Listen to “Rebecca Burgess on Slow Fashion and Place-Based Economies: a Craftsmanship Artisan Interview”
Rebecca Burgess is the executive director of Fibershed, an internationally recognized nonprofit focused on transforming the clothing and textile system, the author of two books, and a vocationally trained weaver and natural dyer. She sat down with Craftsmanship Quarterly to talk about price and privilege when it comes to “slow fashion,” why the world can no longer afford fast fashion, and what she learned from a year of only wearing clothing produced within 150 miles of her home.
This episode is part of our series of “Artisan Interviews,” in which we bring you conversations with the artisans behind the stories, and with those who write about them.
Craftsmanship Quarterly is excited to provide this transcript to increase the accessibility of our content. If you are able, however, we strongly encourage you to listen to the audio version of the podcast, which includes nuances and emotion that are not evident on the page. This transcript was created using a combination of automated transcription software and human transcribers. As such, it may contain minor errors or inconsistencies. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
Chris: So welcome, Rebecca. Thank you for joining me.
Rebecca: Thank you for inviting me. It's great to be here.
Chris: So first of all, you are involved in so many things. How do you usually describe yourself and your work to other people who you first meet?
Rebecca: I don't always relish having to explain that to people I'll say. If I tried to describe it simply it's the nexus between climate soil health and the clothes we wear while also solving for the disparities, between where our environment is and where it needs to be for us to maintain ourselves on this planet. So textiles is, is definitely an organizing principle. And textile systems, fashion systems, but they tie so intrinsically. I mean, we've successfully divorced material culture from our thinking around the environment.
And yet the reason why we have anything going on with the environment that's causing challenges, trials, and tribulations is because of our material culture. So, um, I try to marry those things and bolt of them back together for people and think about clothing as a way to think about soil health and climate change and inequity, and how to solve for big problems with how we think about our second skin and how we are in relationship to our second skin.
Chris: Yeah. Well, in that spirit, let's try to kind of dive into some of your work, and maybe tease it apart for people who are listening.
So let's just kind of start from the beginning. The organization that you founded is called Fibershed right. So let's just start with, how do you define Fibershed? What is a Fibershed?
Rebecca: That's a great starting point. Fibershed as, you know, as a, as a noun, is a landscape. It's a strategic geography really that defines a textile resource base. And that's what it is. So hence you would, if you knew you're Fibershed, it means you would know the landbase from which materials were grown, how materials are manufactured. Like you'd have touch points with that. And that's similar to a food shed. If you could trace back food to its origin, you would be able to understand land, labor, transportation, processing, all of that would be, be known to you. If you were really in tune with what your food shed looked like, or your watershed, similarly, where's your water coming from?
And I use that term, fibershed, because I think of the essential oils that human beings need, you know, water, food, shelter, and clothing being the first form of shelter. To me, it's critical. Mission critical that we understand these very essential and fundamental things that all humans in my opinion have a right to.
And, um, but, a right to it in a way that is sustaining and, allows for, you know, a thousand human generations to also have the right to that in the future. So I would say that I think we, we owe ourselves this, you know, special attention to water, food and fiber sheds. And that's why I coined the term.
Chris: Yeah. It very much feels like we are in a moment of reckoning. Asking can we continue on this path? And I know for even myself, I feel like I've only more recently become awakened and aware to a lot of these issues in the clothes that I buy and thinking about them on a deeper level.
But I do think that some of the issues that you're bringing up, it can feel overwhelming to people. So maybe we can talk about a bit of your own journey into coming to some of this awareness and thinking about the issues in this way. And I wanted to start with, something that I have read a lot about you is this commitment that you made for a year that you'd only wear clothing that had been made within 150 miles of your home.
Right. Grown and made. Um, and that's your Fibershed, is that right?
Rebecca: Yeah, exactly. My Fibershed was 150 miles from my front door originally.
Chris: Yeah. And so, why don't you tell me, like how did you come to decide to start that experiment? And what, you know, what did you learn through that process?
Rebecca: Oh, well it changed my life for forever.
And I think what I initially the goal was, I just felt like I needed to use myself as, like, I dunno as a Guinea pig to understand this concept of localizing this particular part of my material culture. So I worked with local knitters and weavers, I, myself, am a self-taught natural Dyer. I'm also, um, in university was, was exposed to and trained in computerized weaving. So I do have a background in the craft of clothing production and the making of it, at a very artisanal level. And so through my own offering my own skills to the project and inviting a community of others who had these skills and who had complimentary skills that I did not have, we brought together the maker community and they were paired. Some of them were also designed students. Um, And we paired ourselves with the farming community in the region.
