Martha McQuade (aka @mwmmpls) is one of my heroes. I first ran across her on Twitter around the time I learned to knit (2011) and have admired her from afar and become internet friends with her over time. I wanted to talk to her for Slow Fashion October because she comes at it from all angles. She’s a prolific polymath: an architect and professor and mother of teenage boys, she is also a knitter, sewer and dyer, proprietor of Scarf Shop, and makes clothes for herself as well as for sale, while also supporting a lot of small indie clothing brands and shopkeepers in her hometown of Minneapolis. And she’s one of the most thoughtful people I know. So I thought Week 3 would be a good time to talk to her.
After challenging you in Week 1 to think about how you want to dress and what constitutes clothes that feel like you, then to clean out your closet last week and sort it into yes, no’s and maybes, this week I want to talk about what’s in there, how it adds up, and how to make smart decisions around slowly building a wardrobe that really works. So I’m kicking it off by getting Martha talking about how she does it, and please also check out this week’s Action Item and Discussion Prompts! I know loads of you are champing at the bit to catalog your clothes similar to the way I do it — and many of you are already doing so and sharing that on the #slowfashionoctober feed — so I also just want to note that I’ll have a post for you later this week about my process for that, and I hope to hear about others’!
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I want to start with the same first question I asked Erin last week, since the term “slow fashion” is so different for everyone. What does slow fashion mean to you, and what form does it take in your life and closet?
Slow fashion to me means considered. The dictionary defines “considered” as
1. matured by extended deliberative thought
2. viewed with respect or esteem
Those two definitions are exactly how I think about fashion and my wardrobe. I have built a wardrobe over time of things I love and I continue to work on it by adding to, altering it and shifting what comes forward, and what moves back. Sometimes I get rid of things but I generally have a reluctance to do that. There was a reason I acquired each piece and even if I’m not wearing it currently, I feel like I might in the future. I have things I don’t wear often but that I love, like pieces of art.
The biggest negative impact fashion has on the environment is discarded clothing. By carefully considering what I purchase I’m more likely to keep those items for a long time. I think of sustainability in architecture in a similar way. If we build beautiful, thoughtful spaces out of quality materials that are designed to shade and cool naturally, they will last hundreds of years. I think sustainable materials and products are important but shouldn’t be a solution. We need to start by making things beautiful so we want to keep them around and making them well so they last.
One of the many things I admire about you is you seem to have a really strong sense of your personal style. How did you come to be tuned into the slow fashion movement originally, and has it had an impact on your style in any way? I’d also love to know how much of your closet meets your own criteria of what is slow fashion and how long it took you to get to where you are.
You are so kind! I never think I have a style. I just love clothing. Fabric and construction methods and shapes and colors and textures. When I see an interesting volumetric shape, or feel a thick, smooth cotton, my heart kind of races. I want to touch it and look at it inside-out and see how it drapes on a hanger. I’ve always collected pieces of clothing. I have things in my closet that are 20 years old, and memories of specific pieces that I no longer have. None of them special in terms of brand, for me it’s always the feel and cut and construction.
I actually think style should keep evolving. We all change from year to year — we grow and change and learn. I think our wardrobes should do the same. Experiment and explore and try new things. It doesn’t mean you need to be crazy. (But you could be!) We all try to learn new things and travel to new places and try new recipes, so why not continue to evolve in our style?
I began to become aware of the environmental problems of fashion in the late ’90s when I heard about a “mill end fabric outlet.” I searched to see if there were any in my area, and learned about the fabric waste problem. From there I heard about designers working with “zero waste,” read about clothing filling up landfills and the environmental problems of the cotton industry.
I’m not sure being aware of the problems has had an impact on my style but it definitely has had an impact on my purchasing habits. I’m finding out about small independent designers working ethically and sustainably. The pieces they make aren’t inexpensive, so I acquire things more slowly and thoughtfully.
I think 90% of my closet right now meets my criteria, which again means considered. But of course I make mistakes and have things I regret purchasing, even if I still kind of love them.
Have you always sewn and knitted? What drives you or inspires you to make your own clothes? I mean, you have a lot on your plate.
My mom has sewn and knit (and drawn and done embroidery and fixed appliances, etc. etc.) since I can remember, and she made a lot of my clothes when I was young. I was an obese child, and it was hard to find clothing that fit well and also wasn’t boring. I remember loving the special pieces she made me, often with embroidery or interesting color combinations. The shapes were also interesting while not being too close or revealing, and I felt sheltered wearing them.
I think this experience was what initially exposed me to making but I really took to making things with my hands from an early age. It’s always been something that I need to do. It helps me think. Later on it became a way to have things that I wanted that I couldn’t find.
Making things is also the way I explore ideas and discover things. When you work with real materials unexpected things happen, things that you didn’t intend when you started out. This is the best part of physical making.
In reference to your earlier question about style, I think there is sometimes a danger in making your own clothes when it comes to style. I think people who love to make things love the process. Often the things that are fun and interesting to knit or sew are not the things that we would necessarily wear. Sometimes there is an attempt to make something that goes beyond our ability or equipment, and the result is “homemade” vs “handmade.”
In addition to the handmades, you also have clothes in your closet from small and local-to-you brands. How do you decide what to add to your closet, what to make and what to buy, and what advice do you have for creating a cohesive, hard-working closet?
There are a few things that drive my acquisitions. A big one is wanting to support local stores and brands and independent brands, especially those that are striving to be sustainable and ethical in some way. I want these businesses to succeed, so we have more choice and diversity in slow fashion.
