Intentional Kindness to Strangers

  

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I don’t talk about politics in this space, and I fully intend for it to be a place where everyone who is interested in creating a more thoughtful, joyful life through craft and making will feel welcome, regardless of their feelings about which party is better able to govern. But some things are beyond politics, and that’s what I’d like to say a little bit about here, while I’m very aware that feelings are still running high on both sides. Maybe we can start by agreeing that it’s been quite a week?

I made an intentional choice quite a while ago to not hold back from sharing, here and elsewhere, how much I care about preserving our planet, and nurturing our relationships with natural systems. Whether you believe that it’s God’s creation, or that we are here by an entirely random, incredibly lucky chance, surely we can agree that life on this Earth is a gift, and it’s up to us to take care of the environment and the other creatures here, if for no other reason than that we are the ones who have the power to protect or destroy, and it is so good for our own spirits to engage with nature. I hope we can also agree that every human being has a right to live free from fear and hate, and no matter how far from reality that may be right now around the world, we can work toward that goal.

After the election, I started looking around for things I could do to make a difference, anything I could think of that might bring us together and let us start to talk about where we can find common ground and move forward, rather than demonizing the other side and driving us even further apart.

One of the first things that occurred to me was to be kind to the individual people I meet as I go through my day, regardless of how much or little I know about them, or the judgments I’m tempted to make when I first see them. I’m not alone in thinking about this. I’ve heard it spontaneously both from friends of mine via text, and from people I’ve never met speaking on the radio. Somehow it seems to have been an available, actionable idea in the minds of a lot of folks, which must be a good thing!

For me personally though, I was really surprised at the actual power it has. Like a lot of writers and creative folks are I think, I’m a naturally shy person. I’d rather be quiet and observant, especially in strange or complicated situations, and I don’t usually want to engage with strangers. Until last week, I wasn’t fully aware of how that awkwardness on my part can come off as a coldness that the people I meet can sense, making our encounters strained. The most amazing thing about having the intention of kindness is that I don’t even have to do anything or say anything, so I get to skip what seemed like the hardest part before. If I merely walk into a room or up to a person with the intent to be kind to them, they can sense it (just like they could sense my previous reluctance) and we spontaneously start to have friendly conversations, leading to lovely encounters that brighten the day with a genuine acknowledgement of our shared humanity. I swear it’s true, it just happens! I don’t have to change the way my mind works, I just have to set out to be intentionally kind. I’ll freely admit that in the first week of trying this, some days it’s been easier than others. But I’ve made a personal commitment that I will try to do it every day, from now on. Since I tried it and saw the wholly unexpected beauty there, it might be impossible to stop.

So I’m starting with kindness, meeting with friends, making things, and talking about ideas. I still believe in my bones that all of our actions, all of our intentions and words and the things we make with our hands, these all make a difference, and they all can be a part of building a brighter future.

From my hands and heart to yours!

 

Slow(er) Fashion is for Everyone

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A start-where-you-are, one-step-at-a-time, use-what-you-have, guide.

Here we are in Slow Fashion October again! It kind of snuck up on me, actually; we just got home from traveling for shows, and if it were any other challenge/focus for the month, I probably would have just let it go. But not this one—it’s too close to the heart of what I think is important. I remember last year being amazed at how articulate and thoughtful everyone was being around these topics on Instagram. As I sat down to write an introduction to where I’m at this year, I surprised myself with how much I cared about what I was writing, and the idea for this post sprang into my head.

I almost didn’t write it though. It just feels too big. I’ll never cover it all, and I’ll leave out things that are important … which I probably will. But it turns out I care more about what I want to say than about how I might screw it up, so here goes.

It bothers me when people complain about the idea of Slow Fashion being elitist or exclusive, because to me at the center it’s about buying less, and being more thoughtful. It’s about the power of choice, and the fact that every single choice makes a difference, whether or not it’s a difficult or expensive choice. It starts with small steps that almost everyone can absolutely do, today, and if we all moved just a little bit toward Slower Fashion, it would mean a massive shift in the way the fashion industry operates.

These steps are roughly in order of difficulty. Each one has actions (readily available things we can all do) and ways to level up (which are more involved and could also make a bigger difference), plus notes for those of us who already make part/most/all of our own clothes.

In case you are still wondering what all this is about or why the heck you should care (but miraculously still reading), I invite you to check out this article about how our level of clothing consumption has reached the point of totally overwhelming any market for secondhand clothes.

One last thing before we start: although I’ve tried my best to keep this list simple and actionable, trust me, I know it can seem like these are humongous problems, way too overwhelming for any one person. But I can honestly say that the deeper I dig, the more I come through the uncomfortable feelings into a space where I feel better about myself, and what I’m making and wearing, and even about my place in the world. Each of these actions, even the ones that seem simplest, can have ripple effects into the rest of our lives as well, making things seem just a little bit slower and saner. Taking it slower has been such a healthy and fulfilling choice for me on quite a few levels.

 

refashioning scraps

 
 

1. Buy Less

This step is available to anyone who is buying clothes, anywhere, and has a budget for anything more than the bare necessities. If everyone did only this—nothing more than being more thoughtful about what we bring into our closets—it would be a true fashion revolution. Opting out of the constant consumerism which is so much a part of our economy that it’s also part of our culture is a big deal.

