My Journey To Natural Fiber Clothing

A set of natural fiber clothes neatly organized.
A Fresh PerspectiveConsciousnessDownsizingFeatured PostsFreedomIntentional LivingMinimalismPersonalRobin’s TransitionSimple LivingSustainable Living

My Dream of Natural Fiber Clothing

For nearly a decade, it has been my dream to break free from all synthetic clothing, all fast-fashion, all clothing made in factories. It’s been my dream to be truly connected to my clothes – to know not just the source of the fabric, but to know the source of every single element of my clothes – the thread, the buttons and even the dye to create the colors.

It’s been my dream…
to know the plants and animals that the raw fibers grew from and how to grow, raise and care for these plants and animals…
to know the process of turning these raw fibers into fabric with the simplest machinery and techniques including spindles, looms and sewing machines, knitting, sewing, weaving and felting…
to know the process of dyeing the clothes into earthy colors that bring natural vibrancy into my life…
to know the people involved in every element of the clothes.

And all along this path, to have mutually-beneficial relationships with Earth, the plants and animals and the people involved.

The dream continues beyond clothing myself into wearing these clothes. To wear these clothes is to take one great step forward in living in harmony and alignment with Earth, humanity and the plants and animals we share our home with. It is to take responsibility for myself and my actions. It is to stand up to destructive corporations and say, “I am a complete human and I don’t need you.” It is to be a human with the basic Earth skills and knowledge to live in sovereignty, with a balance of independence, self-sufficiency, inter-dependency and community. It is to walk in society and represent a new way forward, free from oppressive, exploitative systems. It is to walk with each step in a higher state of integrity and alignment.

My dream of natural fiber clothing continues to my death. Throughout my life of wearing these clothes, as they wear out beyond repair, they will be composted and returned to Earth. The fibers that once clothed my body will return to the soil to nurture Earth. Natural fibers and natural dyes can be used in a closed-loop system with no garbage cans, no landfills and no waste. If I lose an item of clothing while walking through the woods or canoeing down a river, the clothes can simply return to Earth, just like the leaves that fall from the trees.

My dream is to walk one last time into the woods and to never return. My body will return to Earth along with the simple clothes that I am wearing.

The Nightmare of Industrial Clothing

For much of our experience as a humanity, this dream of mine didn’t have to be just a dream. It was the reality that most humans experienced. Today, there are few human beings who are living this dream, even in most of the remote corners of Earth. The global, industrial systems have penetrated nearly all of humanity with great destruction.

Today, most clothing is made of plastic. Most of us don’t call it plastic though. We call it things like polyester or nylon or synthetic fibers. But it is also completely accurate to simply call it plastic clothing. The nightmare of these clothes starts with the extraction of fossil fuels. This is the same industry that produces the gasoline we pump into our cars. This is the same industry that is responsible for the oil spills that decimate our ecosystems. Many of us hear of the large-scale disaster oil spills, but few of us know that there are 10,000 oil spills that happen each year as part of this routine extraction. Next, this extracted material is sent to factories where it is processed. Here toxic byproducts are made and dumped into our waterways and air – the very systems that we depend upon for water to drink and air to breath.

The humans and animals that live near these factories suffer from this pollution. (So are plastic clothes really “vegan”?) The humans who work in these factories are commonly exploited and routinely paid far below a living wage. Even today, there are many humans who are enslaved to make cheap plastic clothes for society. The destruction continues each time we wear and wash these plastic clothes. As with any fabric, the plastic fabric sheds fibers. These are called micro-fibers and with every step we take wearing plastic clothes we litter Earth with these little pieces of plastic. This situation has already become so dire that the fish we eat have accumulated high levels of this plastic in their bodies and the water we drink is polluted with harmful forever chemicals. This just barely scratches the surface of the destruction that comes from these plastic clothes.

Much of the clothing from the Industrial Clothing Complex is not plastic and is, indeed, natural fibers. Cotton is the primary natural fiber in this industry and although it does not have some of the same repercussions as plastic clothing, the standard industry practices with cotton are similarly exploitative and destructive. Most cotton is grown through large scale industrial farms. At these farms, the land is treated like factories and all other plants and animals are generally treated as pests. The cotton and the land is often doused with chemical herbicides (to kill the other plants) and pesticides (to kill the insects). Cotton generally needs irrigation and water is often pulled from the rivers and the ground at levels that cause destruction to the local ecosystems. In the processing of the raw cotton into fabric, toxic chemicals are also often used. Rarely are the humans involved treated with dignity. To put it simply, this cotton is part of exploitative, oppressive and destructive relationships with Earth, people, plants and animals.

Most of the clothing that we wear is dyed. These dyes are generally made of toxic, synthetic chemicals that pollute billions of gallons of water in the process of dyeing the clothes. But it does not stop there. Most of us have probably seen our clothes fade. But where has the color gone? It’s gone back to Earth. If the clothing of just one person was fading on this Earth, it wouldn’t be a problem. But with billions and billions of pieces of clothing fading, we are seeing extreme amounts of these toxic dyes being leached into our water.

