The following excerpt is from Rebecca Burgess’ book Fibershed: Growing a Movement of Farmers, Fashion Activists, and Makers for a New Textile Economy (Chelsea Green Publishing, November 2019) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Similar to the organic and Slow Food movements, the Fibershed movement began small. In isolated pockets beginning in the United States, individuals and organizations began to envision an alternative to the inequitable business-as-usual model of garment manufacture and disposal. Some of the early leaders of this movement were motivated by the human and environmental toll being taken on their communities by the industrial clothing system; some were textile artisans who simply loved the feel and look of natural fibers and dyes; some were local economy organizers looking for ways to expand development opportunities for small businesses; some were environmental advocates concerned about energy use, carbon footprints, and climate change; and some were farmers and ranchers looking for venues to bring their products to the marketplace.
Over time these isolated pockets grew, as people began to beta-test their ideas and implement fiber and dye practices where they lived, often by linking with like-minded individuals, until a threshold was reached and a movement was born. There were many pathways to this threshold.
My personal journey began during a summer teaching job in 1998 at the Arts and Crafts Center of the University of California–Davis. Inspired by an interest in textiles passed to me by a great-grandmother and mother who were talented seamstresses, I intended to hone my skills while also learning how hands-on education can be designed to empower the next generation. I had enrolled in a series of courses offered through a new interdisciplinary Nature and Culture program at the university, and that summer the center hired me to provide classroom education in textile arts for eight- and nine-year-old children, which included the dyeing of their garments. Prior to the start of class, I found myself planning my curriculum with the gloves, dust masks, and disposable aprons that I had been given by the center’s staff for the textile-dyeing process. Each time the children and I worked on a textile project, we suited up in plastic before opening up our jars of colorful powder dyes and spooning heaping mounds of the chemicals into vats of water, being careful to not let the powders touch our skin or get into our eyes or lungs. After we finished dyeing the shirts, the students and I would pour the remaining dye down the drain.
As I cleaned the classroom after our group sessions, I began to won- der: Why were we doing this? Where had these powders come from? If we were prohibited from coming into contact with them during the dyeing process, why was it all right to pour the liquid residue down the drain and then wear the dye-soaked T-shirt next to our skin? I asked friends and fellow teachers what they knew about the chemical source of these dyes, receiving a great many I don’t knows in response. Then the director of the Arts and Crafts Center shared a recently published master’s thesis by Rachel Stone, a graduate of the university’s design department. Titled Opening Pandora’s Box of Colors, the thesis described the crude oil and coal tar refinement processes that form the molecular foundation for the synthetic colors I’d been using with the children.
After deepening my understanding of the implications of synthetic dye use, I decided to search for alternative substances that I could put to use in the classroom. A query on the internet (Ask Jeeves in those pre-Google days) provided a hopeful answer: plant-based dyes. Shortly I found myself at our local food co-op purchasing cabbage and beets, as well as collecting onion skins from the bottom of the onion bin. I rode my bike along the greenbelt to collect blackberries and dandelion leaves. At that time I had not read any natural dye books and had never been personally exposed in action or word to any natural dye processes. I decided I’d learn with the students; together we’d figure out how to cook our cabbage, beets, onion skins, and berries to make our own natural colors.
In class we dyed our clothing, ate the beets, and poured the residue water onto the lawn after it had cooled. The process was incredibly easy, and the curious students began to ask questions about every plant and tree around them. Soon we found ourselves walking across campus identifying species by name and gathering leaves and stems while conjuring up hypotheses on which plants we thought would yield what colors. Needless to say, the dust masks were put away, the plastic aprons were recycled, and we no longer had any use for the disposable gloves. Our textile arts class became the ecology of color course. A new curriculum was born that summer, and a new way of living with the natural world had been sparked for the children and myself.
