Harvesting indigo
Harvesting indigo
Composted indigo, or <i>sukumo</i>, for dye
Composted indigo, or sukumo, for dye

Demonstration of harvesting indigo

Japanese Indigo, Polygonum tinctorium
Japanese Indigo, Polygonum tinctorium
Warp yarns for the jeans in the fermentation vat

Children helping separate indigo leaves from stems

INDIGO

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enim originated in Nimes, France and was likely one the first sources for our west coast blue jeans in the late 19th century. Synthetic indigo was widely available by 1876. It is likely that within the first years of scaled production, denim jeans were already being made with fossil carbon derived aniline dyes. Given the necessity of fossil fuel divestment in our era, we’ve taken a revisionist approach to blue; we’re growing our own—from the goodness of organically certified soils, the gracious participation of the sun’s energy, and the careful use of our water resources—our indigo plants have thrived in California’s Capay Valley.

Indigo is planted in late April to mid-May. The first harvest of the plant occurs in late June or early July when the crop is tall enough to prune. The second harvest occurs in late August, and then the plant is allowed to go to seed until the mid-fall. After each harvest the leafed stems are laid out to dry and with a watchful eye they are gathered at just the right moment when the stems remain supple and the leaves are crispy dry. Piles of the dried leaves and stems are stomped (by human feet), the stems are removed and composted for nutrient cycling, and the leaves are saved until the end of the season. Once all the leaves have been collected they are composted on a special composting floor made of stones, sand, rice hulls and clay (thank you Rowland Ricketts for teaching us your ways!). The pile is turned every 7 days for 100 days, the resulting composted leaf known as sukumo is then slowly fermented in water, using homemade hardwood wood ash lye, and crushed lime. The fermentation can take 18 to 30 days. When the vat is ready the dyeing then begins. There are no metallic mordants used to achieve the color. It takes 9 to 10 months from the time of planting to begin the dyeing process, there is great labor throughout the year required to manifest this form of blue.

Cotton in bloom
Cotton in bloom

Color grown cotton
Color grown cotton

At left and above are three videos of the spinning process.

NON-GMO COTTON

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ver 70% of the worlds cotton is genetically engineered to withstand the heavy use of glyphosate—the main ingredient in the herbicide Roundup. The fiber system has become wholly dependent on GMOs and their carcinogenic counterparts. We’d like to buck this trend, and see more people consciously inquire about the source of their fibers. The cotton for the Grow Your Jeans project was organically grown on soils that are rotationally grazed by sheep many months of the year. A single woman farmer—Sally Fox—has for the last 30 years worked to perfect naturally colored mill-able cotton varieties, and has pioneered the varieties that were used for this project. Sally’s farm is just down the road from River Dog Farm, one of our first indigo farming sites.

The cotton is planted after the last frost, around mid May. The seeds germinate within a week to 10 days, and the growing season begins. This cotton crop is co-planted each year with a variety of other species like milo and teff and nitrogen fixers including black-eyed peas. The cotton is harvested in the late fall and sent down south for ginning (seed removal). Then it travels to research mills in North Carolina, where the fiber is combed into sliver and then spun into yarn.

Adjusting the yarns on the loom
Adjusting the yarns on the loom
Indigo-dyed yarns for warping the loom
Indigo-dyed yarns for warping the loom

WEAVING

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he weaving of the denim fabric was done at TangleBlue, the studio of Leslie Terzian Markoff located on the Shipyard at Hunters Point, San Francisco. Leslie and her assistant Jessica Teitelbaum work on a Macombre floor loom—all human powered. We were able to avoid using fossil fuel-derived slashing agents and resins normally used to prevent breaks in yarn that is wound onto electric mechanical looms by working with Leslie’s hand- and foot-powered system.

Weaving the fabric for the pocket bags
Weaving the fabric for the pockets
Custom pocket detail
Custom pocket detail
Men's back pocket details
Men's back pocket details
5-pocket jean option
5-pocket jean option
Handwoven pocket bags on every pair of jeans
Handwoven pocket bags on every pair of jeans

PATTERN MAKING & SEWING

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message from Daniel DiSanto: “I have been working on jean patterns for over 30 years. While sewing, I am inspired to try different stitching and construction features taken from historic denim. The jean ‘tells’ me how it should look, and I listen.