I think most people were pretty comfortable at the most advanced levels of this concept of a Fibershed going to a farm, maybe finding a farm yarn, like there are sheep on this farm. The producer manages them or manages for wool. The wool- we still have like a few remaining small wool mills that could send the wool off. They'd have a yarn returned. It's a very fragile supply chain. Um, and so when I talk about it, like lightly, like, oh yes, this thing just exists. It is very fragile and needs a lot of support. Even at its best, you know, um, I would say, you know, it's still a very limited space where we have a few remaining people doing this work, um, to produce their own yarn from their own stock.
So yeah, it was within 150 miles and it was my underwear, my socks, my bathing suit, everything came from the land and was hand constructed. And the learning, you know, I could just summarize by saying there was millions of pounds of fiber and there was very few people utilizing that fiber, even in the global marketplace. Like that wool was not making it to a mill. It was making it to a barn rafter, a mulch pile, a dumpster. There was a ton of wool that just didn't have a home.
And that's because those sheep are grazing, they're doing grazing services. It was because they're being sold as lamb and not being valued for their wool or not valued very much for their wool. So I started to understand that we had this incredible amount of colored wool varieties of breeds, and we had millions of pounds of unused wool, or not, wool not used for it's highest use, highest and best use.
So to me, that was just shocking. And it put me on a life mission to unend, this ridiculous story that we can't have natural fibers because there's not enough of them.
Chris: Yeah, I guess my understanding that just comes out of, the culture is yeah, natural fibers and will, and things are, rare, but as you said, that's kind of shocking to hear that so much of it goes unused. That's a very different narrative than what you usually hear.
Rebecca: It is. The industry has gotten so big and centralized, if you were to say the system is soil to skin and that's what fashion is, the system is so centralized and so such a monolith, it doesn't even know itself anymore.
It doesn't really know right from wrong, I would say anymore. Because it's become a non-human set of corporations. And so it just doesn't have the ability to understand what it's wasting, what it's undervaluing, what it's missing.
And I started to see what it was missing and undervaluing. And I was like, "wow, what a mess that could be solved." Like we don't need all this polyester and nylon. We actually have a lot of material right here. And a lot of it, 900,000 pounds of it in my community could be more next to skin. It's fine enough for that.
The rest of it, you could put into outerwear, you could make insulation, that's clean for your home. You could make rugs under foot that keep your home warm. You could all kinds of things you could do. It's an incredible protein.
Chris: Just out of curiosity do you have a favorite piece of clothing that you created from your own fibershed?
Rebecca: Well, at the time, um, pants were really hard to come by. So I did have one pair that I just absolutely loved. I call them the golden pants they're made from color ground cotton. And then, I had a pokeberry sweater that was made with, a fine fiber from Mendocino county, and it was dyed in pokeberry and it was made by this woman Sachi Henrietta, and the wool grower who has now passed his Gene Near. Yeah that that sweater in those pants. I mean, they were just very stunning and beautiful and fun to wear.
Chris: Um, for you, what was the difference in the feeling or the experience of wearing a piece of clothing that you had been so intimately involved with its creation, you know, and knowing that it came from this area around where you live, and knowing the producers and having those relationships, how did that experience differ for you from the experience of wearing something that you buy off the rack at a store somewhere?
Rebecca: It's a tremendous sense of meaning. It's almost like you're wearing your community. you feel them in the clothing, like you also are less "you." You know you're less of an individual. You're actually, just one tiny piece of this dynamic system. And so it's very humbling. And it kind of puts you in your place a little like, oh, like I didn't make all of these things. And I'm very clear that I did not make all these things and I know who did, and I know how much labor they put into it. And boy, am I lucky. You kind of feel like you're the one who got out of the deal, like this amazing thing, like, wow, I got out of this so much. I got the cherry on the top of the cake. I get to wear it.
Um, you feel the benefit, the humility, the gratitude pretty consistently. And also like your smallness, like it shrinks your... it does the opposite of what fast fashion does to the psyche. It wasn't like this big ego boost where you're like, oh, I'm wearing these things and there's a whatever luxury brand name on it, or I'm wearing the look that just came off the runway in Paris, like a month ago.
