“Grown and sewn” T-shirts. Photo: Harvest & Mill

We all know the phrase, “you are what you eat” and we certainly take that seriously in the Bay Area where the heart of local, sustainable and organic practices beats fervently and strong. But what about extending that ethos to the clothing industry, with the same level of commitment? Harvest & Mill, a clothing company with a design studio based in Berkeley — and sewing mills in Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco — does just that by providing a product that is organic, locally grown and manufactured using sustainable practices from seed to seams.

Founders Natalie Patricia and Paul Wallace are both self-described “jacks-of-all-trades.” Patricia, an East Coast native who has lived in Berkeley since 2009, has worked as a farmhand and gardener and started designing and sewing custom clothes one piece at a time in 2012. Wallace, originally from Cork, Ireland was the original organizer of the Heirloom Expo and manager of the Petaluma Seed Bank. He homesteaded in Sonoma for over ten years and has known about the benefits of pure fiber for decades. Together, the pair are sowing the seeds of the “grown and sewn” revolution in a community that provides fertile ground.

Setting up shop in North-West Berkeley because they feel that “Berkeley is amazing” the founders extol the virtues, “From the Marina to the Hills, Berkeley has always inspired industrial artists, intellectuals and mavericks. If you are doing something interesting, come to Berkeley! The Bay Area also has farming and manufacturing within ten miles of each other which is remarkably unique.” Currently, they sell their product line mostly online and to like-minded organizations.

Berkeleyside spoke with the Harvest & Mill founders to learn more about what inspires their mission. (Unless otherwise indicated, the pair asked that their answers be presented in one unified voice as co-founders.)

If your vision could be summed up in three words, what would they be?

“Local. Agrarian. Authentic.”

What is the connection between food and clothing?

Patricia: “Food and clothing come from the same place, the soil. While we consume food through the inside of our bodies, we consume clothing through our skin, which is our largest organ. All of the issues surrounding personal health, environmentalism, pollution and farming apply to food and clothing alike.

“In the 20th century, our food and clothing systems were drastically altered. Chemical ingredients replaced natural ingredients and globalization changed what we ate/wore and who grew/made it. Now, we can go to the big box stores and buy a GMO grown cotton t-shirt, that is drenched in agro-chemicals and toxic dyes, that was shipped around the world and made by people earning pennies a day. Replace ‘cotton t-shirt’ in that sentence with ‘apple’, and it’s the same story!

“On a foodie level, people know that fresh, local food tastes better and is healthier. The same goes for cotton. Our cotton is the cleanest, softest, purest and healthiest cotton grown in the world. You can feel the difference.”

Wallace: “The connections between food and clothing are extensive and the manufacture of clothing is an eco-system, like a farm or a garden. Clothing is the next frontier and the natural extension of what the local, organic food movement has done.

“Our consumer choices here in Berkeley can affect people, communities and environments all over the world. We have an incredible opportunity to change the world for the better by focusing on who, where, why and how our clothing is made. We have to take a step back, see what’s really going on and make the changes we want to see.”

How does Harvest & Mill embrace social justice?

“The exploitation of workers and environmental destruction in the clothing industry are pervasive and entirely invisible. Harvest & Mill embraces social justice by creating a real and local alternative and by educating our community where and how their clothing was made.

The first step to changing injustice in the clothing industry is to demand complete transparency in supply chains, by all clothing manufacturers. If people really knew how their clothing was made, then, Harvest & Mill believes, any person would denounce the industry. The problem is that there are no alternatives. We’re here to provide alternatives to the fashion status quo.

Our supply chain exists entirely in the USA because we want to know and see how workers in their local environments are treated at every step. Each person that contributes to our supply chain is paid fairly, has access to health care and works for companies that comply with EPA guidelines. The bottom line is: people who work need to be treated fairly, be paid fair wages and have the right to clean water, air and land, regardless of nationality or locale. Not one of the above, but all of the above.”

Sewing floor at San Francisco Bay Area mill Photo: Harvest & MIll
Sewing floor at San Francisco Bay Area mill. Photo: Harvest & Mill

Wallace: “We know that ‘Fair Trade’ or ‘Made in America’ labels are deceiving. As a person digs deeper into the truth about clothing manufacturing, it becomes obvious these are just marketing terms. ‘Made in America’ or ‘Made Locally’ often just means a company logo was printed locally. Also, the agricultural and textile industry are the two biggest polluters worldwide. That means, not only are people getting paid pennies for their labor around the world, but their natural resources are being destroyed as well.”

Patricia: “Growing food and making clothes, as a process and experience, has always felt deeply connected to me. They both require instinct, patience, connection to nature and community. Making clothes and growing food also allows us to appreciate the seriously hard work that people all over the world do whether we see them or not.”

What inspires you?

“Harvest & Mill stands on the shoulders of giants and hopes to be the bridge into the future. We personally know the people who grow, mill and sew our clothes, and these are our heroes. They are the heart and soul of Harvest & Mill. Our organic cotton farmers are real stewards of the land and they care about the health of their community. This is our soil and we are planting the future of the Bay Area design, fashion and manufacturing community.”

What is your advice to consumers who want to actively move sustainability and transparency forward in this industry? 

Patricia: “Firstly, bravo! For someone who is interested in both sustainability and transparency, you already have the foundation because the two must go hand in hand.

Secondly, read the fine print. We always try to empower people, because we know people are inherently compassionate, curious and forward thinking. Our advice would be to ‘use your values, your curiosity and be brave’. Visit our website and glean as much about our process as you can and apply those principles to other companies. What Harvest & Mill does is highly unusual. We hope that people will use our model as the new standard.”

“We know the fashion world won’t change overnight and most of us can’t simply go out and buy a whole new wardrobe. But we can ask the hard questions, support the right companies and share information with friends — every step helps. As the saying goes, ‘The snail climbed the mountain, one inch at a time’.”

Do you have a personal motto/guiding principle in your life that influenced the birth/growth of this business? 

Patricia: “We start with real respect for the people and environment that we rely on. We would not be here if not for the soil, the brave farmers, the mills and our customers. We all have a place at the table, we all have something to say and something to give. Harvest & Mill focuses on education in order to empower people locally and globally to make informed decisions. We’re just a piece of the puzzle towards making a more just and sustainable world.”

Wallace: “It’s like planting a seed and helping it grow. We can start with a small act and through time, we will build a whole new system. Harvest & Mill is trying to build a real alternative to the fashion industry right here in the Bay Area. Join the community. Help us grow!”

Harvest & Mill tote bags Photo: Harvest & Mill
Harvest & Mill tote bags hanging at the Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley.  Photo: Harvest & Mill
Harvest & Mill tote bags hanging at the Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley.  Photo: Harvest & Mill

To view their clothing collection or to learn more about Harvest & Mill and the history of the industry, visit their website. Connect with them on Facebook or Twitter.

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Mary Corbin is a writer and artist who has lived in Berkeley for over 30 years. Mary moved to the Bay Area from St. Louis to attend California College of the Arts in Oakland where she completed her BFA...