This fabric is so unlike the hard denim from the factories that these jeans became a revisionist approach to traditional denim. The styles we chose and the amount of ease allowed in the fit we created for this softer fabric will eliminate preconceived notions of what denim ‘should’ look like, and create a welcomed new perception of what a traditional 5-pocket jean could look like if it is locally grown. No two pairs are alike. Every marker creates a different jean according to the size of the wearer.

The cut and sew process is quite straightforward. I received measurements, altered the pattern blocks accordingly on the Assyst pattern system, hand cut the fabric one at a time and sewed the garments one at a time. I used every inch of this precious fabric. Perhaps some hats or bags may come out of the fallout.

The pocketing and exterior label are also hand woven out of the same cotton. The metal trims come from domestic factories, so as to avoid having new ones made overseas.”

Greenpeace has been documenting some of the toxic practices in the textile industry
Greenpeace has been documenting some of the toxic practices in the textile industry

DIVEST FROM FOSSIL FUELS,
GMOs, HEAVY METALS, and
SYNTHETIC COCKTAILS

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ccording to the World Bank, 17-20% of industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment. 72 toxic chemicals in our water come solely from textile dyeing, of which 30 cannot be removed. North America generates 2 million tons of textile waste each year, which is approximately 68 lbs of waste/household per year. 5% of all landfill production is textile waste.

In Xintang, China, where the economy is centered around textile production, Greenpeace has found high levels of industrial pollution and has documented the effects on the community. Photos © Lu Guang/Greenpeace.

Photo of a farm in Bijigiri village in Karimnagar, India, where farmers spray Bt crops with chemical pesticides, as advised by Bt cotton seed companies and dealers. Photo © Peter Caton/Greenpeace.

Read more about Greenpeace investigations of the textile industry on their website.

Rebecca Burgess

Rebecca Burgess is the Executive Director of Fibershed. She has over a decade of  experience writing and implementing hands-on curriculum that focuses on the intersection of restoration ecology and fiber systems. She has taught at Westminster College, Harvard University, and has created workshops for a range of NGOs and corporations. She is the author of the best-selling book Harvesting Color, a bioregional look into the natural dye traditions of North America. She has built an extensive network of farmers and artisans within our region’s Northern California Fibershed to pilot the regenerative fiber systems model at the community scale.

Dan DiSanto

Dan Disanto’s career in sewing began at age 6, while working with his Grandma on her old black singer, he carried his skills through to mending the families clothes. The local sewing store began to forward him work and by age 13 he had his first wedding gown gig. He paid his way through North Carolina State University by doing custom patterning and sewing work. He’s an award winning pattern maker whose work spans multiple decades at Levi’s and The North Face, to name a few. His understanding for the human form has been heralded by his colleagues in the industry who call him ‘the wizard.’

Sally Fox

Sally Fox is a scientist turned organic and biodynamic cotton farmer, sheep rancher and small business owner living in Yolo County with over 30 years of using classical plant breeding methods with heirloom cotton varieties to create fiber for wearable clothing. Her mission is to farm sustainably, humanely and profitably, concentrating on color and flavor and slow growing animals, and slowing herself down enough to enjoy looking at the sky.

Leslie Terzian Markoff

Leslie Terzian Markoff is a weaver with an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art. She has over 30 years experience in design, manufacturing and product development of woven fabric working with textile mills in the United States, Europe and Australia. In 1997 Leslie founded TANGLEBLUE, a textile consultancy using handlooms and natural dyes for small runs and limited production. She collaborates with industrial mills when developing products that require technical looms and large production runs. Her current work is a return to her roots: natural fibers, natural dyes, farming and ranching.

Jessica Teitelbaum

Jessica Teitelbaum is a weaver and natural dyer who earned her BFA in Fibers from the Savannah College of Art and Design. Deeply inspired by Fibershed, she has been motivated to incorporate local fiber into her work. Jessica feels fortunate to work with Leslie Terzian, and thrilled to have the opportunity to assist with the Grow Your Jeans project. She is gaining experience in many different aspects of the textile world and dreams of one day running her own handweaving business.