None of that, you actually end up feeling kind of like, yeah, like I said, you're part of a community and you're kind of a small part of that community. And the context of yourself I think is put into a really healthy perspective, a very realistic perspective.
And since we did the one-year wardrobe challenge, I mean, now it has become, you know, we have a textile economies and regional economic development arm. We have a climate beneficial agriculture arm. We have a public education arm. And to really codify that work and make the work more available — I mean, to have community driven textile systems — to make that more available and to keep lifting it up is the work we're doing now.
And I think people understand the value and the necessity. What I think is hard that needs more support is when you've broken a system, I think human beings need to sit with the fact that we've been chasing convenience and price point almost exclusively and aggressively for decades. And we have a suite of collateral damage that has been created from those pursuits.
"I want it cheap. I want it now. And that's it." That is the MO of many an American, even regardless of class, you see it across the board. And there is a huge price to pay in eradicating skills from our community. The eradication of manufacturing, the eradication of inter and multi-generational vocational trade.
I think that that's where we're not out right now. We need people to understand the severity and the gravity of chasing cheap and chasing fast. It's changing the fabric of your lived experience from the post office to the grocery store.
I swear every comedian now I feel like has a joke about everyone else in the world being dumb or annoying, right? There's like this chronic meme of like, why is everyone so dumb and annoying now? And it's like, well, part of what we're doing to each other is we're devaluing each other. We don't have the sense of, I need you and you need me to survive. We've lost that.
And then we, on top of it, we've, de-skilled our society. And if you combine those two things, there's an irreverence for life and there's an irreverence for each other that we have bred. And I think it's uncomfortable. And I think, I mean, yes, it makes for good satire, but it's really sad at the same time.
Chris: I imagine that there are probably a lot of people who are priced out of buying this kind of locally sourced, materials and clothing, that might be handcrafted, right. Even if it's better in all of these ways that you've talked about, I'm sure that it's also more expensive too. So how do you address that kind of paradox of price and privilege that this way of thinking about it, um, is so powerful and it's the direction that you feel we need to go, and yet it is probably out of reach for a large chunk of the population.
Rebecca: At current it is because of the evisceration of the trades and the manufacturing sector. We have lost, you know, some basic efficiencies that are helpful. Like I said, nothing's black or white in this conversation. We do need technology and we do need efficiencies, but we need them to uplift culture, not to eviscerate culture.
But I think ultimately the best thing we could do together is to divest from the Ross dress for less and the... sorry, I don't want to call out too many more names, but Forever 21s, like get out of the fast fashion, stop buying new from mega corporations. And let them know why. Communicate to them because I tell you, they listen to customers. Market trends is what shapes their actions.
So if we divest from them and we let them know, "Hey, I don't know where you're getting this fiber from. Could you be more transparent? How are people paid across your supply chain? Are you looking at regenerative agriculture? Are you focused on climate change through agriculture?"
Um, and then using what dollars you have to think about second hand clothing swaps. So you're trading clothes. Those are critical. Those are mission critical that we buy secondhand. And we have clothing swaps because I was just on a call earlier today with Abena, Sammy, and Janet, who are in Accra Ghana, and they are working at the Kantamanto Market that receives 15 million secondhand units of our waste textiles per week. 15 million units per week. And they say that like, they didn't say what percentage, but I've heard anywhere from like 40 to 60% of what is sent is like textile garbage. It can not be resold. And so then those communities are incinerating it and landfilling it an open pits.
So we're clearly over-producing. So even if you say I can only afford Ross dress for less, or I can only afford forever 21. I would say the world cannot afford you to only shop at Forever 21. Accra Ghana can not afford you doing that. The Kantamanto Market workers can not afford you doing that.
The people still receiving piece rate sweatshop wages. Globally you still see the piece rate, which means they only get paid per piece so they sew as fast as they physically can. We're de-skilling the workforce. We're literally taking the skills that they are proud of. That they feel that they're high, skilled, and they know they are, but we're making them work so fast, they're producing junk. And then that junk ends up in Kantamanto Market.
So from Bangladesh to Mexico, to Los Angeles production centers, through your cheap wardrobe and then out to Kantamanto, you know, we could say, oh, you know, "I can't afford to pay more for higher quality." And it's like, fine. Then, you know, swap, buy second hand. But please, you know, don't put more pressure on the most vulnerable and fragile people in the world by doing this. So I think we're having a very one-sided class conversation in the U S and Europe, you know, about elitist clothing. And I'm like, that's actually an elitist conversation because you're leaving out the people, the production, and the people receiving all your waste.