Many people have reported adverse health reactions to these toxic clothes, simply from wearing them. After writing this, one person shared with me, “Your article resonated with me as I am allergic to many of the chemicals used in clothing production, such as elastics, formaldehyde – which is used to prevent molding in transport –  and cobalt, which is occasionally used for dyeing fabric.”

These industrial clothes are not designed to last. Thus, we are also suffering from a catastrophe of excess clothing. The short lifespan of these clothes is in part due to manufactured obsolescence and in part due to perceived obsolescence. The clothes are simply not created to last long-term. If they lasted for a lifetime, we wouldn’t have to buy more of them. The current model of these corporations is to get us to keep buying more, year after year. So these clothes are designed for the dump (Watch The Story of Stuff to learn more about this system). But today, in the fast-fashion industry, perceived obsolescence makes up for the disposal of billions of articles of clothing that are still perfectly functional. The fast-fashion model consistently changes what is desirable and what is no longer trendy. Via the marketing by these corporations, people are running on the hamster wheel of buying new clothes, filling their closets and ditching the clothes after only wearing them for a fraction of the number of times that they could have. Billions of these articles of clothing end up in our landfills and littering our ecosystems. And remember, landfills are just a legal and culturally accepted form of organized littering.

A more ideal scenario than sending these clothes to the landfill is to donate them. However, the donation of these clothes is also an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe. There is a whole system of sending millions of articles of these clothes to nations with fewer financial resources and basically dumping them on them. The fact is that there are far more clothes on this Earth than are needed, by multiple magnitudes. These nations are suffering from plastic pollution from these clothes being dumped on them. Furthermore, many local economies are suffering or have collapsed. Where they once had local businesses that circulated local resources and money through the creation of clothes, they now have an excess of cheap industrial clothes that wiped out the livelihoods of many people.

Cultures that live in harmony have relationships with Earth and the plants and animals that they share their region with. These relationships are created through practical means such as food, clothing and shelter. For the majority of our existence, we have created our clothing from the plants and animals that we have lived with. This has generally created respect and reverence for these plants and animals and a deep knowing that if we don’t live in reciprocity with them that we will destroy ourselves, or at least reduce our quality of life. The industrial clothing system is tearing away this connection to Earth. Disconnected humans make good consumers and good servants to corporate desires. They do not stand up to corruption and exploitation because they don’t even know that there is another way. This is what our industrial clothing system has done to much of our humanity.

This system has normalized plastic clothing to the point where it is considered unusual to want to clothe ourselves through relationships with the land. Not only is it considered unusual but it may be labeled as primitive, uneducated or anti-progress. To stand up to this system in a society that has bought into it, one risks looking like a “crazy person”.

Breaking Free from Fast Fashion and Excessive Clothing

In 2011, I was living a fairly typical Western/ US American lifestyle. I was very focused on material possessions and financial wealth. My clothing was quite important to me and I wore it to represent who I was. Through my clothing, I wanted to show that I was a person with resources, a person with a sense of style and an interesting person. To go more deeply, through my clothing I was trying to meet my basic needs to be acknowledged, to belong and to be accepted, to be seen and to be loved. I did this through buying my clothes at the mall, at shops like American Eagle, PacSun, The Gap as well as Patagonia and North Face. I didn’t pay too much attention to where my clothes came from, how they got to me, who was involved, or the impact that they had on Earth.

My reality was shaken to the core when I started to watch documentaries and read books and realized that nearly every action I was taking was causing great destruction to Earth, humanity and the plants and animals that I loved. I learned that everything I was buying was causing destruction, including my clothes. I set out to transform my life, and that included my wardrobe. But, I had a whole web of consumerism to unravel. I had a whole society to deconstruct in my mind. I had a whole life to turn around. So, it wouldn’t happen overnight. My journey to changing my wardrobe began in 2011, but it is still unfolding as I write twelve years later.

First, the simplest thing I could do was stop buying clothes. I had what I needed for the most part and I could simply wear that. I immediately drastically cut back on the number of clothing items I was buying or bringing into my life. Yet, my holistic transformation did not happen overnight and I still was a human being trying to meet my basic human needs. How I was perceived was still very important to me and as I changed my ethics I also wanted to change my clothes. Both because I genuinely wanted to be living in a space of high integrity and truth, because I wanted to represent this integrity to use my life to influence change, and because I cared what others thought from a place of ego.

As I began this journey, I gravitated toward more ethical companies to source my clothing from. One of my earliest inspirations was Yvon Chouinard and the company he founded, Patagonia. I read The Responsible Company and Let My People Go Surfing and both of these books positively influenced my path. Within a few years, I was wearing almost exclusively Patagonia and I was happy with this. Patagonia puts an incredible amount of their resources into environmental activism and advocacy and tackles global issues in a fairly radical manner. Their journey has shifted the industrial clothing system as much as any other clothing industry in existence. I was proud to wear Patagonia, and still today have a lot of respect and admiration for the organization.

