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What is a Fibershed and Why Does it it Matter?

 

 

The kitchen garden series takes a strong interest in combining textiles and environmental stewardship. My commitment to the environment takes many forms. I create designs that exclusively use natural fibers, reduce work room waste, use reclaimed materials, and create products that can replace single-use, disposable items. I also give back a percentage of profit to urban farms and work with local like-minded businesses and restaurants who are also committed to the environment.

As part of my engagement with sustainability issues, just over a year ago I became intrigued with the concept of 'fibershed'. Fibershed is a term coined by Rebecca Burgess in 2011 to describe a geographical landscape that defines and gives boundaries to a natural textile resource base. (It also happens to be the name of the organization she founded and is used by affiliates across the nation.) It is generally agreed that a regional fibershed encompasses a 150 mile radius, similar to boundary definitions for local food and watersheds. Generally, a fibershed largely works with locally grown, organic production and manufacture of natural fibers made from plants such as cotton, linen, and hemp or wool-based textiles from sheep, alpaca, llama, and even, yak. Fibershed leaders are usually farmers, makers, and small business owners that are committed to natural fiber textile manufacturing.

The production, use and disposal of textiles, or a textile economy, is inextricably linked to our food systems and watershed environments. We cannot ignore that synthetic textile manufacturing is a toxic process. Unlike the natural materials supported in a bioregional fibershed system, the compounds that are used to make synthetic fibers come from man-made petroleum based chemicals and petrochemicals that leach toxins into the environment, pollute the air, and damage the soil. When laundered in the factory or in the home, synthetic fibers will slough tiny micro-plastic filaments, which make their way into the watershed and are now appearing in the fish we eat and accumulating in the ocean. Discarded synthetics will also persist indefinitely in the environment as solid waste and contribute to off-gassing in landfills. Why would we want to continue to support this toxic process?

Based on these relationships between textiles and the environment, I believe it is important to the kitchen garden series to support the (re)development of the textile industry within my local fibershed. I want to support growers that are committed to natural fibers from plants such as cotton, linen or hemp. They have no harmful outputs when laundered and when spent can be composted, ultimately nourishing the earth. Furthermore, choosing natural, locally grown fibers is an important choice for the environment because natural fibers can be part of regenerative farming systems, help build carbon stocks on their working landscapes, and improve regional environmental health. Much like supporting my local food system, investing in my local fibershed strengthens my appreciation for the farmer, engenders a connectivity to the source, and is environmentally beneficial because it helps lower my carbon footprint.

Sadly, it’s impossible for the kitchen garden series to source our favorite materials within our local fibershed, but that doesn't mean I resort to using cheaper, synthetic materials. Flax grown for linen production is no longer farmed commercially in my region or the United States. In fact, the United States has lost much of the infrastructure necessary in recent decades to process raw materials into cloth as so much of the textile economy moved overseas. However, as I learned recently, there are a dedicated few who are revitalizing the industry and there are local fibershed affiliate organizations that are working to change the options for localized linen, cotton, and wool production systems. The Rust Belt Fibershed in Ohio, for example, has a successful fledgling flax project. My recent conversation with the Rust Belt Fibershed inspired me to add another piece to the puzzle that helps the kitchen garden series connect textiles to my mission of environmental stewardship. This year, I'll begin investigating the possibilities of growing flax in Philadelphia and connecting with other fibershed affiliates working to revive the infrastructure for processing flax into linen yardage. This small investment in a local textile economy will be a new beginning as I explore the positives of creating a stronger fibershed community. Looking forward into the future, I hope to  support the growth of our regional fibershed that will include flax alongside other natural fibers and organic foods. Join me as I bring more natural textiles into your homes and restaurants and plant seeds for a future Philadelphia.

Comments (1):

Missy LeDuc on

I so appreciate your thoughtfulness with your footprint. And learning about the fiber shed is something new for me and it’s fascinating. Thank you for informing us!

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Finding Equilibrium

On every equinox, night and day are approximately equal in duration as the sun centers directly over the earth's equator. This ancient symmetry of our rotating planet reminds us that we must find new ways to restore balance as we move from season to season.

The 2020 spring equinox occurred on March 19 when the pandemic shifted our everyday lives out of sync and rapidly brought major halts to people's structures all over the globe. Disruptions have continued through the summer as life and death continues to hang in the balance. Changes are arriving not just from the pandemic, but from climate disasters and social-justice revolution, and these changes have begun challenging our priorities, forcing us to find new methods to work, reorganizing how we play, learn and stay connected. Some of the changes have been exhilarating as we elevate what is important and necessary and discard what is no longer needed. Some of the changes have been devastating as we have seen lives lost, families fractured, and large parts of our environment destroyed by floods and fires. Balance has definitely been scarce!

