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Fibershed bringing 'farm-fresh' clothing to the region

Natural fiber dyes 1

Many of us are familiar with the concept of a foodshed (the region where food is produced and the paths it travels to its final consumer), and the importance of buying local food in order to support local farmers, businesses, and resilient local economies. Marin has a thriving foodshed with many strong local linkages, but few of us apply this local logic and purchasing power to the clothes we wear every day. This is where Rebecca Burgess and Fibershed step in. Like a food or watershed, a fibershed is a geographic region where all the fibers and dye plants for garments can be sourced. Burgess believes that “fiber will follow food” into the public’s consciousness.

Burgess began her Fibershed project with a personal commitment to wear clothes sourced and dyed within a 150 mile radius from her front door for a year. In today’s era of inexpensive imported clothing and a general public disconnect from where and how garments are made, this was a challenge. This challenge brought Burgess closer to the source of her clothes, led to many fiber-spun relationships within the region, and the beginnings of a Fibershed movement.

The Fibershed members created a prototype wardrobe made from locally produced and dyed garments, and conducted a lifecycle assessment to compare the relative water, carbon and economic impacts to a conventionally produced wardrobe. The prototype wardrobe had approximately 1/6th of the carbon footprint of its conventional equivalent, but there are huge infrastructure hurdles to widespread implementation leading to the high cost of a locally grown, dyed, and made garment.

In order to discuss and strategize ways to overcome these hurdles, Burgess and Fibershed members organized the first Wool and Fine Fiber Symposium held on November 17th 2012, designed to educate urban designers and the general public about the range of fiber options available in the Bay area fibershed. This sold out symposium was the first “soil to skin” event in this region bringing together producers, shearers, artisans, designers, knitters, fiber entrepreneurs, and the general clothes-wearing public.  Burgess stressed that “we need to vertically integrate from soil to skin,” and bringing all the regional Fibershed players together was an important first step. The room was buzzing with energy and bursting into conversation, mingling, introductions, and purchasing during every break.

The people behind the region’s local fiber shared their experiences, challenges, and visions for the future. Nine producers of fibers that run the gamut of quantity and quality spoke to a room bursting with attendees and energy. Producers discussed flock health, rotational grazing, weed management, predator issues, and breeding for fiber and color attributes among other topics. Many producers sell their fleeces right away and others can’t process their wool fast enough to keep up with the demand. All nine producers agreed that more local milling and fiber processing infrastructure is necessary for the Fibershed production to expand. Producers also hope that the inherent seasonality of ranching and wool production will be incorporated into wool and knit ware shops’ inventory, designers’ plans, and consumer’s expectations.

These nine growers painted the picture of life on their ranches for attendees. I was also fortunate enough to spend an October morning with one Fibershed producer, Mimi Leubberman at Windrush Farm.  Leubberman started her adventures in fiber production with 10 Lincoln sheep in 1995 and has been developing her herd ever since. She quickly discovered that consumers preferred wool with a lower “prickle factor” than the coarse Lincoln wool. Leubberman began cross breeding her sheep in order to incorporate shine and softness into her wool. She smilingly reminded me that when cross breeding, the results of each lambing year are a surprise, and consumers have to be aware of the variation that brings.

Leubberman walked me through the wool production process and showed me the various fiber types and finished yarn products she produces. Her average sheep fleece will yield about 8-10 pounds after shearing and then is skirted (short edges, belly fleece, and stained sections are removed), washed and carded (to disentangle and align fibers). After these steps at least 50% of the original fleece weight is lost, and the usable yield ready to spin into yarn and sell. Any vegetative matter (VM) in the wool makes it less valuable and more work to clean. Leubberman sells her wool and yarn directly to customers at farmers markets and through Local Pastures, an innovative wool CSA.  

At the Fibershed symposium, three shearers shared their experiences and advice for producers. All three agreed with shearer John Sanchez that “if you have a clean product, it’s always sellable.” They suggested that producers manage sheep for increased value and quality of product by assuring minimal vegetative matter in the wool. The three also agreed that it is often the shearer’s role to educate the grower about best practices. Shearer Judd Redden emphasized the importance of a consistent market for the local fibershed because “people have to know that there’s a place for their wool” to be sold after a year’s investment of time and resources in the fleece.

In order to increase market awareness of local fiber resources, Burgess launched the Fibershed producer program at the symposium in order to begin mapping the quantity and quality of regional fiber resources. The producer program will also be a mechanism to encourage business relationships and partnerships, archive all wool resources, and as a potential resource for relationships with large textile companies like Smartwool and Northface, whose designers are already excited about local sourcing.

With a focus on local fibers, local dyes, and local labor, symposium panelists identified fiber processing and milling as one of the major bottlenecks in the region’s fibershed production. The last two symposium speakers featured innovative and entrepreneurial ideas to establish local fiber mills and provide stronger links among local fiber supply, demand, and local labor. Shearer and entrepreneur Matt Gilbert plans to start a mill in Ukiah because “lots of fiber is going to waste” and our fibershed needs to streamline the supply side and milling process. Entrepreneur Amber Bieg emphasized the need to brand and market “sheep to chic” local fiber in order for local fiber producers, processers, and businesses to receive sufficient demand and prices for their products.

Consumer education is a key element to keep the Fibershed momentum moving forward and to help bring locally produced and made fiber and clothing to the bay area. Burgess encouraged everyone to add at least one locally produced Fibershed garment to their wardrobe this year, wear it proudly, and spread the word about local fiber. We strengthen our foodshed as we eat local food, and now can begin to support our local fibershed as we pull on a “farm-fresh” sweater, scarf, or hat this winter.

By Juliet Braslow