Actions:
Before you purchase an item of clothing, ask yourself some of these questions:
Do I need this?
Can I see myself wearing this frequently? Does it go with what’s already in my closet?
When I look at this, what message does it send? Is that the message I want people to get when they see me?
Do I need this many?
Is this so cheaply made, or so trendy, that it won’t last me very long?
Am I shopping for something I really need, or is this “retail therapy”?

Level Up:
Try to buy pieces that will last longer, either because of more timeless style and/or more quality materials and construction. Instead of buying several cheaper pieces, wait and use the same funds towards one better quality item.
Unsubscribe from emails/newsletters/magazines etc. that make you think you always need more and promote seasonal “must have” items. If you enjoy shopping and contemplating your wardrobe, you might try a project like the Wardrobe Architect (designed for makers, but with exercises that work whether you make or buy most of your clothes) that encourages thinking about and honing a personal expression of style, rather than following trends.

For Makers:
I would not encourage you to be less creative, or spend less time using your hands and your favorite tools. However, it’s all too easy to switch from consuming finished goods to consuming materials, with as little thought to their origin and future usefulness. The same questions above can apply to fabric and yarn, or to potential makes. If you should find yourself in the enviable position of having already made everything you need, consider learning a new skill, taking on a longer/slower project, and/or making something for someone else who can really use it. Check out the very thoughtful Stash Less series for a lot of exploration of the emotional reasons we stock up our stashes, and ways to avoid doing it.

 

sw sweater palette

 
 

2. Care for Your Clothes

If we started treating our clothes like things we cared about, instead of disposable items, that would be another big cultural shift with big, positive ripple effects.

Actions:
Wash clothes only when they need it. When washing, soak clothes longer and agitate less. This may require turning off your washer and setting a timer to remind you to turn it back on. Use the delicate cycle.
Hand-wash. It’s ridiculously easy (and also saves money and chemicals if your alternative is dry cleaning). I wrote about my favorite method in this article for Seamwork.
Use a clothesline or a dying rack. It lets your clothes last longer (by saving the abrasion of the dryer) as well as saving energy.

Level Up:
Mend. Everyone should know how to sew on a button and do simple repairs. There’s no shame if you don’t though, as these skills have been largely abandoned. Luckily, they’ve been replaced by the internet, where you can find people willing to help you with almost anything (including right here on this site). There are even challenges and forums that focus on mending, like #visiblemending and #menditmay. Some locations also have in-person repair events (a fantastic idea)—check your local listings.

For Makers:
One of the benefits I’ve found of having a more handmade wardrobe is that it encourages me to take the best care of those clothes so they’ll last as long as possible. I’m not always the best about extending that care to my non-handmade clothes, or my husband’s non-handmade clothes … but that’s a step I could and should take.
Teaching your friends simple mending is another way to make a difference, and darning socks is way more fun in groups. Why not organize your own mending event?

 

What is that thing on the right anyway?  Not sure, a rug maybe?

 
 

3. Consider Origins & Life Cycles

This is where it gets sticky, but we’ll end with some hope. Acknowledging that the way most companies make clothes now does harm to the environment and/or to other humans, and that by buying those clothes (or that fabric) we are complicit in that harm, feels bad I know. But I also think that we have to know where we are in order to move on and make better choices. The other hard part is that this is where the choices get narrower. Clothes that are produced more sustainably and with fair labor practices are more expensive than clothes that aren’t, because the ones that aren’t are carrying a bunch of hidden costs we aren’t paying in money—but we are paying them in environmental damage and bad conditions for workers. As we hopefully move towards a more sustainable fashion future, it will almost certainly mean all of us buying fewer clothes, and paying more for them. I hope that we can navigate this transition with fairness both to the people making the clothes (and the ecosystems that produce the raw materials) and to the people buying them, but I definitely don’t have all the answers here.
Here are the icky facts: synthetic fibers (like polyester & nylon) are made from the same stuff plastic is: oil and tar … plus increasing evidence shows that just washing these fibers releases tiny synthetic bits that make their way all the way into oceans and the food chain. Most chemical dyes are toxic, and few of the countries where fabrics are now produced have good enough environmental regulations to prevent them being released into waterways and harming human health. Most yarns and fabrics are also treated with other harmful chemicals (bleach, agents that change the hand or finish, etc.) before they come to us. If, as that article on textile waste states, there is enough of these chemicals left in our garments once they reach the landfill to leach into the groundwater, surely they are also leaching into the wash water, and probably onto our skin.
Now that you’re thoroughly freaked out, may I remind you to take this one step at a time, and do the parts that seem achievable today. Some of this is subjective, or depends more on the individual case. Is it better to buy polyester made from recycled pop bottles, or non-organic cotton? I don’t know either … but I’m making my way as best I can.

Actions:
Choose natural fibers. I’ve been making this choice for a long time, out of personal preference and knowing that they wear better than synthetics, but knowing about the micro-fibers in the ocean cements this one for me. Even if they are treated with chemicals, biodegradable fibers usually find an easier place in the ecosystem.
Buy quality whenever you can. Pieces that last longer save resources.
Buy secondhand.
When buying new, buy things produced in countries with good labor practices and environmental regulations (such as the one you live in?) whenever you can.
If you can afford a couple of really special, locally made, responsibly sourced items of clothing (or the materials to make them), please buy them! But if you can’t, your choices still make a difference.
Pass on unwanted clothes responsibly.

