Slow Fashion Citizen: Kristine Vejar

Slow Fashion Citizen: Kristine Vejar

BY KATRINA RODABAUGH // A Verb for Keeping Warm is one of the loveliest fabric and yarn shops I’ve ever visited and yet it’s so much more than a supply store for San Francisco Bay Area fiber enthusiasts. This space also hosts community events, book launches, classes, fiber clubs, an outdoor dye studio, a full range of materials for knitting, sewing, weaving, and regular appearances by the knitting world’s luminaries. Yet it’s also just a friendly place to buy fabric. To browse craft books. To trail your fingers gently across naturally dyed yarns and find some respite from the bustling pace of urban life.

Kristine Vejar (@avfkw) is the owner of “Verb” and she’s also an avid researcher, dyer, maker, author and teacher. Her passion for creating connections in the natural dye world, inspiration for a homemade wardrobe, and dedication to supporting the handmade community all spill over into the aesthetics, energy and attitude of her beautiful shop. When you enter Verb it’s like you’ve entered Kristine’s auxiliary living room. It’s difficult to summarize Kristine’s contributions to the Slow Fashion community because they are so wide, wonderful and heartfelt. She’s a savvy businesswoman, an artist and author, and she’s just so good at making folks feel welcome in her space.

Her book The Modern Natural Dyer is iconic in the natural dye world. It’s exquisitely designed, highly informative, and chock-full of gorgeously styled photos. Yet I get the sense that all of this is just the beginning of Kristine’s offerings.

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A Verb for Keeping Warm is so much more than a shop. Was it always your intention to create a community gathering space when you opened?

Yes! Absolutely! The times in my life when I have felt most connected to others, and most understood, was through the act of stitching and making textiles.

I grew up within my grandmother’s knitting and sewing circles in rural Illinois. My grandma’s best friend, Doris, owned a yarn and gift shop named The Black Sheep. It was in a little house on the town square, across from the amphitheater where the local orchestra played Sunday evenings in the summer. Women were always gathered knitting and stitching. I adored going there as a child and still, in my memory, it is the epitome of a knitting store.

Years later, I went to school in India to study art and architecture. I found myself gravitating to a specific collection of bright, colorful textiles created by nomadic herders named Rabari. I traveled to the desert and found myself feeling at home amongst large groups of women stitching. Upon returning to the US, I learned to spin yarn and joined a spinning group. Again, in the circle of spinners, I felt at home. Oakland and the Bay Area have a lot going on. It can be overwhelming and exciting. I found that having a group to spin and knit with have helped me turn this big town into a small town. I felt I had a sense of place.

When I opened my first natural dyeing studio in Berkeley, I had studio sales and began to meet lots of people. By the end of the year, I rented another space, turned it into a little store, and more people began to gather for events and classes. Finally, I was at the crux of needing to decide the next direction for Verb. Would we move into a warehouse and cultivate a wholesale business, or would we go the community route and open a shop and school?

Due to my memories of stitch circles, I decided to go the community route and opened in our current location on San Pablo Avenue in 2011. I wanted to teach people how to use fiber, yarn, fabric and natural dyes. I wanted people to meet one another who share this same interest. And I hoped others would experience a sense of belonging brought on by textiles and community.

I think of others who make products similar in ethics to Verb as my community. So I felt that by creating a shop, I could support this community and carry their products — like Brooklyn Tweed, Quince and Co, Stone Wool, Spincycle, Manos, and Twirl yarn, as well as Merchant & Mills fabric, Fringe Supply Co. goods, etc. This year, we have traveled a lot to study natural dyeing and have brought a lot of materials and dyes home to Verb. It has been great to be able to support these independent artisans and farmers.

Slow Fashion Citizen: Kristine Vejar

Verb focuses on sustainable, handmade, independently designed, small batch, or otherwise ethically produced fibers. Was sustainability always at the forefront in your work?

When I went to school in India, we traveled way out into the country. I stayed with a family and farmed. To be honest, it was hell. They had one cow, a plow and a mud hut. (There is absolutely nothing wrong with having only three things in life, if it is a choice and if there is a safety net – security that if your crop fails, you will not starve.) I spent my time there on my haunches in over 100-degree weather, weeding. I had already been pondering the differences in socio-economic conditions between people: why and how such disparity existed, and why it is acceptable. And in that experience on the farm, my world and perspective broke open. In the following days, everything I saw – t-shirts, pants, rice, flour, vegetables – I saw those farmers bent over, for endless hours and days. I thought if I am paying only 5 cents for a bag of rice (or even in the case of the $10 t-shirt in the US), given how many hands all of these products must have travelled through, what must the farmer earn?

Meanwhile, still in India, I wandered into a shop one day. There was a man behind the counter wearing clothing which in my mind looked traditional – or what I had seen in photos – a kind of cloth pill-box hat, and a shirt which had a short collar and 4 buttons along the chest. Behind him in glass cases were stacks of cloth and clothing. I asked to see these pieces. There was a rustic quality to them – although sometimes the fabric was very fine – there was an irregularity to the threads. I looked above him and there was a photo of Gandhi. I felt confused. He gave me a book to read. I had known that Gandhi led India’s fight for independence from Britain in 1947, but what I learned is that Gandhi encouraged people to spin their own cotton and weave it into cloth, in their homes, as a way to boycott their British colonizers. The action of making cloth undermined Britain’s financial hold on India. The cloth in that shop was handspun and handwoven. It is called khadi cloth. And to this day, the government subsidizes these shops. I found this incredibly inspiring on so many levels. Cloth having the power to either indenture someone or free them. Individuals taking the power back by creating their own cloth. And the fact that each person, in their own small way, can make a difference. Cloth was and can be a medium for social justice.

About a year later, when I was again in India, I was working with dyers. There were chemical dyes in puddles. I began looking into what these dyes were made of. And again, I questioned how the choices I was making through my consumption were altering the lives of others in negative ways. And how does the health of the Earth impact the health of humans? How can we co-exist with the Earth, work with our hands, and be healthy and financially stable? Why do we value and are willing to pay programmers or CEOs millions of dollars but not the people who grow our food and fiber? How can I redistribute this money to those whose work I believe in – those who treat people, the Earth, and their animals kindly. People who are purely profit-driven are behemoths. So how do I focus my attention and energy on all the “little people” whose work resonates with me.

I began to think about equality. No one should work so hard and have to suffer. And I certainly did not want to contribute to this suffering. In that moment, I wanted to make things better. I wanted to help increase the value of these everyday objects that are so easily taken for granted. Life is complex and complicated. I was stunned by what to do. I felt judgmental to insert what I believed should or could be done in a country that was not my own. So I returned home to the United States, where I thought that possibly I could engage in a conversation and/or create a product which could increase value for the work of those around the world. That said, I was really young and lost. I got a 9-5 job. It was a good job but not my passion. This came as another life lesson: There have to be others like me for which corporate culture makes them unhappy. I began thinking about the possibility of being able to create a company that could employ others, like me, interested in textiles and people.

And then the conversation about global warming began to be more widely discussed. I went to school for Art and Art History so I had a lot to learn (still do). I began to learn terms and theories – like thinking about my carbon footprint. Of course, from living in the Bay Area I was aware of Alice Waters’ work and growing food locally in order to reduce one’s carbon footprint and to support local farmers. So as I began my yarn line, I desperately wanted to have yarn made from local farmers’ wool. But it was a puzzle. Every time I could find local wool, it was really scratchy. I liked it but I knew it would not sell well. Natural dyeing is labor intensive and the dyes can be expensive. Every time I found soft wool, it was very expensive and available in small supply. I pushed forward using imported yarn.

Also, something to note is that investing in local fiber typically means investing a lot more money up front. In most cases, there would be a distributor who would make that initial investment and order thousands of pounds of yarn at once, and we would receive the opportunity to order small quantities of yarn on demand. As we have moved towards more local fibers, we oftentimes pay thousands of dollars for wool, which we will not see in yarn form for 6-9 months. Once we receive the yarn, we still need to dye it, so it could be a full year before that yarn hits the shelves. So before we could fulfill my mind’s eye, we had to have enough financial (and emotional!) stability to feel confident enough to take the plunge.

Slow Fashion Citizen: Kristine Vejar

In 2012, I met Sally Fox, the notoriously independent, organic, colored-cotton breeder, and we hit it off. She lives about 90 miles from me. With her guidance, I made my first local yarn from the wool of her sheep and named it after her: Pioneer. We are now on our 4th batch of Pioneer and have made at least a half dozen other yarns composed of California and/or US wool.