I know we’re all exhausted by the many challenges of the last six months. The upcoming autumn equinox reminds us there is much work to be done to restore equilibrium to our communities and to the natural world. For me, the upcoming fall equinox signals an invitation to appreciate the relative quiet of nature as I notice the sensation of the evening lengthening to meet the day. I find myself looking for simple ways to restore serenity in my daily routines like enjoying a new warming tea blend at my mid-day break or shifting my daily schedule to take advantage of the shortening daylight hours. I am getting reacquainted with my favorite recipes for the season, savoring the flavors of the fall crops. I skip the fall garden clean up, leaving the perennial seeds and leaf litter for the birds to enjoy as the nights get colder. I step outside more often to notice color changes in the leaves and take note of my garden's changes. I take time to rest so I can prepare myself for what comes next because there is still much on the horizon. The equinox nudges me to remember symmetry and to find grace by inviting more calm into the chaos. 

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A little bit more

This Labor Day season, I am considering how the hard work of many has shaped the American nation and how we as consumers and business owners in the American economy might better consider how we distribute our hard earned money. Spending a little bit more for products made in America is not a new idea, but recently it’s started to gain some traction with many of us as we try to return to a more conscientiously driven economy. As a consumer, I don’t mind paying ‘a little bit more’ if I know that my money goes to insure that my neighbors are paid a living wage, have food and home security, access to healthcare and nutrition, and can give back to municipal services like schools and food banks. 


While I applaud the idea of “made in America” as a marketing tool that supports businesses in our communities and reclaims something vital to our nation, it is easy to assume that something American made is sustainably and ethically produced. Currently, claiming that something is “made in America” does nothing to insure that products are responsibly made. There are many American factories that do not care for the value of their workforce or their impact on the environment. There are industries in America that continue to violate safety standards, pay low wages without benefits, and perpetuate a corporate culture of exploitation, while they pollute the environment. Even with our complex history of labor laws and fair trade and environmental protection, there are popular American businesses that are still cutting corners on environmental safety regulations and exploiting the workforce in order to reduce prices to consumers.


Like many other small businesses right now, I am thinking a lot about economics, climate change, and financial security as we inch closer to the end of the year. I am also thinking about how asking shoppers to pay ‘a little bit more’ for something that is made in America isn’t enough. I believe that the value of fair wages, supporting a local and sustainable economy, and compensation for labor should be part of a transparent “made in America” marketing plan if we are to shift to a more ethical system. Using my business as an example, our human resources workforce includes myself, two cut-and-sew businesses, three individual independent contractors who support different aspects of the business, and an independently contracted marketing firm. Every individual that works for me lives here in America and is paid a living wage. I run the business out of my home and try to produce ethically, recycle goods, design for zero waste, and invest in my community. I think about where my materials are produced and how aspects of the business might impact my local environment. But, as the business owner, I am the only one regularly compensated at or below minimum wage, which is a sacrifice I make to grow the business and my equity in it. I take less compensation because I want to help produce items that reflect the value of labor, the importance of environmentally friendly materials, and a thoughtful and transparent approach to running a business. 


And what bearing does any of this have on the cost of goods sold? It takes more effort for American businesses like mine to make ethical choices, but the payoff is better in the long run when you consider fair wages, environmentally friendly practices, and lowering the carbon footprint. Let’s take a look at how this adds up to the prices of my products. I’ll use my linen market bag as an example because it most closely mirrors my averages. 

With this tiny profit margin, I can’t justify wholesaling my products and still remain committed to slow growth and to the health and wealth of my community, but I want to do a little bit more by structuring my textile business as a way to truly celebrate items that are ethically made in America and good for the environment. I want to support a better, more sustainable economic system by giving consumers access to products made from heirloom quality textiles that cost a little bit more, but will last a lot longer and maybe mean a lot more when we say they are “made in America”. 

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I have also been thinking more about the importance of supporting local, small businesses like my own as I spend time closer to home. Just like me, many small businesses pivoted quickly online and shifted gears away from in-person interaction. Things you can easily do from home to support the local economy and keep the community resilient: shop directly online with makers, order for curbside pickup or home delivery, direct message your favorite boutiques and ask if they will ship your favorite products (usually, they will!), or buy gift certificates for later dates. 

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beautiful • sustainable • practical 

With the changing seasons upon us and our minds on long term security, it’s a good time to make some small home refreshes while still keeping an eye towards sustainability. As you spend more time in your kitchens and home spaces, take more time with your favorite objects and consider long-term ways you can shift your spending from big corporations to the local economy.

designing beyond plastic

The designs for the kitchen garden series collection and my personal journey to reduce waste and give up the plastic habit, developed together. My products grew from my curiosity about both the past before plastic was used everywhere and the possibility of a future beyond plastic. The business began with a mission of reducing textile waste by upcycling textiles and designing durable goods to replace plastics and single-use disposables. I mined my early family memories of my grandmother’s kitchen to dig into a time before plastics became ubiquitous. I asked myself, what were the most common materials before plastic existed? I considered the needs of contemporary life and adapted some of those remembered goods to fit into today's kitchens and living spaces. I realized that if I find great joy in placing my hands on things made from linen, glass jars, and paper bags that feel beautiful to touch, other people might feel the same.