Level Up: (Most of this boils down to research.)
Consider raw materials individually. For example, it takes less water and fewer pesticides to grow linen or hemp than cotton.
Choose minimally processed, low-impact dyed, and certified organic fabrics if at all possible. Look for the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) label, which covers all stages of production. I’m not going to lie, these can be hard to find, and looking for them puts you in danger of being labeled a hippie. Nevertheless, more mainstream brands are starting to offer organic options, especially for cotton. (I found GOTS certified sheets at Target this year, very reasonably priced.)
Buy from brands that have a commitment to fair labor. Often these brands are concerned about the environment as well, so starting with either one can lead to both. The more questions we ask, the better. Searching for “ethical fashion” will give you a bunch of places to start.
Organize a clothing swap with your friends (this is an especially good way to pass on handmade/special items you aren’t using, and make sure they get a home with someone who will appreciate them).
Look for charities near you that can actually use your old clothes, and donate there.

For Makers:
You know the bad news here already: making something yourself does not erase the environmental or labor impact of the materials you’re using. The good news is: it’s easier to find responsibly made materials than finished clothes, and the more of the process you’re doing yourself (i.e. knitting or spinning your own) the more available and reasonably priced those materials tend to be. I have a list of sources for more sustainable fabrics, and there’s a good roundup of resource lists from the end of Slow Fashion October last year. It seems there are more American-made, domestically-spun yarns every time I turn around, which is a great thing! I know the local wool movement is also going strong in Britain, and probably other places as well …

 

TOCMC cotton 4

Photo courtesy of Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Co-op

 
 

4. Make

Making your own clothes is the final frontier of fashion independence, and opens up a new world of choices, both stylistically and in materials (new and repurposed). If these are skills you aspire to, start with small, doable projects (ahem, mending) and get a feel for the tools and materials. You’ll be able to grow your skills quickly, especially if you can find a good mentor/teacher.

Actions:
Try a new skill, like knitting or sewing. There are about a million tutorials and friendly folks online if you can’t find someone to help you in person. If you can, you’ll get a head start. Look for classes or ask crafty friends. Be patient with yourself, especially if you’re not used to working with your hands. New skills take practice, but they’re so worth it.

Level Up:
Already knit or sew? Try spinning! I’m only a little bit kidding. Spinning is aaaamazing, and perhaps the ultimate expression of slow fashion.
Learn any other new skill you’ve wanted to try. Leatherwork? Natural dyeing? Each one only increases the possibilities of what you could make, and for me at least, feeds into the creative whole with new ideas.

For Makers:
Help the new makers!

 

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So, I hope you’re convinced that you don’t have to run out and get a sheep and start from scratch in order to make a difference. (But if you want to do that, I totally have your back!)

I’d welcome your thoughts, resources, notes about things I forgot … take care everyone!

 

DIY Fabric Shower Curtain

 

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Hello everybody, it’s been a little while! I’m a firm believer in blogging whenever you can and feel inspired, not on a pre-ordered schedule, and I also think that most blogging apologies are a waste of time and just make you feel bad. Still, it’s been much longer than I meant it to be, and I’d like to echo Molly’s sentiments on Orangette: if I ever decide to leave this space for good, I’ll tell you so. It seems only fair. The way she puts it at the end of that post is so good.

The first reason for my losing track of online things was one of the better ones: for the second time ever, we hosted our annual family and friends craft retreat at my house last month. The first time we hosted it, two years ago, was when I had an inspiration—the infinite to-do list—that started a big difference in my thinking.

I have to say, I was pretty proud of myself this time. I felt calm and relaxed in the lead-up, and I even slept well before and during at least the first part of the week—proof that I’ve made progress as a human lately, and let go of some anxiety, even the good kind that’s more like excitement. (If you need this too, may I highly recommend the book The Three Marriages by David Whyte, which is full of deep insights about things in general, and came into my life at exactly the right time. You can also listen to a good interview with him from On Being.)

It was one of those times when being calmer and going slower actually ended up meaning that I got more done. We cleaned off the back porch, for instance, which probably hadn’t been done in the two intervening years …

And I made a new shower curtain! Well, “made” might be exaggerating somewhat. I took a length of wide fabric, hemmed it, installed some grommets, and there we go.

 

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I’d like to apologize to all of our previous guests for the old shower curtain, a cheap vinyl thing with one ripped eyelet, which someone bought right as we were moving into our house a decade or so ago, and had been there in various states of nastiness ever since. Incidentally, I also figured out that if I actually took the vinyl thing down, soaked it in the tub with vinegar and dish soap, and took a scrub brush to it, it came out clean—enough better that I decided to save it in case I need a waterproof something.