There are more people now who care if my yarn is made of US wool, but for many years, and somewhat still to this day, there are other things of greater importance to customers – like color or price point. So using US wool is something that I care more about, and intend to supply, than the current demand. This is a risky place to be in — most business advisors recommend seeing where demand is and filling it. You know, give people what they want. I guess I am stubborn. For instance, we are in the process of shifting our yarn called Annapurna, which is made of imported superwash merino, cashmere, and nylon (an extremely popular blend industry-wide) to California Rambouillet wool. While it is soft, it is most definitely not going to be as soft as Annapurna and the hand is going to change slightly. We might really upset our long-term customers. So the question becomes: When might people alter the expectations (softness/color/hand), to support wool with a lower carbon footprint that will help the environment and which will support a local farmer? Or who knows – maybe the stars will align, everyone will love the new yarn and I will have spent many nights worrying for nothing.

I’ve come to learn that my days of working in 100-degree-plus weather on a farm are far from over as I’ve helped Sally over the years with her farm: planting cotton, dye plants, skirting fleece and lots of weeding. And still, as I’ve spent hours, and look out and see how much is left to do, or how there’s been too little or too much rain, needing to surrender to what is, I think of those farmers in India – and of the thousands of other farmers around the world growing fiber and food. And once again become committed to leveling the playing field, education and uplifting the value of farming.

There’s such an incredible community of textile artists, knitters, crafters, makers and otherwise insanely talented people in the Bay Area. Are there particular ways that you proactively engage community through the shop or through your work with teaching and dyeing?

We hold a monthly meeting called Seam Allowance that is essentially a support group for people who have pledged to make at least 25% of the clothing they wear on a daily basis. People share what they have been making, perhaps where they are stuck, and what they hope to make in the future. It’s been amazing to watch people’s progress. We have had people who just learned to knit make sweaters, and eventually learn to sew, and make dresses and shirts. And there is a sector of this group that has become really involved in learning about materials and is focusing on farm-raised, local materials.

We also host many teachers from around the world. It is wonderful to have the community come together to take class from these teachers. And then, like you said, we have very talented local artists and makers in this area and they teach at Verb as well. I love being able to support their work and to offer their products to other makers. We also offer a series of free knitting and sewing demos.

This year is different than prior years. Since June 2016, we have traveled to Iceland, Oaxaca, Indonesia and Japan to research natural dyeing. Usually, I am home nearly the whole year and teach natural dyeing about once a month and classes focused upon the work of Natalie Chanin and Alabama Chanin. Then, about three times a year, I host a community indigo dip, where people are invited into the studio to dip a piece of fabric and try their hand at indigo dyeing. Seeing first-hand dyeing of fabric in India was so life-changing for me that I try to expose people to the process of dyeing, spinning, weaving, knitting and sewing so they may be drawn into the process and engage! In 2018, I am planning to travel less, so we will be able to resume more of these community-specific events.

Slow Fashion Citizen: Kristine Vejar

There’s been so much interest in natural dyes lately and it is so exciting to see a wider audience taking interest in plants dyes. Can you talk about the opportunity natural dyeing creates for you to connect with your garments or fibers?

It is so exciting! I don’t think a day goes by when I’m not in awe that color can come from plants and attach to cloth. The more I learn about natural dyeing, the more I realize I have only scratched the surface. For example, although I work with plants on a daily basis, I know .5% (maybe less, there is that much to know) about plants. There is SO much to learn regarding the different plant families and the properties of those families, and how their relationship to soil affects pigment.

Even scientists, such as botanists, are discovering new plants and learning more about plants on a daily basis – especially as it becomes easier to test genetics. In the past five years, a type of indigo grown in Japan shifted in name from Polygonum tinctoria to Persicaria tinctoria. Sometimes I find this overwhelming. I crave an answer. The answer. I want to understand. I don’t want the answer to change. For me, natural dyeing symbolizes the ability to surrender to the unknown, but finding beauty along the way, staying curious, being a student, and feeling uncomfortable because I am stretching my knowledge and understanding of nature.

I am most calm when I am in the woods. Natural dyeing is a way to bring the woods with me in the form of my clothing. Natural dyeing is a challenge. How can a rich, beautiful palette, possibly consisting of 100 colorways, be made with 7-10 plants? How have people around the world used materials found within 100 miles of their homes to create clothing, embedded with color and motifs, which upheld their culture and community through the cultivation of their distinct local fashion, where the clothing is worn with pride of place, as a signifier of connection to the land upon which they live and work for survival?

The Slow Fashion movement is so exciting right now for the multiple ways it’s engaging makers — dyeing, mending, sewing, knitting, weaving — but I always try to consider the way folks might engage if they aren’t at a technical place to make their own garments. What do you suggest for folks who are truly beginning or not yet making clothing?

There are so many points of possible engagement. Anything from purchasing clothing secondhand to purchasing clothing from a local designer, possibly one who is manufacturing their clothing locally, and possibly also looking closely at the materials chosen to make the clothing. Learning to thread a needle and take a few stitches. Dropping into a yarn shop and acquiring yarn and needles to make a simple garter stitch scarf. Try dyeing a piece of clothing.

Have a few extra hours? Perhaps a local farmer, small yarn producer, or designer needs an extra set of hands. Maybe you are a writer, and can lend your voice. (If I have to read one more New Yorker article about the dawn of time, and not have textiles mentioned as an incredibly influencing factor over just about everything, I am going to scream.) Or an artist, who could create a piece of art reflecting the images and portraits of things you find inspiring and motivational. A song would be great!

People might laugh at my answer, but I truly think for this movement to take root, we have to explore the natural affinities clothing shares with other pillars of our culture – like food, shelter, art, literature, music and dance. Plus, that crossover can be so interesting, and draw in more people who have not previously thought of clothing as more than something to just cover one’s self. And sometimes, from the inside, it is hard to see. So having someone new come to the table and add to the experience is a wonderful thing.

Slow Fashion Citizen: Kristine Vejar

You have a beautifully handmade wardrobe ranging from knitted garments to sewn garments, dyed garments and so much more. What have you learned to be the best combination for patterns, fibers and colors? We’re all looking for that magical combination in a homemade garment that we can wear over and over again. Do you have a formula like, say, neutral colors in natural fibers that are loose fitting? Or is it more serendipitous?

Aw, thanks Katrina! You know, funny enough, I have a long history of making things that wouldn’t be called basics. I do have a history of following fashion, i.e. making things that go out of style. The first time I sewed my entire wardrobe was when I was going to work in Washington D.C. at the Textile Museum in 2001. It was January. I had been working at Poppy Fabrics (R.I.P.) and I made my pants, blouses, dresses and coat. I loved everything I sewed but it was made solely for that experience. I was there to work as a consultant for about two months. None of that clothing transitioned back into my life in Oakland.

The same thing happened when I returned to D.C. that summer. And again, when I went back to India to live. And now it continues: I find myself most apt to sew when I am about to go somewhere. I make these little collections. The geographic location and climate cultivates the restraint around what design I choose and the materials I use. Otherwise, I find the process can feel too open-ended. Some of these pieces do make it into my daily wardrobe. Currently, this tends to be a collection of linen dresses which I mainly wear to keep cool.

I am what some might call boring. I tend to like all neutrals and indigo blue, and all natural fibers, especially linen, cotton and wool. The focus of my clothing is more where the fiber is grown and what it is dyed with than a high level of technical sewing skill. My knitting tends to be more technically adept. Although because I find myself dialed in so much to my dyeing, which can be quite fussy, I will fully admit to wimping out and forgoing a sweater pattern because it is written to be knit in pieces (rather than seamless). So in other words, I am most satisfied when I enjoy the process of making, the materials I am using, and then feel comfortable wearing once complete.

Lastly, tell us three tools you personally cannot live without.

My Addi Turbos! Specifically the super sharp Rockets and the interchangeable lace needles with long handles. I love that these are made in Germany and are traceable. They are smooth and help me knit very fast!

My camera, as it helps me to record a visual journey of my time traveling, researching and creating.

My dye journal so I can understand how I have achieved specific colors and to learn more about plants.

Slow Fashion Citizen: Kristine Vejar

Katrina Rodabaugh is an author, artist and slow-fashion advocate. Visit her website www.katrinarodabaugh.com or follow her on Instagram at @katrinarodabaugh

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Photos © Kristine Vejar, used with permission

Slow Fashion Citizen: Karen Templer

Slow Fashion Citizen: Karen Templer

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.

