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  • Around the World in 80 Fabrics: Saving the Planet One Stitch at a Time

    Close-up on a woman, her face obscured, as she pins a square of white fabric to a clothesline. Other fabrics, one translucent brown and the other white and lacey, are on either side.

    Lesli Robertson hangs explains of natural fibers in the Fabric Ecosystems tent at the 2022 Folklife Festival.

    Photo by Phillip Lee, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    My dad saved his socks. A machinist by trade, he routinely wore holes through their polyester heels. He piled them on a table beside his living room recliner until he accumulated three pairs. Then, with needle and thread in hand, he slipped a lightbulb through the sock to simulate a human heel and stitched the split fabric together. His motivation for this was purely practical: he didn’t see the need to buy new ones when a few well-placed stitches would extend the life of his own.

    Although he didn’t think about this routine as profoundly benefiting the environment, each stitch was a small action that combated the increasing plastic pollution caused by the fast-fashion movement. In this way, my dad’s actions worked in tandem with others from around the world whose traditional textile choices challenge the recent move to petroleum-based clothing.

    Tierney Thys—a marine biologist by training and a National Geographic Expedition expert—founded the nonprofit organization Around the World in 80 Fabrics to raise awareness of the devastating effects of fast fashion on the environment and to celebrate the diversity of natural fibers that can counter plastic pollution.

    “We wrap ourselves in plastics from the second we wake up, from our underwear to our overcoats,” Thys explains.

    That’s a problem, she says, because our petroleum-based clothing sheds tiny plastic microfibers, which can sponge up harmful chemical pollutants. These microfibers leech into waterways, becoming part of the food chain and depositing those chemical pollutants into animal and human organs. According to a 2018 scientific study of plastic pollution, eighty-one percent of tap water samples contained human-made microplastics. Ninety-eight percent of those microplastics were microfibers. These statistical facts mirror Thys’s personal call to action, which came when she was cleaning a beach of large plastic waste.

    “I had an epiphany,” she says. “My clothing was shedding off plastic microfibers into the ocean.”

    Two women stand at a table under an outdoor tent, each holding pieces of paper or fabric.
    Lesli Robertson (left) and Tierney Thys set up the Around the World in 80 Fabrics display in the Fiber Ecosystems tent at the 2022 Festival.
    Photo by Phillip Lee, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
    Three people stand under a sign that reads Fabric Ecosystems. To their left, a large makeshift loom of vertical white strings contains a circular pattern of fabric scraps in green, blue, pink, and black.
    In the Fabric Ecosystems tent, visitors were asked to contribute their eco-friendly actions with strips of recycled fabric to a loom installation.
    Photo by Julie Byrne, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Plastic clothing is a fairly modern phenomenon. Until the 1950s, clothing fibers were derived from natural sources: linen, wool, cotton, silk, and hemp. With the advancement of plastics in the mid-twentieth century, clothing manufacturers began using petroleum-based fibers like polyesters, nylons, and acrylics. She remembers consulting a middle school team in National Geographic’s Geo Challenge, and the goal of the challenge was to “tackle plastic.”

    “Together we came up with this idea of making a quilt that features alternative fibers to our polyesters, nylons, and acrylics. And so we went to secondhand stores and we sourced nylon with linen and cotton and wool. And we made a quilt and learned a ton.”

    That formative experience led Thys to consider the versatility of natural fibers. “That brought me into starting to consciously collect non-petroleum-based fabrics,” she says. “Humans have made fibers from nettle, agave, hemp, cotton, flax, algae, banana, pineapple, kudzu, linden, lotus, milkweed. There's no shortage of plants that we have, in our ingenious evolution, decided to make clothing and fabric out of.”

    Her work with National Geographic led Thys to the anthropologist Carroll Dunham, and together they created Around the World in 80 Fabrics, its name a play on the title of the classic Jules Verne novel. Thys works to “elevate the awareness of the biodiversity of fibers used for textile-making, the makers behind them, and the win-win solutions that can come from supporting those makers.” Their mission, specifically, is to show the biodiversity of traditional fibers.

    “There are many textile projects out there,” Thys explains. “But what's really different about ours is the raw material lens.” Other textile-based organizations focus on the craft, ornamentals, or the cultural specificity of the cloth. “You’ll see textile museums will often focus on that, but we're getting right into the warp and the weft and the microscopic properties of the actual raw materials that go into creating the fabric itself.”

    A wicker bowl full of dirt, tiny scraps of fabric, and small wooden signs that read: Wool ~1-5 years; Spandex non-biodegradable; Cotton ~5 months; Denim 10-12 months, etc.
    Around the World in 80 Fabric’s display at the Festival includes an explanation of how long it take different fibers to biodegrade.
    Photo by Phillip Lee, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
    Close-up on an off-white T-shirt with text printed on it: This T-shirt is made from seaweed and organic cotton, with just a touch of natural peppermint.
    Around the World in 80 Fabric’s display at the Festival includes a T-shirt made from seaweed and organic cotton.
    Photo by Phillip Lee, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Thys’s middle school quilt also shaped one of the main goals of Around the World in 80 Fabrics: to create a quilt made from eighty non-petroleum fabrics to highlight the biodiversity and uniqueness of those traditional textiles along with innovations in the biofabricated world. The organization is currently sourcing the fabrics that will be quilted together. But there is meaning to the quilt beyond the tactile, visual display.

    “The quilt is a metaphor for the fact that we are stronger when we lift our diverse voices together into something beautiful that can last,” Thys says.

