Image: La Rhea Pepper, Organic Cotton Farmer, Co-Founder and Senior Director, Textile Exchange
Cheaper, faster. Whether you’re in food, fashion or business, it’s hard to avoid these two prevailing mentalities. Today, they are the driving forces behind what we eat and what we wear, ignoring the real costs of what keeps us sustained and what keeps us clothed. At first glance, connecting the worlds of fashion and food might not seem like an obvious leap, yet they are both inherently connected. Simply put, we can vote with our fork and we can vote with our wardrobe.
Consider a t-shirt, unlike produce, it doesn’t grow straight from the ground, but the cotton has to be grown. Just as we have producers to thank for the food on our table, we have the producers who grow fibers to thank for our clothing, and when it comes to advancing sustainable textile production, there are lessons to be pulled from the world of food. For just like the local food movement needed restaurants, chefs and markets to advocate for the work of producers, advancing sustainable textile production will require a similar community. As Kristine Vejar, author of The Modern Natural Dyer and owner of Oakland’s A Verb for Keeping Warm puts it, looking at our culture surrounding food is a good example.
“Farmers are participants in helping create changes in the way we eat, but it also is very important that there are restaurants and groceries available to cultivate those markets and to educate.” says Vejar.
“It is so important to have designers (chefs) and shops (markets/restaurants) dedicated to helping and participating, and that hopefully over time, the average customer will pay more for the materials so the farmer can focus on farming and cultivating the best materials,” Adds Vejar.
We have chosen to introduce you to nine female farmers who are all helping to change the face of sustainable textile production, whether they are running a sheep ranch, growing industrial hemp or cultivating dye gardens.
While to the average consumer, their names may not be as well known as those of designers, their farming is essential to the advancement of sustainable fashion, and a system where regional, local production isn’t just a pipe dream, it’s a reality.
Image: Paige Green Photography
Breeding and growing cotton since the early 1980s, Sally Fox is responsible for the first commercially viable method for mass-producing colored cotton. Hand breeding ancient, naturally pest-resistant varieties of cotton into long staple cottons that can be spun by conventional mills, Fox revolutionized the industry, providing companies with something other than heavy-bleached, white fibers. Not to mention that she did so with organic and biodynamic practices.
Image: Paige Green Photography
A natural dye farmer, Rebecca Burgess is the perfect spokeswoman for the production of local fiber. Many may know her works as founder of Fibershed, a California-based organization that was born out of Burgess’ quest to develop a wardrobe whose dyes, fibers, and labor were all sourced from within a 150 miles. She has been instrumental in connecting producers and designers and raising awareness for the environmental and economic importance of regional fiber systems. She recently launched “The Citizen Soil Sampling Protocol” as a way to “directly engage communities and all those who manage landscapes to begin to provide them the tools for understanding how their management is either enhancing or loosing soil carbon.”
Image: Paul Thacker
Jeanne Carver and her husband Dan run Imperial Stock Ranch, a family owned and operated ranch on more than 30,000 acres in Central Oregon. Established in 1871, the ranch comes with a history, and the Carvers manage not only a successful ranching operation, but the notable fiber line Imperial Yarn, which has been used by designers like Ralph Lauren and Billy Reid.
The founder of Ambika, Ambika Conroy is a woman who wears many hats, including farmer and designer. She spends her time raising Angora rabbits, Angora goats, and Merino sheep, and designing bespoke, sustainable, wearable textiles at her upstate New York farm.
Image: Paige Green Photography
A fiber artist and wool producer in California, at the Estill Ranch, Lani Estill implements carbon farming practices to create Climate-Beneficial Wool, which she is collaborating with Fibershed to produce. Producing her own yarn line, Lani’s Lana, Estill also sells wool to major fashion and fiber industry buyers.
Image: Meg Wilson Photography
When Kentucky legalized the cultivation of industrial hemp in late 2013, Lora Smith knew that she wanted to try her hand at farming it. She and her husband run Big Switch Farm, and are in their second year of hemp production, taking part in exciting local fiber initiatives like the Kentucky Cloth Project and the creation of the Kentucky grown hemp flag, which flew over the U.S. Capitol on Veterans Day in 2015.
An alpaca breeder and owner of Little Creek Farm – as well as the woman behind the all-American alpaca yarn line Our Back 40 – Lynne Edens knows fiber. As the founder of Farm to Finery LLC, she also knows what she needs to do to help smaller fiber producers work with companies looking to source their materials in the United States.
When Sarah Bellos set out to launch a company offering naturally dyed clothing, she realized that she couldn’t find a scalable source for natural dyes. So she decided to do something about it. The founder of Stony Creek Colors, Bellos works with farmers, mills and brands to help make “seed to closet” a reality in the fashion industry.
La Rhea Pepper
You may recognize La Rhea Pepper from the fashion documentary The True Cost. A fifth generation organic cotton grower in Texas, Pepper is also the co-founder of Textile Exchange, a non-profit organization that was set up to help people accelerate sustainable practices in the textile value chain. Pepper says on Textile Exchange, “We work hard to make sure the supply chain from farmer to retailer is transparent, efficient, and equitable. Without any of those pillars, the process is unbalanced.”