The next generation of sustainable fashion designers are leveling up their education with Fibershed: Innovative fashion programs at Bay Area Community Colleges offer a brighter view for the fashion future

A person standing behind a table holds up a textile and smiles
Students in the SRJC Fashion Studies Program displayed their natural dye work on regionally sourced fabrics at the 2019 Fibershed Symposium. (photo by Paige Green)

In order to realize a more sustainable fashion future, tomorrow’s fashion designers must understand how the whole life cycles of the apparel they create impact people and the environment. Fibershed is collaborating with design schools in Northern California and beyond to help shape the future of fashion. Through these collaborations, we are connecting the next generation of sustainable fashion designers to regional textile material sourcing and supply chains. Students gain an understanding of how a soil-to-soil approach is not only urgently needed, but possible.

Our ongoing engagement has included: utilizing the Fibershed Learning Center as a space for connecting students and faculty to new skills featuring regional textiles and dyes, providing scholarships for participation in Learning Center workshops, Fibershed staff presentations to classes and programs, providing donations of regional fabric and natural dye materials, and cultivating student involvement in Fibershed events.

Two of the fashion and design programs we have been deepening relationships with provide critically needed equitable access to high quality fashion education within the California Community College system: College of Alameda’s Fashion Design and Merchandising (ADAM) Program and Santa Rosa Junior College’s Fashion Studies Program. 

We caught up with faculty leads at these visionary fashion programs in the Bay Area to hear about their programs and how connections with Fibershed have fit into their work: Emily Melville, Fashion Studies Program Coordinator at Santa Rosa Junior College, and Derek Piazza, Department Chair of the College of Alameda’s Apparel Design and Merchandising (ADAM) Program. Three students from Santa Rosa Junior College and two students from the College of Alameda featured their work in the Student Designer Showcase at our Rooted in Simplicity event. In this Q&A, Emily and Derek share how the programs are incorporating sustainability, how collaborating with Fibershed has benefitted students, and their hopes for the future of fashion.

The SRJC Fashion Studies Program’s Spring Fashion Show in May 2022 in Petaluma, CA, featured student work using regionally sourced textile materials and natural dyes. (left) Hooded Jacket in Climate Beneficial Wool designed and constructed by Karen Mirabelli; modeled by Abrea Tilman. (right) Eco-printed Poncho in Climate Beneficial Wool designed and constructed by Kate Lundquist; modeled by Kathryn Atwood. (Photos by Lucas Adelman)

What makes the fashion program at your school shine?

Emily Melville: We have students coming from a wide range of backgrounds and interests who all come together to learn from each other in our small, hands-on classes. Some students come to us who are brand new to sewing and to fashion, and some have been home sewers for years. This range of experiences means that our students are learning from each other as well as from our faculty, and being inspired to push outside their own experiences.

Derek Piazza: The ADAM program offers fundamental and advanced training in fashion design from collection development through production. My colleague OJ Roundtree and I keep our industry-driven curriculum affordable while meeting current trends and technology in this ever-expanding field.

College of Alameda ADAM student Chi Do attended a workshop on making indigo dye vats at the Fibershed Learning Center in June, then used the skills she gained to make a dye vat from indigo grown and processed at the Learning Center for her original design using California-grown cotton french terry fabric (milled by California Cloth Foundry). Left: Chi with samples at the indigo workshop; Right: Chi modeling her completed outfit, which will be displayed in the Student Designer Showcase at Fibershed’s ‘Rooted in Simplicity’ event on September 17. (Left photo by Heather Podoll; Right photo courtesy of Chi Do)

How does your school’s fashion studies program incorporate sustainability?

EM: Our first sustainability-focused class was probably the Textiles class taught by Lyra Bobo. The curriculum includes a large section on natural dyes, eco printing, and understanding sustainable practices in the textile lifecycle. The popularity of this class speaks to a strong interest locally in natural dyes, natural fibers, and having a better understanding of where our clothing comes from and where it goes when we are done with it.

We are also happy to have recently updated our Alterations class to include a focus on Sustainability. This class is now called Alterations and Sustainability, and in addition to introducing students to alteration and repair techniques that can extend the worth and life of our clothes, the class now also includes a study of upcycling and zero-waste pattern concepts. Students also engage in an ongoing discussion of the sustainability challenges facing the fashion industry in all levels of production.

DP: Our fashion students create collections for their own unique brands. During this process, we encourage them to think sustainably and responsibly, not only in the areas of design, but also manufacturing, packaging, and shipping. Students learn how the choices they make early in the collection development process can help reduce the overall carbon footprint of their garments.

  • At the Fibershed Learning Center this spring, ADAM students attended an indigo and native plant natural dye class.
    At the Fibershed Learning Center this spring, ADAM students attended an indigo and native plant natural dye class (image 1) and a steeked sweater knitting class (image 2). (photo by Heather Podoll)

Tell us a little about the program’s collaboration with Fibershed. What has this collaboration entailed, and how has it benefited students in the program?

