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.
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.
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”?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 …
Photo courtesy of Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Co-op
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.
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.
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.
Help the new makers!
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!
I liked this article and think that your ideas are excellent. And I agree fully that the dangers to the environment, from cheap, synthetic fibers, are really alarming. I’m glad that you suggest small steps, and something that all of us can do, because, realistically, a lot of us do not have time to learn how to make all of our own clothes! Nor would we enjoy it, like you do. I never learned how to sew well enough to make my own clothes, and I hated sewing. At age 60, and with a spine problem that makes sitting difficult, it’s unlikely I’ll be sewing my own clothes. But I am happy to support those who make clothing out of healthy and high quality natural fabrics. Again thank you for suggesting smaller ways that everyone can contribute. It would be really nice, though, if those pure fabrics did not cost so much. Poorer people cannot even begin to buy hand made sweaters and good quality cotton, linen, etc. because those cost a fortune. I feel lucky and happy that I can buy real linen, real wool, but not everyone can.
Thanks for your thoughts! And I agree, the issue of cost is a sticky one, with a lot of angles to look at it from. It seems doubly unfair that those who don’t have much money also get stuck with the cheapest goods, which wear out the quickest … those grandmothers who said they were “too poor to buy cheap things” seem smart to me … but of course there is a level of financial struggle at which saving for nicer things just isn’t possible. I’ve also been on the other side, trying to sell goods I made, and no one who wanted to buy them could understand that the reason they cost more was because I made them myself, and even paying myself a very modest wage for the time that went in to something, it ends up being much more expensive than what they could buy a similar imported item for. Part of the problem is that we are all used to things being so cheap, really unrealistically so, and that also leads to thinking of everything as disposable and not taking care of things. It’s all tied together—I just hope we can find a way forward that takes better care of everyone!
Hi Tasha- what a lovely, thoughtful article. I loved reading the remarkable conversations last year in #slowfashionoctober, but not really entering in. This year I’ve hesitated again, not making the time to sit down and think it through. But I believe I will jump in this time. I just started watching The True Cost for a second time, and it reminded me how painful it is to see that my thoughtless cheap clothing has a heavy cost for other humans and the earth. And then I was in my sewing room rummaging around and I came across my drawer of antique linens, most of which were created by women in my family two or three generations back. They are such works of art, such tiny, beautiful stitches! I want them to be seen and honored. Not sure how yet. It was also an article of yours in Seamwork that helped me clean up my husband’s great grandmother’s Singer 66 treadle, and now I Love to sew on it. Such a beautiful sound and rhythm. Well…I started just wanting to thank you for your thoughts and suggestions. your teaching, your care. It’s a gift, and I’m grateful.
Hi Rise– Thank you so much for your kind words! Sometimes when I write something like this, it feels like I’m walking around with my heart on the outside of my body—vulnerable, and waiting to see what will happen. Knowing that my ideas have reached you is priceless, and connections like that make it all worth it. All the very best wishes to you!
This was a very well thought out article. And I love that you broke each point down into steps that are manageable for everyone. Especially for those of us who have no local fiber options! (Well, other than maybe wool, which my skin loathes.) I know that I could definitely do more to find sustainable fabric options, especially ones that fit my love of colorful prints! The one difficulty I mainly have is clothing a young child who grows out of things quickly, so slow fashion would have him running around in naught but his cloth diaper. But the bulk of his current wardrobe is secondhand, so I’m sure that helps. (With our budget, too!)
Thank you Becky! I have seen a lot more printed organic fabrics popping up in the last few years, especially in quilting cottons and jersey … and I’ve been doing a lot of experimenting in printing with natural dyes if you want to go the slow route! I don’t know much about kids’ clothes, and it does seem like a special challenge (and a bridge I have yet to cross). I confess that I hesitate to make any very involved project for the kiddos in my circle, because I know how quickly they’ll grow out of it … but I also know some parents who really treasure making special things for their little ones, so there has got to be some personal preference involved. In any case I know you’re making a difference by using secondhand clothes and cloth diapers!
Great post! It’s such an overwhelming issue, and there are so many facets to it, but I loved how you’ve separated out different actions for different kinds of readers. Awesome job!
Thanks Sonja! That means a lot coming from you.
This is a fantastic post, thank you.
Thanks for your appreciation!
Great post! I like the idea of organizing a mending/alteration event or a clothing swap– sharing skills empowers people and of course it is fun to have a party. And you are so right about spinning as a way of slowing down the making process– when I find myself itching for a new project I need to remember my spinning wheel and fiber stash.
Thanks Aimee! Here’s to empowering each other. I do love spinning itself, and the idea of making a project from start to finish. I’d love to make a sweater from my handspun … but first I have to finish knitting the sweater I’ve got!
Thank you for your thoughtful, useful and inspiring essay.
I’m so glad that’s how you saw it! Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Lynne.
Excellent post! I love the concept of small steps and “leveling up.” It makes it so much easier to approach the idea of slow fashion right at one’s own skill level.
Thanks Pamela! There are so many things we can all do, and it seems less overwhelming to just tackle one little bit at a time.