As I moved to replace my clothes with more ethical companies, I also did substantial self-work to be content with a much smaller wardrobe. I realized I didn’t need near as many clothing items as I thought I did and I cut my wardrobe to less than a quarter of what I had. By owning less clothing I could spend more money on each clothing item to source more ethical clothes. Instead of buying four shirts for $10 each, I could buy a single $40 shirt, if I wanted to. These more expensive clothing items were not just more costly because of a label, but because they were truly designed to last and carried a set of ethics through the production line. To some level, that is what I did, but to a much greater extent, I just focused on owning less clothing.

To own less clothing, I decided that I would only have one “Robin.” There wasn’t going to be business Robin, a family member Robin, a friend Robin, a casual Robin and a fancy party Robin. I would simply have one style, one wardrobe and simply be me. After three years, I got rid of my last business clothes. This was a monumental day for me both in the practical aspect of downsizing as well as in breaking free from societal norms.

Through all of this, I was making substantial progress in changing the clothes that I was wearing, but then I became aware of the issue of micro-fibers and plastic/synthetic clothing. This was a big deal because most of the new clothes that I had invested in were plastic. I was extremely active at the time and much of my clothing was based around my adventures which included cycling across the United States three times. I really liked my synthetic clothing for how light it was, being quick to dry and how warm it could keep me, while taking up a small amount of space in my backpack or in my bike bags. At first, I tried to ignore the issues of micro-fibers and plastic/synthetic clothing because I didn’t want them to be true, but I only managed to do this for a couple of years.

My Transition to Natural Fiber Clothing

In 2017, I started my journey of transitioning into 100% natural fiber clothing. This was not easy at all.

I had the dream of going to the level I referred to at the beginning of this writing, but had no intention of pursuing that dream yet. I knew that dream would take an incredible amount of time and dedication. So for now, my task was to start sourcing some natural fiber clothes I could buy. I wasn’t just looking for any natural fiber clothes though. Certainly the industrial cotton did not represent living in harmony with Earth for me. My first step was switching out my shirts to natural fiber. This I found to be relatively easy, which I’ve documented here. I had plans to do much more, much sooner, but I continued wearing synthetics for my shorts, pants, jackets and shoes in the years ahead. At the time, I embarked on a journey to grow and forage 100% of my food for a year as well as build a tiny house from second hand materials and start numerous community programs. As much as I dreamed of completely changing my wardrobe, these tasks took precedence.

At this point, I’m sure many of you have been wondering, “why not just buy your clothes at the thrift stores? There are plenty of natural fiber clothes there and you could easily make the swap”. Indeed, I did get some of my clothes from the thrift stores; wool sweaters, for example.

The issue is that the natural fiber is only one aspect. Most of these clothes are still dyed with synthetic dyes. Most of them are at least, in part, made of plastic. Most importantly, nearly all of them are still a part of the industrial clothing system of exploitation and destruction. I wanted my clothes to represent a new way forward. I wanted my clothes to embody the regeneration of our Earth, rather than destruction. I am well aware that as humans we are all susceptible to subliminal programming. The more we see something around us, the more likely we are to accept it as “normal” or “okay”. Although purchasing at the thrift store is a relatively environmentally harmonious action, by wearing clothes from the industrial system, I will continue to subliminally program people that this industrial clothing system is all okay. As a person who is respected by many and looked to for answers, many people could see my clothing and not only be okay with it, but actually have positive feelings and beliefs for it through an association with me. So, wearing a pair of secondhand blue jeans, even though secondhand, plays a role in continuing the acceptance of this industrial clothing system. As I’ve shared, I am looking to break free from this entirely and to play a role in the liberation of humanity from these oppressive and exploitative systems.

Over the five years from 2017 to 2022, I slowly wore through my synthetic clothes and replaced them with natural fiber clothes, many of the items sourced from thrift stores or given to me by others. By this time, my wardrobe was tiny. From 2016-2017, I owned just 111 items, 33 of which were clothing. In 2020, I simplified my life down to 44 items, 12 of which were clothing. Since then, I have accumulated more possessions, but my wardrobe has stayed relatively the same size. In May of this year, I owned around 12 clothing items and only one was synthetic – my swimming shorts. On May 10th of this year, I got rid of my last synthetic item of clothing and had accomplished my goal of wearing 100% natural fiber clothing. Yet, all of the clothes were industrially made. I didn’t know the source of any of the fabric. The dyes were all made of toxic chemicals. The threads, waistbands and some of the buttons were likely plastic. I was elated to be at this stage in my journey, yet I still had much work to do to be connected to my clothes.

