In the '60s, designers like Pierre Cardin and André Courrèges created Space Age garb that defined what people thought "futuristic fashion" looked like for decades. But what if the truth is that the future of fashion actually looks a bit more like the past?
Meeting the researchers, designers, advocates, farmers and artisans who are drawn together by California-based non-profit Fibershed means seeing this vision in action. The clothing they wear is no less influenced by scientific discovery than the iconic designs of the '60s were. But the Fibershed community is more interested in preserving dignified life on our warming home planet than they are in setting up camp in a new corner of the galaxy. As a result, their clothes are a little more, well, earthy.
They wear certified Climate Beneficial wool, created through farming processes that draw down more carbon than they release. They color their own clothes with eucalyptus and indigo and marigold plants, cutting out the need for synthetic petroleum-based dyes. They mend the holes in their jeans with patches so beautiful you might be fooled into thinking them purely decorative. They knit and weave and cut their way into zero-waste clothing patterns. And though they're not on the radars of trend forecasters in Paris or New York, they are quietly building a fashion culture that's far more prepared for the future climate scientists predict.
The entity uniting them all, Fibershed, was founded by Rebecca Burgess in 2010. Born from Burgess's personal project to make her own wardrobe entirely from materials that were grown and produced within a 150-mile radius, Fibershed has grown into a non-profit that mobilizes fiber-producing farms, mills and makers to create hyper-local textile communities that incorporate cutting-edge climate science into their operations.
Almost a decade in, the project has proven that "thinking local" isn't just a nice saying for people who really like farmer's markets. It's a strategic way of responding to the mounting climate emergency.
"What are the stories that the dominant culture of textiles is telling? Without even going into all the statistics, we know that it's grim," Burgess said at Fibershed's biennial Gala in September. "We are a response to the dominant textile culture, and we are a response that's creating a whole new system."
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Fibershed is building that new system in a number of ways. One has to do with research: The non-profit has partnered with scientists at UC Davis to measure the carbon-sequestering power of regenerative farming. Fibershed uses those learnings to equip farmers and ranchers to turn their own operations — which might be growing the wool in your favorite sweater or the linen in your pants — into efficient carbon sinks.
"Since implementation started about two years ago, we're now drawing down carbon at a rate that's equivalent to the emissions created by 400 motor vehicles per year," Burgess says of Fibershed's network of local farming partners. "And if we keep implementing this next year, we'll be drawing down the equivalent of 1,550 vehicles per year."
This kind of regenerative agriculture, dubbed "carbon farming" by Fibershed, has already drawn the attention of big brands. In 2017, The North Face worked with Fibershed to release its first Climate Beneficial-certified wool collection; in 2018, the non-profit hosted symposia on carbon farming and climate beneficial fibers for Stella McCartney.
Fibershed has also taken its findings to state legislators to advocate for policies that reward agriculturalists whose land management practices remove harmful greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. It's created programs to educate design students, hobbyists, and more about the ways that textile creation can be part of the solution to climate breakdown.
Beyond the world of research and policy, Fibershed is doing something that might look humbler but is no less crucial to its mission: building a community that lives out an alternative paradigm for the way clothing can be made and consumed.
If the organization's gala near Petaluma, Calif., this September was any indication, that paradigm marries beauty and utility, art and science, a vision for the future and an appreciation for the past.
Held on a ranch off a dusty road north of San Francisco, the gala honored Native wisdom in the realm of responsible land management while inviting guests to take a "carbon farming tour" to see regenerative agriculture in action. It used a natural dye workshop to provoke conversation about how colonialism shapes our relationship with color. It provided a space for researchers and knitting enthusiasts to learn together how a flax stick becomes linen fiber. It encouraged people to connect over homemade goods and their shared concerns about climate breakdown and a gorgeous spread of local food.
In short, it created a microcosm where the future Fibershed envisions — one in which our clothing is made with care and creativity by people who treat each other and the earth well — could be made manifest.
That future may not look like the one Space Age designers predicted. But it sure looks a lot more like home.
Disclosure: Fibershed provided my travel and accommodations to attend the Fibershed Gala in California.