Threads of change

A fibershed activist wants us to consider our clothes

Rebecca Burgess spends the day in a greenhouse planting indigo seeds for her natural dye project

GREEN ISSUE Planting indigo seedlings in a leaky greenhouse in the mist of a cold Marin County afternoon, Rebecca Burgess thinks about what she's going to wear. She's not a fashion model, or a clotheshorse, but she is on a yearlong quest to attire herself only in garments that were sourced and produced bio-regionally — or within a 150-mile radius of home — an area she calls her local fibershed.

Why take on such a challenge? "If we don't want BP oil spills, it's about more than just not fueling our cars with it," Burgess says. While many activists seeking to unplug from oil dependency have worked to encourage bicycles, local agriculture, and reusable shopping bags, her approach takes on the materials we use to clothe our bodies.

Half of all jeans sold annually in the United States — around 200 million pairs — are produced in the Xintang township in China's Pearl River Delta, where a Greenpeace study found hazardous organic chemicals and acidic runoff in the watershed, both of which may contribute to profound health risks for factory workers and their communities.

Of course, oil is consumed in the transport of factory-made garments halfway across the globe. But as Burgess notes, that's only part of the reason for her project, which so far has yielded a book on the making of natural dyes and a plan for a community cotton mill in Point Reyes.

She's also concerned about the synthetic fibers mass-manufactured clothes are made of. "We're wearing a lot of plastic," she notes. Not just plastic: petrochemicals, formaldehyde, and carcinogenic polycrylonitriles can all be used to produce your outfit— materials that seep into your pores when you're active and can hardly be considered ideal to wear against your skin.

To limit support of the oil-reliant garment industry, Burgess envisions a collaboratively created source of clothing made from materials and processes that are — unlike the heavy-metal laden industrial effluent from denim dyes flowing into China's Pearl River — completely nontoxic. To that end, she's linking natural fiber artisans and raw material providers throughout the region with the fibershed project, which aims to bolster local clothing production.

Today, she's the poster child for her effort. Burgess sports striped alpaca kneesocks, an organic cotton skirt sewn by a friend, and a wool sweater her mom knitted with handmade yarn, sourced from a sheep farmer they know. The clothes look well-loved, which makes sense: relying on one's fibershed for a wardrobe is not easy. When Burgess first embarked on her yearlong bioregional clothing challenge, there wasn't much in her dresser. "I lived out of three garments for weeks," she laughs. "People were like, 'You're wearing the same thing over and over and over again.'<0x2009>"

But she found that she wasn't the only one who believed that a change was possible in our closets. Friends, family, and a wider community of shepherds, cotton growers, knitters, seamstresses, and artisans all pitched in to help her along with the project. Burgess says this growing network underlies what it will take for communities to transition to a more sustainable lifestyle. "All this is about encouraging more relationships."

There's Sally Fox, whose non-genetically modified colored cotton operation in the Capay Valley is the culmination of years of seed-selecting for natural color tones. There's the 96-year old sheep farmer in Ukiah. Not to mention the hip fiber artisans based in Oakland and the young fashion students in San Francisco who were inspired by her project.

"It's not just of value to an old spinster community, it's of value to a young, hip generation of people who want to live in a carbon-free economy," Burgess notes. "A bunch of urban young people are really into fibers." Most, she adds, are women.

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