    Around the World in 80 Fabrics places the return to natural fibers in a global context by highlighting how communities around the world pioneer fabrics out of natural sources. Lesli Robertson, the organization’s third team member, a textile scholar, and an artisan engagement specialist with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, has been embedded in Uganda for the past fifteen years, working closely with makers of bark cloth, a fabric made from the bark of the Ficus natalensis tree.

    “It’s a tradition that goes back 700 years,” Robertson says.

    In Uganda, Robertson met Aloyzious Luwemba, the tenth generation in his family to carry on the tradition of working bark into a useable textile. A labor-intensive process, bark cloth involves harvesting the inner bark from the tree and then beating it with wooden mallets until its texture is soft and fine. Central to the process are the mallets of various weights that he wields to work the bark into its signature texture.

    Robertson also works with Fred Mutebi, an artist and cultural arts activist who founded the Bukomansimbi Tree Farmers Association. The organization supports the preservation of bark cloth making in Mutebi’s local region. His art weaves traditional techniques and subject with the regional bark cloth fabric. Together, artists like Mutebi and makers like Luwemba demonstrate the profound relationships between non-petroleum materials and artistic expression.

    A person in red tank top uses a tool to strip bark from a green and yellow palm tree.
    In Uganda, after bark is harvested, the tree is wrapped in giant leaves to protect the inner wood and promote new bark to grow.
    Photo courtesy of Jamie House
    In a red brick wall studio, person in red tank top uses a ridged wooden mallet to pound a piece of tan bark.
    Hammering the bark with a mallet refines its texture.
    Photo courtesy of Jamie House
    Several flat pieces of artwork stacked on the floors and walls of a room. All are in natural brown, black, green, and blue tones, and some depict abstract human figures.
    Ugandan artist Fred Mutebi makes portraits and other pieces out of bark cloth.
    Photo courtesy of Jamie House

    Dunham, the anthropologist, has spent decades traveling to remote villages around the globe, and she has observed some of the close relationships humans have with creating their clothing. She likes to tell one story about the Zapotec of the mountainous regions of Oaxaca, Mexico, and specifically one community in San Pedro Cajonos who have an especially close relationship to their silkworms.

    “When the Spanish conquistadors came over, there was a huge boom in silk from the Bombxy mori silkworms,” Dunham says. “But when the Chinese shipped them to Europe, silk production collapsed there. So the conquistadors tried to gather up what they considered their silk from the slaves. But what had happened is the Indigenous peoples, the Zapotecos, bonded with these little worms. They were like, ‘Oh, we love these!’ And they hid them in little pouches around their waist.”

    The silkworms have survived in the community of San Pedro Cajonos for over 300 years. “To this day they still have them in their homes,” Dunham says. “They feed their silkworms before they feed their family. And you know, silkworms are rather voracious. They eat a lot of mulberry leaves. The amount of food they have to give them to keep them going is enormous!’”

    Dunham points to this story as an example of the symbiotic relationships between humans and natural fibers. “Here is a whole community that continues to have a very profound and close relationship with the silkworms that they grow and sell.” The story of the silkworms is also the kernel of a central question for the organization. As Dunham puts it: “Asking ‘What could we wear in a post-petroleum future?’ means we have to look back at what we humans have worn since the beginning of time.”

    The answer for Thys, Dunham, and Robertson is encapsulated in the traditional makers who use natural, local fibers. Natural fabric is inherently biodegradable. “And yet the problems that we’re having right now is that we’re creating so much waste that is not biodegradable and is not part of that cycle,” Dunham points out. Finding ways to encourage and educate consumers to rethink our clothing choices is a central tenet of the project.

    One way they’re doing that is by using quilting techniques to visually represent the interconnections of natural fabrics. Dunham and Robertson talk about Mongolian artists Enkhbold Togmidshiirev and Munguntsetseg Lkhagvasuren who are creating a quilt using fibers derived from the “Five Jewels” of Mongolia: Bactrian camel, yak, sheep, goat, and horse.

    A man, standing, poses with a seated, pregnant woman, amid gray and brown textiles on the table in front of them and walls behind them.
    Mongolian artisans Enkhbild Togmidshirev and Munguntsetseg Lkhagvasuren in their studio making fabric for their quilt.
    Photo courtesy of Carroll Dunham
    Various gray and brown woolen fibers.
    Fibers from the Five Jewels of Mongolia: Bactrian camel, yak, sheep, goat, and horse.
    Photo courtesy of Carroll Dunham

    “They went to all different regions collecting the fibers,” Robertson says. “Then, as artists, they looked at how those fibers can have a relationship to each other visually.” 

    That theme of natural relationships animates the organization’s own quilting project.

    “In a way, our quilt symbolizes stitching together all that biodiversity of possibilities,” Dunham adds. “It’s a quilt of possibilities, a quilt of micro solutions.” One possible small solution, she points out, could be mending holes in clothing to avoid sending them to a landfill. 

    Thys concludes, “The only way a lasting solution to our waste problem can come into being is for all cultures, from every corner of the globe, to come together to solve this.”

    Meet staff and Mongolian and Ugandan weavers with Around the World in 80 Fabrics at the 2022 Folklife Festival, as part of the Earth Optimism × Folklife program. They are offering demonstrations and workshops every day, June 30 through July 4.

    Aaron Rovan is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, a recent graduate of West Virginia University with a PhD in English, and a staff member at Ohio Humanities.

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