Slow(er) Fashion is for Everyone

decoration spool 1

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!

 

cartoon with both threaded small

 

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!

 

Advertisements

Maybe I’m Over It

Over the purple corduroys, the NYC garment district, the whole thing.

I’ve been to New York City twice ever, both times since I’ve had this blog.  Both times I went to the garment district, and I haven’t written a thing about it either time. The first time, a couple of years ago, it was just crazy and overwhelming. We had the truck with us, and let me just say I will never, ever, drive any vehicle to NYC again if I can possibly help it, much less one that qualifies as quasi-commercial and definitely oversize. The truck is fine in Chicago, but as it turns out, not all at fine in New York.

 

floyd bennett field camping 3Our truck in the parking area for camping at Floyd Bennett Field, by far the most post-apocalyptic National Park Service site I’ve ever been to.  It’s staffed by friendly New Yorkers who, when they find out it’s your first time in the city, will tell you everything, starting with “So there’s five boroughs …” to making sure you have quarters for the bus.  I am not making any of this up!

 

Anyway, we went to NYC again this past winter, along with traveling to an opening of Bryan’s work at the Griffin Museum of Photography outside Boston. I actually have a dear cousin who lives in Brooklyn, so we made a side trip to go and see her (completely vehicle-free, with only the luggage we could carry). I thought it would be much better and I would love it. It was better without worrying about the truck, but I was still overwhelmed. I’m the kind of person who naturally absorbs most of the stimulus coming at me in a given day, and likes to have a while to process it. There is a whole lot of stimulus coming at you all day, every day in New York—before you even get to the shops full of ceiling-high mounds of fabric in every color.

 

nyc street view

 

The garment district, while fascinating, is not geared for a thoughtful experience. It’s fast-paced. There are millions of choices packed together, but not a lot of background on any of them (any, really, beyond the fiber content and maybe a country of origin). I’ve tried to be more conscious about my fabric choices for a while now, but I knew I wanted some fabric to make another pair of pants, and it seemed ridiculous to be surrounded by what felt like all the fabric in the entire world, and go home with nothing for my project. So after some debate, I chose something purple and stripey and soft, brought it home, and a couple of months later, cut it out.

 

over it purple pants 1

 

And I got exactly what I deserved for picking fabric I had no background on, no relationship with, and so no idea what to expect—it behaved terribly. There’s some stretch in this stuff, which I’ve avoided in wovens in the past, and I’m going right back to avoiding it like the plague. It kept stretching as I was sewing it, throwing off my alignment and topstitching, moving the pockets around even though I basted them in place, etc. Plus, it’s weirdly clingier around my bum than the non-stretch fabric I’ve used in this pattern before.

 

over it purple pants 2

 

Don’t get me wrong, these aren’t the worst pants ever.  I like the color, and they fit me reasonably well, which is enough to almost certainly ensure they’ll get wear when the weather gets cool again. And, they have the nicest inside waistband and zipper tab of any pants I’ve made so far, so I learned something there.

 

over it purple pants 3

 

But, the whole experience just brought home what I hadn’t been able to articulate. In my head, before I went there, the garment district was a mythical paradise of fabric. But it turns out; it’s not my Mecca. It may sound a little blasphemous to say so, but I don’t think the garment district even has the fabric I want. I think I’m over it.

So what, exactly, is the fabric I want, you may reasonably ask? Well, what I really want is unreasonable to ask for in our current culture. I want fabric that not only do I know where it comes from, what labor conditions went into it, and how the fiber was cultivated in the environment where it grows, but I want to feel good about the answers to all those questions. I want to buy some fabric now, see it how it wears, and in 5 years, when I like what I find, buy some more of that exact same fabric. I want fewer, but better choices.

 

floyd bennett field camping 2

 

I have tried before to find some fabric closer to these ideals. I went on an online quest for organic wool a couple of winters ago (when I eventually bought this lovely stuff from New Zealand).  I had a few interesting conversations with fabric store owners through email. Mostly what I learned is that they don’t know any more about the origins of their fabrics than I do.  Often times even by writing to their suppliers, the most information we could possibly get was what factory the fabric came from.

At that same time I wrote to Mountain Meadow Wool, an American yarn company I feel really good about supporting, and suggested they think about making some knit fabric out of their American Merino. I got a really nice response back … but since then some blankets and finished knit goods have appeared in their line-up, no fabric yet … I do get it, I see why market research would indicate a much bigger market and profit by skipping the fabric and going right for finished goods.   Imperial Stock Ranch took it one step further and produced a high-fashion collection. But knowing that they are taking high-quality wool, sustainably grown in USA, all the way from sheep to fabric also in-country, and that none of that fabric is available for sewists to buy (that I know of, I’ll write them too, we’ll see)—it makes my fingers itch. I think it’s phenomenal how much single-breed, known-origin, small-farm-type wool yarn is available to knitters right now, and I know there’s a niche for fabrics made from the same materials.

The fabric for my first pair of purple corduroys was organic cotton & hemp, but made in China (under supposedly good working conditions). The biggest problem with it was that it didn’t hold up to wear long enough to be called well-made. How sustainable is anything that has to be replaced every couple of years, or less?

The best news in thinking about all this, is that there are other sewists out there on similar quixotic journeys to find (or make!) sustainable fabrics, and thanks to the magic of the internet, I can find them. And there is a lot going on right now.

I’m throwing my lot in with one Year, one Outfit, a project on this is moonlight to source “fibershed” textiles in your area, and make them into an outfit by the end of the year. Although I may not make a whole outfit by the end of 2015, I’m pledging not to buy any new fabric for (at least) that time, unless it meets (at least!) these minimum requirements: 100% made in the USA, sustainably grown also in USA, and not dyed with synthetic dyes, bleached, or processed in other ways that use toxic chemicals. At the very least, it will be a kick in the bum to do my homework, and some experimenting!

 

one year one outfit logo

 

While I’ve been thinking about this, some other thoughtful bloggers have also been researching and sharing around similar topics. This post of Zoe’s about organic cotton and whether it’s really better got me thinking about the fabric I really want to find. The other bloggers in the one Year, one Outfit project have done some good research. Mari’s post about what she’s found available in the Southeastern US was really interesting, and there are people around the world taking part and sharing what they find, there might be someone near you.  Then just the other day, Ginger posted about a designer making sustainable sweater knits available to home sewers! If you’re curious, I also definitely recommend listening to this 2010 interview with Rebecca from the fibershed project, which I also linked to from one Year, one Outfit.

Phew!  So, do you want in on some crazy back-to-basics fabric hunting? Interested in dyeing/printing your own textiles (because I think that’s going to be a big part of it)?  Stay tuned, updates will definitely be coming!