Back to the new curtain though: I’ve been slowly moving more and more away from synthetic materials and towards natural ones for all kinds of reasons. I got another push that way when I found out that polyester and nylon clothes shed tiny synthetic fibers in the wash which eventually find their way into the oceans, enter the food chain when they’re eaten by small critters, and never break down. I first heard about this on Science Friday a while back (but cannot now find the specific program). It came up again recently on Root Simple. This was one of those last-straw moments. I’m convinced, I’m done with that, and I’ve been trying harder not to buy any synthetic fabrics.

So I wanted a natural fiber shower curtain, and as I was looking for one and researching options, it occurred to me that I had in my stash some wide cotton fabric which was basically what I was looking for—lightweight but tightly woven. And with stripes!

I measured the old curtain to figure out what length would work best (a little shorter than standard turns out to be good for my tub) and if one width of the fabric would be enough (it was, but you could always add a seam if not).

I made a deep hem on the bottom, and a narrower one at the top. The hardest part was hammering in the grommets. Typically for me, I liked the “wrong” side of the fabric better since it’s a little more textured and subtle, so I put that on the outside.

 

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I had a few questions, but figured it was worth trying to see what would happen. Would plain cotton keep the water inside my shower? Yes it did! Would a deep hem be enough to weigh down the bottom? It was! To be on the safe side as far as mildew, I’ve been wringing the curtain out after I shower, and then spreading it out as much as possible to dry. So far, it’s working really well, and it’s so much nicer to look at than the old one, it’s fairly ridiculous. I also like the idea that I can take this one down, put it in through the washer, and hang it to dry in the sun once a month or so, which should actually be easier than cleaning the vinyl one.

If you wanted a sheer curtain, or a liner for a more decorative fabric on the outside, I suspect that silk organza would be amazing (although I haven’t tried it, not having that much on hand). Something so thin but crisp and tightly woven should dry almost instantly, and look beautiful. Oh printed silk …

Anyway, I hope this give you all some ideas!

It feels good to be writing here, and I intend to do it again soon.

 

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The Comfort of Washing a Rug

And of making a rug, especially with friends.

 

sw rug hanging up

 

I can’t pretend I’ve been unaffected by the news the past few weeks. It could easily start to feel like the world is crumbling around us. It may seem trivial at first to post about anything I usually talk about here. But I believe it’s not. Actually, I believe that we need our creative pursuits, the things that give us comfort and fulfillment, more than ever when times get rough. Even more than that, I believe that by making something with our hands, by sharing it with friends, by just cooking dinner and eating it with people and having a face-to-face, honest conversation, we are making a difference. Taking a small step towards the world we hope for,”being the change,” as Gandhi said.

Last week, during a dry spell in our monsoons, I decided it was time to wash the kitchen rugs. I wove the one shown here two years ago, at my friend Lauren’s house (but never posted these photos). It occurred to me while I was cleaning it that this rug is actually a pretty good metaphor for the value of craft in our lives. All the yarns I put in it are ones I saved from my grandma’s stash after she passed away—a reminder of our connection, the passing of knowledge between generations, and the “waste not, want not” I try to put into practice.

 

sw rug weighing yarn

Weighing yarn and winding into balls, making a plan for the rug.

 

Lauren did the math, wound the warp (for several rugs, not just mine), and put it on the loom, so all I had to do was show up and weave, which was wonderful. We spent time together weaving and listening to music. We lit a fire. I remember other friends were there at least one day while I worked on the rug, doing what women have been doing for millennia: talking, eating, and making things together in community.

 

sw rug on loom

My rug on the loom.

 

The act of weaving brings up all kinds of good memories for me too, of learning to weave with my family and working on my grandma’s big loom. Like most textile crafts, the rhythm of the work is meditative. It calms my mind so that sometimes creative ideas bubble up, and other times I can think less, and just be. I’m coming to believe that just being is an important part of my growth as a human, something I need to carve out distraction-free time for, and practicing in fiber arts definitely helps me do that.

 

sw rug through warp

Looking through the warp at the rug in progress.

 

This week, it rained. The rain falling onto my high-desert home is a miracle of relief. Knowing that the forest will be sustained for a little while longer makes me feel better about everything—even politics, even tragedy. As long as we have the solace of nature, and a way to nurture our creativity, I think we’ll be alright. In fact, more than alright—I believe if we can keep those two things near the top of our collective priorities, we’re still working towards a better world.

Here’s to better weeks ahead!

 

sw rug on floor

The finished rug in the kitchen.

 

PS Karen wrote on a similar theme this week, and I found the comments on her post heartening. It involves seeking peace in the beauty of landscape and sheep …

 

Origins, Materials, and Connections

 

This spring, I explored cotton growing in the US—I interviewed organic farmers in Texas, read some fascinating history, and pulled seeds out of a cotton boll to try spinning them myself. Most of that research went into an article for Seamwork, which comes out today. It also ties in well with what I’ve been thinking about around the one Year, one Outfit project, which was the reason I bought local(ish) cotton fabric in the first place, and got curious about where it came from. I’m coming up on a full year since I jumped into that project, and I’d like to talk a little more personally here about what I’ve gotten out of it so far.

For #1year1outfit I pledged to buy new fabric only if it was made in the US, and the fiber was organically grown or otherwise considered sustainable. It’s easy to see a choice like that as restrictive, claustrophobic, or even self-righteous. But like a lot of similar times, I found that I was more creative because of the limitations I had set. I learned a lot, because the project encouraged me to look more deeply into everything from the environmental impacts of textile production to what it’s like to be a cotton farmer. But the best thing I got out of it was a feeling of connectedness and participation with the people, plants and animals that make what I do possible.