Slow Fashion Citizen: Karen Templer

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.

Slow Fashion Citizen: Karen Templer

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!

Slow Fashion Citizen: Karen Templer

PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion Citizen: Sasha Duerr

Top photo by Zachary Gray, remaining photos © Karen Templer

Slow Fashion Citizen: Sasha Duerr

Slow Fashion Citizen: Sasha Duerr

BY KATRINA RODABAUGH // I’ve known Sasha Duerr (@sashaduerr) for nearly two decades—from something of a previous life or previous lives in my early days in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late ’90s. When I met Sasha I was instantly drawn to her kind nature, open heart, astute observations, and also her thoughtful approach to fiber arts, gardening and her wardrobe. Fast-forward a few lifetimes, jobs, relocations, children and homesteads later, and Sasha and I have remained steady friends while finding more in common in our creative and professional lives.

I mention our friendship because it’s this kinship and kindness that’s part of Sasha’s nature across her personal relationships and her relationship to her work that offers something so unique in her contribution to Slow Fashion —she’s generous, kind, intuitive, and deeply invested. And this tending, this attention, or this attunement is something that’s so prominent in her work with natural color. Sasha’s been working with natural dyes and “regenerative fashion” for nearly twenty years but her relationship to her work and to the slow fashion community feels like it’s own sense of stewardship—she’s protecting dye recipes, creative practices, and slow fashion community for generations to come. Her work evolves from her passionate connection to the land and permaculture but it extends to color, fiber, and human interactions. She lives a very intentional life as an artist, teacher, mother and homesteader, but from the bustling, urban and decidedly modern space of Oakland CA.

It’s an honor to share Sasha’s work and words in this series. Though it’s apparent she is just scratching the surface of what she has to offer at the intersection of permaculture, art and design, it’s this shifting of mindset and language that I always cherish in my interactions with Sasha. I leave our conversations wanting more insight into her resources, mentors, and philosophical approach alongside tips to creating those gorgeous plant-based colors. Welcome, Sasha!

. . .

Your work has been inspiring me for years and it’s such a thrill to share your story. Can you start by giving an overview of your journey working with natural dyes? 

I was fortunate to grow-up spending most of my time outside—splitting every 6 months between the northern coastal woods of Downeast Maine and the rainforests of the Big Island of Hawaii. Living within these very different ecosystems deepened my love and relationship with plants at an early age.

Studying painting in college, my work focused on transformations found in nature, but I was using primarily oil paints and acrylics. Ironically, I started to get sick from working with my materials, and as I researched ways of making my own lesser and non-toxic colors realized that much of the information was outdated, difficult to understand, or with recipes that used toxic sources. This led me to travel (towards Indonesia and India) and to seek out teachers and lineages of this knowledge. Upon arriving back in the US, it also brought me to women in agriculture — on farms and deeper research and knowledge in the indigenous communities that I had grown-up within.

Early after college, I also became active in urban gardening and working with the slow food movement in the Bay Area, recognizing obvious and striking parallels between not knowing where most of our store-bought fashion and textiles came from and how disconnected most were from the process of production—as well as the exploitation and environmental degradation that lies below the surface of the sale bin.

While working on my MFA in Textiles at California College of the Arts in 2001-2003, I received a two-year grant to develop natural dye curriculum at the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, California. Through my work there, I started focusing my thesis on the direct connections between slow food and slow fashion — how sensory experiences were key to change.

After graduate school I explored natural dyes in my studio, through research, teaching workshops, hosting conceptual natural color related events and sought out further studies in gardening — particularly Permaculture. This work led me to found Permacouture Institute to explore ideas for regenerative design in fashion and textiles.

From 2008 through 2012, I collaborated with my friend and designer Casey Larkin on the creation of a locally made and all seasonally naturally dyed (by me) alpaca knitwear. We learned alot about what was possible and what was needed in slow fashion, local and natural fiber dyeing production, especially as new moms, but the work we created together was invaluable and I evolved so much in terms of knowing the power of storytelling through plant palettes and slow fashion. (I am now so grateful that Fibershed exists to connect the gaps between farmers, producers and designers to rethink regional production as it is very needed!)

My work in natural dyes also led me to develop curriculum courses in the intersection of social practice and slow fashion and textiles at my alma mater, CCA. I have been a professor there for the past 10 years and teach a course called “Soil to Studio” where we done an abundance of research and experimentation over the years in plant dyeing recipes and natural dye applications, we also maintain a community edible, fiber and dye garden with a fiber and dye seed saving library (available for any student, faculty or staff to check out) and collaborate with community partners, such as UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley. Cultivating the connection of creating color from by-products of food, flora, medicinals, and plants beneficial to our ecologies has become my life’s work — and for me there is no comparison to the beauty of the true hues that have emerged in the process.

It seems that maybe your personal migrations from Maine to Hawaii to California play a part in your approach to dye work, foraging for dyes and working with the local landscape. This also has the benefit of allowing you intimacy and familiarity with local plants in various ecosystems. Would you agree?

Absolutely, paying attention to and knowing the plants in our immediate surroundings connects us wherever we are. Plants can often become invisible to us in our everyday landscapes. It’s surprising how few most of us know by name — even trees in our own backyards.

As an artist, I am also fascinated by how natural color can become a vital tool to help us become more aware — to realize that what we know about our everyday surroundings can constantly surprise us, and that a brilliant spectrum of hues can be found in places that you may never expect, beautiful colors made from compost from a dinner with friends, or a rainbow from the weeds you pass by every day without a second thought. What we consider “valuable” is always an interesting question as well. For instance carrot tops provide gorgeous gold and green colors, we take it for granted and we toss the tops or they are pre-cut for us at the grocery store but at one point carrots were actually grown for the tops and not the roots as they are very medicinal and flavorful!

Slow Fashion Citizen: Sasha Duerr

Your work with natural dyes feels so much deeper than creating color and experimenting with various fibers. You mention Permaculture in your work and you founded the Permacouture Institute. Is there a deeper philosophical or ecological approach to your work with dyes and plants?

What I love about Permaculture is that people and planet are considered equally when thinking about a system. In 2007, I founded Permacouture Institute (with the help of dear friends and supporters). Permacouture became a great way to explore ideas of slow fashion and textiles and to bring people together, to document, research and create through multisensory events and ultimately environmental connections.

Throughout the years we’ve nurtured programs and events to think holistically about natural dyes, slow fashion and textiles. We’ve organized social events about rethinking consumption called “Weed Your Wardrobes” where we dye unwanted clothing and textiles giving them fresh life while weeding urban community gardens and using those same weeds to dye the garments. We’ve explored plant-based “compost colors” by hosting “Dinners to Dye For” and “Seasonal Color and Taste Palette” workshops with slow food chefs, bringing communities together through seasonal meals and using the byproducts of those very same meals.

There are so many ways in which working with natural color can connect us deeply to people, place, and to the planet. The process of growing a dye plant from seed, or of reusing plants that may be taken for granted, plant colors can connect us to something greater, bringing a naturally embedded meaning not possibly squeezed synthetically out of a tube. When you are working with natural fibers and color as well as with fair and just labor, in contrast, you’re constantly aware that you are working on nature’s schedule, not just your own. This allows you to be directly involved with the natural world, communities and individuals, as well as with a plant or animal’s life cycle in relationship to your own.

Cultural continuation, celebration of biodiversity, and awareness and appreciation of supply chain and the labor involved in creating and making additionally helps in stewardship of resources and care of materials.

The growing conditions of the Bay Area for experimenting with natural color have also been a blessing. Knowing the full and unique dimensions that plants can provide —food, medicine, color, fiber— supports deeper roots in our communities, culturally expands design possibilities for food and textiles, and purely from an ecological perspective a healthier and happier future not just for people but for all life.

You’ve been ahead of the trend with natural dyes and sustainable fibers. Although we’re the same age I always consider you an elder in this work — you’ve been considering fiber sources, dye plants, slow living, and sustainable fashion for over 15 years now and that seems like forever in slow fashion. Can you talk about the broader shift you’ve witnessed in the past 10 or 15 years in relation to the interest or awareness in slow fashion?

A major shift that I’ve seen over the past 15 years is that there is now so much more support, strength and organization both within the slow fashion movement and from the mainstream. It has been so wonderful to see how the facets have grown and how many slow fashion and textile nonprofits, artists, advocates and designers are now working in the field.

