Indigo dye

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Try Soil-To-Soil


As fashion reckons with its bad habits, many interested in a more sustainable way to get dressed are reckoning with their own, striving to buy less—and better. In 2010, Rebecca Burgess founded Fibershed, a system of regional and regenerative fiber systems that seeks to build the wardrobe by hand (via regionally grown fibers, natural dyes, and local talent). Here, Burgess speaks with Cameron Russell on how Fibershed has gone from a personal project to something of an industrial revolution.


Rebecca Burgess is the founder and executive director of Fibershed, a nonprofit focused on developing regional and regenerative fiber systems. Fibershed was born out of Burgess’ year-long personal challenge to only wear clothing made from locally grown fibers and dyes, milled, spun, cut, and sewn entirely by local labor (herself included). Today, there are over 53 fibershed communities across the globe—including the United States, Canada, India, England, and Australia.


The nonprofit Burgess runs in Northern California is blooming. They are running educational programs for children and adults, coordinating citizen researchers, and producing research that has informed and instigated radical changes in institutions—from the largest textile corporation in the world to the smallest public school garden plot. And they’re supporting the revival of local fiber manufacturing and strengthening urban and rural connections. Next up: opening a learning center.


Recently, Burgess generously gave me some of her time before she went to plant indigo, which she explained goes to seed very quickly, and needed to get in the ground as soon as possible.

Cameron Russell

Before we dive into Fibershed, I wonder if you would tell me about the lineage of your work?

Rebecca Burgess

The lineage is at its core familial. My father’s family moved from Nauvoo, Illinois to Southern Utah through Mormon pioneering in the 1800s. They had a shingle mill, they ran sheep through high mesas and down into low bottom lands at different times of the year. A foundational part of my lineage is being from “The West.” And, you know, the West was colonized through violence and land theft.


My work is trying to deconstruct and decouple the colonial—and what I can do to remedy that lineage—from the part where we really knew how to be on landscapes, knew about animal husbandry, how to preserve food, how to take care of our health through herbal medicine, how to build our own homes… In all of that pioneering, I’m trying to tease out what is good from what is injurious from my lineage.


Your story of building a fibershed began when you started to grow indigo in Northern California as part of your year long local wardrobe challenge. When I was reading your account of the lengthy process of arriving at indigo dye—planting, harvesting, leafing and drying stems, stomping, composting and fermentation, weekly pile turning—I was reminded of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets book and the deep commitment you both share to the color blue.


What about blue inspired the stubborn obsession needed to persist in this highly complex endeavor? Is it identifiable? Is it a feeling?


Since I was a child I’ve always said blue was my favorite color. Also, part of my nature is if something is rarefied or difficult, I’m always looking for ways to make that accessible, doable. I want to know how to take something that’s been turned into a cadmium fossil fuel cyanide bomb, which is what synthetic blue is, and decouple the color from the toxicity, and then find a way to make that more ecological process at least understandable to myself, and then share it. This takes hard physical labor and it’s got a lot of complexity, it’s working with microbes and bacteria, and I just felt compelled to figure it out. Because I just don’t think color should be coupled with pain and toxicity and abuse. Indigo blue is beautiful. Why is it not systemically beautiful? Why is it not providing healthy water systems? And this form of blue is damaging, and so it just seemed fair to the color to try to pull it out of that.


It is such a difficult process. In Tokushima, Japan, where the tradition I work in came from, farmers would wear blue because they grew it. They would dye clothing they would wear and it would be a natural mosquito repellent, so it allows you to work in the fields effectively. They would take a farmworker gown as it tattered, and turn it into smaller and smaller garments, eventually wearing whatever was left as face masks and handkerchiefs. Finally, when it could no longer be of use, the remainder would be burned in a field and that also created an insect repellent.


If you weren’t a farmer you could only afford blue if you were extremely elite because it was so tenuous to get. So I think about how we treat material now, and I think about what would be different if those who do the work to make something, if they got to wear it—and they were some of the only ones who got to. I question why we need everything to be ubiquitous. What does equity mean? Does equity mean we all have access to things even when it undermines the ability of communities of producers to have things? Even if we’re undermining our position on the planet? I think: What if the people who toiled the hardest got to wear that color? And if you want to wear that color, you gotta put the work in!