The Design of My Clothes

As I write, it is Fall of 2023 and one of my main focuses this year has been making my dream of natural clothes a lived reality. I am currently working for all of my clothes to be 100%:
• Made of natural fiber – with my focus being wool, linen and cotton (hemp, down and nettle are options as well)
• Naturally dyed
• 100% biodegradable, down to the thread and buttons
• Very simply designed using simple methods – without elastic, zippers or pockets
• Made by hand or by hand with simple tools and machinery
• Regeneratively grown
• Sourced within my Fibershed – meaning grown in my region

In Summer 2023, I brought on an apprenticeAbbey Waterworth – and together, we quickly found that my dream will not be easily attainable. Our first job was to source local fiber, which meant locally grown and locally milled in the Asheville, North Carolina region. Not only did we find that the options for this are incredibly limited, but we were not even able to find sources for some items within the United States. For linen, we found no source within the United States and the sources outside of the United States had limited transparency as to the farming practices. For cotton, we chose a fabric that is organically grown in Texas, spun in North Carolina and woven in Pennsylvania. For wool, we found an abundance of options for yarn, but very few options for fabric. The hemp industry is still very young in the United States and we were not able to source US grown and processed hemp. For thread, we found no natural fiber thread in the United States or Canada.

Here are the sources for the fabric and thread:
Organic cotton from Tuscarora Mills – fiber grown in Texas, yarn spun in North Carolina, woven in Pennsylvania. Not dyed, organic cotton.
Linen fabric – Not dyed, unbleached.
Merino wool fabric – Sourced from USA farms in the Rocky Mountains adhering to the five freedoms of animal welfare and manufactured in the US. Not dyed.
Organic cotton thread – Organic cotton (coated with compostable paraffins – I need to research this). Made in Holland.

Certainly, all of the resources exist and it would be possible for me to start from seed and grow the fibers and process them into fabric for clothing, but I have not yet begun that chapter of my dream. For now, I am trying to break free from industrial clothing, while not spending hundreds of hours doing it. The best way I know to do this is to source already produced fabric that was created in harmony with Earth. For my first round of clothes, I have made peace with sourcing fabrics that have a relatively high level of ethics behind them, but may not be regeneratively grown or grown in my region. I have made peace with being involved in larger scale industry in the creation of the fabrics, as long as the creation of the clothes is done by the hands of people in my circle or by my own hands.

My first round of clothes included ten items:
• 2 t-shirts
• 1 long sleeve shirt
• 2 pairs of shorts
• 1 pair of pants
• 2 pairs of socks
• a shawl
• a messenger bag

All of these were made from cotton or linen, with the exception of wool for the socks. They were completed at the end of Summer 2023.

All of these items were sewed by Abbey at home with a sewing machine using the fabric and thread we purchased as well as four wooden buttons and some raw wool that Abbey had.

At the beginning of this stage, I only owned 12 items of clothing, so this round of clothing set me up to be almost free of industrial clothing (my sweater was the main item holding me back). And for a very short period of time – perhaps a month or two – I was almost there. But then came Fall and my decision to spend autumn and part of the winter in my homeland on the shores of Lake Superior. This simple wardrobe of ~12 clothing items could suffice for the simple life in a warmer climate, but not for a colder climate.

For this stage of the transition, I am learning skills as well as connecting with my local community and my greater community. Now that I’m in the Great Lakes Region my fiber shed has changed from the Appalachian Mountains.

But, I have decided to open up sourcing my fabrics from my greater community for now. Again, in the future I will grow/raise and sew/knit/weave all my clothes from absolute source, but for now I will be elated with sourcing all of my natural fibers to the best of my ability in the time I’m able to dedicate to this project.

Here is what I have in the works:

• Long underwear tops and bottoms – I am sewing these in class at Laura’s Sewing School from wool I sourced online.
• Scarf – I am knitting this with wool from New Leaf Farm. My friend Shari Pufall Nutt is teaching me how to knit.
• Mittens – hand knitted by my friend Shari Pufall Nutt from local wool from The Rude Goose Farmstead and I will felt them.
• Winter hat – hand knitted with alpaca wool from my friends at Old Redding Farm.
• Socks – hand knitted by my friend Jennie Swantz from wool that is a blend from Romney and Falkland sheep and dyed with Walnut gathered from their farm in Columbia County, New York.
• Neck Cowl – hand knitted by my friend Sarah Langmead from local wool.
• Sweater – For now, I have purchased a few secondhand wool sweaters at the thrift store. Knitting a sweater would likely take 50-60+ hours by an experienced knitter.
• Wool wearing blanket – My mom gifted me a wool blanket from the 1970’s that I will use until I eventually make one on a loom.
• Shoes – I am looking into making wool felt boots or leather moccasins. The leather would likely be from a deer and the wool would come from sheep. Right now I am wearing a pair of secondhand boots and may not accomplish natural shoes this year.