I think the general consciousness of embracing the uniqueness of artisan and plant-based color has definitely gained more awareness. Navigating the complexities of our wardrobes and where things come from can be nothing less than overwhelming to the average wearer. One way that plant dyeing has been a very successful tool for the slow fashion and textile movement is in how easy the process (which is nearly if not identical to the process of cooking) of applying plant-based color to anything that you already have in your home or wardrobe as a connective and sensory process, thus allowing you to WANT to know more.

I will say that I am also happy, especially as a teacher and professor who has borne witness to so many talented souls and their creative ideas, to see all the diverse practices emerging in the ways that we can think about, approach, participate and add to this movement. There really is not one way. Being creative with what you have in your own individual life, connecting with your community, rethinking and strategizing modes and methods of art and design, supporting others in their efforts all add in the ways in which we can begin now, right where we are.

Your work just gets richer and richer — it feels like your connection to sustainable living and your practice as a colorist are entirely intertwined. I see your work as equal parts process and product. As if the teaching, gardening, art making and personal living are all interconnected. Can you talk about this blurring of boundaries and how one influences or provokes the other?

The process of making a dye bath often becomes an ultimate form of creative “flow” for me, it can awaken all the senses from growing and gathering the plants to the smells, even tastes when you are working with edibles, and of course witnessing unique and multifaceted living color. For me, it is a constant renewal of awe.

I enjoy working holistically, collaborating and connecting with the process, starting with what you have and going from there. I have always loved the practice of plant dyeing both for the process and the results as well as a tool to talk about bigger picture aspects. I believe one of the greatest plights of our modern times is the true cost of over-consumption. Plant dyes, whether you are connected from the seed of growing the color or are just conscious that by pruning your fruit trees in winter you can not only help your peach tree to grow healthier fruit in the summer but the clippings themselves can also provide an abundance of other uses including but not limited to all the seasonal color inspiration and ingredients one may need.

In addition to your work as an instructor and fiber artist you’ve also consulted with various fashion brands around their sustainability efforts. You mentioned the metaphor of “Turning an ocean tanker around versus turning a row boat” meaning that most of the independent artists, designers, and makers have an easier time switching directions, taking risks, and responding to information than a large institution that already has so many systems in place. Can you expand on this thinking of flexibility and adaptability?

Yes, I always say this to my students as they are at a point of starting small and being able to grow intentionally and with new creative initiative. Although there can be big changes and ripple effects that happen when large companies re-approach their methods toward more ethical practices (both environmentally and socially) independent artists and designers play a particularly important role as starting small and showcasing how things can be done differently, with more intention, care, collaboration or innovation can be extremely powerful. Starting small often allows you to see what works and to build in ways that can be most effective. Flexibility is also key to design for what an individual or community may actually need and what can best support their needs in changing or growing in the process.

Slow Fashion Citizen: Sasha Duerr

You recently published your second book, Natural Color, and it’s a favorite on my bookshelf. The how-tos in this book focus primarily on food scraps, foraged plants and easily accessible dye materials versus prepared extracts, powders or natural dyes you might order online. Is this connection to the whole plant pivotal to your work?

In my own practice of working with plant-based color, I often use whole plants rather than extracts, I need to be aware of their seasonal availability, growth cycles and color potential. With this knowledge I can develop a color palette specific to a time of year, much like planning a seasonal menu. Working with plant color is one of the easiest and most accessible ways of connecting with the cycle of our ecologies and applying that knowledge directly to the design practice.

I love starting with the whole plant because I think it provides the opportunity for an added level of sensory connection to the process and therefore to the product. There is something so profound about the transformation that occurs when you start with the whole. I also love sharing with others the wow factor of taking something ordinary, like an avocado pit, and showing the gorgeous pinks and grays that can be conjured so easily, or from a bouquet of roses. Meanwhile you get to eat the avocado or enjoy the roses before they hit your dye pot — very difficult to do when you start directly with a powder or an extract.

Working on Natural Color was an absolute joy. We took an actual calendar year to collect and document the seasonal recipes made from gleaning, growing and harvesting a biodiversity of common and less-common plants as sources of dyes. Natural Color was also inspired by a project I’ve been working on for several years now called the Seasonal Color Wheel, which showcases natural colors you can make seasonally from common plants, often weeds and byproducts in various regions, especially urban centers.

In Natural Color we get a sense of this deeper relationship to sustainable living through your essays. The Slow Fashion movement only has a handful of theorists writing nonfiction at this point — Kate Fletcher quickly comes to mind — but it feels like the movement is rapidly developing leadership. What are your thoughts about connecting theory and practice in such a rapidly developing field?

Slow Fashion theory is important as there are so many people who will never grow their own fiber, sew their own garments or dye their own clothes, but supporting and understanding why these practices are important is equally valuable.

I often reference Kate Fletcher and Lynda Grose’s book Fashion & Sustainability: Design for Change; it is an incredible resource on diverse ways of thinking and designing. The environmental disaster that is fast fashion and textiles as we currently know it cannot be changed with consumption as usual even if it is replacing “toxic” materials with “eco-friendly” ones. Consumer behavior; how can we connect to what we have more deeply; how can we choose and care for what comes into our lives; how can we change or adapt what we have, transform it into something new; or whether ultimately that garment is designed for the compost pile or re-imagined all matter tremendously.

A topic that I love to think about with natural dyes is that these colors can have different life cycles, like our life experiences and relationships. Not everything (or every color) is meant to be permanent, and at one point fibers and dyes, just like with food, were so biodegradable that they left no trace. Our own sense of fashion is often dependent and driven by change and cycles, not permanence. In fact, our openness to recognizing this truth philosophically could also open new avenues toward how we provide stewardship for the future of natural color and how we can also increase the biodiversity of our palettes to include wider ranges of hues, potentially by being on nature’s timing and expressing different waves of sensory beauty in new forms.

Slow Fashion Citizen: Sasha Duerr

I love your use of the phrase “regenerative design” versus sustainable design. You write, “Permacouture … focuses as a dedicated educational and environmental arts lab that continues to research, teach, experiment, build curriculum, consult, and encourage regenerative design practices for textiles and fashion.” Can you explain the concept of regenerative design particularly within slow fashion?

“Regenerative” as a word can be an incredibly useful tool. It can help us to imagine new ways that we may actually be able to ADD positively to a system rather than merely just to sustain what already exists. It expounds on ways that we can build upon a practice and evolve it into something greater, renewing the system with additional life and energy. I think this word is especially powerful for fashion and textiles as it motivates us to think beyond the boundaries of what we may presently think is possible, while at the same time caring for and deeply nourishing the best of what already exists.

So many folks are hesitant to experiment with natural dyes because of the mordants. Or because of the fear they’ll get it wrong. What’s your advice to folks just starting out with natural color—maybe a few favorite dye plants you like best for beginners?

Plant dyes can so easily be made with ingredients already in our kitchens or gardens, or with materials already on their way to the compost pile. For beginners I suggest knowing your materials: choose all-natural fibers, clean them well, and remember when making a dye bath “longer is stronger.” Getting started, just like with cooking, can be a process of being aware, being patient, being open, and continuing to practice, practice, practice. A few of my favorite fall plant dyes for beginners to get started (and that don’t need an additional mordant added) are pomegranate peels; avocado pits and rinds; golden onion skins; and black walnut hulls. AND, as an added win/win, these colors are also all delicious byproducts. So you can have your color and eat it too!

Slow Fashion Citizen: Sasha Duerr

Katrina Rodabaugh is an author, artist and slow-fashion advocate. Visit her website www.katrinarodabaugh.com or follow her on Instagram at @katrinarodabaugh

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PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion Citizen: Adrienne Antonson (State the Label)

Photos © Sasha Duerr, used with permission

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Slow Fashion Citizen: Adrienne Antonson

Slow Fashion Citizen: Adrienne Antonson

BY KATRINA RODABAUGH // The deeper I move into this work with Slow Fashion, the more I admire designers making thoughtful choices at each turn — considering fiber sources, ethical labor, longterm wearablity, options for repair/ reuse, and also what might happen to the garment after it leaves our closets. But perhaps the most inspiring part is watching a designer make these choices on the scale of production and distribution, and seeing a designer embrace upcycling or redesign in her work. I think Adrienne Antonson’s design of the State Smock might just be the epitome of refashioning on a commercial scale: She’s taken something that’s readily available as a castoff garment with very little value as is — the ubiquitous men’s shirt — and has made it wildly useful, amazingly stylish, and ultimately a beloved garment that holds signifcant value. It’s brilliant. I own two State smocks and love them so much I sometimes have to force myself to wear anything else.