 

TOCMC cotton 1

I’d like to sincerely thank Kelly Pepper of the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative, who was so helpful in connecting me with farmers, answering questions, and also lent me the use of more great photos of cotton growing than I could use for the article. All photos in this post are courtesy of TOCMC.

 

I read Environmental Impact of Textiles by Keith Slater (borrowed through interlibrary loan). It was full of statistics and graphs as I expected, but also contained insights about the contrast between processing fibers by hand and by machine that I didn’t expect at all. Slater points out that tools for turning fiber into fabric by hand are relatively easy to make, and often operate on human power, burning little or no carbon in the process. Selecting the best quality fibers by hand takes more time and so is more costly, but it results in a better product, less waste, and less energy used. In contrast, the machinery needed to process fibers (“millions of tiny particles of flexible units”) at the speed necessary to satisfy demand must be “massive, complex, and expensive,” use huge amounts of energy, be environmentally costly to make, and concentrate the impacts of production (from noise to waste) in one place.

I learned that one of the most environmentally problematic areas in textile production is dyeing and printing (as well as other chemicals used in manufacturing and finishing fabrics). Most of these substances are toxic and/or carcinogenic, especially the first synthetic dyes developed in the 19th and 20th centuries, and used to be released freely into waste water. Thankfully, at least in the developed world, we now have regulations to protect our water and our textile workers, as well as some less-harmful dyes that have been developed more recently.

Textile production is a relatively small part of worldwide manufacturing and resulting environmental impacts, totaling less than 1% according to Slater, including transportation, machinery, and everything else he could find to calculate. Still it’s an area where we, the consumers, have a lot choice in what we buy, and I believe, we can have a big impact.

Ultimately, what I took away is that nothing comes from “the store,” or goes “away” when we’re done with it, even though our consumer culture very much wants us to believe that it does. Everything has an origin, and is part of a cycle of people and things that includes us, whether we’re aware of the rest of it or not. I want to know my place in that cycle, and respect the other participants in it—both the humans and the animals and plants, the communities and soils that make my life possible.

 

TOCMC cotton 2

 

I just finished reading an amazing book by Robin Wall Kimmerer called Braiding Sweetgrass. It’s kind of heartbreaking, actually, since she spells out what we in the Western world and in the US specifically have done to both the native peoples and the native landscape, and it’s inescapably tragic. But, she also offers a lot of hope, and a vision of how the world could be if we behaved as though we were part of it, participating in and nurturing the ecosystems around us, instead of pretending that we’re somehow separate from the rest of the universe. Of all the beautiful, powerful, potentially life-changing books I’ve read in the last year or two, this is the one I most wish everyone would read, the one that I think might be have the most potential to move hearts into action.

Braiding Sweetgrass reinforced my belief that our choices matter, the little things matter, and also that so very often when we do the best we can for the world around us, it ends up being the best thing for us too, bringing more joy and connectedness to our lives. I believe that a big part of the satisfaction which many of us feel is missing from our lives comes from a lack of participation with the world around us, and that part of how we can bring ourselves into a healthy relationship with the universe we belong to is to participate in its natural cycles as makers and creators. To me, this is the best part of using local and traceable materials; I can visualize the system I’m part of, the fields and farmers who grew the fiber that I’m now sewing and wearing.

 

TOCMC cotton 3

 

After this experience, I can’t go back to using anonymous, supposedly source-less materials—it would just feel so hollow. My year of #1year1outfit is over, but I’ve been changed by this project, by realizing the deeper connections that are possible. Although I may want to work with fabrics or yarns that no one is making near me (or even in the US), I can’t see myself choosing anything that I don’t know how and where it was made, that I can’t picture how it connects me to other hands, and fields, and creatures.

When I started this project, figuring out where my materials came from and tracing things back to the source seemed daunting and confusing. And it’s still true that taking any finished product (even fabric) and figuring out who made it can be nearly impossible. At this point, I’m looking at it more from the other side: what do I know is being made well, and what can I do with it? I’m looking for materials available with origins I trust, and they seem like more than enough to fuel my creativity for quite a while.

 

A few more Resources:

Through TOCMC I found out about Adele Stafford who is doing amazing work hand-weaving and making garments with US fibers, and writing so poetically about it at Voices of Industry.

Sally Fox has been experimenting with growing naturally colored cotton and biodynamic agriculture since the 1980s. She has fabric and yarn at FoxFibre, and pictures on Instagram.

My list of sources for sustainable fabrics is here.

The fabric I printed for one Year, one Outfit is here, the skirt I made from it is here.

 

No Wardrobe is an Island

Thoughts on MMM’16

I wanted to give myself a real challenge this Me-Made-May, and I succeeded! I decided to endeavour (love that British usage) to wear only clothes I’ve made for the month, with a few exceptions noted at the beginning: socks, jackets, and raincoat. Trying to follow through with this plan made for my most thought provoking MMM in several years.