As I am making my  clothing and others are helping to make my clothes, I am also borrowing some clothes since the cold has arrived. I have borrowed shoes, boots, socks and a scarf and I purchased a secondhand pair of long underwear bottoms. I have so far managed without a jacket, instead wearing 4 layers of wool.

Sourcing fabrics, educating myself and speaking to many people has been rewarding but it has also been overwhelming at times. It is no small feat to completely break free from industrial clothing or to achieve the level of connection to my clothes that I would like to have. I have certainly felt disheartened at times as I’ve consistently run into roadblocks with sourcing everything as close to source and natural as I’d like to.

The highlight of the journey this Fall was doing my first black walnut dyeing session. I sourced the black walnuts from a tree right in my front yard. I used the black walnuts to make a dye bath to dye my pants, shorts, socks and messenger bag, along with many of my cotton bags. I am so elated to be a part of this process. I already loved black walnut trees and have been enjoying eating the nuts for the last year. My relationship is deepening with this plant relative through working with it as a dye. As I wear these clothes in the years ahead, I will feel a strong relationship to these trees. Wherever I go, I will carry the joy of the walnut tree that grows at my mom’s house in Ashland. I will share the process of dyeing with black walnuts at another time.

My next adventure in natural dye will be to make green. Dyeing with black walnuts is one of the easiest dyeing processes and requires nothing more than water and black walnuts. Green is a whole different story. In fact, it is one of the most challenging natural colors to achieve. Dyeing with green requires mordants, which are natural but are a bit more on the industrial side.

The process that I intend to follow to make green will be:
• First, an aluminum acetate mordant bath of the clothes.
• Second, a weld (Reseda luteola) dye bath adding some calcium carbonate to brighten the color.
• Third, an over-dye with woad (Isatis tinctoria) or indigo.

This is the process to get “Lincoln green,” which is the color that Robin Hood wore, following this same recipe for creating the green, I’m told. These instructions were shared with me by Melanie Wilder.

Amazingly, when I first arrived in Ashland, I saw a new place called Wood Spirit School, just two blocks from my childhood house on Third and Beaser. I was very intrigued, so I stopped in and they happened to be in a natural fiber and natural dyeing class! And even more amazingly, they had just harvested a large amount of weld plant from their dye garden and they were giving it away. I harvested a few pounds and dried it for later use. I am feeling quite intimidated by achieving the green color. I haven’t found anyone locally who has done it, but I am being helped remotely by Iulia Zamfirescu and with her support I am feeling more confident. I still need to source more weld and woad or indigo. I am seeking someone who grew it in their own garden or small farm. There is a part of me that is contemplating giving up on my dream of wearing green tops for now and instead working with colors that are easier to attain with readily available plants. It is important for me to attain fairly dark colors because I get my clothes quite dirty and light colors become very stained and grungy looking in a fairly short period of time.

As I have explored natural dyeing, I have become so incredibly excited to wear the colors of Earth. I am so eager to break free from the synthetic dyes that harm Earth and wear dyes from the plants that I have sourced straight from Earth in a sustainable way.

Connecting and learning from the community has been a great joy. I have deep gratitude for:

• Melanie Wilder at Wild Earth Textiles and Warren Wilson Fiber Art Studio.
Abbey Waterworth.
• Jennie Swantz for sharing her knowledge about wool with me. Her blog is Slow, Simple, Wild.
• Iulia Zamfirescu for assisting me with natural dye knowledge. Find Iulia on Instagram here.
• Shari Pufall Nutt for teaching me how to knit.
• Jazmin at Wood Spirit School in Ashland, Wisconsin for sharing weld plants with me from her dye garden.
Sun Choo for helping me break free from my last synthetic clothing item by gifting me a pair of linen shorts.
• Sheila Deane at New Leaf Farm for sharing her wool yarn with me.
• Jessie Hunt for sharing her excess wool fabric with me.
• John at Old Redding Farm for sharing his homegrown and home knitted alpaca wool hat with me.
• Laura Wirkkala at Laura’s Sewing School for teaching me how to sew.
• Sarah Langmead for making me a cowl to help keep me warm.

Resources, Frequently-Asked Questions and More Inspiration and Reflections:

See below the photos.

Photos of My Journey to Natural Fiber Clothing:

On a video call with apprentice Abbey Waterworth, Summer 2023. Abbey played a large role in helping me break free from industrial clothing.

 

Teaching at Barefoot School August 2023, on the first day of wearing my non-industrial clothes. The shirt and shorts that Abbey Waterworth made. The shirt was dyed with mint and the shorts were dyed with black walnut. Abbey is just learning about natural dyeing and I will re-dye all of them to make them much darker.

 

Teaching at Barefoot School August 2023 on the first day of wearing my non-industrial clothes. The shirt and shorts that Abbey Waterworth made. The shirt was dyed with mint and the shorts were dyed with black walnut. Abbey is just learning about natural dyeing and I will re-dye all of them to make them much darker.

