Paige Green Photography.

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