The people of rural Southern Appalachia have a saying: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without”. You could call them the ultimate reuse, restore, recyclers. The immigrants who homesteaded the high ridges of the Appalachian range had to be resourceful — they often arrived with nothing more than an axe, a gun, and an auger. Many were the indentured servants of the Irish guild systems, and after seven years labor they earned their passage to America and followed the Great Wagon Road out into the mountains where there was available land. Their resourcefulness at surviving in the mountains mingled with the local Cherokee ethic of conservation to produce a way of life and a culture that prided itself on self-suﬃciency. Their reverent connection to the land and the belief that nature provided all were integral parts of their simple lifestyle.
I remember the first time I was taught to weave a rag rug on a loom from a North Carolina elder- I was strangely proud of myself, like I had accomplished something important. All I had done was weave scraps of wool together, but now I had rug, and I felt a subtle but tangible delight from creating something I could put to use. I had gone from a sheep, a little Merino fellow that munched happily on clover to grow his coat, to produce a rug.
It dawned on me: wearing clothes is an ecological act.
A rug isn’t something you buy, it’s linen, or cotton, or wool, and it comes from somewhere, some plant or animal, and human hands were involved. The workload to produce clothing from the land is incredible. Imagine: you have a herd of sheep. They need land to graze, and nutrition to forage. Their precious fiber must be sheared, then carded, spun into yarn, woven, sewed, and dyed. Fields of flax or cotton must be grown, nurtured, harvested, then soaked, processed, spun, and woven. The process is slow and seasonal.
When seen in this light, just how much the Earth gives of herself to produce one shirt or pair of pants becomes evident. An awareness arises, creeping up from the craftwork of busy hands into a larger sense of interconnectedness. A linen blouse borne from fields of golden flax; a scarf dyed brilliant blue from fermenting an indigo plant. In a simple cashmere shawl is a web of connections, weaving us tightly into the internal logic of cycles and seasons.
In their self-suﬃciency, with their spinning, weaving, and natural dyeing, rural Appalachians were participating in ancient rituals. Every indigenous culture around the world has found a fiber plant and sources of natural dye to clothe itself. Images of ﬂax processing can be seen in hieroglyphics from ancient Egypt. But these traditions are being lost in the material culture of modern day America, and our sense of our connection to the land and each other is being lost with them.
When we walk into a store now, it’s easy to not think about the source of the clothing we buy. For something as ubiquitous and necessary as what we wear, a curious disconnect looms between its earthly origins and our own hands.
Imagine if we still had to patiently work with the seasons and their cyclical fiber crops to clothe ourselves; it seems rather unthinkable now. So slow and burdensome, in fact, was the task of growing fiber plants, raising animals, and processing those fibers, that it’s been said that textile manufacturing is what drove the Industrial Revolution.
Unravel the roots of textiles and one finds the familiar narrative of global outsourcing: America no longer has any working textile mills; we’ve outsourced nearly all textile manufacturing to a global market. Most of what we wear today is made offshore using fibers and dyes of synthetic and obscure origin. Cheaply produced garments cycle through multiple countries and factories. Contrary to the past, we now live in a time of “fast fashion”, in which cheap clothes are being bought, worn briefly, and tossed into landfills.
Fast fashion has a steep cost, and it’s often invisible.
This distance between us and the materials and processes that go into our clothing has a tendency to obscure devastating human and environmental costs. Synthetic dyes manufactured in Southeast Asia have high concentrations of heavy metals and are polluting freshwater sources in textile towns. The pesticides sprayed on cotton fields in India are wreaking havoc on the health of farmers and their families.
Synthetic dyes are the number one polluter of freshwater sources in the world, and have the highest carbon footprint of the whole textile manufacturing process. Dye for denim jeans is made using copper, chrome, cobalt, and other heavy metals in high concentrations. The runoff from those plants dump toxic sludge into textile towns, turning the water undrinkable and making whole villages sick. The pesticides sprayed on the cotton for cheap clothing is causing massive toxicity and illness. In cheap manufacturing, which is where most of our fast fashion clothing comes from, unfixed dyes can remain on garments, and end up leaking into our own skin or waterways when washed.
Unraveling the hidden cost of clothing propels one to contemplate a fair trade, “slow fashion” movement, similar to the slow food movement. Here’s where the revivalists of handcrafting traditions come in. In a citizen response, they are looking for different ways of wearing and consuming, and they’re doing so for all sorts of reasons, from cultural to environmental to humanitarian.
Many peoples have an ancient history of living on the wealth of their herds of sheep, camels or goats. In some cultures, felting was critical to survival, as well as steeped in cultural tradition and meaning. Felt-making is an ancient tradition and the oldest form of fabric known to humankind, predating weaving and knitting. It has been used for 12,000 years, found in tombs around the world.
Natural dyeing is another ancient craft. Dyes that come from the earth — plants, seeds, barks, flowers and fruits — can be used to color any textile. Indigo dyeing is one example of a living fermentation process that produces a vibrant azure hue. Traditionally, indigo leaves are ground with mortar and pestle, and allowed to ferment in a dyeing vat while the helpful bacteria that form there are fed often. By working with living organisms, you must respect their life to get the desired results. This is true everywhere you depend on nature for color.
Imagine the goat farmer’s unabashed delight at the calving of a cinnamon colored newborn, the color a surprise and an exciting addition to their cashmere color arsenal. Waiting for nature to surprise you with its unique colors teaches patience, fostering a system that works within limitations.
All around the world, communities are revitalizing fiber arts using sustainably sourced materials like wool, silk, bamboo, hemp and linen, and dyeing with natural dyes like indigo plants.
Spinning, weaving, felting and natural dyeing are experiencing a renaissance.
When we started paying attention to food we eat, the food industry listened, and powerful things happened. Increasingly, as our identities become more and more bound up in consumption than in citizenry, to make choices on things as simple as food and clothing becomes paramount to an ecological act.
Getting cozy from basic elements and materials is a task we’ve been accomplishing since time eternal; working with our hands with Earth’s materials feels very human indeed. Finding joy in the process of creation, and expressing ourselves through handiwork- identity is to be found there, in small cultural traditions bound up in ecological cycles.
I wonder if broader familiarity with the “slow fashion” handicraft traditions of yesteryear might weaken this detachment and inspire more demand for sustainably manufactured goods made from materials of verifiable terroir. Learning these once common handicrafts could brought us into an awareness of the true cost of clothing and help us realize how much the Earth gives of herself to produce just one shirt or pair of pants. In this light, the lessons from the past are living, and still relevant. They serve as a poignant reminder that everything we need comes from the land, and that we do not stand isolated from other living things.
The families of our ancestors who eked out a subsistence living in a barter economy had to produce most of life’s necessities by hand, including their clothing. Imagine how powerful an effect that mindset could have today — a generation of people living rooted in a deeply embedded ethic of conservation because they knew it was directly linked to their survival.
Imagine a future where, using natural fibers and dyes as a starting point, we create local fiber sheds in the same way we have brought about local food movements. Producing natural fibers locally could create jobs and ameliorate the environmental destruction from synthetic manufacturing, while at the same time reconnecting us to and deepening our appreciation for the natural world.
Some of these projects are already up and running, such as Fibershed, a project born from one conscious consumer’s question: Can I clothe myself with materials from a 150 mile radius? Fibershed aims to develop regional fiber systems that build soil & protect the health of our biosphere.
The transition into a more sustainable way of life can be beautiful, and perhaps one way to find inspiration could be by looking back to our roots.