 

Wild ricing, August 2023, in the shirt and shorts that Abbey Waterworth made.

 

My shawl and shorts with the messenger bag beside me, sewn by apprentice Abbey Waterworth. The shawl is made from linen. All items are not dyed yet.

 

On a video call with Jennie Swantz, who is supporting me with knowledge on wool and knitting wool socks for me.

 

A note from
A note from Jessie Hunt along with the excess wool fabric she shared with me.

 

The wool yarn from Sheila Deane at New Leaf Farm along with photos of the sheep the wool was harvested from.

 

Robin Greenfield holding a bucket of black walnuts, standing next to a woman under a tree.
Under the black walnut tree in my mom’s front yard, October 2023. This is 128 walnuts I harvested for my first round of dyeing with black walnut. I am wearing the linen shawl I have not yet dyed.

Updated Photos from November 19th 2023

Photos by Dorian Levine

Top row: linen shorts*, cotton shorts*, linen shawl^, cotton messenger bag*
Second row: cotton pants*, cotton shirt*
Third row: wool cowl^, wool hat^, long underwear top*, socks*
Bottom row: cotton shirt^, cotton shirt^, long underwear bottoms^, mittens^
* means dyed with black walnut
^ means undyed

 

Nearly 100% homemade, natural fiber and naturally dyed clothing. The sweater is an industrial merino wool sweater that I dyed with black walnut.

 

Shawl made with linen (not dyed) and pants made with cotton (dyed with black walnut).

 

Drinking water from the artesian well. Alpaca wool hat, wool sweater (from the store), homemade cotton pants. Pants and sweater dyed with black walnut. Hat is the natural color of the alpaca.

 

Merino wool long underwear top and bottom. I created these with a sewing machine at the sewing school in Ashland, Wisconsin. The bottoms are dyed with black walnut and the top is not dyed yet.

 

Shorts that Abbey made from linen. Dyed with black walnuts.

 

Buckets of black walnut dye and different fabrics dyed with the black walnut.
Sewing my wool long underwear at sewing school
Knitted wool socks by Dear Friend Jennie with local wool yarn
Felted wool mittens. Knitted by Dear Friend Shari Pufall Nutt with local wool yarn and then felted by me.

Inspiration and influence from Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi is has been one of my greatest influences. Part of his movement of liberation for India from the British was for each Indian to produce some of their own yarn and to wear homemade or community made clothing. This clothing was called khadi which roughly means “handwoven”. He facilitated gatherings where people burned their British industrial clothing and returned to traditional Indian clothing. Khadi represented a way of life. It was a symbol of empowerment and self-sufficiency. To many, khadi is the fabric of freedom. This was a very successful part of the liberation from Britain and the quest to be free humans.

Although I live in a nation that is technically considered free, our society and government is largely is under the control of industrial corporations. We do not have a true democracy. These corporations are exploiting Earth, the plants and animals and humanity for their own profit at the expense of the majority of all humans and creatures on Earth.

Returning to my simple, non-industrial clothing, non-exploitative clothing is part of my own quest for liberation from these exploitative industries. At the same time, these clothes are a representation of this liberation that I aim to take with me everywhere that I go at all times.

As people see me on the street, I hope that they see that there is something different going on and it piques some curiosity and intrigue that can lead to self-reflection and exploration. My clothes may not look too different, but with the lack of logos and the natural simplicity they have the power to at the very least not contribute to the exploitative status quo and at the very best create radical thought that leads to liberation.

Already, I am helping others to liberate themselves from fast fashion and exploitative clothing industries by encouraging to buy clothes second hand and support more ethical companies.

In time, I intend to assist others to liberate themselves more deeply by wearing clothes that they know deeply from source to creation and ideally have even taken part in creating.

What’s with the Shawl?

I am sure that many will see me in my shawl and experience a range of thoughts and feelings.

Some will be quite confused: “What is that thing?” “

Some will be quite interested:“Why is he wearing that?”

Others will create stories: “He must think he is some source of guru.” “Who does he think he is, god?”

Or assume cultural appropriation: “Is he trying to be Indian? Or Asian?”

I am sure that even some people who generally understand me and support me may be wondering about my intentions. Because of this I would like to share. People often say to me, “You don’t owe anyone an explanation of who you are or why you do what you do.” I agree, I don’t owe anyone anything. However I do have a desire to be understood, just as I have a desire to understand others. My life is my message and if it not understood then I am not accomplishing my purpose.

So, why the shawl?

At the center of my design for my clothes is simplicity, sustainability and ease of creation. This is not what the US modern mode of fashion is based on so this is not what you’ll see in most clothing. As with most of my life choices, I am not going to try to fit myself into the mainstream box and appear “normal” Because of this, I may come across as different.

