Where fiber art, inspiration, and words meet.

Fibershed and Watersheds and Sustainability

Yesterday I attended my fiber guild’s monthly meeting where members of the Chesapeake Fibershed gave a presentation about what a fibershed is, how guild members can participate in one, and touched on the larger conversation going on about fast fashion, consumption, and textile waste. It got me thinking about my next big project; the featured image for this post is a previous big project, a reinterpretation of a Swedish couture sweater that I made using handspun commercial wool and wool that I processed and spun from a raw local fleece (the brown).

So what’s a fibershed?

It’s a geographical area for sourcing raw materials and manufacturing or crafting those materials into finished textiles with an eye towards sustainability and environmental responsibility. Really, fibershed.org (the mothership, as one of the presenters called it yesterday) describes it much more succinctly so I won’t attempt to do that again here; take a look at their site if you’re curious.

The Chesapeake Fibershed was formed locally to me following the borders of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which includes MD, DC, northern VA, and extends north into parts of WV, PA, and NY, and extends east into part of DE.

A map of the Chesapeake Bay watershed that shows the rivers in the mid-Atlantic region that feed into the bay.
By Kmusser – Own work, Elevation data from SRTM, hydrologic data from the National Hydrography Dataset, urban areas from Vector Map, all other features from the National Atlas., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12520461

So let me ask you: have you ever thought about where your clothes and sheets and towels all come from? Or what happens to them when you’re done with them, for example, how long it takes them to decompose?

In the US, most of our textiles come from big box stores that use brands that manufacture in east Asia. And the materials used to make those textiles come from all over the world, including the US. (Again, fibershed.org and Chesapeake Fibershed have much more and better information – I’m paraphrasing and drawing on things I knew from reading.)

And what happens to your textiles when you’re done with them?

If you throw them out, they go to a landfill where they will decompose (or not) depending on what they are made of. Cotton, wool, silk, leather, and other natural fibers all decompose relatively quickly, within a months (cotton, shredded and added to compost) to a few years at the most. On the other hand, artificial fibers like nylon, acrylic, and others take decades, centuries, or never decompose. Tonight, check the fiber content of the clothes you’re wearing.

A circle chart with TEXTILE FIBERS in the center. Manufactured fibers are shown on the left half, natural fibers on the right.
Manufactured vs. natural fibers. Image source.

If you donate your clothes and linens, they go to a thrift store and hopefully are bought and reused. But if they don’t? They go to recycling centers or, more likely, they are bought by the pound and shipped overseas for resale or, in some cases, abandoned/dumped (as in Ghana and Chile).

One of the aims of the Fibershed movement is to bring sourcing, manufacturing/crafting, use, and disposal/reuse of textiles into a smaller local area, much like the farm-to-table movement with food: sustainability and lower environmental impact is the goal.

That brings me to my next big project.

Chesapeake Fibershed runs the Sustainable Cloth: Farm to Home and Closet challenge every year – well, every year for two years now, with plans to continue in 2024. The challenge is to “repurpose or create a wearable or household item from materials within our fibershed,” which I almost did with that sweater in this post’s featured image.

I think it would be interesting to choose a sweater available from a big box store, chain store (like J Crew or Gap), or department store and replicate it using locally sourced fibers and materials. It will likely be a cardigan because I tend to wear those more than pullovers.

Not My Sweater
A pullover sweater I got a lot of ads for last year. It’s available here and here.

Although now that I think about it, I have been haunted lately by ads for a shrug that of course I can’t find now – it’s basically to arm warmers/short sleeves connected by a long rectangle of flat knitting that can be wrapped around your torso. Last year I was haunted by ads for the sweater above, which is another possibility. I would make it into a cardigan and probably make the neckline more substantial. And also use natural colors and dyes for the color work. It could happen!

I don’t want to leave a trail of unbiodegradable fiber and crafted items behind me. I think it’s important for all of us to think about our legacy rather than listening to the siren call of capitalism to consume, consume, consume. And it doesn’t take extreme action or a lot of money to be more sustainable, you can start small: pay attention to what fibers you’re wearing and buy natural fibers or the highest percentage of natural fibers you can find and afford. Mend and repair what you can to make your clothes last longer and consider what happens to them after they leave your hands.


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