BY KATRINA RODABAUGH // It’s a special day when I get to interview the creator of this gorgeous blog, Karen Templer. When I first conceived of this monthly series Karen was one of the people at the top of my list to feature. Now that we’re entering Slow Fashion October I’m thrilled to turn the spotlight on our beloved Karen.
Karen’s approach to slow fashion is one of my favorites from all the slow-fashion folks out there — and there are so many talented and dedicated folks. But Karen gives permission, she makes space, she grows community, and she’s not shy about the challenges or shortcomings either. Let’s be honest, she makes some stunning garments, knits sublime sweaters and curates a gorgeous corner of the Internet, so her down-to-earth attitude combined with her swoon-worthy aesthetic make her a true inspiration.
Karen creates space for all of us — all of our criticisms and concerns and somehow we can show up here in our flannel shirts and mended jeans or our fashionable indie dresses, and we can join in this community together as we are right now today. She cheers for the handmade, the indie designed, the sustainably purchased but also applauds the mended, dyed, dusted, darned, beloved and otherwise decade-old factory fashion garment that’s still hanging on. It’s that sense of community, that permission for different perspectives, that interest in widening the access points and truly fostering slow fashion into a more welcoming movement that makes me excited to show up for this series every month.
Lastly, it makes me a bit giddy to feature Karen’s thoughts today because she so often sits behind the scenes and orchestrates her magic without hopping up on that stool and sitting in the limelight. So, Karen, thank you for creating this space for us and for agreeing to sit in the figurative light for this post. And, of course, thank you for organizing Slow Fashion October!
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What inspired you to start Slow Fashion October or “Slotober” as it’s been called?
I published the proposal for it in May of 2015, which was a pivotal time for me. I’d been knitting for a little over 3 years, which had rekindled my interest in sewing and had brought me into the orbit of a lot of people who were really putting a lot of thought into how they clothed themselves. I guess you could say I’d been going through a very slow awakening to the various issues and considerations that were already so central for many of these people. But then I had emptied out my closet just before deciding to move across the country, where I wound up living out of a suitcase for two months … all of which had me really thinking about my own fashion over-consumerism and how to make good choices as I rebuilt my wardrobe. Meanwhile, I’d been watching #memademay for a couple of years, feeling a little left out because I had only a couple of sewn garments in my closet and May isn’t exactly sweater season. But also, at that time there was a portion of MMM that was people frantically making things and taking daily selfies and lamenting some imagined imperative to not repeat a garment in those selfies, and so on. And it really struck me that there this dichotomy in the handmade wardrobe community — people making and buying clothes more thoughtfully than I had ever witnessed, and people making things with the same kind of unconsidered fervor as the shoppers of the world.
I had long been one of those shoppers, and had also been having the all-too-common experience of knitters and sewers where you are just making the wrong things — things that don’t ultimately become productive members of your wardrobe. (For the record, paying attention to what gets worn and how to make better choices was, as I understand it, the original impulse of Me Made May.) So your question caused me to go back and look at my original proposal and see what I actually said at the time about what kind of conversation I was craving:
“… the world doesn’t need another me-made month, per se [but] I’d like the scope of this to be different and broader. I’d like us to be able to celebrate not only our own makes (although definitely that!) but clothes that have been made for us by others; worn over the course of years or decades; handed down or rescued from thrift shops or attics; mended; handcrafted in the small studios of slow fashion designers and/or from ethical fabrics; and so on. I want it to be about responsible and sustainable fashion in all its splendor, in other words. An opportunity to discuss and explore the wide range of topics that are at the core of slow fashion.”
I’d been reading a lot and thinking a lot, following people who were so far ahead of me in all of this, and just really wanting to be able to have a larger conversation about it — to learn from others, think through some thoughts, have my preconceptions challenged. It’s such a complicated conversation — sometimes I think it’s harder than discussing politics — but so worth having, as I learn so much from everyone. Speaking of which, I’m surprised to see the word “ethical” in there, which is a word I try to avoid, but that must be one of the things I’ve grown more sensitive to over the course of the conversations.
