Heidi Barr, Founder, The Kitchen Garden Series

Heidi Barr, photographed at her home studio in Roxborough/Manayunk for Grid Magazine, holds material for her special design napkins. 

One of the pleasures – and great surprises – of writing about Roxborough is the large number of people living in our community who work in green, sustainable, environmentally friendly careers – landscape architects, farmers, educators, planners, nonprofit executives, biologists, and so much more.

Like Heidi Barr. Founder of the Kitchen Garden Series, found on the web at www.TheKitchenGardenSeries.com. Heidi is a former costume designer who, from her home in the Wissahickon neighborhood, has been handcrafting stunningly beautiful, heirloom-quality aprons, napkins, produce bags, lunch bags, even coffee filters, some from new linens, others, like her aprons, from vintage fabrics. Her wares are available at farmers markets around the region (her website tells you where), and restaurants are picking up her work. The new Musi, for example, which just opened in South Philly by renowned farm-to-table chef Ari Miller, is using her aprons for its cooking staff.

While a “working shareholder” at Henry Got Crops, the Weaver’s Way CSA at Saul High School (she puts in two hours a week in the field to get a discount on the produce), Heidi explained that she was looking for a clever way to financially support the effort. Being a costume designer and accustomed to working with fabric, she started creating napkins out of men’s button-down shirts, in part because there is what she called an “alarming” amount of used men’s shirts, “a seemingly endless supply,” many of which are bundled and sent overseas to Third World countries when not sold in America. This practice “is putting textile companies in those countries out of business,” she said. She’s been making napkins for seven years now, relying almost exclusively on shirts she finds at the Salvation Army and Goodwill Industries.

Her chef's aprons, however, come from vintage feed and seed bags, cotton and linen blends that might go back to the 1940s.

“I got my first batch at a barn sale in Lancaster County,” she reported, and it is these vintage-cloth aprons that Musi is using.

She’s also expanded into high-quality linens, sourcing her cloth from Lithuania. “It’s high-quality fabric for a reasonable price,” she explained. “Lithuania has a long history of growing flax and weaving linen.” Linen, she continued, is a low-pesticide crop, unlike cotton, which she called “the dirtiest crop –  it needs a lot of water and a lot of pesticides.” Linen has longer fibers than cotton, which makes it more durable –  it lasts forever. “I’m hooked on linen; it just has less impact,” she explained, “and the mills I work with all have high ethical standards.”

One of her newer products is linen bags, one style for use in shopping at farmers markets, another for storing your produce in. “There's a long folklore that linen has antibacterial properties,” she continued, “and it is stronger wet than when dry.” So you dampen the bag, place your lettuce inside it, and place the bag in the crisper drawer. If you keep the bag damp, she promises the lettuce will stay fresh longer.

All this cuts down on our use of plastics. She recounts a story where she saw a windblown plastic shopping bag dangling high up in a tree in her yard.

“I decided I wasn’t going to bring another plastic bag into the house until it disappeared – which took over a year.” And in that year? “I did not bring one plastic bag into the house. Not a one,” she said proudly. “The hardest things was getting around the automatic offer –  everybody tries to give you one.”

She recently sold 50 of produce bags to Riverwards Produce in Fishtown, which has just stopped offering plastic bags. “There are no plastic bags in a roll in the produce section there,” she said, an inconceivable notion that just might become increasingly common as the world cuts its addiction to plastics.

She’s even selling a reusable linen coffee filter, “which is compostable when the fibers wear out.” But hers has lasted for something like two years now – “you just occasionally soak it in diluted vinegar solution to clean it out.”

The name “Kitchen Garden Series” hearkens back to the old kitchen gardens once common outside homes, and she showed me a vintage photo of her mom as a toddler sitting with her sibs outside her grandmother’s Lancaster County house, right alongside the kitchen garden. “But it also has to do with my work’s direct relationship to sustainable food systems – farming, storing and eating food.” And 10% of the proceeds benefit Henry’s Got Crops and another farm nonprofit. Her products support sustainable agriculture.

Heidi was born in Philadelphia, and moved to Eugene, Oregon when she was only 2. As an adult, she lived in Seattle for a decade, then moved back to Philadelphia in the '90s, “felt immediately at home here,” and has been living in Roxborough since 2010. “Philadelphia is pretty awesome for being such a big city with lots of green space.”

And Heidi’s work is pretty awesome. Beautiful, well made, durable – and environmentally friendly. Check it out.

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Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Roxborough, can be reached at mike@schuylkillcenter.org, and tweets @SCEEMike

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