Introduction: A Regional Textile Renaissance
In 2010, I joined the Slow Money community — a movement focused on moving investment money into local food systems. Not long after, I asked the founder, Woody Tasch, “what about all the other aspects of a local economy; will Slow Money someday expand beyond food?” Tasch responded in the affirmative—that food systems are the place to start, but that of course local economies need more than just food.
Ten years later, the nascent regional textile manufacturing movement is surging, and a crop of authors have been championing this development.
What can we learn from this, and what does it have to do with regenerative agriculture and regenerative economics? In the following, I’ll speak to my own experience with fiber production, I’ll offer reviews of three recent books on the subject, and then transition into an exploration of Regen Network’s work with regenerative fiber.
Context: The Pastoral New England Landscape
Before we can get into the details of regenerative fiber, we must first acknowledge the landscapes which provision for its production.
I hale from rural New England. One of the first things that people tend to notice about the landscape here is its stonewalls. Landscape geologist Robert Thorson estimates that there are over 100,000 miles of stone walls crisscrossing the region. According to terrestrial ecologist Tom Wessels, author of Reading the Forested Landscape, there was a sheep boom in this region that peaked during the era of 1810 to 1840; timber became so scarce that shepherds switched to stone for fencing. With the combination of Westward Expansion and declining yields due to ecological degradation, wool production collapsed in the middle of the century. Much of our river bottom soil deposits in New England come from the last Ice Age, but much of them also come from erosion during the 19th century. Since then, New England has shifted from roughly 70% open to 70% forested.
The pall of ecological collapse looms large over our collective consciousness these days, and, in my place, we have already been through at least one cycle of Colonialism-induced ecological collapse more than a century past.
When romanticizing pastoral life, we would do well to remember that even without industrial machinery, New Englanders were able to compromise the living capital of the region—at least in part, driven by wool production. In a return to fiber regional fiber production, what might we do differently this time? What are the cultures and crafts regarding textiles which we must rekindle if we are to build a regenerative fiber economy?
In my childhood, my two best friends kept small flocks of sheep on their family farms. After high school, I attended a year-long farming and homesteading program at the Farm School. During this time I learned rotational grazing practices, as well as the entire wool production pipeline—from shearing, to washing, to carding, spinning, dying, and knitting.
Since then, I’ve become increasingly curious about regional textile production. I’ve been buying American wool shirts from Ramblers Way up in Maine (dyed with indigo and madder), and jeans from the Hartford Denim Company in Connecticut. Products from both of these garment producers are expensive; and I’ve taken an approach to my wardrobe where I have a limited number of well-made items instead of lots of cheap stuff. I also repair my clothes when they wear out—and wear and tend heirloom items from my father and grandfathers.
To transition into the first book review—what kind of agricultural lifestyles do wool products promote?
“The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape” by James Rebanks
The Shepherd's Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape
The New York Times bestseller and International Phenomenon One of the Top Ten Books of 2015, Michiko Kakutani, The New…
First published in 2015 for a Brittish readership by Allen Lane. Republished for an international audience by Flatiron Books, an imprint of MacMillan Publishing, in 2016.
Rebanks is a shepherd in the Lakes District of the British Isles. His family has been keeping Herdwick sheep for generations.
Back during my Farm School days, the founder of the program, Ben Holmes, took me for a tour of the farm while I was considering enrolling.
It was a wet and dreary day, and Holmes informed me that Farm School would be a place where I could learn the drudgery of farm work.
It is hard to use the word “romantic” to describe such a sentiment, but there is something about the drudgery of farm work that comes through in Rebanks’ writing, and it is clear that Rebanks wouldn’t have it any other way.
There is something that has been working about the way that shepherding has been done in the Lakes District, in that it has been able to endure for centuries. And just to footnote, there is much that we could learn from indigenous fiber crafts that have endured millennia and are still with us today (if under ever-increasing threat).
On the other hand, the shepherding heritage of the Lakes District has been met with its fair share of challenges that tie back to questions of sustainability. In 2001, 25% of the breed was wiped out in an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease—one of the risks of an animal monoculture.
One of the fascinations in the book is all the discussion on breeding. Similar to heirlooms seeds, maintaining a breed is as much an art as a science. The genetic diversity must be kept broad enough so that the breed is vigorous, but not so broad as to diverge from the hallmark traits. The same could be said for plant fiber varietals; much of the diversity and craft around seed saving is on the verge of being lost, and this will affect our plant fiber horizons.
Some of Rebanks’ livelihood comes from the sale of wool, although not nearly such a significant share as his ancestors were a hundred, or even just fifty years ago. Rebanks states that farmers in his region can’t make a livelihood from their agricultural endeavors, and have never been able to do so. Although there is a good bit of truth to this sentiment I find it both disconcerting and depressing to take such economics arrangements as acceptable. Societally, we need to find ways to make agricultural economics work. Our next two books dig a little deeper into this thread on economic viability.
