Footprint of a Fiber

November 12, 2009


It was not long ago, just in my parent’s own childhood when chronicling the carbon footprint of an item of clothing might not have taken very long.  A cotton farm in Texas, a sheep ranch in Wyoming–these raw materials would have been sent to any number of mills across the country and then been sold at  working class stores such Wards and Sears–this small production cycle was not a design concept from a sustainability think-tank, it was simply the way things were done.  With very little discussion or fanfare this supply chain underwent a radical transition.  In 1965, 95% of America’s clothing was made in America, and today less than 5% of our clothing is made here.  Along with the export of farming, milling, and sewing- so went jobs- environmental regulations, and in many cases quality.   Some of the more enlightened transnational clothing companies are in the process of cleaning up their supply chain and are looking deeply into the above issues.  However, this still leaves us with a question of carbon footprint, and might I say jobs?


Our carbon footprint is most simply reduced by making use of what is local.  This is Kenny, an all around sustainability expert, who feeds the grid daily with his solar panels, watches the neighbors deposit their compost for his chickens, and collects oil from local restaurants for his veggie-oil Volkswagon.  He raises food for himself, and shares his garden with others in the community.  Our lives intersected, when I found out from a friend that he was raising sheep just around the corner from my town, in Mill Valley of all places– 10 minutes from the Golden Gate Bridge.  Kenny’s farm has been in the family since 1867  the old house is still lived in by his mother.  Kenny primarily harvests meat from his flock, however, being an open-minded man of many trades–he wants to make the most of the wool that he shears.


At the moment, the process of turning Kenny’s wool into a hat, sweater, or pair of gloves– is still around the corner.  What we have established is a relationship.  And that, is the cornerstone of the localization process.  As we seek out resources within our towns and cities we meet people, we hear their stories, and become increasingly more in synch with our modern village.  This community building is one of many benefits of doing good for our planet.  I’m just now on the path to turn the above fleece into something a bit more palatable for my local textile creation project.


This is an example of a roving ball–just ripe for spinning.  This lovely wool is from a rancher living 20 miles from my home (just over double the distance I travel to Kenny’s suburban farm).  I will send Kenny’s wool off to a mill for processing, if all goes well, it will return to me as a very spin-able ball of roving like the one pictured above.


From this ball of roving, I will spin away on my little wheel, and create skeins of ready to dye yarn.  Once the yarn is spun I will partake in the process that I often highlight in this blog- the creation of local natural color. If all goes according to plan, I will become one step closer to my local clothing vision.  I’m estimating the CO2 footprint of my finished yarn, and knit clothing will net far beneath the weight of the yarn itself.


Handspun Yarns dyed in summer blooming plants

This is a huge reduction in carbon, if compared to even the best case scenario for industrially produced clothing.  Patagonia- my favorite and most transparent clothing company has recently created the Carbon Chronicles. If you click on the link, you’ll see that their wool merino undershirt produces 47 pounds of carbon before it even gets to your door.  That is just one shirt!  And yet, I applaud Patagonia for their ongoing commitment to preserving the earth’s last wild places– they are a fabulous company with a wonderful mission.  It’s going to take more than a village to clean up textile production– and in my personal and small way I’m committed to doing so, one ball of yarn at a time.

13 Responses to “Footprint of a Fiber”

  1. Thanks. Kenny, what a man! That collection of yarn- it looks like a bouqet of flowers, those colours are suimply stunning. stunning. edible.

    • ecologicalartist Says:

      Those colors were from all my dye travels across the country- now I’m trying to grow many of those species in my garden because I love that array so much!

  2. kel Says:

    oops, that was me above, logged in on another account!

  3. velma Says:

    nicely written.

  4. ecologicalartist Says:

    Thank you Velma.


  5. karenhess Says:

    Such a great piece. You have explained the dilemma very precisely. I just can’t exactly figure out why our production shifted so hugely and doesn’t shift back now that we know. I’m sure some economic/advertising explanation is in order there. From 95% to 5%. It’s just so sad. I’m glad you are dedicated to rediscovering a simpler way and let’s hope it all spirals outward!

    • ecologicalartist Says:

      Thank you Karen
      I think the only reason for this off-shoring of the industry is the bottom line- its cheaper. But with developing countries beginning to raise their standards (wages, regulations etc) this will eventually mean smaller margins for transnationals. Perhaps the carbon footprint will get monetized and passed on to consumers, allowing American goods to compete fairly again?

      Thanks for your wonderful commentary!

  6. karenhess Says:

    I know it is supposed to be cheaper, but in the 50’s everyone was buying everything at a similar price, even cheaper sometimes, it seems, so that is why I don’t understand the cheaper argument. But that is what I always hear! I too hope that global fairness regarding wages, etc. equalizes everything soon. K

  7. ecologicalartist Says:

    You are right, my grandparents were always able to buy affordable clothing made in America, and they were working class. It is a strange combination of forces I think. Maybe the free trade agreements, combined with tax laws that gave incentives for overseas production created a ripe environment for this shift.

  8. Andrew Fynn Says:

    Things maybe did get cheaper, but the corporations became greedy, rapacious. It wasn’t enough to provide a product, rather every penny of profit had to be extracted from everyone involved–not just the end user. And then it had to fall apart just at the right time.

    A lovely piece Ecologicalartist, the commentator was right that it encapsulates things nicely.

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