In your book you quote slow food movement founder and farmer Carlo Petrini saying, “A firm defense of quiet material pleasure is the only way to oppose the universal folly of Fast Life.” And I think it’s interesting that in your deep commitment to economic and climate justice, you’ve picked natural dyes as your main crop and fiber and fashion as your industry. I think it can be argued these are essential in some ways, but in other ways, often superfluous. Most of us have more than enough clothes and we don’t require that our clothes are blue for survival. Can talk about why fashion—and maybe where pleasure falls in all your thinking about how to build and arrive at a more just and regenerative world?


Fundamentally, creating systemic beauty from the soil all the way to the skin gives us so many opportunities to reconstruct our relationship with natural systems regardless of the material outcome. Fashion and textiles are a portal. If you are attracted to the system of making textiles, you have a way in to helping people understand their role in the ecosystem. You see chefs going on a whole journey back to the soil, and they’re learning about agriculture, and climate, and justice. Think of, for example, Dan Barber’s Stone Barns work. You see this crucible of learning. Fashion is a place where we could transform the crucible of learning from being How do you make the next avant garde thing? to How do you use fashion as an opportunity to understand systemic beauty?


Maybe the revolutionary idea is that you turn around from the finished product and you start reconstructing all the material processes, and that becomes the art of fashion. Why not try to take the energy for the vanguard and put it back into microbes, back into soil? We need you. We need your creativity. Your thinking. People who are very aesthetically driven, toward beauty, the creative edge, toward self expression, they have something powerful to offer the climate justice conversation. Applying design thinking to climate justice and economic justice, there is power in that marriage.


The textiles are superfluous in many ways because we have enough. But maybe it’s not about more, not about production, not about trying to keep up with normal consumer demand… we’re not trying to meet that, but we could, and should, take more time to also creatively empower farming and ranching communities in this work; the marriage of designer and farmer. Imagine people coming together in a direct relationship, removing opaque commodity markets. When the rancher and the designer are in the room together all of these amazing cultural healing things start to happen. Rural and urban communities start to have an opportunity to have a creative process.


Fashion is a platform for people to co-create. We don’t have regional economies that push us together anymore. We no longer come together to make shelter or to build food systems, we are so devoid of teamwork. And that’s allowing us to start screaming at each other on social media. Under climate disruption, we’re going to need social connective tissue to solve basic issues of survival. We need to exercise the muscle of coming together. Fashion just becomes a place to explore camaraderie and solidarity.


You have described Fibershed textile cultures as durable and resilient by design. At the same time, the last century has seen so many small farms, small producers, and local fashion and textile cultures wiped out. Why do you say they are resilient? Can you give examples of this resiliency?


The fact that they still exist is why I would call them resilient. The fact that they survived NAFTA and CAFTA, that some have survived global food and fiber trading systems. The fact that there is anyone left under this political and economic situation is a signal of their durability. All we’ve been doing is stripping them of power and devaluing them by not recognizing their offerings. What that helps remind me of is that our position on earth is very fragile. The closer you get to the roots of a food and fiber system, away from consumer society, into production society, the more you start to realize how vulnerable we all are. This community of survivors is as durable as it gets, within the context of overwhelming fragility in the human experience and the systems we’ve created. One flood, one drought, one disease. We’re here on a thread. We have to love it and appreciate it.


This moment in history, a global pandemic Arundhati Roy called “a portal,” presents both opportunity and immense challenge. What do you see as the biggest opportunities and challenges? And how has your work changed during COVID-19?


I have a sense of opportunity in that I see our regional fiber manufacturing initiative that we launched before COVID, where we’re focused on uplifting mills and processing centers in our community that might be very very small and need capital resources to grow to the magic middle. They’re not monoliths but they’re not so small that their prices aren’t prohibitive. Milling infrastructure size and scale is very definitive in setting price points for finished goods.


We’ve got the farming down. We know how to heal soil. It’s a huge amount of work, but we know what we have to do. But milling… COVID ushered in this Oh my gosh, we have no idea how to make things ourselves.


We’re going to have meat shortages and it’s not because there aren’t animals on the field, it’s because abattoirs, the slaughterhouses, have been centralized and consolidated, often internationally. They are not mom and pop shops anymore, so, how do we process animals locally? Same with textiles: the milling is centralized.


