When I’m not designing new patterns, working with locally produced yarn, or knitting with my friends in the fiber community, I am a project manager on Sierra Business Council’s Climate and Energy team. Over the years my two worlds – climate planning and knitting – have become increasingly intertwined, thanks to a concept called Fibershed. You may be wondering what climate action has to do with knitting, and that’s why I’d like to tell you more about Fibershed and how my knitwear designs and hand-knit garments are supporting the carbon-sequestration cycle in the Sierra Nevada!

What is Fibershed?

In 2010, a woman named Rebecca Burgess embarked on a mission to develop and wear a prototype wardrobe whose dyes, fibers, and labor were sourced within 150 miles of the project’s headquarters. The project grew from Rebecca’s personal challenge to reduce her carbon and ecological footprint and inspire others to do the same. She coined the word “fibershed,” a combination of the word “fiber” and “watershed,” during this project to describe a geographic region which all of the resources to make an article of clothing come from. Within a few months, the project transformed into a movement as the word fibershed and working concept resonated with scientists, makers, and farmers alike. Burgess founded a non-profit, aptly named Fibershed, to address and educate the public on the environmental, climate, economic, and social benefits of decentralizing the textile supply chain. 

Today, Fibershed promotes fiber systems that reduce atmospheric carbon while promoting environmental stewardship, social equity, and economic sustainability. They engage with small fiber producers and designers to not only build a regenerative textile economy, but provide carbon-cycle and climate change education. Their mission is to create and support local markets for climate-beneficial textiles and increase carbon sequestration in fiber-producing agricultural systems.

A typical wool garment produced overseas has a net carbon footprint of 33 kg in CO2-equivalents. The Fibershed approach reduces that, and can in fact sequester nearly 38kg in CO2-e per garment.

— Rebecca Burgess, Founder & Executive Director, Fibershed

Fibershed in the Sierra Nevada:

Here in the Sierra Nevada, the economies of most communities are economically and culturally tied to natural resources industries, such as forestry, agriculture, and tourism. A portion of the agricultural systems in the region include fiber producers and the ranching of sheep and alpacas for their wool. According to California’s 4th Climate Assessment Sierra Nevada report, land management decisions and commitments in these industries play important roles in mitigating GHG emissions and in preparing landscapes and communities for those climate change impacts. Land stewardship can increase the capacity of Sierra Nevada landscapes and communities to adapt to climate change, as well as contribute to the sequestration of carbon and reduction of energy footprints.

Climate change adaptation in meadow ecosystems and in forested regions, such as the Sierra Nevada, can involve certain carbon-sequestering actions, such as managing livestock grazing to reduce soil compaction, permit natural restoration of stream banks, and improve forest management. The “soil-to-soil” cycle that Fibershed is founded on demonstrates how a thriving market for locally grown and produced textiles can support carbon-sequestering agriculture, all while increasing the ability for ecosystems and communities to adapt to climate change.

Small businesses make the Sierra Fibershed (and subsequent carbon-sequestering agriculture) possible.

Here in the Sierra Nevada regional Fibershed community, there is an alpaca farm in Grass Valley called Sierra Rose Alpacas that is a fiber producer and member of Fibershed. Their operations align with the entire soil-to-soil cycle, but let’s take a closer look at the part of the cycle titled “Designers & Makers” – that’s where I come in. Once Sierra Rose Alpacas have had their alpaca fiber spun into yarn, and then hand-dyed with natural dyes from their garden, I knit their yarn into 100% alpaca garments, which in turn they sell in their farm boutique. They also sell their yarn, both naturally dyed and undyed, and I have created several designs and published knitting patterns for people to create their own hand-knit, fibershed garments utilizing their alpaca yarn.

Another key aspect of supporting a local fibershed is to foster commerce between fiber artists and yarn makers, and this is exemplified by the local yarn store. Here in the Sierra Nevada, we have many yarn stores, some of which are highlighted on the Sierra Nevada Yarn Crawl, which takes place annually September. This renown event is designed to celebrate what the regional yarn community has to offer and showcase it to a wide audience, both online and in person. During this year’s Sierra Nevada Yarn Crawl, I joined Heathered Yarn Co, local to me in Grass Valley, to share samples of my designs and knitwear, many of which are inspired by the colors and textures of the Sierra Nevada. This was an excellent opportunity to demonstrate how fiber-producers, yarn makers, and knitwear designers are an important part of the carbon-sequestration cycle, and show off how beautiful climate-mitigating yarn can be. Personally, it is a meaningful moment for me as someone who works in the climate action field to see climate-beneficial fibers and textiles reaching the mainstream market. As each Fibershed community manages their resources to create permanent and more widely-used systems of production and carbon enhancing practices, they will become the new standard.

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