When you include their voices, walking into a fast fashion store and acting like you can't afford anything else, is still, unfortunately, an elitist act. So I don't have a lot of patience for it anymore.
Chris: Yeah. It's like we're outsourcing the work, but we're also outsourcing all the damage, right?
Rebecca: Yep. And then we look at, then we have this, you know, country-based class conversation where we're like, "Oh, you can afford that wool sweater." And it's like, well, actually I got it at the Goodwill. Or, you know, actually I swapped it with a friend, you know, there are ways. There are ways of doing this. And even if you just slowed the fast fashion cycle down, like, "Okay, well, all I can afford ultimately is this right now, but I do need new." Just try to slow it down and try to repair the clothing or try to wear it even if it has holes. All my clothes have holes. It's like, I don't really care if my clothes. I'm sorry my clothes have holes. I'm sorry if you think I'm impoverished. And yes, I have been asked if I'm homeless before while walking down the street and if I needed help, but I don't really care.
Chris: You can just call it distressed, right? And then it's a fashion trend.
Rebecca: There we go. I mean, people have turned that into a look. Denim has successfully turned holes into a commodity.
Chris: So one question I had just falling off of what you were just talking about with some of these major brands, and sending a message to them. What are your thoughts on you yourself working with some of these brands? The creators of some of this damage to the environment and to workers, and trying to change some of the practices versus approaching this from the outside and maybe trying to kind of supplant that system?
Rebecca: I've found it's both and. If I have an opportunity to work with a brand and see that I can support changes... and obviously like, there are times when it feels, high risk because it's not perfect and it could be construed as, um, like, "Oh, you're giving that brand more ability to be seen as good in the marketplace when ultimately we need an entire new system."
I do acknowledge and work with that criticism and I look for opportunities where the brands can help each other and can help smaller artisan projects. So a quick example of that is when we worked with a company based in Alameda, California — at the time they were in Alameda — it was the North Face. And because they could aggregate more cotton and more wool than individual design houses and crafts people living and working in Oakland, San Francisco and Berkeley, the North Face could aggregate a lot of wool from a few of our key ranches where we're doing climate beneficial work.
And they were able to move that through mill minimums. So the mills have very high minimums in the U S because they need to be very large to compete globally because of labor costs. So we pay people more here in the U S and so often the only way to compete is to have a huge mill with as few people in there as possible. It's like the only way to stay afloat, which means that very big mill without very large equipment needs very high minimums. You can't move a hundred pounds. You have to move 80,000 pounds through it. And that's kind of where the American manufacturing textile system has landed at the larger scale.
Like there's very mini mills. There's very few mid-scale, and then there's larger scale. But not many large scale and not many mid-scale they're very limited. So we talked to the North Face, you know, into working in a domestic supply chain. That was, you know, a first. And then well, in their origin story it wasn't, but since they were bought by the VF corporation, you know, working domestically was not a norm at the time. So it was novel and we were returning some core values back to their origin story.
And then we were able to move this material through a series of supply chain partners within the US. This wool made it through. And we were able to split the yarn that went to the North Face and they made their products, but we had this yarn available and it's very hard to get our locally ranched fiber into yarn. That is like one of the hardest value addition systems to hurdle because of the mill minimums. You need hundreds of thousands of dollars, even if you only need five pounds of yarn.
So we got this yarn into the hands of a mom and pop weaving mill in Sacramento. We got the wool into the hands of hand knitters, artists, 102 home sewers ended up getting access to a textile made by the mom and pop shop using the wool that the North Face helped generate into yarn. And that just was, that would not be available.
So that is where I see benefit. I also see benefit in working with these companies because at the end of the day, you're working with people. And these people end up learning things through the process of going to the ranch. Like, "I work for a brand I've never seen a farm." Okay, well, let's go to a farm together. And I just got back from three days of farm tours and it was like people were saying, "I have a complete new understanding of agriculture." Direct quote. And those individuals I have watched, I've been in this job long enough to watch people stay in those companies and do really powerful work across all of their supply chain.
I've also watched them leave those companies, and start their own new businesses based on these values. And I've also seen them graduate from those companies and become consultants and start consulting many other companies in how to embed these values.