I continued my natural dye experiments and began taking weaving courses at the university. A new question formed: How do I get deeply connected to color and form in a real and meaningful way? How do I get to the “backbone” of color? In the summer of 1999, a friend gave me a book by Canadian dyer Trudy Van Stralen that explained how to use plant and insect species from Europe, Central America, and South America that have a long history as sources of natural dyes, including indigo, madder, and cochineal. Van Stralen also highlighted many local and easily accessible species such as marigolds and onion skins. Inspired by what I was reading, I began to replicate what I was learning and soon developed a hands-on approach to plant-based dye experimentation. During summer and spring school breaks, as well as after graduating from college, I saved money to support further study with ethnobotanists and artisans who had honed their craft in natural dyeing, including the teachers at Tierra Wools in Los Ojos, New Mexico; Michel Garcia in Provence; Carol Leigh in Missouri; Rose Dedman of the Navajo reservation; and Carol Lee in Wyoming.
In 2005 I traveled to Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia to learn from village-scale textile cooperatives that utilize a multitude of plant sources for dyeing, including morinda root, indigo, mango leaves, and plant species that have no English translation. While traveling through urban centers on my way into the surrounding hills and upland communities, I began to notice that many of the culverts carrying water and effluent were ripe with chemical contamination. I wasn’t sure of the source until I walked across a bridge one day and saw a pipe with pale gray water pouring into a freshwater tributary from a manufacturing site where they were doing synthetic dye work.
While studying in villages near the Mekong River on the border between Thailand and Laos, I witnessed ceremonies held by community members who celebrated specific moments on the agricultural calendar by wearing symbolic garments that were in some cases the exact same ones worn two or three generations earlier honoring the same date. There had been no cultural push to acquire extraneous garments in the intervening years in these communities. The ceremony reflected the deep consideration that had gone into honing the right garment for the exact life experience a person was encountering. The creation and use of textiles that I experienced in these Thai villages was formative for me. It compelled me to reflect on how these values could be translated to my home region and involve a similar level of connection among color, texture, form, use, and landscape itself.
The cycle of learning and teaching is a continuous process in my life. Whatever I learn and synthesize, I quickly want to share widely with others (always with permission from those who taught me). So upon my return, I found myself developing a curriculum for a local museum in my longtime home, the Bay Area. I titled it Ecological Arts, and its purpose was to help children develop hands-on skills in the practice of growing and naturally dyeing their own clothes. Students analyzed every fiber and dye they used through a social and biological lens with the goal of answering key questions: Where does this plant grow? How is it harvested? Who processed it? For children, this understanding of textile culture was best translated through story and tactile experience; tales of the history of silk and tufts of wool were woven together, summer after summer.
As a young person growing into my own understanding of the world, teaching children such foundational human skills as spinning, felting, weaving, sewing, the respectful harvest of plants, and learning to care for their own natural dye gardens provided a window into our own anthropological evolution. I experienced the contrasts between the material culture of the past and the material culture of today. I’d show a child how to spin fiber from the native dogbane plant, a species that has been in use for millennia in our region and used for twine, string, and fish weirs. I would teach students to use a leg and hand to twist the fiber across their thigh, and I would watch as they had to adjust their slippery polyester pants to get the correct traction for the task. I taught them to hand-stitch a patch in order to mend a hole in their clothing, noting the irony that the child was dressed from head to toe in fossil-fuel-derived clothing produced eight thousand miles away by workers not much older than they were.
I watched my students grow into self-reliant, creative, and intellectually stimulated human beings. But a question also arose in my mind: Where in our culture could their new skills be practiced and advanced? Within their modern economy and culture, it was very likely that my students would not have the privilege of time to mend their own clothes, make their own handspun yarns, or work on a farm to further their understanding of the genetic diversity of our fiber system. Instead they would likely experience the pressure to keep up with the high-cost and high-volume expectations of modern living, becoming increasingly dependent upon the consumption of cheaply made things whose biological source (if there was one) would remain deliberately obscure. I wished my students would find a way to remain craft-focused, but the odds were stacked against them. I wondered how many young people would end up like me, searching for wild blackberries on a college campus to dye a T-shirt because they, and everyone around them, had forgotten they didn’t actually need to use a costly and human-health-degrading carcinogen to color their clothes.
Rebecca Burgess, M.ed, is the executive director of Fibershed, chair of the board for Carbon Cycle Institute, and the author of Harvesting Color. Her newest book is Fibershed: Growing a Movement of Farmers, Fashion Activists, and Makers for a New Textile Economy (Chelsea Green Publishing, November 2019). Find out more at www.fibershed.org.