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.