Sustainability seems to be embedded in the ethos of your shop and your personal work with growing a homemade wardrobe. From heirloom tools to wool from small farms, support of indie makers and shops, supporting community and initiating conversation — it all circles around a larger concept of sustainable making or sustainable living. Was this intentional when you launched Fringe Supply Co?
Not on such a conscious level, but I think all of it has evolved in parallel. There’s an extent to which I’ve always been an environmentally conscious person (child of the ’70s) and a lover of quality goods and natural materials — things that are built to last — and that has informed my whole life and so of course was there from the beginning with the blog (which started in December of 2011) and the shop (November 2012), but it has deepened — or maybe come to the forefront more — over time as result of these explorations and conversations.
The part about supporting farms and indie makers and other small businesses is huge for me. It really matters to me whose pocket I put money into when I shop for myself (whether it’s yarn or a pair of pants or whatever) or when I place orders for the shop. It means the world to me to be able to help people get to do what they do, because it’s very difficult if you want to have an existence that’s outside of our increasingly corporatized system. And I love getting to know and talk about where things come from as much as that’s possible, so it’s win/win.
For many of us, general stewardship for the environment and a desire to deepen our relationship to the environment might have been present for a long time but there’s often a pivotal shift in mindset when we realize “I can go so much deeper,” and that often results in a shift in habits. Was there a light bulb moment when sustainability came to the forefront in your life or work?
It’s funny to me that my clothing habits were such an anomaly and blindspot in my life for so long. I have always furnished my homes chiefly from flea markets and antique malls, loving the hunt and the fact that everything has character and a history. All the years we were living the Bay Area, a lot of our food came from farmers’ markets or local fish markets or our backyard, and it’s taken time to re-establish those habits in Nashville, but we’re now in a CSA and have a winter’s worth of local meat in the freezer. (We don’t have the luxury of our own vegetable garden here.) I care about my carbon footprint. I drove the same car for 19 years until it would go no farther, and still it had very low mileage for its age — even though it was our only car for most of those years — because we walked or took public transportation more often than not. I never turn on an overhead light until it’s absolutely necessary; use heat and air conditioning as little as I can get away with. On and on. So you’d think I would have been thrifting and hand-making and dyeing all along, right? But no, I was a devout and fervent mall shopper. Total clothes junkie.
I don’t think there was a lightbulb moment as far as wanting to do things differently in that regard — really more of that slow awakening or gradual transition. There was a tipping point that I wrote about just a couple of months before proposing Slotober. And there was a very vivid moment, later, where I realized I had again crossed over into new territory. I was in my once-favorite store with my husband, looking at the vast racks of clearance clothes. And where before I would have been piling things onto my left arm to try on, I was left completely cold by all of it. It just couldn’t compete with the handmade and known-origins clothes I’d been slowly collecting, and the stories those clothes contain. So whereas in the beginning of all of this, fast fashion felt like a hard habit to break — like I’d really really want something and have to remind myself why I didn’t want to buy it — I realized I had reached a point where I was completely void of the want. There was no more need to talk myself out of it — it had simply lost its appeal. It’s a process.
I love how you are so relatable as a sustainable fashion leader—I don’t feel like I have to make every garment of clothing for myself when I read your blog. I feel permission to make some things, buy some things secondhand, buy some things ethically made, and still hold on to those factory fashion garments I’ve had forever but still love and wear so much. Can you talk about access in sustainable fashion? Or about various entry points to a more sustainable wardrobe?
