Origins, Materials, and Connections

 

This spring, I explored cotton growing in the US—I interviewed organic farmers in Texas, read some fascinating history, and pulled seeds out of a cotton boll to try spinning them myself. Most of that research went into an article for Seamwork, which comes out today. It also ties in well with what I’ve been thinking about around the one Year, one Outfit project, which was the reason I bought local(ish) cotton fabric in the first place, and got curious about where it came from. I’m coming up on a full year since I jumped into that project, and I’d like to talk a little more personally here about what I’ve gotten out of it so far.

For #1year1outfit I pledged to buy new fabric only if it was made in the US, and the fiber was organically grown or otherwise considered sustainable. It’s easy to see a choice like that as restrictive, claustrophobic, or even self-righteous. But like a lot of similar times, I found that I was more creative because of the limitations I had set. I learned a lot, because the project encouraged me to look more deeply into everything from the environmental impacts of textile production to what it’s like to be a cotton farmer. But the best thing I got out of it was a feeling of connectedness and participation with the people, plants and animals that make what I do possible.

 

TOCMC cotton 1

I’d like to sincerely thank Kelly Pepper of the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative, who was so helpful in connecting me with farmers, answering questions, and also lent me the use of more great photos of cotton growing than I could use for the article. All photos in this post are courtesy of TOCMC.

 

I read Environmental Impact of Textiles by Keith Slater (borrowed through interlibrary loan). It was full of statistics and graphs as I expected, but also contained insights about the contrast between processing fibers by hand and by machine that I didn’t expect at all. Slater points out that tools for turning fiber into fabric by hand are relatively easy to make, and often operate on human power, burning little or no carbon in the process. Selecting the best quality fibers by hand takes more time and so is more costly, but it results in a better product, less waste, and less energy used. In contrast, the machinery needed to process fibers (“millions of tiny particles of flexible units”) at the speed necessary to satisfy demand must be “massive, complex, and expensive,” use huge amounts of energy, be environmentally costly to make, and concentrate the impacts of production (from noise to waste) in one place.

I learned that one of the most environmentally problematic areas in textile production is dyeing and printing (as well as other chemicals used in manufacturing and finishing fabrics). Most of these substances are toxic and/or carcinogenic, especially the first synthetic dyes developed in the 19th and 20th centuries, and used to be released freely into waste water. Thankfully, at least in the developed world, we now have regulations to protect our water and our textile workers, as well as some less-harmful dyes that have been developed more recently.

Textile production is a relatively small part of worldwide manufacturing and resulting environmental impacts, totaling less than 1% according to Slater, including transportation, machinery, and everything else he could find to calculate. Still it’s an area where we, the consumers, have a lot choice in what we buy, and I believe, we can have a big impact.

Ultimately, what I took away is that nothing comes from “the store,” or goes “away” when we’re done with it, even though our consumer culture very much wants us to believe that it does. Everything has an origin, and is part of a cycle of people and things that includes us, whether we’re aware of the rest of it or not. I want to know my place in that cycle, and respect the other participants in it—both the humans and the animals and plants, the communities and soils that make my life possible.

 

TOCMC cotton 2

 

I just finished reading an amazing book by Robin Wall Kimmerer called Braiding Sweetgrass. It’s kind of heartbreaking, actually, since she spells out what we in the Western world and in the US specifically have done to both the native peoples and the native landscape, and it’s inescapably tragic. But, she also offers a lot of hope, and a vision of how the world could be if we behaved as though we were part of it, participating in and nurturing the ecosystems around us, instead of pretending that we’re somehow separate from the rest of the universe. Of all the beautiful, powerful, potentially life-changing books I’ve read in the last year or two, this is the one I most wish everyone would read, the one that I think might be have the most potential to move hearts into action.

Braiding Sweetgrass reinforced my belief that our choices matter, the little things matter, and also that so very often when we do the best we can for the world around us, it ends up being the best thing for us too, bringing more joy and connectedness to our lives. I believe that a big part of the satisfaction which many of us feel is missing from our lives comes from a lack of participation with the world around us, and that part of how we can bring ourselves into a healthy relationship with the universe we belong to is to participate in its natural cycles as makers and creators. To me, this is the best part of using local and traceable materials; I can visualize the system I’m part of, the fields and farmers who grew the fiber that I’m now sewing and wearing.

 

TOCMC cotton 3

 

After this experience, I can’t go back to using anonymous, supposedly source-less materials—it would just feel so hollow. My year of #1year1outfit is over, but I’ve been changed by this project, by realizing the deeper connections that are possible. Although I may want to work with fabrics or yarns that no one is making near me (or even in the US), I can’t see myself choosing anything that I don’t know how and where it was made, that I can’t picture how it connects me to other hands, and fields, and creatures.

When I started this project, figuring out where my materials came from and tracing things back to the source seemed daunting and confusing. And it’s still true that taking any finished product (even fabric) and figuring out who made it can be nearly impossible. At this point, I’m looking at it more from the other side: what do I know is being made well, and what can I do with it? I’m looking for materials available with origins I trust, and they seem like more than enough to fuel my creativity for quite a while.

 

A few more Resources:

Through TOCMC I found out about Adele Stafford who is doing amazing work hand-weaving and making garments with US fibers, and writing so poetically about it at Voices of Industry.

Sally Fox has been experimenting with growing naturally colored cotton and biodynamic agriculture since the 1980s. She has fabric and yarn at FoxFibre, and pictures on Instagram.