At the beginning, I felt liberated. Even though I’ve pledged to wear mostly me-made the last couple of Mays, getting by on only MM stuff felt like cutting a cord (despite the deliberate exceptions). I was not just making do with scraps thrown my way, but existing on only what I had made from whole cloth.

It also occurred to me that wearing clothes I didn’t make is anonymous—it’s not satisfying, but sometimes it’s a welcome cloak of invisibility.

As May began and the weather stayed cold at home, I found I missed some fairly ridiculous parts of my non-MM wardrobe—notably the big shapeless thrifted wool sweater I’d been throwing on over my PJs for tea and yoga first thing in the morning. I guess some kind of large, warm, not at all precious, natural-fiber layer is now an essential wardrobe component for me in cool weather …

On the 5th I realized that my plan had totally failed to account for days when I really needed to just wear grubby work clothes. Although an oversight, because my life definitely does have those days, I didn’t feel bad about it. It’s conceivable that one day my clean-the-truck clothes might be all old me-mades … but that day is not here yet, and that’s fine with me.

 

05mmm16

I did make two of these items …

We hit the road for two art shows in the DC area about a week in, as we have done for the last few years. This time, it was cold (like record-setting, 25 degrees colder than normal cold) and rainy practically the whole time we were there. I had enough me-made layers, I just wore them over and over …

 

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A typical show-day outfit. I’m wearing my favorite cashmere top, the upcycled sweater, a jacket, and a raincoat. I was going to roll up one pant leg so you could see that I’m also wearing wool leggings underneath, but I forgot.

 

Then after travel and the first show, I totally ran out of clean pants. I discovered I would rather break my pledge and wear an old pair of Bryan’s than freeze in a skirt, especially since we were going for a walk in Rock Creek Park. I also discovered that I am really used to custom fit, especially in waistbands. Any places that rub or sit wrong seem totally unacceptable. This is probably a sign that I could not go back to ready to wear—even if I wanted to.

I wore the “Me-Made-May” badge on my bag or clothing almost every day—and didn’t get asked about it once. But still I hope that some folks saw it and were curious. I also wore the “I MADE this” badge a few times (attached to something I made and was wearing). That one is more direct, and when I wore it I got comments and/or questions from friends, acquaintances, and waitresses, which was great! But I also discovered that I’m just not up for being the face of the handmade movement whenever I’m out in public. I’m naturally a shy person, and with the added stresses of travel, being in strange places, and dealing with whatever came up, a lot of days it was just not happening. While, for whatever reason, having the MMM one on felt fine.

 

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If you made a badge and didn’t see a comment from me about it, please leave me a message here or tag me on Instagram—I’d love to see them, and I was in no way keeping up with all the hashtags last month!

 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how making my own choices is wonderful, but it’s not enough. I also need to find ways to share more of those choices with larger communities. (Some things that are pushing my thoughts that way: this post from Jess on Wardrobe Ecology, and this amazing interview with Rebecca Solnit from On Being.) I’d like to continue to explore ways I can make a more public statement, without feeling like I’m “on stage” too much of the time. And I’d still like to wear the “I MADE this” badge from time to time … we’ll see what happens!

Overall, as the month went on, I realized another important thing: I don’t really want to make my whole wardrobe. Don’t get me wrong—I’d like to be capable of making whatever I need to wear. But as far as the actual content of my closet at any given time, I don’t want that to exist in a vacuum of only self-made, any more than I think any of us can really live a good life without friends and community to belong to. I know it’s vital to have friends along the way—people who give us a place to rest our heads, deep conversations and connections, and sometimes a place to dry out our tents in their back yard. I want to celebrate that as the joy and blessing it is. In sort of a similar way, I also want to celebrate the special parts of my wardrobe that I didn’t make, especially those made or given to me by folks I love.

 

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The last day of #mmm16, with our irises having a great year.

 

So, a lot to think about! As always I’m grateful to Zoe for putting this on, and for all her encouragement! It really is a great time to pause and reexamine life through the lens of what we make and wear, and I’m glad it happens every year because I wouldn’t go to the trouble all by myself! Between now and next May, I’ll be thinking about more ways to share my love of handmade without freaking myself out, and how to celebrate my mostly-me-made wardrobe with a pledge that reflects where I’d like it to go.

How about you? Anyone who hasn’t already shared their thoughts from MMM on a myriad of other platforms is welcome to do so here … In the meantime I hope you’re all enjoying the start of summer! (It went from cold straight to hot for us, but, I’ll take it!)

 

Hand-Stitched Badges for Me-Made-May

A beginning embroidery primer, with free patterns.

 

For the last few years, May has found us around Washington DC. We usually do two art shows there, and in between stay with some dear friends and ride the Metro to visit the sites of our nation’s capitol. The whole time we’re surrounded by so many people (especially from my middle-size-town perspective). Since it’s Me-Made-May, I spend even more time thinking about what those people are wearing than I normally would. It’s easy to get a little bummed out when I look around and consider that, of the hundreds of strangers I can see at any given moment on the subway platform or at a monument, perhaps none of them are wearing anything handmade. But it also got me thinking that maybe they just haven’t considered it, that if they knew there was a whole movement going on, that folks around the country and the world were encouraging each other and posting about their handmade wardrobes at that very moment, maybe it would encourage a few of them to at least think about it.