I don’t feel like a leader, but thank you. I’m just a person who’s thinking and trying and learning and doing what I can; I just happen to be doing it in public and sharing my progress, but I certainly don’t think of myself as an expert or role model or anything of that sort. And I think that’s an important point to make, because one of the most interesting and difficult things about these conversations is how much we all feel judged, or judge ourselves against others. The frequency with which people have said “I can’t make all of my own clothes” is really striking, as if anything less than that is sub-par somehow. Or “I can’t afford slow fashion — all of my clothes come from the thrift store.” That, to me, is the epitome of slow fashion.
I love knowing where my clothes come from — whether it’s that I made them myself or I bought them directly from the people who made them. Both of those things are unattainable for a lot of people. For me, I wish I were a better thrifter — I’m just not — but I am lucky to have access to a lot of remnant fabric because I live in a town where there are a lot of small fashion companies. If I were still in the Bay Area, I’d be shopping at the remnant store, but we don’t have one here. I can’t know where all of my fabric comes from (as much as I would like to) but I like knowing at least that some of it is me keeping remnants out of the landfill. So that’s something I can do, even if it’s not 100% of the time. (And I could also stand to buy less fabric — I’ve gotten a bit gluttonous about that lately!)
I mentioned before that I have local meat in my freezer. Sometimes we can also get a loaf of bread from a local baker, and lettuce from our CSA. It’s wonderful — it’s more nutritious and delicious than factory food, and I’ve supported small-scale farmers and bakers in the process. I also often get a perfectly tasty turkey sandwich for lunch at the deli near my work, and that’s factory turkey and factory bread. It’s a reality of life, and it doesn’t make the local stuff any less wonderful — in fact, it makes me appreciate it even more, because it’s not something I can do for every meal.
I feel like this is a really common way of thinking where food is concerned. Like people might go to a farmers’ market now and then, and appreciate the food and the experience, or even grow some vegetables in the backyard. But nobody says “I can’t grow or raise 100% of my own food!” as if they should or could. We don’t put that unreasonable expectation on ourselves, and yet so many people do where slow fashion is concerned.
Certainly some of it is plain old, unavoidable envy — I remember what it felt like to see other people’s handmade or traceable wardrobes and look at my J.Crew-stuffed closet and feel envious or think “I’ll never get there.” I get it. So I think we have to keep in mind that it’s not about trying to achieve some mythical goal of pureness or traceability, or comparing yourself against anyone else. We all have different wishes and circumstances and budgets and time constraints and skill sets. But also: You never know what will happen once you start. Three years ago, I would never have imagined as much of my wardrobe would be homemade as it currently is, but that’s what happens when you make a few garments a year. It takes time, but they add up. Same if you’re thrifting or sourcing responsibly or whatever it is that you can do and enjoy doing.
So my feeling is do whatever feels right and good and doable to you, cherish that, and don’t beat yourself up about the rest.
What’s one beloved homemade garment of yours that’s become a staple in your wardrobe? Why do you think that one garment is so successful for you?
I can make all the showstoppers I want, but it’s the simplest things that get worn the most and are therefore my favorites, because they just make getting dressed in the morning easier. Especially the little sleeveless tops like this and this, which can be worn on their own or layered under everything else. Although I’m expecting to wear my jeans and my fisherman sweater for years and years to come. So there are the inconspicuous workhorses and the treasures.
You’re embedded in the knitting and maker community but I’m curious if you might share some inspirations from outside this community that have inspired your work with sustainable fashion. Could you share a few authors, artists, activists, or other thinkers outside of the craft world that have inspired your work?
I’ve definitely been more steeped and for a longer time in the slow food movement than slow fashion. I’ve read most of Michael Pollan’s books over the years as they came out, but I was especially influenced by “This Organic Life” by Joan Dye Gussow when I read it in the early aughts. I find farmer-innovator Sally Fox hugely inspirational on so many levels. And the same goes for my friend Molly DeVries of Ambatalia (maker of the beloved Bento Bags), who is one of many striving for both conscientious production and a nondisposable life. To name just a few!
PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion Citizen: Sasha Duerr
Top photo by Zachary Gray, remaining photos © Karen Templer