 

The challenges along the road of growing this business made me curious about reducing waste in my entire supply chain. Again, I looked to the past to see how it was done before carbon and petroleum fueled every aspect of production. That's how I landed on growing small flax plots to revitalize linen production at a more local level. Emma and I are digging deeply into the old ways of fiber production with our knee-high flax field this year as we wait patiently for the flax to be ready to be made into cloth. And we are also looking to the future towards a time beyond a carbon economy that includes exploring the possibilities of large scale regenerative fiber farming and a regional scutch mill. We are dreaming of regional and national flax-to-linen networks and we’ve found fellow travelers at rustbelt_fibershed, PNW_fibershed, All Together Now PA  and others, who are thinking similarly. I’m excited to see how this endeavor can help my business reduce waste and I look forward to seeing what beauty we can make as we work towards sustainable economic models. My personal journey towards eliminating plastic in my own kitchen turned out to be about surrounding myself with an abundance of simple, but elegant objects. Now, I am starting to see how the whole of my business can support other people's joy in a renewable and better supply chain that brings people objects made from materials that are better for the environment than plastic.

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The process of getting linen from flax is an arduous one. Yet, I’ve found beauty and satisfaction in the toil it takes to produce a piece of cloth without the use of industrial equipment and/or the exploitation of labor and resources. As Emma so perfectly said it, "it has led to a reverence for and connection to the cloth." This deepened bond between myself as a designer, Emma as a farmer helping me harvest flax, and the earth's bounty serves to remind me how important zero waste design is to the kitchen garden series.

Zero waste design is about taking the time to see beauty in every inch of cloth in front of me. My designs are inspired by the shapes I find in the world, with all of their swirling lines, sensuous shapes, and organic colors. I bring these ideas to my work table and experiment until the contours are organized and laid out on the materials before me. Then I look again at the spaces in between, those empty areas that remain among the contours, and find more inspiration, until all that is left of the fabric I laid out is just the tiniest bit of scrap to become worm food and decompose into earth again. 

The challenge of minimizing waste for any given piece is to not compromise important construction details or the elegance of the drape. For example, when I designed my cross back aprons, perfecting the form and function led to unexpected ways to use all the linen . I chose to add a side seam and to make the strap and the facing one long piece from the back hemline all the way over the shoulder with only one point of attachment at the front. Not the easiest method or the most efficient use of fabric, but I chose it because it hangs more elegantly on different bodies and is ultimately more durable and long wearing. As I figured out the apron design, I let the spaces left behind from my cuts, inspire more designs for other products. My minimalist tea towels emerged from the remaining edges, where I can cut right up to the raw edge and embrace its unfinished beauty. The fabric left behind from cutting the straps yields the perfect rectangle to attach to a shirtsleeve for our signature towels. Lastly, before sweeping the remaining scraps into the compost bin, I can make a handful of tea bags. The small leftover pieces will ultimately break down in the compost and regenerate the soil for the next crop of flax for linen.

Great design is about form and function, and zero waste is about re-imagining our place in relationship to materials. By working more carefully with the resources we have on hand, we can acknowledge all of the efforts taken by the planet and people to bring products we love into the world. When we place our goods into this vigilant perspective, something awakens in us. We are called to find beauty in the whole of what we can hold in our hands, to waste nothing, to respect everything, and to work to be part of the solution.

A Linen Love Story (linen + regenerative agriculture)

I am more devoted to linen than most other fabrics. I fell in love with linen for its classic look and its refined feel as a material. And when I first discovered the connection between linen and regenerative agriculture, I thought my heart would burst! My love for linen has only deepened as I delve into its place in regenerative agriculture. In my products, I experiment with linen's antimicrobial qualities, test its durability, and unearth its amazing history. As I research growing flax for linen in my region at our small plot on Kneehigh Farm, I see how linen fits perfectly at the intersection of food and fabric.

 

Regenerative farming is a system of diversified principles, where organic, no-till farming methods, cover-cropping, and rotational grazing produce nutritionally dense foods. Regenerative systems, like those at Kneehigh and other organic farms in the area, help rebuild valuable topsoil, increase biodiversity, and improve watersheds. All of these practices combine to improve crop yields, raise soil vitality, and mitigate climate change. Fiber flax, as a bast (or plant-stem) fiber plant fits nicely into crop rotation on a diversified farm. A fiber flax crop can be sown at different times for a variety of uses. Fiber flax’s high seeding rate suppresses weeds, and once pulled for harvest, leaves a clean field for the next crop without the use of any additional herbicides. A flax crop also needs very little water to grow, which means less irrigation and stress on water resources.

 

I stand at Kneehigh Farm these days and I keep watch over a small 1/8 acre of fiber flax we are growing. I watch it sprout, I weed a little, and urge it to get ready for harvest. There is magic in how this flax crop grows. I watch the beauty of the plants as they wave in the wind, and I think about how linen is made. I want my linen to be ethically grown right here in my backyard, and I want the objects I make to be part of the solution. I want to grow this flax as part of a regenerative agricultural system that mitigates climate change. I want my designs to reflect this regenerative process. I want the textiles I produce to be used and loved for a long time, and when they finally wear out, I want them to go back to that same farm as compost and begin again as a new flax crop. Most importantly, I want to show everyone how linen folds itself at the junction where food and fabric intermingle, just like the kitchen garden series.

And I want to fall in love with linen all over again