So I started this interview imagining I’d learn something about Adrienne’s genius tendencies for natural fibers and refashioning, and more about her swoon-worthy aesthetic. Instead, I learned she has this very inspiring and varied history — as a fiber artist making stunning bug sculptures out of human hair; a traveling spirit who has called North Carolina, Washington, Brooklyn and rural Georgia home; and an entrepreneur who launched her slow-fashion brand, State the Label, while inspired by the alpacas she was tending on an island in the Pacific Northwest. What’s not to love?

Through this lens of getting to know her history I could see the depth these experiences offered to her work, but I was also reminded how sometimes inspiration, life experience and imagination cannot be overlooked in aesthetics and work ethics. How we must honor these aspects of design as much as we honor materials, labor and craftsmanship. In a very digital and polished world, there is something so refreshing — maybe even shocking — about remembering that inspiration and mindset are perhaps the most important aspect of slow fashion and slow living. Without inspiration and awareness, we really can’t create momentum or sustain change. So thank you, Adrienne, for this insight into your incredibly inspiring and imaginative process.

. . .

It’s an honor to share your work and to feature State in this series. You have such a rich and inspiring history as a fine artist, urbanite, alpaca farmer and clothing designer, while holding deep ties to the Brooklyn arts community. Can you talk about the beginning of State and what inspired you to launch a clothing line?

I started State while I was living and working on an alpaca farm, on an island off the coast of Seattle. Looking back, it was like a dream. I would rake the farm’s fields during the day and look after the herd, and I would sew for hours at night. This was back in 2010, and the ideas of sustainability and local production were just starting to get a foothold in the fashion world. I was endlessly inspired by my access to raw fibers. (The barn was filled with 500+ lbs of raw alpaca fleece just sitting there!) I convinced the farmers to let me set up a felting studio in the barn, and I spent hours teaching myself how to felt. Once I got the basics, I immediately went big. I was felting rugs, wall pieces, etc. I was totally hooked. I remember telling my husband that deep-diving into felting — a totally tactile and intuitive process — felt like falling in love. It consumed me. I would work until bedtime and then wake up itching to get back to the barn. I felted through the winter, my fingers going totally numb in the water. Usually, all my creative endeavors eventually lead to fashion, making something wearable, so it wasn’t long before the felting turned into garments. I was making bonnets and elements that I would incorporate into one-of-a-kind clothing pieces. They involved a lot of hand sewing and reclaimed materials — deconstructed garments, parts of old shoe leather — and found a high-end audience in Seattle that really got it. That was truly the start of State. It’s grown and evolved a lot since then, but it all started in a barn.

You have a background in fine arts and studied art in college, but I believe you’re a self-taught designer. Do you think your background in fine arts allowed you to approach fashion, and in particular sustainable fashion, with a fresh, outside perspective? Your work feels so unique and alive.

I studied painting and sculpture at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. I did a high-school fashion program at SCAD one summer and never felt quite at home with the “fashion girls.” I don’t read fashion magazines or keep up with trends or brands, so I always felt like an outsider. Art was always where I felt truly myself, so majoring in Studio Art seemed wise. (Haha, NOT what my parents thought!) My sculptural work – mainly out of human hair – was based on garments. I made an entire collection of lingerie out of hair that set the stage for much more sculptural work post-graduation. (Random Fun Fact: My insects made from human hair are collected in Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museums all over the country!) CofC was a great school but did very little to prepare the art students for how to actually make a living after school. It was only a few weeks after graduating that I decided to start my first clothing company, Spinster. I had NO clue what I was doing but dove in head first. I read business books, talked to SBA advisors, hired help, and just went for it. And truly, I’m still that same girl just making it work every single day. I think being a fashion outsider is fitting for me because I like making up my own rules. Same goes for owning my own business. I don’t think there’s any other path for me.

On your website you say, “Sustainable, organic, and recycled fabrics, reclaimed materials, and hand painting techniques are used in all designs.” Given your early work with redesigned garments, I’m guessing this was always central. When you launched State did you have slow fashion and sustainable design as the primary focus of the work, or did that evolve as the clothing line developed?

When State launched, the mission was to use the best fabrics and processes I could find. And that’s still the case today. I think what’s changed is that seven years ago it was a big choice to work that way. Now I think it’s a standard. In the beginning we talked about being “green” and “sustainable” constantly. But, thankfully, that’s become more of what designers and customers expect so, to me at least, it’s less of a talking point now and more of a given. Currently, with that as the foundation of the brand and how we approach things, I’m able to focus more on the other elements that inspire me to move forward. In the past few years we’ve been working to create jobs in our small community (population less than 7,000!) and to move more of our production locally.

Slow Fashion Citizen: Adrienne Antonson

Let’s talk about your smocks, because they blow my mind. They are such a perfect adaptation of secondhand clothing into something more stylish, more versatile, and ultimately holding greater value. I love how you created a pattern to use a men’s button down shirt for an artist smock so it can be replicated but each smock still has the unique properties of the original shirt. It’s magic. What inspired you to create this design?

I made my first smock to wear as part of my farm uniform! I needed something that could hold my farm tools and treats for the alpacas. I wore it daily and loved it. Eventually I put a few in the early State collections and they always sold out first. So it wasn’t long before that became a staple of the line and now it’s our biggest seller. [Editor’s note: The #smocktuesday feed is a favorite.]

Making an item from reclaimed materials isn’t the easiest or most scalable thing in the world. When I first started hiring outside help, I made a formula for how it’s sewn. Since each shirt is different and has different measurements, stitching, etc, each piece is unique. But once my seamstresses knew the steps, they were sewing circles around me!

Any chance there will be other patterns like the smock that redesign readily available secondhand garments? I see you’ve taught alteration classes at TAC in NY and you offer workshops in your Georgia studio—any chance you’ll offer patterns or classes on redesigned garments?

I’d love to add more reclaimed pieces to the line one day. It’s something we always toss around. After this next issue of the Secret Catalog releases, I’ll be able to turn my attention back to scheduling classes here in the studio. It’s something I’m very passionate about and know that it can impact our community and the region in a positive way. We have big plans for new classes this next year and hope to bring in a lot of visiting instructors.

I love when designers use upcycled garments in their work but I know it can be so impossible when considering sizing, scale and replication. Could you shed some light on this difficulty and maybe why it’s not more widely used in the sustainable-fashion community? Why, perhaps, organic cotton yardage might be more practical for a slow-fashion designer than thrift store finds?

Upcycling is challenging because there are so many variables. We have our smocks sewn cottage-industry style. Meaning: seamstresses sew each one from start to finish in their own sewing studios. This allows them to take on each smock as a new piece and sew it to completion. Factories and larger manufacturing solutions don’t have the infrastructure to think about each unique piece. Working with one large roll of cotton is much easier and is how factories are set up to function. For us, the best solution is a trained team of smock-sewers who know exactly where to cut each one, what steps are necessary, and how to troubleshoot if, say, a pocket is bar tacked or the sleeves are skinny. My ladies are rock stars!

Slow Fashion Citizen: Adrienne Antonson

Your work with The Secret Catalog is exciting. It feels like a celebration or a community art event or a party. Your role seems to be curator, shop owner and publisher, all combined through this one project. Can you briefly describe the project and your inspiration to cultivate this “catalog” community?

The Secret Catalog came about when I was living and working in Brooklyn. I was meeting so many incredible designers and makers and wanted a way to collaborate on a large scale. I’ve been a lifelong lover of mail order catalogs (Delia*s anyone?!) and the idea to make an alternative catalog with the work of small brands seemed like a great way to bring everyone together. We’ve since grown the concept a great deal and are currently working on our sixth issue. It’s the perfect mix of publishing, designing, curating and styling — all areas I’ve previously worked in and love having in my life. It’s truly a labor of love. It’s a TON of work, but totally worth it each issue. It’s a wonderful thing to work with brands of all sizes. In a past issue we had Ace+Jig and Alabama Chanin next to new designers who barely have websites. I think our audience loves being exposed to new and fresh work, and I love finding it for them.