EM: Our collaboration with Fibershed has been growing steadily in the past five years or so. Pre-pandemic, we hosted Marie Hoff and also Rebecca Burgess to speak at SRJC.  These presentations have inspired students and faculty to incorporate sustainable concepts and textiles into their design projects. We have also participated in the Fibershed Wool Symposium, which has been a great way to learn more about the growing local textile economy and to learn from other makers and producers.

This past spring, I worked with Heather Podoll at Fibershed to create a category in our annual design contest with a focus on natural dyes. Fibershed hosted our students at their Learning Center in Point Reyes Station for a day of learning about natural dyes, and also donated locally produced fabrics to several of our students. This is an amazing benefit to our students to learn and grow outside of our classrooms and to have the chance to work with fabrics that they might not otherwise afford.

DP: Our collaborations with Fibershed are invaluable to our students. For ADAM Industry Talks, Rebecca Burgess speaks to our fashion students about the impact of the fashion industry on the earth and the “major disconnect between what we wear and our knowledge of its impact on land, air, water, labor, and human health.” She also talks about current changes that continue to be made with local farmers, weavers, and dyers, and how those changes are positively influencing the fashion industry. Our previous collaborations have included Fibershed workshops on natural dyeing and mending clothing, which allowed students to take those learned skills and incorporate them into their collections.

Collaboration with student designers in 2022 led to a Student Designer Showcase featured at Fibershed’s ‘Rooted in Simplicity ‘ event in September at the Fibershed Learning Center. (photo by Paige Green)

Can you share more details about your school’s participation in Fibershed’s student designer showcase?

EM: All three of the Santa Rosa Junior College students participating in the Designer Showcase also participated in our annual design contest back in the spring. They all attended the natural dyes class that Fibershed hosted for us back in March and have been given locally produced fabric to work with. Two of the students will be presenting the garments that they designed and submitted for our contest, and the third will be creating something new for the showcase.

DP: Our most recent collab, Rooted in Simplicity, allowed ADAM students to use the design and technical skills learned in class and integrate them into their collection for Fibershed. During the design process, they were able to work with Climate Beneficial fabrics such as Sally Fox’s french terry with color-grown organic cotton, ribbed knit with California-grown cotton, and twill that was woven using undyed, California Rambouillet wool.

ADAM fashion design student Lina Egutkina’s cardigan top and skirt made with California Cloth Foundry’s french terry fabric for the Student Designer Showcase at Fibershed’s Rooted in Simplicity event modeled by Rachel Lucas. (photos by Alex Matt)

How has collaborating with Fibershed shaped students’ understanding of how a soil-to-soil approach to textile design is both urgently needed and possible?

EM: I think Fibershed is really personalizing the textile and apparel life-cycle for our students. By highlighting and showcasing the individuals and organizations who are growing and cultivating the textiles and dye plants locally, as well featuring and fostering the artisan makers and designers who are working with those materials, students come to understand the true value of their apparel. Knowing how these systems work on a local basis helps students to recognize the high costs associated with conventional fiber and apparel production —  costs to the health and wellbeing of our planet and of the workers that are not necessarily calculated effectively in the cost of goods sold. 

DP: Many ADAM students are able to successfully address the urgency of a soil-to-soil approach for their collections because of the information and skills learned during Fibershed collabs. The cause marketing for their brand and, subsequently, the philosophy of their target customer may change to incorporate the importance of connecting the wearer to local fields. Fashion students are then able to analyze, identify, and change aspects of their collections so that they are aligned with the values of their sustainably-minded brand and customer. Collaborations with Fibershed have allowed this important inquiry and conversation to happen at the start of the collection-development process. Students are encouraged to document this entire process in their Collection Development Journal. After graduation, this journal can be shared with prospective employers when presenting their portfolio at an interview. It helps the interviewer have a richer understanding of the designer’s creative, technical, and editing processes.

  • SRJC student Nicole Tuscher created a Crop Tank Top and Maxi skirt with California Cloth Foundry’s California-sourced french terry fabric. (photo by Paige Green)

What is your hope for the future of fashion?

EM: My hope for fashion is that we can continue to cultivate the relationship between the maker and the consumer so that the true value of locally produced apparel can be appreciated and celebrated. When consumers know who made their clothes and where the fibers were grown and how the fabric was dyed, they value it more, and they will work to preserve it and not just throw it away.

We need to raise awareness in the next generation of designers, makers, and consumers about what the true costs are in apparel production. Consumers should understand that there are alternative ways to produce textiles and clothing that have less of a negative impact on our world. They need to be shown and educated that there is a benefit to buying fewer items of higher quality and to making them wear and last longer.

We must come to terms with the fact that massive changes are needed in every stage of textile and apparel production—but that can be overwhelming. The important thing to consider is that change will not be perfect, and it will not be overnight. We have to learn to think in new ways about what it means to be successful in business so that simply growing the bottom line and selling more units is not the only end-game.

DP: That all aspects of the fashion industry, including consumers, continue to be sustainably-minded.