Another driver is beauty. I only want items that I find beautiful. Beauty for me is defined by texture, material, color, construction, shape. If I choose to make something it’s usually only because I can’t find something I want, I have an idea of a design I want to make or there is a process I want to try.
Items that are very specific and technical, like shoes, lingerie, jeans, etc., I want to purchase from someone who is an expert at making them. I could never achieve the level of quality that someone with the experience and proper equipment is able to attain. That’s not to say that I won’t try to make one of these things someday, but for me it will be more of a process exercise.
Some things that have worked for me in creating my wardrobe:
Develop complete outfits. Not every piece in your wardrobe needs to go with every other piece but every piece should go with something to make an outfit you love and feel good in.
Pay close attention to how you feel wearing your clothing. This is one of the most important facets of slow fashion for me because I know if I feel good (happy, confident, motivated, creative) in a piece of clothing or an outfit, I will love and treasure those pieces, take care of them and keep them for a long time.
Allow yourself to splurge on a beautiful accessory that you can add to a plain outfit to make it feel more unique. I have a pair of rust-colored suede boots I love, and they seem to transform every outfit. When I wear them I feel like I have a superwoman cape on.
I think a lot of people have the idea (unconsciously or otherwise) that there’s some ideal of a perfectly responsible and transparent closet, and that anything short of that is failure. So we feel doomed to fail right from the outset. It would be amazing if we could know the origins of every skein of yarn, or yard of fabric, or sock or shirt that we buy, but that’s not really realistic.
I think everyone needs to do what they can. As you mention, you can easily get overwhelmed. One thing everyone can do is buy less and think more. Another is talk to everyone you know about the problem. You will be surprised at how many people don’t know about the problem of discarded clothing in our landfills. I think often about the fact that even if I’m wearing 100% sustainable fashion, no one looking at me knows it. I can do my part, but there’s just one of me. But if I talk to everyone I know about the issue of fast fashion, more people become aware — and they tell two friends, and so on.
One of your many ventures is hand-dyeing natural fiber scarves for Scarf Shop, and you have made small-batch clothes for sale in the past (if I’m not mistaken?), as well as making many of your own clothes. I think for people who don’t sew or knit, it can be hard to understand why responsibly made clothes cost what they do. But when you sit down to make yourself even a t-shirt — or you recoil at the idea of knitting a whole sweater or sewing your own jeans because you can see what a project that is — you do start to think “how can a store be charging $19 for that?” How do your efforts at DIY and for-sale goods inform each other and your view on the state of the fashion industry?
Of course, making things myself has shown me just how long it takes and what good materials cost. But as a consumer with a family to support I also know it’s a struggle to make ends meet. I’m very interested in companies exploring sustainable processes that are also economical. Bringing costs down on sustainable fashion will allow a greater range of people to access it. Cutting down the time it takes to make something is one way to bring costs down. There is a local Minneapolis brand, Hackwith Design House, that has from their inception been exploring simplified construction methods and clothing shapes to cut down production times. Their price point is in a middle range that for me seems to be the sweet spot — not so cheap as to be disposable but not unattainable either. Everlane is another company who is able to keep their prices down, at an even lower price point than Hackwith. Some of their prices seem questionably low. I love the brand but am curious to see what happens as they grow and need to support an ever larger company.
What do you make of fast-fashion brands engaging in “eco” initiatives like denim recycling programs or launching sub-brands that claim to be sustainable? Should we applaud any effort to do the right thing, even from companies that are huge contributors to the problem in the first place? Do you think it’s greenwashing or a legitimate attempt to do better? (Obviously I’m asking you to overgeneralize — this is a really big topic!) It makes me think of that old Jerry Seinfeld line that having a no-smoking section in a restaurant is like having a no-peeing section in a pool. Can a company that is a massive part of the problem turn around and have a program or division that’s “clean”?
I think sustainable lines in fast fashion companies are important. They are probably the introduction to the issues and problems in fashion for most young people. And once you know about something you start seeing it everywhere, and your awareness grows. And as people grow in their understanding, they will begin to change their habits, and if enough people start changing their habits it can have an impact on these fast fashion brands. So full circle. Obviously the sustainable lines in these fast fashion companies are not perfect, but I feel like they have an important place, and one that will reach many more people than the small company in the corner quietly making 100% sustainable clothing.
I think one thing you and I have in common is a love of fashion in the same way as art and architecture. I love to look at what designers are doing, even if I’m not going to buy their clothes (for reasons of cost and/or origins) and be inspired about things I might make or ways I want to dress myself. Do you feel like the problems with the fast fashion industry (and certainly there are also big-ticket designers making clothes in non-responsible ways) take away from the value of fashion as art and design?
Not at all. In fact, I think that the role of fashion as art and design is even more important now. Just as all types of art have been used historically to bring awareness to societal issues, the art of fashion can be used to highlight the problems in the industry, and we’re starting to see some of this.
One note about the art of fashion: I think in the broad fashion world slow fashion is thought of as not just a movement but as having a particular style. One that leans towards plain clothing, in natural colors, without pushing any boundaries in terms of design. There is a quote I love from Leandra Medine, founder of Manrepeller, that says “your interest in fashion should not make you look like you are less than smart.” I feel very strongly that an interest in slow fashion should not make you look like you are less than fashionable. My greatest hope is that one day it’s all just fashion, and that slow, ethical and considered are a given.
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For more of Martha, follow @mwmmpls on Instagram!
PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion October: Week 2, What’s in your closet? with Erin Boyle
Photos © Martha McQuade, used with permission