Could Appalachian Textile Traditions Inspire A Sustainable Fashion Industry?


ABOVE: Jennifer Tarnacki taught visitors about traditional Southern Appalachian textile customs during her SCA internship at Brinegar Cabin Homestead on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The people of rural Southern Appalachia have a saying: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without”. You could call them the ultimate reuse, restore, recyclers. The immigrants who homesteaded the high ridges of the Appalachian range HAD to be resourceful – they often arrived with nothing more than an axe, a gun, and an auger. Many were the indentured servants of the guild systems, and after seven years labor they earned their passage to America and followed the Great Wagon Road out into the mountains where there was available land. Their resourcefulness at surviving in the mountains mingled with the local Cherokee ethic of conservation to produce a way of life and a culture that prided itself on self-sufficiency. Their reverent connection to the land and the belief that God provided all were integral parts of their simple lifestyle.

Brinegar Cabin, a traditional Appalachian Homestead preserved by NPS on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Brinegar Cabin, a traditional Appalachian Homestead preserved by NPS on the Blue Ridge Parkway. 

The interpretation division of the National Park Service, where my Student Conservation Association (SCA) internship is based, interprets Brinegar Cabin, a homestead built in 1886. The rangers staffing the cabin greet visitors with, “Welcome to high ridge subsistence living!” The family who lived here eked out a subsistence living in a barter economy, meaning they had to produce most of life’s necessities by hand, including their clothing. To accomplish this, they grazed sheep to shear for fleece, grew acres of flax to process into linen, spun the fibers on spinning wheels, dyed with plant sources, and wove the linen and wool together on a loom to produce a durable fabric called linsey-woolsey. The rangers who I work with demonstrate these handicrafts as part of their interpretive philosophy – they believe there is inherent value in preserving and remembering our cultural history, in the same way that preserving Old Faithful or El Capitan is important to our natural history. This is what makes the Blue Ridge Parkway so special; these mountains are filled with stories of determination, ingenuity, and survival.

Conservation is a common theme in the history of rural Appalachia. One Appalachian man described the method of hunting ginseng in the mountains as following Cherokee traditions. He made sure to find four plants before he dug up one, that way he knew that three plants would be left to reproduce and be available for the next year. Imagine how powerful an effect that mindset could have today – a generation of people living rooted in a deeply embedded ethic of conservation because they knew it was directly linked to their survival. 

Linen yarn spun from flax according to traditional Southern Appalachian methods.Linen yarn spun from flax according to traditional Southern Appalachian methods.

In their self-sufficiency, with their spinning, weaving, and natural dyeing, rural Appalachians were participating in ancient rituals. Every indigenous culture around the world has found a fiber plant and sources of natural dye to clothe itself. Images of flax processing can be seen in hieroglyphics from ancient Egypt. Increasingly, these traditions are being lost in the material culture of modern day America, and I worry that some sense of our connection to the land and each other is being lost with them. Today most of what we wear is made offshore using fibers and dyes of obscure and synthetic origin. This distance between us and the materials and processes that go into our clothing has a tendency to obscure devastating human and environmental costs. Synthetic dyes manufactured in Southeast Asia have high concentrations of heavy metals and are polluting freshwater sources in textile towns. The pesticides used on cotton in India are wreaking havoc on the health of farmers and their families. To me, this is a steep price to pay for fast fashion.

I wonder if broader familiarity with the “slow fashion” handicraft traditions of yesteryear might weaken this detachment and inspire more demand for sustainably manufactured goods made from materials of verifiable terroir. During flax processing demos at the cabin, I see people’s faces light up in interest to learn that linen comes from flax. I’ve found a palpable feeling of accomplishment and connectedness in participating in the growing and processing of fiber for my own garments. Learning these once common handicrafts has brought me into an awareness of the true cost of clothing and helped me realize how much the Earth gives of herself to produce just one shirt or pair of pants. In this light, the lessons from the past are living, and still relevant. They serve as a poignant reminder that everything we need comes from the land, and that we do not stand isolated from other living things.

A spinning wheel used to spin linen yarn at Brinegar Cabin on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Southern Appalachia.

Imagine a future where, using natural fibers and dyes as a starting point, we create local fiber sheds in the same way we have brought about local food movements. Producing natural fibers locally could create jobs and ameliorate the environmental destruction from synthetic manufacturing, while at the same time reconnecting us to and deepening our appreciation for the natural world. The transition into a more sustainable way of life can be beautiful, and I’ve learned that perhaps one way to find inspiration could be looking back to our roots.