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Fibershed brings local ranchers, makers together for locally made clothing

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In this age of “fast fashion,” one local organization is working to provide an alternative, creating clothes and materials sourced regionally, rather than thousands of miles away.

In 2010, Rebecca Burgess wanted to lessen her carbon footprint after learning how fast fashion (mass-produced inexpensive clothing made quickly, in response to the latest trends) affects climate and workers, from carbon dioxide emissions to unsafe working conditions. Inspired by sustainable, local Asian clothing cooperatives that used nontoxic plant dyes, and by California’s indigenous history of making textiles from regional materials, Burgess committed to a prototype wardrobe sourced and made within 150 miles.

This was her “fibershed” (think “watershed”) — locally-farmed fibers, sustainably made into clothing and composted back into the earth again. Now, her San Geronimo Valley-based Fibershed nonprofit is the nexus of a regional network of ranchers, farmers, weavers, sewers and designers that produce and use wool, cotton and other natural materials to make sustainable clothing from the ground up.

Fibershed also works nationally and globally to provide models for regional networks in other parts of the country and world.

Burgess said even people buying local organic food often don’t know the impacts of mass-produced clothing, from cotton raised with pesticides to dyes to petroleum-based microfibers that don’t decompose and can end up in our waterways.

For her prototype wardrobe, Burgess collaborated with farmers and artisans, showing that clothing could still be produced domestically. Globalization and online shopping have coincided with less clothing produced in the United States. Yet, California has a wealth of natural fiber to make clothes, according to Fibershed. A 2013 study by the organization said California is largest wool producer in the nation, yet without local infrastructure to process it, less than 1% of California’s wool is used in the state, and California is a net importer of wool goods.

Heartfelt Fiber Farm

Fibershed’s network of producers includes many in Sonoma County. Among them is fiber artist Leslie Adkins, who runs Heartfelt Fiber Farm in Santa Rosa with her husband Alden.

The Adkinses have sheep, which they raise for wool, plus a llama, goats and chickens. The retired environmental scientist doesn’t slaughter her livestock for meat, and her unique flock remains together throughout their natural lives, forming close bonds with one another and with their human owners.

“I consider it good-karma farming. Everything has to work together to benefit the earth,” Adkins said on a recent morning. She called out and the sweet-tempered sheep gathered around her, letting her stroke them.

Heartfelt is part of a no-kill Fibershed subgroup Leslie organized that produces “Kinship Fiber.” These smaller farms exchange ideas, seeds and plant cuttings. Adkins’s climate-friendly farm also has solar panels for energy and plants to make natural dyes.

The Adkinses raise a wide variety of sheep, yielding fibers of all colors and textures. Breeds include short-tailed Icelandic sheep with dual coats (a fine undercoat and a water-resistant top coat) and dual-coated Ouessants, the world’s smallest naturally occurring sheep at 18-20 inches tall. They now have 12 natural sheep colors — cream, greys, browns and black — retained from wild ancestors.

Sheep are named on Heartfelt sales tags, bringing one-of-a-kind qualities — including the sheep’s age — to the wool. Adkins makes coasters, hat kits, scarves and felted fleece rugs. She sells her Climate Beneficial wool products through Santa Rosa Veterans’ Building Farmers’ Market, Fibershed’s website and online cooperative Marketplace and by email. People also can visit the farm by appointment.

Wild Oat Hollow

Over in Penngrove, Sarah Keiser also raises sheep and uses their wool to make material as part of Fibershed’s network.

Growing up, Keiser knew she wanted to work with animals. She started with goats — mini Lamancha crossed with Nigerian dwarf.

“They’re about 100 pounds, and are easy to handle and milk, with a mild, quiet disposition,” she said. But sheep are better at mowing pastures, so Keiser bought a couple of Romneys on Craigslist, and as her Wild Oat Hollow farm grew, she added fine fibers like Merino. All her animals, including chickens and pigs, are free-range and pasture-raised.

Keiser’s interest in fiber inspired her to become a Fibershed producer.

“Fibershed allowed me to keep going in a way I probably couldn’t otherwise,” she said. “They’re incredibly competent, progressive thinkers who are bringing everything back locally. The more communities we have, the more successful.”

Recently, Fibershed helped Keiser begin her Penngrove Grazing Project.

Through the project, Keiser and her local partners with livestock rotate their animals among neighbors’ pastures, allowing plants to recover and yielding manure that encourages healthy plant growth.

As with Adkins’s farm, people can visit Wild Oat Hollow. And as with Fibershed, Keiser aims to share knowledge about making sustainable products, through her soap- and lotion-making classes. Keiser also sells her Climate Beneficial wool and products through her website, Fibershed’s producer directory and places like Penngrove Market, Cotati’s Sweet Pea Boutique and Santa Rosa’s Willowside Meats.

Fibershed also helped Keiser complete a carbon-farming plan. She planted hedgerows and willows along her creek and grows organic produce. Her Grazing Project group shares advice and cuttings like alder and elderberry, collaborating on big projects like fences.

“We create diversity together,” she said.

A movement

To facilitate building resilient landscape networks, Fibershed began their annual Wool & Fine Fiber Symposium eight years ago, connecting scientists, farmers, designers, craftspeople and the public. The fall event, with lectures and demonstrations, consistently sells out. Its marketplace, sourced from a 150-mile radius, features yarn, wool, clothing, soaps and home goods made with locally-grown fiber and natural dyes.

Burgess has been called a top environmental “Fixer” by online news outlet Grist, and she and Fibershed have been highlighted in Vogue Business, Modern Farmer and the Sunday Times.

She’s also published a book about the movement she started, “Fibershed,” written with Courtney White. It’s a resource for creating and supporting sustainable regional production and growing and processing natural dye plants and fibers.

Fibershed’s work and advocacy touches on other local concerns, such as fire risk reduction.

“We’ve been in conversations with CalFire about how grazing can meet the precautionary needs of counties. We’re trying to guide them to more sustainable methods,” Burgess said.

“The conversation must be about humanity’s future as part of an ecosystem.”

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