People are waking up to consolidation and the effects on food and textiles. So what’s a solution? Decentralization is resilient and durable, especially now. When COVID shut down China, we had all these Western brands that couldn’t import the textile that needed to be cut and sewn in surrounding countries. All those supply chains got discombobulated. We realized, they can’t even get their textile out of China to Myanmar. They’ve centralized where they can cut and sew. The system has gone to where it’s cheapest. All the parts it can exploit. The system has taken the most expensive parts of the supply chain and cloistered them in communities where they can pay people very little. So, when you couldn’t transfer textiles, the system broke. Then you see Bangladesh: they have finished units, and the West shuts down, and nobody is paying for finished goods. The mills have leveraged themselves and the brands aren’t paying. So now people realize, Wow, there’s not enough connective tissue in this community.


Through experiences where I’ve had an opportunity to learn from First Nation community members, it has become clearer to me that there is an inherent level of exploitation that occurs when production and consumption are separated; (consumption done in one community and production done in another). This chasm between production and consumption is the chasm of exploitation. And a light is being shone on it real hard on that exploitation. Women in Bangladesh, say “I’d rather die of COVID instead of starvation—let me sew.” That’s not okay.


We can’t forget what happened during this time. We need to rebuild systems that are accountable to each other. It’s going to be a gentle transition. Europeans and American in one day aren’t going to do everything by themselves overnight. But we could gently start re-appropriating some of our capital resources to rebuild manufacturing. We could start to strengthen soil to skin supply chains near high levels of consumption, near urban areas. Shrink transportation miles. We need new systems for people to exchange goods and services. This aggressive form of capitalism needs to be in the compost pile. Why do we have an asset class? Why are we all not involved in the production cycle on some level?


There are now over 53 Fibershed communities internationally. Your thinking is, in one respect, very local, but in another, you’re part of a global revolution, and you’re a very visible leader in the regenerative transformation our industry must go through to survive. How do you act as a leader and maintain the importance of local leadership and local knowledge/insight as this movement spreads?


Lead by doing what’s best for your own community and support others to do the same. Our strategies and approaches in our regions will naturally be varied, and the leadership model is about respecting the inherent dignity of place based wisdom.


In Fibershed you wrote, “In 2009, any personal actions that generated alternatives to 
fossil carbon dependency felt like the most appropriate thing to do. To this day I remain confident in a ‘both-and’ commitment to individual behavior change in tandem with support of large-scale intersectional and bipartisan climate justice movement-building efforts.”


The complexity of what we can do as individuals feels so pressing. Just last month, an article published by Rolling Stone talked about how despite the incredible slow-down of individuals during COVID, emissions only dropped 5.5%, highlighting that reducing personal footprints really can’t make the difference—that it’s structural changes that need to take place to keep us on a path to a habitable earth.


How do you understand where these two truths meet: the necessity of systemic change, and the role we all play as individuals? How do you understand it for yourself? And how do you talk about it as a teacher?


Practicing individual resiliency, like teaching yourself more hands-on skills, I always see as a platform for understanding what you’re consuming. It re-sensitizes you. The individual actions, composting, planting a few vegetables, knitting, that make you start to realize, “Oh, this is very challenging. These aren’t easy things to do. They take dedication, persistence, perseverance, commitment.”


Doing that work is exercising a muscle. It’s integrating your brain, your hands, and your nervous system, teaching your whole self what persistence is. Sure, you’re probably not going to feed yourself with an urban backyard, but you’re going to contribute to your own understanding in ways that are useful in a policy conversation and in your role as a citizen.


Many people saw the Sanders campaign, for example, as “Oh, we’re going to get this guy in office, and yes, he’s saying Not me, us,” but at the same time you have a lot of people hinging all their hopes on him. But no, it really is us. If you want Medicare For All, free public college, if you want all the things they have in Scandinavia, etc. it’s going to take persistence and perseverance—and that’s not just an intellectual process. The whole body and mind have to be very connected to understand what it is to pick yourself back up and try again. The garden teaches you that. Knitting teaches you that. Pick your home studies skill. You will fail and try again and then you may find success and then you may fail. In a bigger movement building process you don’t get that immediate feedback. We have to put ourselves in experiences where we are learning and growing. They are critical for a longer term future.

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