The shawl is the ultimate representation of simplicity, sustainability and ease of creation. It is just a rectangle of fabric. It can be easily made with a loom. It can be made without electricity or any industrial machinery. Besides the fact that it simple IS all these things, it also represents all of these things.

The shawl as I wear it, stands apart from glamorous fashion. It stands apart from flashiness. I aim to live humbly and our material objects generally play a very real role in whether we live in humility. I am certain that if I sat in the backseat of a limo and wore a $2,000 suit that it would contribute to the inflation of my ego. The simple shawl on the other hand at this point humbles me and reduces my ego. People look at me strangely. They make up stories in their mind about me. This is all humbling as are many of my other practices such as walking barefoot and eating from the dumpster.

As I shared I have chosen not to live by the standards and societal norms of the society that I happened to be born into. I instead am learning from societies that have existed more harmoniously with Earth. The Indian culture is far more in tune with Earth and living compassionately and I do take great inspiration from many Indian people. Their traditional clothing is a representation of a closer connection to Earth and inner peace, rather than exploitation and materialism.

I would be very understanding if people thought that I was trying to appear as or be thought of as a guru by wearing these clothes. Although I am on the path of being a spiritual leader of sorts, this is not a guru statement. I am wearing these clothes for the numerous practical reasons that I shared. Gurus have traditionally come from India and so it is understandable that people would group me in with them based on a similar physical clothing. This is a very common human tendency. At the same time, guru just means a spiritual teacher or leader. I am certainly a teacher and a leader and if people chose to call me a guru, so it is.

In all of the above – the material, the creation, the stance against exploitation, the humble style – the shawl embodies mindfulness. I am a believer that you become what you practice. When we practice mindfulness we become mindful. I have come a long way in the last decade of practicing mindfulness but I hope I am still in the beginning stages of my journey. I consider this shawl to be my mindfulness shawl. It is far different from what I have worn for the first 37 years of my life and it serves as a reminder to me as I wear it that I am on this journey of mindfulness. I am using the shawl as a tool to remind me to walk more gently, to think more peacefully, to speak more compassionately and to exist more mindfully.

On new fabric versus secondhand clothes

Some see me creating my clothes and say, “wouldn’t it just make a lot more sense to buy secondhand clothes than to make clothes with new fabric.” My answer to this is that it depends on your intentions. My intentions is to represent a new way forward that is in harmony with Earth, our plant and animal relatives and humanity. To some degree purchasing secondhand does this. It prevents the creation of more clothes in an exploitative manner. It takes a stand against the exploitative corporations. It can certainly be humbling. However, when wearing these clothes, it is still a representation of the destructive way. I feel that wearing secondhand risks subliminally sending the message that these clothes are ok. Our minds are very susceptible to subliminal programming and when people see me, someone they respect and look to, in these clothes they are likely to subconsciously assume an endorsement of sort of these clothes by me. Even though secondhand, they still represent exploitation. They still represent societal norms of destruction. Sure, some will know that they are secondhand, but 99% of the people who view me do not learn everything about me. They see what they see. I want to show a new way forward in being in relationship with Earth, humanity and our plant and animal relatives.

The same could be said for buying locally grown, organic food, rather than dumpster diving. For years most of my food came from the dumpster and I ate a lot of healthy food from the dumpster. But I want to embody the Earth, not the industry, so I transitioned to eating food from straight from the land.

What I do is not selfless. This is also my personal desire, to live closer to Earth and to live in deep relationship with Earth and the plants and animals I share the Earth with. Wearing clothes in the manner I have laid out in this article accomplishes this.

Lastly, I’d like to share that the creation of clothes from new materials is not inherently destructive and in fact it can actually regenerate the Earth. My belief is that we need to create local, resilient systems that include the production of our own food, clothing and shelter. I want to play a role in supporting and creating these local systems that liberate ourselves from globalization and industrialization. Buying secondhand industrial clothes just does not accomplish this mission. Raising sheep, growing food and fiber, locally milling it with sustainable energy, building Earth skills, building community that depends upon one another… These are all elements of living in harmony with Earth and liberating humanity from our current destructive way of being.

Lastly, this statement would not be complete without acknowledging that the secondhand industry in itself is highly destructive to many of the less privileged nations. This system dumps millions of pounds of plastic clothing into communities that don’t have the resources to deal with it. This results in substantial littering of the ecosystem while destroying the livelihood of local clothing makers.

Acknowledging the privilege in this pursuit and the inaccessibility of these clothes

In the times that we live in, it is certainly a great privilege to have the time and resources to clothe myself in the way that I am. There are billions of people that do not have this time and do not have these resources. This is not accessible.

Is it an abuse of my privilege? In my opinion, no. In fact I think it is a strategic usage of my privilege as part of an overall service to humanity. I believe that other portions of this article cover that and it would be repetitive to explain that here. But I will say that this choice is a very strong calling to the privileged people of the world to liberate themselves from materialism and ego and use their privilege to the betterment of humanity. The materials for my entire wardrobe of about 20 items cost about $1,000. There are people who spend that on one item of clothing and even millions of people who would be considered underprivileged are spending substantially more than that on their clothing.

