Grow Your Jeans: Made & Now Worn by the Community

Written by Laura Jean Schneider, with photographs courtesy of the author and Elaine Patarini of Paicines Ranch.

I’ve purchased few clothing items with three-figure price tags. Yet, I’m in the midst of having a handmade sweater knitted from naturally dyed wool yarn that will easily compete with designer prices. Why have I made this choice? I blame Rebecca Burgess.

After making a five-hour drive to get a quick hit of agricultural inspiration, I heard Rebecca present at the 2015 Quivira Conference in Albuquerque. I loved the concept of a “fibershed.” As a person strongly connected to landscape and place, the language of the principle resonated. I went home determined to purge my wardrobe of artificial dyes and fabrics. I was going to be green and sustainable and support fibersheds and purchase all organic. But my enthusiasm plummeted when I started Googling organic cotton sheets and clothing. Ranching and freelance work was not (yet) going to sustain this switch. How to support this new passion of mine without maxing out our credit cards or having a single natural outfit I’d have to wear every day?

I’ve admired my mother-law’s knitting for years. I finally worked up the gumption to ask if she would knit something for me. She said yes. I beamed. My solution! I’d start my commitment to sustainable clothing literally one piece at a time. My fiber of choice was wool, perfect for chilly New Mexico evenings and windy spring days. The vivid skeins offered by the company I purchased my sweater pattern from were fun and brilliant—and chemically dyed, something as a chronic migraine sufferer I’ve recently began to question. Yes, 99% of my wardrobe reflects artificial colors, but this was the first sweater anyone had ever made for me. The appeal of natural dyes brought up my own relationship to plant-based color: as a child I wondered over the deep pink of beet juice, the magenta of juneberries, the soft orange of shredded carrot juices we used to tint our homemade butter.
I was going to exercise my values, open my wallet, and facilitate a wearable solution. I selected wool from the Fibershed Retailer member store A Verb For Keeping Warm. A sweater made completely by hand, from shearing, carding, and spinning the wool, to harvesting the materials for dye, to hand dying, to hand knitting, felt like the right choice for an heirloom quality, one of a kind piece embedded with care from shepherd to knitter. I splurged, and chose original.

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I think Sallie Calhoun would approve. Her vision has always been about original. Sallie and her husband Matt Christiano purchased the Paicines Ranch fifteen years ago. When I visited the ranch for a gathering hosted by her brand-new Globetrotter Foundation in February, Sallie shared her earlier life experience as a female engineer in a male dominated field. Clearly a visionary who thrives on challenge, she spent twenty-five years developing a lucrative software company with her husband before their dream came true: owning the California-based Paicines Ranch, which had appealed to them for years. After spending a few days on the ranch, the active, intentional commitment to regeneration on the landscape literally feed the stomachs and souls of livestock and humans who spend time there.

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Apparently, it also assists in transferring fibers from livestock to humans too. Sallie connected with Fibershed early on, purchasing a pair of organic cotton jeans through the Grow Your Jeans project to bring awareness to the Fibershed movement. When I reached out to Sallie via email to get some advice for a sustainable fiber newbie, she responded generously: “I am … interested in rebuilding local economies in all sorts of ways and believe in local production and distribution when feasible.  So, when I first heard about the [concept of a] fibershed, it just made a lot of sense as a way to think about re-localizing the production of fiber, cloth, and clothing,” she wrote, explaining her own involvement with Fibershed. “I have always preferred wearing natural fibers, even though my mother owned a dress shop during the polyester craze,” Sallie admitted. “To me, clothing has always been about function and comfort, and there is nothing like cotton as far as I am concerned.”

Sallie has first-hand knowledge of the devastating effects of farming commercial cotton: “My dad came from South Carolina, from the land of cotton.  His father was a huge cotton producer, and his hometown was based completely on the cotton economy.  I have literally spent my life watching the collapse of the area as result of the collapse in cotton prices and global production.” She anticipates some involvement in organic cotton farming in the future, to support healthy production of her personal favorite fiber. For now, while Sallie admits that “creating a market for animal fibers will be part of the puzzle at large scale,” Paicines Ranch is considering switching from an emphasis on mutton and lamb, to fiber, while grazing their resident herd of sheep to help “regenerate the globe’s soils.”

It was a bit intimidating to ask about advice for Fibershed first timers from someone so educated on the topic. But Sallie’s humble answer was encouraging. She likened it to someone just getting in touch with a local food scene: “Start paying attention, do a little reading, think about fiber as a product of Ag.  Become a more conscious consumer. Just become aware and thoughtful and your purchasing and behavior will slowly change.”

“I think people need to start where they are and not feel like they have to change everything,” Sallie shared, much to my relief. I’m thinking big, but making a small-scale change on the skein level. Even through there’s a significant difference in scale, Sallie is approaching her ranch in much the same way, making intentional, incremental changes to convert her ranch into a space that can eventually be a viable, productive, vibrant part of the Fibershed community.

Laura Jean Schneider is a writer and rancher based on the Mescalero Apache Reservation. Follow her series Ranch Diaries on High Country News for more.