Davis farming activist grow their own T-shirts

Sacramento activists make the shirts on their backs

Robyn Waxman hugs the producer of her future shirt.

Robyn Waxman hugs the producer of her future shirt.

Growing clothing is uncommon. Growing clothing as a form of activism is unusual—and also doesn’t get a ton of attention. But this is exactly what a group of local volunteer farmers and yarn spinners are doing to protest globalized and industrialized textile and garment manufacturing.

In Davis, these farmers harvest flax and silk worms to make shirts, which they decorate with home-grown dyes. They say this gives them a stronger empathy for the labor and cost that goes into producing society’s clothes. And makes for a better shirt, too.

“Good clothing is a human right,” argued Sacramento City College professor and Future Action Reclamation Mob founder Robyn Waxman. “When these things become commodities, it is distanced from being a human right. They’re now something you have to be able to afford.”

FARM is a community and student agricultural collective originally conceived as an alternative form of nonviolent protest. Its mission is to reclaim public space in order to foster community and provide services for underserved and transient populations. Waxman helped establish FARM chapters in both San Francisco and Sacramento.

FARM is located also just outside Davis on a 2.6-acre plot owned by Waxman. Volunteer farmers built a dye and fiber garden on her property in February, free of commercial pesticides, for the purpose of producing clothes the way clothes were made in a pre-industrial world.

“It’s a change of the everyday norm, because a lot of people are straying away from going to stores and buying things they need. A lot of people are starting to do it themselves,” said Paul Bernucci, a UC Davis plant-science major and volunteer farmer.

Carrots, carrot greens, Coreopsis and zinnia flowers were planted for the dye it will eventually produce. Flax was grown on the property and will eventually be processed into linen. Silk worms are being raised, and their cocoons will be used to produce silk. Waxman said that in the coming months, cotton will be planted on the property, too.

Volunteer farmers are currently learning to spin raw wool and will use the dyes made from plants, black beans and turmeric to color it.

FARM is located near a sheep farm and, according to Waxman, the owners donated 25 sheep fleeces, or 110 pounds raw wool, to FARM.

“For thousands of years, this is how all clothes were made. It took a long time, and people’s clothing lasted for a long time, because things were made to last,” said Jen Hoover, a special-ed teacher and volunteer farmer. “Everything being mechanized now, we’ve totally lost touch with how much labor goes into creating a shirt, creating a pair of pants. They’re not made that well by machines. It’s not as high quality as somebody who is really putting the care into it.”

Waxman said this hands-on approach is a way to engage Millenials, people born between the 1980s and the 1990s, who are alienated from the things that are real and organic.

“If you ask a lot of children, “Where do tomatoes come from?,” they’ll say the grocery store or the refrigerator. We just naturally, as a human species, have this craving to reconnect with the things that are real, things that make us live. One of those is clothing, what we put on our body,” Waxman said.

“My silk worms, I can tell you the exact tree where they ate leaves from. I grew [some of] the flowers that made some of these dyes. We planted them and took care of them,” Hoover said. “There’s no way you can monetize that.”