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150 mile wardrobe: local fiber, real color, P2P economy

Except for notions (buttons, zippers, etc), everything in Rebecca Burgess’ wardrobe has been grown and designed within 150 miles of her home. But until putting her closet on a diet one year ago, nearly all her clothing was produced far from home, and that made her a very typical American.

The outsourcing of the American Closet

Over the past half century the U.S. textile industry has been decimated. “In 1965, 95% of the clothing in a typical American’s closet was made in America,” Burgess writes on her blog, “today less than 5% of our clothes are made here.”

Upset by the outsourcing of the American wardrobe, as well as the disconnect this by the waste produced by the textile industry worldwide (it’s the #1 polluter of fresh water on the planet and America’s 5th largest polluting industry), Burgess decided she needed to focus public attention on local fabric, in the same way the food movement had done with local food.

A hyperlocal wardrobe

Inspired by the success of challenges like the 100 Mile Diet, Burgess decided to put her closet on a diet. “And I committed I said I am not going to wear clothes outside of this radius,” she explained while holding her first piece of hyperlocal clothing. “Sometimes I would just be in my house without wearing anything while this one item of clothing was being washed in my bathtub.”

For six weeks she wore one outfit (created from local rancher Sally Fox’s color-grown cotton that Fox had milled back in 1983 before the area lost all of its mills), but then local designers, in collaboration with local farmers, began creating more hand spun/knitted/dyed pieces until her wardrobe had become so complete she even had a naturally-wicking alpaca raincoat.

Rebecca calls her experiment the Fibershed Project, because like a foodshed or watershed, her fibershed- the 150 mile radius of her home- is big enough to provide for all the fibers and dyes necessary to create a diverse wardrobe. She admits she’s lucky to be in Northern California where there are plenty of ranchers raising even alpacas, angoras and mohair goats and where there’s an ideal climate for growing a variety of color-grown cottons.

A local clothing marketplace is born

Rebecca’s 150 mile wardrobe helped motivate local designers and farmers to work together to create hyperlocal product and in the process helped revive a local local textile industry in the San Francisco Bay Area. At least 4 new businesses have started, an online Fibershed Marketplace is launching this fall and Sally Fox has put the doors on the first farm-based, solar-powered, North American cotton mill.

“This whole no jobs thing, like economic downfall, that’s just, to me that’s just understandable that people feel that way but also kind of shortsighted,” explains Burgess as she points out all of the artisans on her Fibershed Project map (i.e. fiber farmer, knitter, weaver, designer, seamstress, felter spinner, cotton farmer, natural dyer, mill owner). “Plants keep growing, sheep keep breeding, the world doesn’t stop just because Wall Street lost a few points”.

Local clothes to disconnect from Wall Street or bring down an empire

While spinning her own wool- to make a bathing suit like her grandmother wore-, she makes the connection between learning to process your own textiles and unplugging from “the imperial global economy” and talked of another point in history where this helped bring down an empire.

“I think what Gandhi did was one of the most brilliant things I could ever imagine anyone ever doing with a drop spindle. I mean to empower his community to use the Indian cotton that the farmers were growing and teach people how to process and teach people how to process homegrown cotton was a way to teach them how to take charge of their own processing and in doing so they were displacing the export market because they were able to process their own cotton. And that, the message there is let’s bring down the English Empire by spinning cotton.”

In this video, we visit Burgess at her dye farm in Lagunitas, California and her home nearby where she shows us her 150-mile wardrobe, including a bicycle-felted vest and a sweater made from the wool of the oldest rancher in the fibershed (a 96-year-old sheep rancher) and the youngest designer (an 18-year-old knitter).