We have big plans ahead for the catalog and see it shifting into a new model after the Kids issue. (Yes, a whole issue of Kids’ stuff!!!) So stay tuned for what we have up our sleeves.

On your website you wrote, “As an artist, I’ve continually struggled between my desire to create new, boundary-pushing work, while balancing customer expectation and demand. It can be a hard tightrope to walk, and so The Secret Catalog seemed like a project that could inspire everyone involved — me, the other designers, and our customers.” Is The Secret Catalog something of a respite from making clothing? Or does one ultimately inspire the other?

I’m an artist, first and foremost. So I get bored easily. I love new challenges and ideas, and the rush of excitement that comes when you try to creatively figure things out. So the catalog is the perfect project for me. Each part of it is a total variable from issue to issue. From the very start I made it clear: There are no rules when it comes to the catalog. We can do anything we want, take risks, think outside our box, and it usually works out in our favor. It’s a wild and free creative space for everyone who works on it, and I think you can feel that when you hold one.

Each issue, I’m inspired to make a collection for the catalog that is fresh, a little crazy, and that will really excite our customers. I also love the freedom to make whatever I damn well please! This last issue I made some weird latch hooked straw hats, collaborated with Turkish towel makers to make round beach towels, and had washcloths hand-crocheted here in town. My dream is to be able to have a brand where we can make anything we desire — not just clothing. And the catalog is a place where I can live that dream a little right now.

I loved the Bomb interview where you talked about the bug sculptures made of human hair. I actually see your work with fiber art and sculpture and then fiber farming as a natural progression into sustainable fashion, but I imagine some folks see them as separate. How do you see your trajectory from sculpture to alpacas to sustainable fashion — surprising, inevitable, or just pure circumstance?

This is the struggle/story of my life! I’ve always had a bit of an identity crisis when it came to what I am — designer, sculptor, curator, farmer?! If I had the money I probably would have spent my 20s in career therapy! And to be honest, I still have these debates within myself. Just the other day, I was telling my husband I wish I could be a fine art painter full time. (I don’t even paint anymore!) I just love making and creating, and it’s hard for me to stay in one lane. Some days this is a blessing and others a curse. I’m sure there are a lot of other artists who feel the same way. To me, all my various bodies of work somehow feed into each other. I remember there was a year when I did two large collections of clothing, and made two large shows of insect sculptures. To begin, I would transform my tiny studio into a sculpture studio — jars of hair, adhesives, source images on the walls, etc. — and work for months making insects. When that show finished, I’d totally rearrange the studio. I’d shelve all my sculpture tools, give it a deep clean, and pull out my sewing machines, fabric, dress form, etc. I’d then set about making a collection of clothing. Because I was balancing two very different creative modes, I needed to totally switch my brain (and space) from one process to the other. It was the only way I could truly focus. And I found that a pair of wings I had painted for a moth sculpture inspired the painted pattern I’d do on a dress. Alternately, the tiny hand stitches on a neckline would prepare my hands for the meticulous work of sculpting beetle antennae. So, yes, to me everything fed into each other. I just always fretted that I needed to choose.

You have such an inspiring vantage point of the contemporary art and design community, and your work with The Secret Catalog highlights the work of so many truly amazing artisans and makers. But if you had to choose just 3-5 artists or designers that are currently inspiring your work, who would you choose?

Oh man, this is a hard one.

First, my mom. She’s incredible. She and my stepdad just finished making the most incredible dollhouse (a replica of their own Art Deco house!) for me. It’s featured in the next Secret Catalog and is truly one of the most incredible things I’ve seen. She’s a self-taught woodworker and is constantly pushing her boundaries. Collaborating with her is my most favorite thing in this world.

Tara St James of Study NY is a brilliant designer, and I’m lucky to call her a friend and contemporary. On top of being an incredible designer, she’s also smack in the mix of the sustainable design, technology, production and sourcing worlds in NYC. She works at the BFDA in Brooklyn and is always working on the most inspiring projects. Conversations with her leave me so energized and motivated to change the world! When I first moved to NYC and had zero clue about how actual fashion stuff worked, I would bribe her with cookies and coffee in exchange for asking her a million questions about the industry. “What is a linesheet?” “Where do you get patterns graded?” She’s an endless source of wisdom and I often joke that WWTD is a frequently uttered phrase around my studio.

Hillery Sproatt is one of my favorite designers right now. She makes a range of work (blankets, illustrations, embroidered mobiles, etc.) and everything she touches is so fresh and special. She’s been in two of our catalogs, and I have loved everything she’s made. Her style is totally unique and that’s rare to see.

. . .

Thank you, Adrienne! Such an honor to share your work in this series.

Katrina Rodabaugh is an author, artist and slow-fashion advocate. Visit her website www.katrinarodabaugh.com or follow her on Instagram at @katrinarodabaugh

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PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion Citizens: Elizabeth L. Cline

Photos © Adrienne Antonson, used with permission

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Slow Fashion Citizen: Elizabeth L. Cline

Slow Fashion Citizen: Elizabeth L. Cline

BY KATRINA RODABAUGH // There are few books I can wholeheartedly recommend the way I can recommend Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion to anyone interested in sustainable fashion. That’s right, anyone. I first came across this book by Elizabeth L. Cline when I heard her interviewed on NPR a few years ago. I promptly bought the book and read it cover to cover. I actually think it should be required reading for anyone interested in the slow fashion movement. Can we have required reading for sustainable movements?

Overdressed follows Cline’s journey as she comes to the realization that her own closet is spilling with cheap clothing and she needs a major wardrobe overhaul. But then the book follows her journalistic research into the history of the fashion industry in America, and why and when it moved overseas; the shift in American ideals around value and scoring a bargain; the shift in consumer habits to shop all the time, all year round; the life of secondhand clothing once it leaves our closets; and her own solutions to reclaim her closet and better align with the ethics and ecological values of sustainable fashion. But mostly, this book changed my life.

I’ve now read dozens of books on sustainable fashion and I certainly have a handful of favorites, but Cline’s remains at the top of my list as essential slow-fashion reading. It’s so important that we understand the history, politics, economics and psychology that led to fast fashion, and that we better understand the potential of our impact as slow-fashion supporters. So, I imagine it comes with very little surprise that I’m absolutely thrilled to share this interview with Elizabeth Cline. Welcome, Elizabeth!

. . .

It’s not every day that I get to say that someone’s book changed my life, but I can confidently say that Overdressed changed my life through my relationship to fashion. I stumbled upon it in spring 2013 just after the Rana Plaza factory garment collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and your book offered exactly the information I was craving. How did we get here in fashion? How did we get to this place where nearly 1,200 people died in a structural failure and simultaneously t-shirts sell for only $5? Your book so eloquently addresses these questions and so much more. Can you talk about the initial questions and concerns that lead you to research and write Overdressed?

That’s so wonderful to hear! When I wrote Overdressed I had no idea the kind of impact the book would have. People are continuing to discover it, which makes me very happy. It also changed my life beyond imagination too, so it feels good to know that there are many people on this journey together and with me.

My own extreme shopping behaviors led me to write the book. When cheap, fast fashion came along in the early 2000s, I went from being a mostly secondhand shopper to buying only cheap fashion and buying exponentially more clothing than ever before. I was binging on cheap fashion, without even thinking about it, as was everyone around me. As a journalist, it got me curious what had changed in the fashion industry and what the hidden costs were behind all this cheap clothing.

Your book is comprehensive in its exploration of the development of fast fashion. You write about the history of the American fashion industry and the shift to manufacturing overseas but you also write about the American psychological shift in overconsumption—how we crave a bargain and simultaneously undervalue fashion to the point of its being disposable. I think this straddling of the international and the personal is really what we’re trying to tackle in slow fashion. Can you talk about this balance? About how your closet became a symbol for tackling a global industry while you personally refocused your fashion habits?

One thing I really enjoyed about writing Overdressed is digging into the history of retail, shopping and consumerism in America. It’s so fascinating to me. Many people, prior to reading the book, think it’s an investigation into the environmental and human rights catastrophes of fashion. But it’s also a story about consumerism, globalization and shifting American values.

One of the legacies of writing Overdressed is trying to bring people back to a place of connection with clothes. It’s not easy nowadays, since clothing is made overseas and engineered by massive conglomerates that have supply chains so huge that no one really knows where or how anything is being made. It’s hard to be a responsible consumer citizen now, as tracing the origins of what we wear is murky at best. Because consumers aren’t as interested in value for their money and quality, because everything is cheap, I think a lot of consumers have lost their vigilance as well.

