When costume designer Heidi Barr looks out the window of her Wissahickon home, she doesn’t see rowhouses, paved streets, parked cars and tidy front yards. Instead, she envisions the Northwest Philly neighborhood as it would have looked 200 years ago, when lush fields dotted with farmhouses sloped toward the banks of the Schuylkill River.
Back then, the immigrant families who settled in the area would have grown much of their own food, a practice Barr engages in today as a volunteer for Henry Got Crops urban farm in Roxborough. But they also would have grown something else: fiber to make their own clothes. “Historically, a family of four would grow two acres of flax, and widows and hired help were given a quarter-acre of flax each to grow for their own needs,” Barr says. Flax is the plant used to make linen, an ancient textile that’s been produced by humans for anywhere from 10,000 to 36,000 years. It’s similar to the plant that grows the flaxseeds in your granola. For millennia, people grew plants like flax and wool from sheep to make their clothing, often harvesting and processing the material from field to fiber to frock themselves. Because of this costly and
labor-intensive process, the average person would have had just one or two sets of clothes—until the 19th century, when the combination of cheap cotton subsidized by the labor of enslaved Africans in the South and innovations in large-scale textile production combined to make clothing much cheaper.
Today, our clothes are more affordable—and more disposable—than ever, but the true cost of fast fashion is paid along the supply chain. Synthetic fabrics, made from petroleum products like oil and coal, create pollution, take up space in landfills and can shed microplastics with each wash, contaminating oceans and poisoning sea life. Cotton, though a biodegradable natural fiber, is incredibly water-intensive to grow. And that’s before the fabric is cut and sewn by exploited workers—often women and children—in developing countries. The clothes are shipped to stores and sold, until something new comes along a few weeks later. Excess stock is often dumped in landfills because it’s not cost-effective to donate it to people in need.
That’s the textile industry Barr is pushing back against with the Kitchen Garden Series, her line of household linens made from upcycled fabrics like men’s dress shirts and vintage flour sacks. Her work at Henry Got Crops inspired the project as she sought ways to support the urban farm and keep her harvest fresh and crisp without using plastic produce bags.
Barr donates a quarter of sales to Henry Got Crops. Her oatmeal-toned and pastel-striped linen napkins, market bags, produce pouches and kitchen aprons are used by some of Philly’s top chefs and eco-conscious farmers’ market shoppers across the city. But she didn’t want to stop at simply reclaiming textiles.
“The further I got into it, the more I started looking at the textile industry and what an environmental catastrophe it is,” she says. “Instead of turning my back on that, I kept thinking about how I could participate without being part of that catastrophe.”
She had fallen in love with working with linen, but no farmers were growing flax in Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, in Pottstown, Kneehigh Farm owner Emma Cuniff was thinking about textiles, too. She’d trialed a small crop of indigo, a plant long used to dye fabrics (responsible for the classic color of blue jeans), along with the farm’s usual crops in 2019. A mutual friend involved in her indigo project introduced Cuniff and Barr, and by the end of their first meeting, they’d agreed to collaborate on a flax crop.
“I’ve been really motivated by people paying more attention to where their clothes come from as well as what they put on their bodies,” says Cuniff. “But our skin is also an organ, and it’s taking in the chemicals and chemical processes used to make your clothes. It’s a good opportunity for people to learn and expand consciousness around that.”
While most of the country’s flax for seed and oil is produced in North Dakota, organic trials have been successful in Vermont. In Pennsylvania, Camphill Soltane, which provides jobs and volunteer opportunities to adults with disabilities in Chester County, is looking to grow a flax crop as part of its Entwine textile program, and the Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum in Lancaster—where Barr and Cuniff purchased seed for their trial—grows a demonstration crop every year.
On an April day, the duo filled Kitchen Garden Series linen aprons with flaxseed and broadcast it by hand over an eighth of one of Kneehigh’s 4 acres—the same way Barr’s Germantown forbears would have planted it a few centuries ago. It’s a very small-scale project—Barr’s back-of-the-napkin projections estimate that they’ll end up with around 2 yards of linen cloth if the harvest is good—but at this point, they’re simply hoping to learn.
“Heidi always jokes that we’re growing enough to make a $1,000 napkin,” Cuniff says. “This season is very much about, ‘How does it grow here?’ ”
If the weather is too wet, for example, the rain could topple the long stalks of flax, making it impossible to harvest and degrading the quality, since long, intact fibers will make the best linen. Weeds might overpower the flax plants, which don’t have large leaves to shade invading species competing for the same space.
“The more people who are thinking about sustainable fiber farming and where their clothes come, the more impact we can have on the industry”–Heidi Barr, owner of Kitchen Garden Series.
To help them execute what’s essentially a volunteer project, Cuniff and Barr are taking donations to cover the costs of raising their first crop, with thank-you gifts like a packet of flaxseed to plant in your own garden.
They’ve also invited supporters to socially distanced weeding sessions, farm dinners when the flax field is full of pale blue blooms and harvest parties to keep the plants growing tall and true.
“The best way to get people interested is to get them directly involved. And because this is a long-term project, it’s not like either of us are going to get paid for this any time soon without community support,” Barr says. “The payoff is way down the road, when we have a local fiber economy, and the payoff will be for the whole community.”
For Barr, the flax collaboration with Kneehigh is simply an extension of her educational mission around sustainability in our kitchens and in our closets.
“The more people who are thinking about sustainable fiber farming and where their clothes come from, the more impact we can have on the industry,” she says.
She’s betting that when offered the option to purchase a shirt that comes from a plant with beautiful blue flowers or one that comes from an oil well, the garment—local, sustainable, and built to last—will win out.