So yeah, I guess I'm at that point where I'm a very much of a "both, and" person and at the end of the day, we're all people. And I do believe we can make things better at large corporations. Um, but I do think at the highest level, the entire economic system needs, um, a reboot
Chris: Well, I do love, you know, your perspective in breaking these big systems or big anonymous corporations down into individual people, you know, and that, uh, ultimately it maybe a place to start with this is individual change. Um, and that's kind of how we get to the systems change that, um, you know, that so many in this field want.
Rebecca: Consciousness, if we don't change consciousness, we cannot create policy. And I know that there's like a tit for tat that everything's gotten so bad, it will only be changed through large scale governmental intervention. Okay. Granted, that in nine times out of 10, for energy systems, transportation, housing, um, climate refugeeism, like that's all going to be true. However, who's crafting those policies? Where is their thinking? Are they thinking thermodynamically? Are they thinking about biogeochemistry? Are they thinking about the history of colonization?
Like, we have deep work to help people craft the large scale mobilization. Like this consciousness levels have to be there. And that's what I see, again, it's like, I guess our work, because we're small, is in that consciousness raising and those relationships. But at the end of the day, when I kind of sit down at the end of the day and I think, well, what would I do differently if I did have like a hundred employees? Actually we would do nothing differently. We would just expand the existing methodology. We would take more brands to farms.
Chris: Yeah, that's great. Well, um, I guess the last thing I wanted to ask is just for people who want to get involved in their own, Fibershed in this kind of, soil to skin or like farm to closet, world of clothing and material making, what do you recommend? How can they begin, uh, on that journey? What's an easy way to start?
Rebecca: Well there's a place on our website. It's called the affiliate community and there's a way to see where there's people doing. Fibershed organizing across the world. Most of the fiber sheds are in, I guess you call them Anglophile countries. They're in English speaking colonies. Like they're in the United States and in Australia, which I actually love. I love that these new spaces where we're trying to repair really deep wounds around colonization, we're actually now having a question mark of how we, um, make an economy, a place-based economy. Because this country was not based on place. It was based off of exports. And it's always been based off of exports to mother countries that take all the value. And that's how the Caribbean was org- I mean, south America, Central America, like that's the history.
So I love that there's Fibershed organizing talking about what is a place-based textile economy? How do we take pressure off of the global system that functions on anonymity and how do we put a face on it? And there they're all in the directory on fibershed.org's website, and that's called the affiliate program.
And if people don't see any organizers in their region, that's okay. You know, there's ways that you can just engage in as an individual, by starting to see if there are any artists, farmers, community members in your area that are doing this work. Is there a weaving Guild? Um, is there... some of the, the guilds are great places to start.
I've also, from a natural dye perspective, if you're interested in that, you know, for me, it was like going to this mix of native plant society walks for free, where I would walk and understand the botany of my region, combined with taking classes in natural dyes, where we might be using guys from other locations. But then I kind of merged my understanding of the flora of my region with these basic principles of dyeing. So you can find, you know, you can get to know your place through so many angles, but understanding your ecosystem is critical to understanding your Fibershed. So actually knowing your food shed and your watershed is the undergirding of really knowing your Fibershed.
So I think it's just like, what, what is this place you live in?
Chris: Yeah. Just getting familiar with it. That's great. Um, well, for people who want to follow your work and Fibershed's work, where's the best place to follow you on social media and the web?
Rebecca: A lot of our work is shared through Instagram. We are on LinkedIn and Twitter and Facebook as well. And if those are portals that the listener is comfortable with, those are great places to get more immediate updates. But if those are not of interest and I totally understand, it's kind of like, challenging to have to work with some of those algorithms, and deal with that level of surveillance. But, um, we do have the newsletter, and I think that is like a beautiful, safe space for anyone who wants to stay off social media, which I get. Um, you can go to our website fibershed.org and sign up for the newsletter.
Chris: Great. All right. Well, Rebecca, thank you so much for joining me and, um, talking about this, it's just been really a pleasure talking with you.
Rebecca: Thank you, likewise. I really appreciate the thoughtful questions and this was a real pleasure.
Listen or download more stories from our Podcast page, or on Buzzsprout and the following popular streaming services:
© 2023 The Editors of Craftsmanship Quarterly. All rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of any part of this article is prohibited by law.