So I wanted to bring something that said I was participating in Me-Made-May, and/or that I had made part of my outfit, off the internet and onto my physical person where all those strangers could see it. I started to talking to Zoe about it, and she liked the idea too. I owe her big thanks for her support, bouncing ideas around, and of course for putting on this challenge for us again this year! Since MMM is all about stitching, and I’ve been doing a lot of hand-sewing and embroidery lately, here’s what I ended up with:

 

embroidered mmm badge

 

You can make them too! I designed these little badges with embroidery beginners in mind, and I’ll walk you through some parts that might be confusing, so even if hand-sewing isn’t usually your thing, you can handle it. If you’re already further along in your embroidery journey, feel free to skip down and glance through the photos, then print the pattern and get started.  Click the link below to get the pattern:

MMM-badges-pattern

 

materials & tools

You’ll need some felt, and some embroidery floss, thread, or fine yarn.

Wool felt is an ideal material to start stitching on, since it’s forgiving, doesn’t ravel, is thick enough to not need backing, and you can hide ends and extra stitches in the thickness.

The Me-Made-May badge is stitched here in variagated cotton floss, and the “I MADE this!” one in wool thread.  There’s more about the specific threads I used at the end of this post.

You’ll also need a few basic sewing tools: a sharp needle with a long eye, and a small sharp scissors. I always wear a thimble like this one when I’m hand stitching.

Finally, you’ll need a scrap of tissue paper and a fine-point pen to transfer your design to the felt.

 

thread types

Let’s talk for a minute about the differences between cotton and wool, and floss and thread, for stitching. Wool threads designed for embroidery are often labeled “crewel” (a type of embroidery) and are usually made up of two single strands (called plies) twisted together. This plying is integral to the structure of the thread, and it’s not meant to be separated.

 

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Cotton floss often comes in a loosely twisted bundle of threads, which can be separated to make various thicknesses. This is called “strandable” floss. If you look closely (maybe with a magnifier), each strand of this kind of floss actually has its own two-ply structure. Some cotton threads have a non-strandable structure as well.

 

embroidered mmm badge 8

 

Just like in sewing or knitting, the different properties of wool and cotton fibers make a difference to how they work in embroidery. Wool’s crimpy, elastic nature means that it plumps up, filling gaps and making it easier to embroider a smooth satin stitch or a plush knot. Cotton is denser, smoother, and less elastic, meaning you may need more thread to cover the same area, and the stitching will have a tighter, flatter look.

 

getting started

Put a little piece of tissue paper over the printed pattern you want to make. You can use scraps of tissue, and iron them flat if necessary. Using a fine-point pen that won’t bleed, trace the pattern carefully, including the circle around the edge. Make a single line for thinner shapes and letters, and draw around the outline of thicker shapes. Pin the tissue to your felt, with the pins outside the circle. You’ll stitch right through the tissue and the felt to make the design.

 

embroidered mmm badge 1

 

I tried several methods of transferring the patterns to my felt, and this one worked the best. An iron-on transfer pen (not a pencil) also works, but it makes thick permanent marks that are a little fiddly to apply, and must be covered with stitching.

To thread the needle, I use the techniques I shared in this Seamwork article about hand-stitching. I found that it helps to fold over the end of the wool thread, and to wet the end of the cotton floss.

To begin, take a long stitch on the back through the thickness of the felt, coming up near where you want to start. Let a little bit of thread remain on the back surface. You can trim it off later to neaten things up. If possible, take your first stitch as a backstitch to anchor the thread.

 

embroidered mmm badge 5

 

General embroidery tips:

  • Stitch in good light! It’s unbelievable what a difference this makes.
    Test out your stitches and thread on a scrap before you start, especially if you are experimenting with new stitches and/or aren’t sure what thickness of thread to use to get the look you want.
  • How even your stitches look depends mainly on how even the tension is between one stitch and the next. Start off slow and even.
  • When moving from one letter or shape to the next one, take a stitch through the thickness of the felt to keep it hidden. To keep long stitches from pulling the next part of the embroidery out of shape, push the needle straight through to the back of the work, then take a long stitch into the felt, coming out on the back near where you want to start again. Then bring the needle up to the front in your next spot.

 

the stitches

Most of the text in these patterns is made with backstitch. I explain this stitch in that Seamwork article, and in even more detail in this post.

 

embroidered mmm badge 2

 

Backstitch tips:

  • Put your needle in right at the end of the last stitch for a solid line.
  • Look ahead at the section you are stitching, and decide whether to divide it into two stitches or three, etc.
  • Think about the path of the thread when you come to corners and curves. Remember that where the needle goes in is the beginning of the current stitch, and where it comes out is the end of the next stitch.

 

embroidered mmm badge 3

 

For the scallops around the edge of the Me-Made-May badge, I used a simple straight stitch. Follow the individual lines on the pattern for a looser look that shows off the separate threads, or fill in the whole scallop shape, depending on the thread you’re using and the look you’re going for.

 

embroidered mmm badge 6

 

I filled in the thicker lines of text with satin stitch, which is basically a row of straight stitches very close together, so that they look like a solid surface. It’s easier to keep these stitches even and plush-looking if you work them over a base of another stitch. For these patterns I outlined the satin stitch sections in backstitch first.