My list of sources for sustainable fabrics is here.

The fabric I printed for one Year, one Outfit is here, the skirt I made from it is here.

 

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Sustainable, American-Made Garment Fabric — I Found Some …

A big announcement, and a list of sources:

Hello dear fellow makers! I’m actually not sure where to start with this … I’m either feeling deadly calm or like I might jump out of my skin. So here goes—sometimes, you just ask the right question to the right person, and then there you are. Remember when I was fed up with the NYC garment district, joined up with One Year, One Outfit, and vowed to contact Imperial Stock Ranch* because they had made a fashion collection using fabrics from wool grown on their ranch and entirely made in USA? Well. I did. Jeanne Carver, who owns the ranch along with her husband, wrote me back. She had some fabric left from the collection (!!). She offered to sell it to me, so I could offer it to you (!!!). Big bolts of two of these fabrics, basically the wool of my dreams, are in a huge box in my studio, and on offer to the whole online sewing community via my Etsy shop, starting today (!!!!). All the details about the fabrics are there.

*The story of the ranch is really amazing, and way too much to tell here.  Check out this article if you’re interested, which also has some nice pictures of Jeanne and her sheep.

 

striped imperial fabric 1My idea was to photograph these fabrics in a way that was fresh and felt personal, giving you an idea of what is would be like to wear them, and also conveying how lovely they are and how fabric like this might be all we need.  But yes, I am wearing clothes underneath …

 

I can’t believe it! Can we jump up and down now?! I’m trying to be calm for another minute or so, because this may in fact not be the most exciting part. The MOST exciting part is that, according to Jeanne, even though only about 7% of the American textile industry that once was remains today, we can still make any kind of fabric we want here in the USA. So, the most important thing you can do to make more fabrics like this a reality (other than, obviously, tell everyone you know, and buy some if you can!) is to tell us what you most want. If we make another run of fabric (a lot of just a few types) with Imperial wool, what would you buy? What would you want to make—a coat? A dress? A suit?! What are the qualities that make a wool fabric special to you?

 

black imperial fabric 1The black fabric is hard to show here but truly lovely.  Check out the listing for more detail photos.

Since Karen asked, and since I feel like we’re really on the cusp of something here—a growing interest in how our fabrics are made and where they come from which I very much want to be a part of—I’m also going to list the other suppliers of traceable, sustainable fabrics I’ve found so far below. I did a lot of this research while looking for fabrics for my One Year, One Outfit project, and I also love how much discussion is going on around this as a result of Slow Fashion October, so here you go:

 

Fabrics Made in USA

Organic Cotton Plus is probably the most comprehensive source I have so far. They have a big “Made in USA” section of organic cotton fabrics grown and processed here. They carry lots of undyed and colorgrown fabrics, both knit and woven.

Alabama Chanin is just all kids of cool, sustainable, and handmade, and they sell American made organic cotton jersey in 50 colors! I haven’t tried it myself yet, but since it’s the same fabric used in their collections it should be awesome.

Vreseis is the shop of Sally Fox, the pioneer of colorgrown cotton in the US. Everything she does is done with so much thoughtfulness. She’s now raising sheep and wheat to make a true biodynamic farm. Her shop offers a few fabrics, as well as yarns and fiber.

O! Jolly! is a newer, smaller, knit-fabric-making operation. Her commitment to sustainability comes through a little more in this interview on Ginger Makes (where I found her) than on her website, but she does offer colorgrown cottons, and lists origins and knitting locations for some of the fabrics, including some new wool knits which list the breed of sheep and that they’re American raised—yahoo!

Honey Be Good also specializes in organic fabrics and has a “Made in USA” section, which as of writing has mostly wooden buttons, and some printed jersey.

 

Fabrics Made Elsewhere

Simplifi Fabric (which I found through Sew Pomona’s list) has a fairly big section of fabrics made in Canada (and a few in the USA).

Hell Gate Fabrics is a new venture from Sonja of Ginger Makes, bringing us fabrics made mostly in Japan, where labor and environmental practices are much better than in many other countries producing textiles.  She plans to expand her selection of organic fabrics as her suppliers do.

The Fabric Store is where I found the organic merino jersey (from New Zealand) I used to make these tops.  It’s holding up well so far!  This store has locations in Australia, NZ, and Los Angeles.  Although they don’t have a full-service website, they do have a very friendly and comprehensive swatch service if you tell them what you’re looking for.

Offset Warehouse carries fabrics from all over, and they are quite transparent about where each fabric comes from and how it was made, if it is certified organic or sustainable, etc. They carry some truly beautiful and low-carbon handwoven/handprinted fabrics from around the world.

Many of the participants in One Year, One Outfit have been doing their own research and listing resources near them. You can find them listed here.

If you’re a nerd like me you can also browse the GOTS listings to find businesses making all kinds of things certified under Global Organic Textile Standards wherever you live. I haven’t made any amazing discoveries by doing this yet, but you never know …

 

black imperial fabric 2Bryan kept coming up with slogans like “fall in love with fabric again” as we were shooting these photos.  I like this one because it feels true, and it reminds me that doing something you feel great about can also be fun.

 

Really, the list of sustainable fabric sources is not as sparse as I thought it would be going in. One thing is clear to me: we make a difference when we choose to buy our materials with some thought and care as to how they’re made! The more demand there is for sustainable fabric, the more of it there can be. So, who’s with me? What’s your dream fabric?! Maybe we can make it happen!