Blog #8-Regenerative Wool Series: pt1
This Four- part mini blog series is meant to offer greater understanding of our connectedness to our land, our textiles and our communities.
Part 1: High Tides of Microplastic Fibers
It hasn’t been for long that owning a t-shirt made from organically grown cotton was a luxury item so few could afford. We would have never questioned the toxicity in the fabric that donned our body’s largest, most porous organ. Cotton was traditionally grown from the soil, harvested and milled into thread and woven into fabric. Sheep grazed hillsides and community gathered around shearing, washing, and processing these natural fibers into soil to soil products that not only kept us warm, but supported natural bioregenerative functions of our ecosystems.
Today, the scene is quite a bit different. Genetically mutated cotton that is able to withstand high-levels of chemical inputs is grown in monocultures void of life- sustaining biodiversity. Fiber mills all over the country have closed their doors as imports of finished products from places around the globe found workarounds to the more stringent polluting and ethical laws of the United States. "Fast- Fashion” (advertising and marketing clothing as a disposable commodity), has taken off at a pace that is devastating to not only our wallets, but the very ecosystem services we rely on to survive.
Youth as a Voice for Change:
Our 13-year old son has had a fishing pole in his hands since birth. He took to water like a fish himself. Many a day he has been found diving into the pristine freshwater rivers and lakes of Vermont and catching fish with his bare hands!
He knows their ecosystem, their niche habitats and their microclimates at a visceral level. He is in tune with their seasonal diet and mimics this in his fly-tying through the lifecycle of a hendrickson fly (Ephemerella subvaria) and the exact temperatures in which the larva hatch causing a feeding frenzy atop the open waters. He knows where certain fish species thrive and you could wage high bets, that he would land just the fish he was after in any given freshwater system in New England. He’s helped the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department in their restocking efforts of the Passumpsic River Basin and is always cleaning up the shorelines in efforts to keep his favorite spaces clean. He's a patient observer who immerses himself in every aspect of his craft.
What might you ask, does this have to do with our local fiber economy?
This past year, he read an article about microplastic pollution in the oceans and how it is now found in the muscle tissues of some fish species. I vividly remember sitting down for supper as the water welled up in his eyes. He was heartbroken that his very own species would destroy his planet in such reckless ways and I remember him asking, “Why are we even making plastic in the first place?” After many nights of poor eating, article reviews, self-assessments on personal plastic use in our daily lives and many, many follow- up questions, he developed a science fair project for his homeschool STEM Club taking a deeper look at the presence of these synthetic fibers in various waters in his geographic region.
What are Microplastics?
Microplastics are small (less than 5mm in diameter) synthetic, petroleum-based fibers that are primarily found in our clothing, beauty products and pieces of larger plastic items that break apart as they degrade over time. Often mistaken by wildlife, especially marine life, as food, these synthetic fibers are having a detrimental impact on the health and viability of our food systems
and ecosystems as a whole. His aim was to determine if microplastics were present in samples he collected and to better understand the impacts humans are having on his his favorite, most cherished wild habitats. His results are staggering!
He collected water samples from our freshwater lakes and streams, the Atlantic Ocean, bottled water, tap water from our well, and wastewater from
the drain of our washing machine. He then observed his samples under a microscope and compared what he saw to publications demonstrating and identifying microplastic fibers. Through his data collection, he identified 4 of these samples contained microplastic
fibers, (our tap water, bottled water, the ocean water and the greywater) Can
you guess which sample made the top
of the list for "out of the park" numbers
of microplastic fibers present?
You guessed it, our laundry drain!
He took second place in his science fair demonstration and gave us a new way to look at our clothing as a family. From his research, questions kept pouring in. Where do the fibers from our clothes come from? What is a synthetic fiber? How do these fibers get in our clothes to begin with and what are the benefits of using these non-biodegradable fibers in our clothing? What would our clothes look like without synthetic fibers, as they were for thousands of years before oil and the industrial age? And my favorite… “Mom, how can I help solve the problem?”
Farms make up a large portion of our fiber industry. Here, we see 2 major systems at hand.
1. Large industrial farming operations that fail to honor reciprocity to the ecosystem services that our land provides us. Patent-based, high input systems rely heavily on genetic modification and chemical applications resulting in high levels of pollution and runoff and leave the land void of the very life-sustaining microbiomes that naturally exist within healthy soils. These systems add synthetic fibers to their blends and are deeply rooted in Fast-Fashion. When this clothing is made of synthetic, petroleum-based microfibers and tossed in the trash after minimal usage, it doesn't break down in ways that our natural ecosystems recognize.
2. Small- scale, regenerative and community-based systems that support economic and ecological reciprocity in a regionally biodiverse way. These systems focus on locally-sourced, biodegradable “soil to soil” fibers that not only clothe us but restore and give back to the land from which they came. Caring for our earth is a priority in these systems as the folks who choose with their actions and dollars know this is the only life-sustaining planet that we will see in our life-time.
I believe the answer to his question begins with holding space for deeper discussions at our most local levels. Just as he has done when fully emerging as an expert angler in is given geographic region, we can immerse ourselves in regenerative fiber systems that can later scale after we have built a solid foundational framework woven in citizen science, farming and advocacy.
I am excited to announce my participation on the Wool Committee Board of the Vermont Sheep and Goat Association. Here we are in the initial phases of a project looking to identify local wool growers and fiber producers as meaningful resources in our local textile economy and how we can best serve and support local fashion. I am so grateful and honored to be a part of this necessary work and am looking forward to connecting with all of you!
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our series Superwash Wool: The What, The Why and The Alternatives next Wednesday!