 

Straight & satin stitch tips:

  • Backstitch around the outline of all the text, and finish all other parts of the design that use the pattern as a guide, then remove the tissue pattern before you fill in the satin stitch. You’ll be able to see exactly where the stitches are more clearly, and pulling off the tissue will be easier.
  • Cut carefully around the outer circle of the design. Leave the outside of the tissue pinned to the felt for reference and later cutting (you may actually want a few more pins at this point to hold it smoothly). Tear out the part under the badge itself. Pointed tweezers are an ideal tool for pulling out tiny/stubborn pieces of tissue.

 

embroidered mmm badge 7

 

  •  I find it easier to keep an even tension if I put the needle all the way through to the back at the end of each stitch, and bring it up again close to the stitch I just made on the same side of the shape I’m stitching. This method is slower to work than the more common technique of taking the needle under on one side of the shape and up on the other side in one stitch. But, it uses less thread and is easier to control, especially when you’re starting out.
    • Stitch as close to the foundation backstitches as possible for a full look. You can even push the foundation stitches to the side with the needle to make more space and keep the line of stitches even.

     

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    • If your satin stitch comes out a little lumpy, it can help to put the eye of your needle into a row of stitching and move it gently back and forth.

     

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    • When making satin stitch around curves (like on the D in “MADE”) it helps to make the stitches inside the curve as close together as possible, and fan them out a bit on the outside of the curve, a technique that’s illustrated in detail on Needle ‘n Thread here.

     

    The round knots around the outside of the “I MADE this!” badge are colonial knots. They’re a variation on a French knot where you loop the thread in a figure eight around the needle before pushing it back into the fabric. I like these because they hold a larger, more textural shape, and can’t come undone as you’re making them. They look especially plump in wool threads.  There are more pictures and explanation about colonial knots on Sarah’s Hand Embroidery Tutorials.

     

    embroidered mmm badge 13

     

    finishing

    When you come to the end of a section of thread, bury it through the felt for a short distance and come out on the back. You can trim the ends close, since some thread remains in the thickness to keep your stitches from pulling out.

     

    embroidered mmm badge 4

     

    Once all your stitching is complete, cut out the felt circle, once more going carefully around the shape you traced.

     

    embroidered mmm badge 12

     

    Sew a pin, a clip, or a magnet to the back, and it’s ready to go meet the world.

     

    embroidered mmm badge back

     

    supplies

    I used handmade felt, because I have lots of scraps of it laying around. Use what you can find near you, but if you possibly can, use real wool felt rather than the synthetic stuff. Wool is just so much lovelier to work with, and it will hold up to wear much better. Mine was 2-3mm, or around 1/8” thick.  Weir crafts sells a variety of felt online, including some that’s handmade and some that’s made in USA.

    I discovered two things while looking for threads for this project: there are probably as many small companies and indie dyers making embroidery threads as there are making knitting yarn, and I personally am just not interested in using floss in flat colors. My mom has been into embroidery for as long as I can remember, and a quick dig through just part of her stash resulted in many more beautiful options than I could use.

    For the Me-Made-May badge, I chose two colors of variegated cotton “painter’s threads” from Tentakulum; 121 “Cezanne” and 125 “Matisse.” They’re made in Germany, and available through embroidery suppliers in the US, including Artistic Artifacts. DMC also makes a couple of ranges of variegated floss, which are a lot more common, at least where I live.

    For the “I MADE this!” design, I used some amazing fine crewel wool thread, dyed with natural pigments by Renaissance Dyeing, out of France; color numbers 0309, 1622, 1708, and 2000. Single colors are available in the US through Hedgehog Handworks.  Photos do not do these colors justice; they are good enough to eat!  Any crewel wool or very fine yarn that you like would be a good substitute.

     

    embroidered mmm badge 14

     

    In case you’re wondering, while I had plenty of materials to choose from right in front of me, I did do a little searching to see what I could come up with for organic/traceable threads. Renaissance Dyeing looks good on the sustainability front; they use all natural dyes and local wool, it’s just that they’re far away from me. Organic Cotton Plus also sells a line of organic cotton embroidery floss which is grown & spun in Peru and dyed in the USA.

    Personally, I think I’ll be using a lot of the yarn scraps I have lying around, especially for larger designs.  And I think it would be well worth it to buy (or spin!) some natural colored thread, and drop a tiny skein into every dye pot I try.  It takes so little, why not?

     

    resources

    All you have to do is start searching on Instagram, Etsy, or wherever you get your internet eye candy to find amazing examples of beautiful modern embroidery.  I particularly like Katherine Shaughessy’s crewel work, she has two books with a fun modern aesthetic, and sells supplies and patterns (with some free ones) on her site Wool & Hoop. Yumiko Higuchi also does some of my favorite embroidery. She likes to to mix wool & cotton threads, and her book just published in English (Simply Stitched) does a great job of taking advantage of the properties of both, as well as being full of inspiring designs.

    If you make one of these, I’d absolutely love to see it!  Share it using #mmmay16, #handstitched, or email me a photo. And of course, I’m here to answer questions if I can.

    Happy stitching!