Why is it that wool is comparatively expensive as a fiber, but provides most farmers with such little livelihood?
“Vanishing Fleece: Adventures in American Wool” by Clara Parkes
Vanishing Fleece: Adventures in American Wool
A fast-paced account of the year Clara Parkes spent transforming a 676-pound bale of fleece into saleable yarn, and the…
Published by Harry N. Abrams books in 2019.
Clara Parkes may be the only professional yarn critic.
After decades of working with wool, she decided it was time to explore American wool from sheep to needle through a business venture. This book traces her journey from the purchase of 676-pound bale of wool in 2012 to publication in 2019.
Parkes states that she was setting out on her own Michael Pollan journey, and it was actually off the heels of reading a Pollan book (A Place of My Own) that I came across this title.
Through this book Parkes explores the American wool industry from small to industrial scale, in a number of hands-on field trips. Her writing in engaging and articulate.
You can’t discuss American manufacturing without at least alluding to a subtext of globalization, financialization, neoliberalism, nativism, and wealth inequality. Although this book isn’t political in nature and doesn’t explicitly explore these subjects, it isn’t much of a leap to hear from the mouths of working- and owning-class Americans across the country the ways in which these topics pervade the question of, “why is the American wool industry a ghost of what it used to be?” Groups like the Capital Institute explore this meta-question of domestic manufacturing further in their publication “The Next (Regenerative) Industrial Age.”
This book speaks a bit to the aesthetics of craft. What it is like to make things with our own two hands? What is it like to work with equipment that has seen the generations come and go, and to be able to maintain that equipment on our own? My father has recently set himself up with a woodshed composed exclusively of hand tools, many of them restored from 19th century stock. I myself worked for a year as a tracker organ mechanic (the old style mechanical pipe organs).
There is an inherent value to craft-based ways of life that we shouldn’t look to justify by other ends.
What is it to fall in love with a landscape, with livestock, with a craft?
“Fibershed: Growing a Movement of Farmers, Fashion Activists, and Makers for a New Textile Economy” by Rebecca Burgess with Courtney White
Fibershed: Growing a Movement of Farmers, Fashion Activists, and Makers for a New Textile Economy
A new "farm-to-closet" vision for the clothes we wear--by a leader in the movement for local textile economies There is…
Published by Chelsea Green Publishing in 2019.
Rebecca Burgess’ vocation in building fibersheds (first in California, and now as an advocate for fibersheds nationally and around the world) was inspired by her commitment to source all of her textiles locally for one year. Along the way, Burgess became swept up by the nascent local fiber community, and decided to get her hands dirty in helping build the infrastructure (physical and cultural) necessary to bring about a revolution in what we wear.
Burgess frames the narrative from both poles. On the one hand,
Burgess paints the potential of the vivacity and depth of what our lives and relationship with land and each other could look like aligned around regenerative textile.
On the other, she catalogs the unconscionable damage wrought by the conventional textile industry — from the carcinogenic nature of aniline dyes to the micro-plastics pollution explosion resultant of synthetic fibers.
This book has come out at the perfect time — highlighting the farmers, craftspeople, and artists, bringing about a new way of clothing ourselves, and the new cultures that emerge from such a lifestyle.
Regen Network & Fibershed
I first met Burgess when I invited her to a regenerative dinner I was organizing for Slow Food Nations in Denver in the summer of 2017. Over the intervening years, Regen Network has engaged in a pilot with Fibershed whereby we provide the remote sensing verification of rotational sheep grazing in vineyards in Northern California to infer carbon sequestration rates in these soils.
Fibershed is a California-based non-profit with affiliated chapters around the country, including an affiliate where Regen Network is headquartered in Western Massachusetts. The Greenfield Recorder recently published an article highlighting some of the local work happening here. Fibershed maintains a Producer Directory (which currently highlights primarily California-based projects), as well as an Affiliate Directory listing of similar organizations around the country and internationally.
In preparing this article, I took a call with Burgess. Our conversation roamed from infrastructure development, ownership, and capital structures as reparations, to hemp sleeper cabins to ease the houselessness crisis, to the sentience of ceremonial garb. As with any true real revolution, the endeavor of regenerative fiber touches countless aspects of our society and economy, and true change will be as beautiful as it is nuanced and interconnected.
Conclusion: Weaving the Tapestry
Clothing is a universal and millennia-old form of fundamental self-expression and cultural identify. The cloths we wear communicate stories about our lifestyle, the climate in which we live, and the communities and traditions of which we’re a part.
Textile supply webs also shape far-reaching ecological and economic systems. Is the shirt I’m wearing produced by child labor in the Global South, or by a craftsperson in my region? Is it made of fibers that enhance or degrade the carbon in agricultural soils and the health of the watershed they were grown in? And when it becomes thread-bare, do I send it off to the landfill, or patch it until I need to compost it (which requires 100% natural fibers)?
The ways we answer these questions around wardrobe will determine the future of our fibersheds.