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Fibreshed: A grassroots approach to local textile economy weaves sustainability into your own backyard.

IN 2013, the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh collapsed, taking 1134 lives and snapping the world to attention. Under the pressure of a global supply chain demanding high production quotas for poverty wages, workers had been daily entering an eight-storey building on the brink of structural collapse. It crumbled upon them one day, moments after the rooftop generators were started. Cheap clothes suddenly had a very real human cost.

Perhaps it was the loss of human life that truly woke us to the larger environmental issues plaguing the fashion industry, but after Rana, conversations around the fashion industry took off. The True Cost (2015), a compelling documentary directed by Andrew Morgan, traced the cost in human lives and environmental impact of the accelerated design-to-consumer pipeline that has become the hallmark of fast fashion. A hit on Netflix, The True Cost is now joined by other fast fashion documentaries like Clothes to Die For (2014) and River Blue (2016).

Today there are ever more books, films, social media campaigns, advocates, conferences, NGOs and designers all working towards dismantling the harmful effects of fast fashion. Major brands and retailers have signed on to agreements such as the 2013 Accord on Fire and Building Safety and formed working groups like the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. While the impact of these efforts is disputed, consumers are increasingly demanding supply chain transparency from the big brands.

These discussions and developments are promising but have a distinctly global focus. What, we may ask, is happening closer to home? And how do we make changes if we're not well-known designers, representatives of international brands or supply chain managers?

An alternative approach to challenging fast fashion is developing alongside the global awareness-raising efforts and it's taking a distinctly grassroots form.

The visionary and the movement

The Fibershed movement (or Fibreshed in Canada) is about building socially and environmentally regenerative local textile economies. Envisioned by Rebecca Burgess, a natural dye artist and educator from Marin County in Northern California, a Fibershed is like a watershed: it takes a whole-systems-approach to the environmental and social realities of a bioregion.

In January 2016, while speaking at the Etobicoke Handweavers and Spinners Guild, Burgess described her grassroots work with communities abroad, her mounting concerns around climate change and eventual realization that, "rather than addressing someone else's environmental reality, I had to take responsibility for my own backyard." For a natural dyer, clothing and textiles seemed a logical next step. In 2010 Burgess committed to one year of wearing clothes, from undergarments to outerwear, made from materials and skill gathered from within 150 miles of her home. The challenge, in a country that had relocated abroad most of its garment and textile manufacturing over the last 30 years, was daunting. Burgess was launched into the hidden world of farmers and artisans who still knew how to transform raw materials into finished garments.

Slowly Burgess acquired a local wardrobe that saw her through the (admittedly less harsh) California year. Felted vests and coats, loose knit merino summer sweaters, hand-dyed skirts and a series of leg warmers each came to represent an intricate web of stories stretching from the field to her closet. Her adventures, which were documented on YouTube, caught the imagination of textile workers, farmers and processors across North America. From Burgess' tangible passion a movement was born.

A soil-up approach

As globalization took hold in the 20th century, many local-focused movements have ebbed and flowed. The Fibershed movement is unique in its soil-based perspective on locality and fashion. Through programs like the Citizen Science Protocol and the Climate Beneficial Wool[TM] initiative, Fibershed truly starts at the ground-level; exploring the relationships between soil improvement, carbon sequestration and fibre production.

Citizen Science Protocol, done in partnership with UC Davis' Gaudin Lab, gives farmers and ranchers access to soil sampling, which establishes baseline soil carbon level on their lands. With this baseline in hand, producers can track year-over-year carbon capture (or release) based on land management practices.

The intention of the Citizen Science Protocol is to encourage farmers to join Fibershed in addressing climate change from the ground-up. Fibershed producer members are given access to free soil sampling through UC Davis, education in carbon farming practices and assistance developing carbon farming plans.

The fibre from sheep that are raised on intentionally carbon-farmed lands has been termed Climate Beneficial Wool[TM]. The wool itself becomes the expression of carbon pulled out of the atmosphere and sequestered into a rejuvenated soil structure. By increasing carbon draw-down from the atmosphere through the managed pastures and rangelands of fibre animals and sequestering carbon in their soils with mulch and manure applications, producers actively contribute to climate change alleviation.

This regional climate-beneficial textile system comes full circle with sustainably-focused local processing and manufacturing that makes garments capable of being composted after years of wear and repair.

Fibershed's full system approach also incorporates a multitude of educational programs and industry efforts ranging from traditional indigo fermentation to the Grow Your Jeans project that created full circle denim from local, organic cotton. North Face has even jumped aboard with the Backyard Project, a series of garments that uses local California climate beneficial wool and cotton literally grown in their backyard. Add to all of these initiatives a strong community building approach that hosts workshops, a yearly Wool Symposium, an interactive USA mill inventory and the dynamic energy behind this movement becomes apparent.

Community-supported cloth

Perhaps Fibershed's most interesting project to date is the Community Supported Cloth (CSC) project. Expanding on the Citizen Science Protocol and carbon-farming planning, the CSC begins the task of reestablishing the missing links in the bioregional production system via crowdfunding.