I think that one way to get people to care is through slow fashion, because caring about clothes feels good. And owning and wearing good clothes feels even better. Asking questions, getting engaged in clothing and seeking out well-made clothes can be a source of joy in our everyday lives. That’s one thing I couldn’t have fathomed at the beginning of this journey, is that there is this whole world of better clothing outside of cheap, fast fashion. Slowing down and buying for quality and caring for your clothing is better for the planet, but it can also make you better dressed, help you save money, and make life more enjoyable.

Your work is often compared to that of Michael Pollan — claiming that your work does for fashion what Pollan did for food. Do you agree with this comparison between Slow Food and Slow Fashion? Do you think fashion is on a similar pathway?

Michael Pollan is such a great writer. I always appreciate the comparison. What food and fashion have in common is that they’re both essential human needs and completely vital to culture and society. These are both crucial sectors to hold responsible to our values. That said, there are some important differences between these two industries. First of all, our food supply was never globalized to the same extent as the fashion industry. Much of it remained in the United States. Creating a more local or traceable food system is simply easier because of that. Secondly, most crops and meat production have been highly mechanized, so labor costs don’t impact the final costs of food as much as fashion. In other words, because food is less labor-intensive, you can make local food and traceable food without driving up the cost of food. With clothes, everything we wear requires labor from many people. On a typical store-bought t-shirt, as many as 14 different garment workers sewed each seam on that item. So it makes a huge difference if you make that shirt in the Dominican Republic versus the United States. This means that our movement has different challenges.

In Overdressed you write, “Ethical fashion of years past was associated with such style-blind, drab clothes as hemp shoes or plain organic cotton t-shirts that put the politics before good design. Not surprisingly, it had only a niche following. Organic and local food is popular because it adds to the experience of eating. Today’s slow and local fashion movement is finally promising the same enhanced experience for pursuers of style.” Can you talk more about the enhanced experience for consumers of slow fashion?

Sure! This question is much easier for me to answer nowadays. When I finished writing Overdressed, I was so new to the experience of shopping slow that I was almost guessing at how it was better. But let’s first think about the experience of fast fashion. Fast fashion offers very little in terms of a lasting emotional reward. It’s fun in the moment to buy something cheap, but there are major downsides in that it fills your home with clutter, is a waste of money and can land you further away from a working wardrobe that reflects your personal style. Shopping at fast-fashion chains reminds of that feeling you get when you’re in a technology loophole and you can’t stop checking Facebook and Instagram. It’s this compulsive, low-level habit of wanting things because they’re cheap.

Slow fashion as a practice is much more about the big picture and discipline and creativity. You have to start with the premise that clothes matter, and that your self-expression through clothing is legitimate and important. And that the lives of the people making your clothes are important. And that the environment is important. Slowing down helps you find treasured wardrobe pieces that you want to wear for a long time. It’s just a totally different philosophy that is about engagement and it just feels better as a result.

I absolutely love how your book addresses the trajectory of thrift-store garments — what happens to our garments once we donate them, and how there’s a glut of low-quality garments clogging up the charity thrift shops and recycled textile market. In Overdressed you summarize this journey ,“Chapter 5: The Afterlife of Cheap Clothes,” and this section was a revelation for me. I realized I couldn’t just donate my castoffs anymore with a clear environmental conscious. Could you summarize the life of clothes after our closets?

The story of secondhand clothes continues to blow my mind. I now work in the secondhand industry as a sorter and a seller on eBay. I’m also filming a documentary on textile waste and traveled to Kenya, which is just one of the dozens of countries that buy up tens of millions of items of our unwanted clothes every year.

Back to your question of what happens to donated clothes. Thrift stores and charities are only able to sell about 10%-15% of what we donate. The rest is sold to other countries like Kenya or, if it’s not in wearable condition, to textile recyclers. Why don’t thrift stores sell it all themselves? There’s simply too much of it. Just to give you a sense of the scale, Americans are donating or recycling the equivalent of 20,000 t-shirts a MINUTE in the United States. The volume we donate in a year could fill more than 250,000 Olympic size pools.

Donating is a perfectly acceptable way to part with unwanted clothes. Clothing should never go into the landfill. But as you can see, we also need to reduce our consumption of new clothes and get far more life out of what we wear. The cycle of consumption and waste is moving way too fast.

I follow you on social media and I notice that you are willing to mend, alter or otherwise repair your garments to keep them in good working condition. You’ve even mentioned mending garments before donating them to thrift shops to increase their odds for resale. Can you talk about this shift in tending to the garments we already own instead of buying new?

Mending is so much fun, and contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to be an expert sewer to do most common repairs. Working in the secondhand industry, I see a lot of “broken” clothing that gets thrown away because it needs a very simple repair. For example, I see a lot of small holes in sweaters, ripped linings in jackets and missing buttons. These are all things that can be fixed with a needle and thread, and by just giving it a go. Most repairs don’t require some high level of expertise. All clothing will get some sort of wear or damage in time, so mending skills are essential, in my opinion. And yeah I would say once you slow down and decide to spend more time with the clothes you already own, mending and cleaning come into the equation pretty quickly.

In Overdressed you write, “I checked the label on my eggs, but not on my T-shirts.” Why do you think this is so common amongst so-called environmentally minded folks? It seems like organic food and LEED platinum buildings are becoming more and more mainstream but somehow fashion has been left out. Why do you think this happened?

I answered some of this in the question about Michael Pollan. It’s just easier to create a local and transparent food industry than it is for fashion, but people are also motivated by their own health to choose local, organic, responsibly sourced products. And with LEED platinum buildings, there is an incentive to owners and renters to do the right thing because the buildings actually save money on energy costs. You’re probably noticing a pattern here: These movements offer something to the consumer in return for doing the “right thing.”

With responsibly sourced fashion, we are at this crossroads where it often costs the customer to buy into it. Brands are starting to offer products that are superior to fast fashion in terms of design and quality, which is helping to close this gap.

What do you think is the first step towards creating a Slow Fashion wardrobe? If someone was just going to make one singular shift what would you recommend?

Here’s the easiest slow-fashion rule: When shopping, stop and ask yourself if you really want or need that item, and if the answer is “no,” skip it. Skipping those impulse purchases has many benefits. It saves money, cuts down on clutter, and helps you zero in on your style and what you’re really looking for. The vast majority of fashion purchases are bought on impulse, and according to consumer studies those impulse buys are very likely to end in regret. Cutting out those regrets does wonders for the environment, as we’re consuming less and creating less waste. It’s actually a very powerful consumer act to just refuse something.

I love the Vivienne Westwood concept to “Buy Less, choose well, make it last,” but I know that some individuals or families simply cannot afford to buy garments at a higher price point regardless of their desire to support slow fashion. I think of this particularly with small children who outgrow their clothing quickly. I think your book and your ongoing work does a really great job of offering several solutions and alternatives to fast fashion. Can you speak to the opportunity to engage with ethical fashion at various price points? What can folks do to support slow fashion if they’re on a tight budget and/or clothing young, fast-growing kids?

To anyone out there who needs clothes, I would say buy them! And buy them at a price point you can afford! The fashion industry is not going to be saved by conscious consumerism alone. We need better regulations, better laws, better trade deals, better options, and to actively pressure the brands that make our clothes. It’s just as important for us to engage as citizens with fashion’s problems, as it is to purchase “ethical clothing.” All that said, secondhand (AKA the sharing economy) is the perfect on-ramp for ethical fashion enthusiasts on a budget. As I’ve mentioned, there are billions of items of clothing in circulation at any moment in the United States. Getting these items into the hands of the person who might want them is a technology hurdle that we’re finally able to meet. There is a growing number of websites like thredUP, Swap Society, and Swap.com where parents or anyone else can find fashionable and nearly-new, pre-owned clothes for dirt cheap. I am blown away by the amount of children’s clothes that I see given away in like-new condition. This tells me that we need even more tools that make it easier to share and swap kids clothing.

There’s so much great writing and organizing happening around ethical and ecological fashion. Can you list 3-5 of your personal favorite authors or organizations furthering this work?

Yes! Project Just is one of my favorites. They vet major brands and rank them on their environmental and labor efforts. I also love Fashion Revolution, which has just launched a MOOC or online education course to help consumers research brands. I learned a lot about how to trace the supply chain of the fabric in clothes, for example. Fashion Revolution also does an annual ranking of brands called the Fashion Transparency Index which is very handy, as is Rankabrand. Lastly, I love Livia Firth’s Green Carpet Challenge, which puts A-list celebrities in sustainable gowns at high-profile award shows and brings the much needed celebrity exposure to our movement.