So although this clothing is not accessible to all, it could be if we shifted ourselves as a society. But even more pertinent to my answer, is that I do not aim for my life to be accessible to all. Yes, I do teach many accessible strategies for achieving liberation, peace and joy. Most of what I teach is designed to require very little money, skill or resources, thus being highly accessible. However, my life is my own life. My mission is to create substantial change with my life as my message and this is not what the majority of humans are trying to accomplish, so I’m not going to design my life to be duplicatable. That’s not what people need or want.

Regenerative agriculture

Most agriculture today is extractive. Food and fibers are grown in a manner that depletes the soil and the water and slowly or rapidly destroys the land that is being farmed.

Sustainable agriculture would technically be agriculture that can be sustained by that land definitely. This means that the land is not being harmed or destroyed in the process of growing and harvesting the food and fiber. Very few foods or fibers marketed with the word “sustainable” are truly sustainable. A more accurate terminology would be “less destructive” or “less exploitative”

Regenerative agriculture is agriculture that is done beyond sustainably. Regenerative agriculture is actually healing to the land. It builds topsoil, builds fertility, improves water retention, increases biodiversity, provides habitat and much more while producing foods or fibers.

My goal is to source all of my fibers from regenerative farming and gardening. Raising sheep is generally far easier to be done regeneratively than growing plants such as cotton or linen, however they certainly can be done regeneratively. Hemp when worked with in alignment with Earth has incredible potential to regenerate our Earth.

How to dye with black walnut

I am still very new to natural dying so I am not writing on natural dying in much detail but I am happy to share some on dying with black walnut as is it one of the most simple of all natural dyes.

Black walnuts are generally best collected in the fall once they are fully mature or near full maturity. It is the husk of the nut that contains the dye and is used. The most knowledgable sources I read say to harvest the nuts between the stage of being fully mature green to the point of them starting to turn a bit yellow. They can be used at any point but that is when the dye is most strong. They can be picked from the tree or the ground.

Once you’ve collected the black walnuts you can then break them open and put them into a pot of water or just put the unbroken husks directly into the water. You can remove the walnuts in their shells if you want to eat them or you can put those right into the water as well. Now, you can let it sit for an extended period of time until you have a thick black mush or you can heat the water to make this happen faster. On source I found said they use about 20-30 nuts per pound of fabric they are going to dye.

Soak your fabric in warm water for an hour or two before adding them to the dye bath. Clean the fabric thoroughly to remove dirt, oil, etc. that will take on the dye differently than the fabric without dirt, oil, etc.

You can then add your fabric to the dye bath. Generally it is recommended to have the dye bath be hot, not boiling but about 180 degrees. Different fabrics take on the dye differently. Wool takes on the color of black walnut more readily than cotton or linen. For a consistent color, stir the clothes in the dye bath through out the first half hour or hour. To get a darker color, let the cloth sit in the bath for longer, even over night or a full 24 hours. It is recommended to not put wool in too hot of water or to agitate wool too much. Check your fabric from time to time and pull it out when you have a desired color. Then rinse the clothes out very thoroughly with cold water.

You can also dip the fabric in a rust bath to make the color darker. To make a rust bath, simply put rusty metal into vinegar and let it sit until you get rusty water (perhaps a weeks time). Then dip the fabric in this rust bath for a short period of time (15 seconds at first or a minute). It doesn’t need long.

Natural dying is quite experimental and to enjoy it the most I would recommend having an openness to and gratitude for whatever color that you get. That’s all I’ll share on natural dying for now.

Cost of my clothing

The estimated total cost of the materials to make the ~20 clothing items is about $1,000.

This does not include the sweater.

I will update this once the wardrobe is complete.

Resources:

Fibershed website  We develop regional fiber systems that build soil & protect the health of our biosphere.”

Fibershed Clothing Guide “Knowing what is in your clothing and how it came to be made has defining implications for personal and planetary health. This guide is designed to empower the decision making process.”

Fibershed, the book

Kamea Chayne  – Website – Green Dreamer Podcast – Instagram

Conscious Fashion Directory – Where to buy and sell used clothes

Fashion certifications

Plant-dyed clothing information from Kamea Chayne

Conscious Chatter Podcast: Website – Facebook – Instagram

Wild Earth Textiles “Natural Fibers, Natural Dyes, Local Materials – Exploring the intersections between art, daily living, and social action; creating a tactile relationship to nature based fiber art.”

The Barefoot Dyer – “Natural dye education. Learn how to turn plants in to beautiful, long lasting colors.” Instagram YouTube

The Dogwood Dyer – “Natural Dyes & Growing Plants for Color” Helpful resources for natural dying  Instagram

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