In November 2016 consumers at Fibershed's annual Wool Symposium were offered the first public opportunity to pre-purchase yards of locally raised, Climate Beneficial Wool[TM] cloth. Known as Lani's Lana, the Rambouillet wool is raised on Bare Ranch in Surprise Valley, California. Due to missing local infrastructure the wool is scoured in North Carolina and spun in Maine, returning to California for weaving at the newly formed Houston Textile Company in Sacramento using vintage looms.

During the Wool Symposium consumers pre-purchased their yardage and were asked to report back after using the product. How did it wash? What was it good for? Did it felt? Take the dye? Sew up well? All of this information was being collected for the following year's production run. In addition to collectively funding the project, consumers became prosumers, or productive-consumers actively involved in (rather than simply consuming) the cloth as a developing bioregional system.

The Upper Canada Fibreshed

Clearly, interesting work is being done in California, which from a global perspective is practically next-door. The Fibershed movement has produced 40 plus affiliates around the world with 3 in Canada: the Sunshine Coast Fibreshed, the Upper Canada Fibreshed and the Atlantic Canada Fibreshed.

Ontario's Upper Canada Fibreshed (UCFS) was founded in 2015 by Becky Porlier and Jennifer Osborn. Porlier, UCFS's director, was inspired by Burgess' initial 150-mile wardrobe and watched with interest as the Fibershed movement took shape. "I was already working on food security and seeing the positive impacts that localization could have on rural economic life", says Porlier. "Seeing Rebecca apply the thinking we were already using around local food to her clothes made perfect sense to me. I had this lightbulb moment and knew I had to do something similar here at home."

Jennifer Osborn, who met Porlier at the Guelph Organic Conference in 2015, is a shepherd in Grey County who began her career as an artist. Her attraction to systems thinking and eventual training in permaculture made Fibershed's full-circle approach to fibre and agriculture a natural fit. Together Porlier and Osborn began developing a network of local producers, processors and artisans all working with local fibres and textiles.

According to Osborn, the Fibershed movement offers fibre farmers a voice. "I think, for farmers like me, the opportunity to have your voice heard is so needed, to show folks what you're growing and how it's useful and valuable. (Upper Canada) Fibreshed gives us a chance to connect with people in the city that might not know that we're out here, raising sheep and producing excellent, hardy wools with many applications."

Farm-fresh fleece in the city

That urban-rural connection is in fact a two-way street. In February 2017, UCFS hosted the first annual LandMade event at Toronto's Gladstone Hotel. Organized by UCFS producer member Melinda Ramsay of Lickety Spit Farm, LandMade's premise was simple: allow fibre farmers direct access to urban-based fibre artists and makers. Ten UCFS producer members signed on to the project and drove to Toronto one snowy Sunday with loads of fleece, roving, and yarns to set up a small popup shop.

The turn-out at LandMade took UCFS organizers and producers completely by surprise. At least 500 urban dwellers flocked to the event, eager to talk to actual farmers and discover more about local fibre production. Handspinning instructors and knitters gave mini--lessons in the maker circles, offering encouragement, inspiration and opportunity to connect with local fibre art Guilds. By closing time, many tables originally loaded with fleece were bare.

Compared to the immense scale of the global textile and fashion industries, Fibershed and the UCFS are admittedly miniscule. Fibershed in California, although larger and better-funded, functions largely on community spirit. UCFS, which is entirely volunteer-run, certainly has more passion than resources. The learning curve for all members of the Fibershed movement is steep. The field-to-fashion believers are surrounded by detractors who still believe that bigger is better and that the human and and environmental cost of fashion is unavoidable.

But Fibershed members carry on and are gaining recognition. Field to Fashion, a short documentary film on the UCFS by Katia Trudeau, won the TVO Short Doc Contest 2017 People's Choice Award and placed second overall. In June 2017, UCFS producers and Toronto-based Upper Canada Weaving created a handwoven blanket for HRH Prince Charles. The blanket was, rather appropriately, presented to Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall Camilla Parker-Bowles at the Prince Edward County farmers market.

In Toronto in November 2017, Jennifer Osborn and Peggy Sue Deaven-Smiltnieks made a presentation on local wool, its properties and realities for production, at the World Ethical Apparel Roundtable (WEAR2017), the only apparel and textile industry conference focused on sustainability and business. And in January 2018, UCFS representatives spoke at the Guelph Organic Farming Conference, presenting on The Farm to Fashion Runway panel.

The locavore approach

Much like the local food movement, the Fibershed movement has tapped into our human yearning for connection to land and people that we can't get from fast fashion, or even globally produced sustainable fashion.

Ultimately, UCFS and the Fibershed movement brings the sustainable fashion movement home. It is the locavore approach to fashion. Focused on building our connections with the skills, the materials and the land, the Fibershed movement is slowly recreating supply chains in our rural communities. But it also reminds us of our human textile heritages, and that our clothes are durable and tactile representations of our relationship with our ecosystems and social systems.

Sarah Jean Harrison is an eco-advocate, sustainability explorer and ethical fashionista practicing #prforgood at Peace Flag House. Find her at @peaceflaghouse and

Caption: The Canada 150 blanket was handcrafted by artisans in the Upper Canada Fibreshed and presented to HRH Prince Charles in Prince Edward County last summer.

Caption: Flaxfield: Tap Root Farms inNova Scotia is redeveloping flax processing to make linen products:
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Author:Harrison, Sarah Jean
Publication:Alternatives Journal
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 22, 2018
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