Fibershed’s Rebecca Burgess: “What Do Clothes Have To Do With Agriculture?”

Through developing regional and regenerative fibre systems, Fibershed are on a mission to redefine the relationship between our clothes and the land. Charlotte Turner spoke to founder Rebecca Burgess about how best the fashion industry can be inspired by agricultural practices.   “What do clothes have to do with agriculture?”  As it happens, a lot. And it’s a question that Rebecca Burgess asks in her new book Fibershed: Growing a Movement of Farmers, Fashion Activists, and Makers for a New Textile Economy. “Think of it like food,” she explains. “Our food system has become fairly industrialised and there are so many things that people are asking because of health issues. Well, some of the chemical compounds that we’re concerned about in our food are also used to grow fibre crops.” Rebecca herself is the founder of the Fibershed movement and a self-trained natural dyer, cultivating natural dye plants and developing dye recipes in North Central California. Before this, she earned a liberal arts degree focusing on art history, culture and nature – “looking at art as a lens to understand economic and political history.” It is clear that her background has given her a refined understanding about how to relate to the landscape in a respectful way, contributing to her work within the movement.

So, what actually is a Fibershed? Be it a farm or a ranch, the movement brings together regional, soil-to-soil initiatives with the aim of connecting people to the local landscape where the fibres that make their clothes were grown. There are currently 44 active affiliates around the world, operating on a volunteer basis. “The Fibershed movement is a response to the opaque and in many cases exploitative system that’s been producing our second skin,” explains Rebecca. “It focuses on localising the systems that clothe us – primarily the fibres and natural dyes, but also appropriate technologies. You might not expect this to be the driver behind an agricultural system,” she continues, “but when you delve deeper it becomes clearer.”

In many cases, the movement’s ethos comes down to strengthening communities and celebrating what has been present for generations. It wants to reconnect the fashion industry to the land on which its resources are grown, encouraging sustainable, regional farming practices that build soil carbon stocks and ultimately create climate-positive clothing. “I feel that we need to wake up to the beauty and incredible dynamism under our feet,” Rebecca explains. “To me, real luxury is to have clothing that is beautiful but tethered to a land ethic at the same time. I don’t know what could be more beautiful than what fashion does with materials, and when you add that true connection to nature – a real reverence and respect for it – you get the best of both worlds.”

The book is largely inspired by her own lived experience in a Fibershed in North Central California. “There’s nothing like working with people on farms and ranches and in the design community, with all these skills,” she recounts. “It’s really inspiring to be around skilled humans and share skills with to produce things as fundamental as your second skin. My whole map of my region is mapped out by heritage fibres and dyes. I think anyone who engages in a Fibershed starts to grow that map in their head.”

Yet in practical terms, how can farming and fashion work together to create garments that truly benefit the planet? It all comes down to how we treat the soil where the fibre crops are grown.The earth’s natural system below ground (which is more complicated and diverse than anything above ground) means we shouldn’t need to use synthetic chemicals for soil health and to fertilise crops; nature can do it on its own.The earth is inhaling and exhaling, taking carbon from the atmosphere and turning it into liquid carbon – or food. 

And it’s there that the solution to climate change exists. “If we increase the carbon under the soil by 2% on all the farmland and working landscapes on this planet, we could offset 100% of all annual greenhouse emissions going into the atmosphere,” explains Rebecca, quoting a statistic by Dr. Rattan Lal, one of the preeminent soil scientists in the world based at Ohio State university.

The movement has gained popularity, largely due to the fact that it is very easy for businesses and individuals alike to relate to thanks to a shared, innate connection to the land that we live on. “People who make decisions about the sustainability agenda are often very well trained academically and know technical issues well, but they’re also individuals who live on land, who have families, and are part of communities. I’ve found even in the leadership of these brands, the movement speaks to them as well.”

While Rebecca recognises that the movement still needs the support of large luxury brands in order to properly get it off the ground, the support of individuals is also integral to the its success; and this starts with how we look at our own wardrobes. Rebecca suggests extending the number of times we wear each garment, as well as investing in quality pieces that are going to be timeless and versatile. She also urges us to begin to ask questions about the labels on our clothing. “Prioritise materials like flax, hemp, and Fair-Trade organic cotton,” she urges. “If the ingredient list on the tag doesn’t tell you something, the next thing to do is ask. If we curate our wardrobes well we have the opportunity to support a lot of the industries that people say we can’t scale up.”

“If we all slowed down, mended our clothes and developed garment recycling systems,” she continues, “I would argue that there’s a huge conversation about whether we actually have enough natural fibres and natural dyes to clothe human populations already. In terms of natural fibres and dyes, there’s still a space to analyse what we need from earth’s arable land, that could actually clothe us, because I do think we have that possibility. However, we’ll never get there if we keep letting fast fashion brands tell us that we need to consume at the rate we are.”

So, will it ultimately be through reconnecting to the natural landscapes in which our clothes begin their lifecycles that saves both us and the planet from the fast fashion cycle? Rebecca is positive about the future of the movement.“Any time we put our energy and attention somewhere things blossom. We need to remind ourselves that humans can be amazing contributors to planetary health and wellbeing. We can help make this planet the place that we all in our hearts want it to be.” 

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