The Fibershed Movement: Looking Back To Move Forward

Editors Note: If you’re hearing the term “fibershed” in textile conversations, you’re not alone. A growing number of farmers, fashion activists, and textile makers are talking about and joining the call to build a new, more environmentally friendly textile economy through what they call “fibersheds.” In this blog, Cindy Weinstein, ATA community member and owner of Wild Moon Fiber Arts Center, shares her thoughts on this relatively recent textile movement.

Sometimes moving forward can look a lot like moving backwards. We do it all the time in small ways that we don’t even notice: swatches, dye sampling, weaving drafts, twist samples, and so on. Each time we work towards our vision and realize that we haven’t reached our goal, we stop, go back, and start again. At some critical juncture, we make a different choice. And so it goes in the larger world as well. 

In the post WWII era, technologies—bolstered by the war effort—expanded into the consumer realm. Prosperity returned and expanded in the West, and a new form of global capitalism took root. In many ways it improved lives and in many ways it made lives harder. The possibilities and resources seemed endless. Less developed nations were exploited in new ways for the cheap labor they could provide and it seemed that the whole of the natural world was ours for the taking. We quite literally couldn’t see the forest for the trees. 

In response, grass roots movements began springing up in all areas of life—from spiritual, to cultural, to environmental. One of the more widespread, impactful movements struggled to take back our land and our communities from the giant transglobal corporations that spewed cheap goods made at the expense of workers and the environment. From the co-ops and communes of the 60s and 70s, to the organic/fair trade groups of the 90s and 2000s, to the buy-local campaigns of today, a myriad of community groups, NGOs, not-for-profits, and even businesses grew like dandelions on a neatly trimmed lawn. And these, for the most part, had one thing in common. They all looked back to a time when communities took care of each other and protected their land for future generations—while, at the same time, taking what had been learned and accomplished in technology, transportation, and global economics and applying it in a different way.

Of course, most of you who are reading this are already familiar with the way that Nilda Callañaupa and the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco (CTTC) employ this type of thinking to revitalize Peru’s traditional pre-Columbian textile techniques and bring new avenues for financial security to Andean artisans in an increasingly globalized world. Some would say the center’s work, which is supported by ATA, is nurturing the Peruvian highlands place-based textile system, what a growing number of people today call a “fibershed.”

The global fibershed movement to produce textiles locally with minimal impact on our environment and health was conceived by Rebecca Burgess in the San Francisco Bay area in 2010. She defines fibersheds as places where thousands of generations of people have lived and thrived. They are textile communities with a long history of traditions and cultures that need to be nurtured or reestablished in order for local economies to be sustainably viable. A main goal of the fibershed movement is to help ensure that future generations will continue to have an opportunity to flourish in relationship with their place-based textile cultures. This is not necessarily a new concept for those of us involved with ATA. Since the seeds of our mission were planted in the 1970s, we have been committed  to supporting Andean textile artisans as they preserve, recover, and honor living textile traditions of their ancestors while adapting to a changing world. 

For Rebecca, the fibershed concept began with a project she called Grow Your Jeans. She writes in her 2019 book Fibershed, “I had a sudden image of a wardrobe that would be made from natural fibers and dyes grown within a strategic area centered on where I lived—a plant-based geography.” Today there are two dozen affiliated fibersheds within the United States, with a growing international community as well. And with this movement, it is promising to see a renewed respect for the advanced textile and sustainability knowledge of indigenous people. 

So, bit by bit we are re-learning the old ways. Bit by bit we are nourishing ourselves with not only food grown in our own backyards, but clothing that comes from the hands of our neighbors, from the land that we live on. And bit by bit we are moving towards a more sustainable future. 

Top photo: The Andean people in villages such as Santo Tomas carry on centuries-old, place-based textile traditions, including natural dyeing and backstrap weaving.

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