. . .

Thank you so much, Elizabeth!

Katrina Rodabaugh is an author, artist and slow-fashion advocate. Visit her website www.katrinarodabaugh.com or follow her on Instagram at @katrinarodabaugh

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PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion Citizens: Sonya Philip

Photos © Elizabeth L. Cline, used with permission

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Slow Fashion Citizen: Sonya Philip

EDITOR’S NOTE: When Katrina and I were first discussing this column and comparing notes, one of the people we both had on our shortlist was Sonya Philip, who was a big influence on me when I began knitting and sewing again a few years ago. Not surprisingly, Sonya was apparently also on the radar of my friends over at Mason-Dixon Knitting, where she was recently announced as their newest columnist. Go, Sonya!
—Karen

Slow Fashion Citizen: Sonya Philip

BY KATRINA RODABAUGH // It’s a pleasure to introduce friend, artist, maker and homemade-wardrobe icon Sonya Philip of 100 Acts of Sewing. I’ve known Sonya for several years, and her work and personhood are true examples of the intertwining of one’s passions with their values, lifestyle and work. Sonya’s homemade wardrobe is inspiration for so many of us who sew, stitch, knit, crochet or otherwise make clothing, but this inspiration was also always present in our San Francisco Bay Area outings and adventures. Whether we were meeting for lunch, walking our kids and dogs around the neighborhood, gathering with other artists for meals or backyard dye parties, I always felt inspired by Sonya’s aesthetic but also by her outlook, opinion, influences and the way she generally shows up with open arms to make this world a more beautiful and encouraging space.

There’s a depth to her work as an artist and maker that stems from her very center as a human — her work, her home, her writing, her inspirations and her very being all seem to align towards an intentional and thoughtful compass that guides her forward. The 100 Acts of Sewing project retains its authenticity and influence as the outcomes shift from Sonya’s personal wardrobe to her classes, patterns and public offerings. On a practical note, Sonya’s dress patterns are some of my personal favorites. They are simultaneously stylish and simple, and yet they allow for an assortment of design choices that shift the entire garment — bright pockets on the Dress No.1 and a contrasting binding make for a very different dress than sticking to just one fabric for bodice, pockets and neckline. These choices, of course, are left to the individual maker.

It’s a great honor to share Sonya’s story and her wisdom in this series: Her steadfast commitment to honoring our bodies, our wardrobes and our journey as creatives is a testament to what slow fashion can achieve inside and outside of our wardrobes. Sonya’s version is grounded, inspired, authentic, and her wholehearted vision feels like a balm to the messages we typically receive from the fashion world. In Sonya’s version there is not just a beautiful homemade dress and a coordinating shawl but there’s a healthier, happier and more confident human underneath.

. . .

Hello, my friend. Taking your 100 Acts of Sewing workshop was such a pivotal moment early in my slow-fashion journey. Even though I’d made garments in high school and college, your gentle approach to sewing and discerning patterns was such welcomed encouragement. I get the feeling I’m not your only student who feels this way. Can you give us a brief overview of the 100 Acts of Sewing project? When did it start and how did it shift from a yearlong project to an ongoing endeavor including teaching and design?

I learned to use a sewing machine in middle school and it seemed as if each sewing project from that point on resulted in an unwearable botch job of cloth and tangled thread. My love for textiles found an outlet when I learned how to knit in my early twenties. Then in 2007, I joined a Flickr group called wardrobe_remix. It was started up by Tricia Royal as a place for people from around the world to share what they were wearing, from handmade, ready-to-wear, to upcycled or thrifted pieces. Taking photos of myself and sharing them made me think about what I was wearing and what I liked to wear in a way I really hadn’t up until that point.

Even though I failed at many attempts to sew garments, I had some success at refashioning some long linen thrift store dresses. Finally, at the urging of Kristine Vejar, I took a pattern-drafting class with Cal Patch at A Verb for Keeping Warm. A week later, I had drafted a pattern and made three dresses. That was late January 2012. After it became clear sewing dresses was all I wanted to do, I decided to turn it into a project — making dresses for myself and others, and documenting the process by posting photos online.

What I wanted, because I was making dresses for all different women of all different sizes, was a basic template. For me, the pleasure wasn’t so much in the construction but in combining the patterns and colors. I approached each dress like a fabric collage. I started teaching classes and, because of the response from people seeing my dresses, released my first pattern in the spring of 2013.

I love your approach to garments. I love your sewing patterns and simple lines but also your personal aesthetic, use of fabrics, and that your garments can really be layered to create an entire wardrobe. On your website you say, “The pattern consists of just four seams and a hem. The simplicity of the design makes it accessible, meaning people leave [workshops] with an identifiable end-product and an important sense of accomplishment.” Do you draft all your patterns with this guiding principle of four seams and a hem? Do you consciously take this firm minimalist approach when designing so the patterns remain accessible?

What I strive to do in all of my patterns is really distill a garment to its most basic form. I do this very purposefully, making a pattern appropriate for a complete beginner, but then someone with a little more experience can modify it to make it their own. Before I started 100 Acts of Sewing, I would periodically wrestle with my sewing machine, fabric and a commercial pattern. Those patterns always seemed to have about two dozen different pieces and one would invariably get lost or put in upside down.

I bring all those memories of frustration to the way I design patterns. I make a garment over and over again until I’ve made all the mistakes and I’m confident I can clearly walk a person through the construction. While seams and darts are wonderful for shaping, they also add a level of complexity that a lot of people aren’t ready for, especially when they are just getting used to operating a sewing machine.

Slow Fashion Citizen: Sonya Philip

You and I have talked quite a bit about perfectionism — about how it works as a roadblock in so many creative pursuits. And yet, we’ve both shared our appreciation and admiration for incredible craftsmanship. But I think there’s something to overcoming fear of making a mistake that you address beautifully in your workshops and your work. Can you talk about perfectionism?

I think there’s an ingrained rigidity which appears to take over once we leave school. It’s as if children spend all these years being receptive to learning and then the tolerance to being a beginner declines sharply. Much of sewing is about rote learning, getting better at doing something incrementally by doing the same thing over and over again.

Our collective patience grows more and more thin as each new app and device makes waiting for things obsolete. It’s as if the involvement of a machine increases this expectation for instant results. While the mechanization does produce faster results, it is still a tool. We tend to see mistakes as personal failings, rather than necessary steps on the path towards proficiency. I tell my students to laugh at their mistakes.

What started out as a personal project to teach yourself to sew has become something of a political statement against fast fashion and against the underlying messaging in mainstream fashion or overconsumption. Your project encourages us to make our clothes, love our bodies, and define our own personal style. You write, “When we know how to sew with our own hands, we can make and remake and make well. We become more discerning of our goods and create the possibility of rejecting mass produced items.” Did you intend the project to have this political message when you first began?

100 Acts of Sewing started out with just so much joy, I was doing something I had convinced myself I could not do, and then to find out otherwise was thrilling and I couldn’t stop. So in the beginning it was really just a giddy rush of creativity, and that started to fold into my worldview — one of supporting indie makers and small businesses. But in actuality, it was pretty easy for me to step off the fast-fashion train, because it really wasn’t something that I was on in the first place. Having a larger body size most of the clothes in stores didn’t fit me, so most of my shopping was already done in thrift stores. I was coming from a place where my needs were already under-served.

You write so beautifully, “Alternately encouraged by and excoriated by the media, women in the US forge a deep discontentment with their bodies that leads many on a constant search for clothes that alter appearance.” Can you talk about this media effect? And how your work is something of an antidote or balm?

This is something that I have been thinking about a lot lately. It’s not just the media — I feel that the media just amplifies a lot of the messages. Women are judged by how they look and what is considered beautiful at this given moment. Oftentimes the value is based upon someone else’s judgment. It takes individual thought and desire out of the picture and discounts them. Consequently the quest for external validation is incredibly insidious. It makes getting dressed a very fraught experience, filled with the anxiety of not being enough, whether thin enough, young enough or any number of harmful self-judgments.

Dressing for your true self is in effect creating agency with the pleasure derived from how the clothes make a person feel, be it by the cut of the garment, the color or material. All of these choices are in the hands of the maker rather than handed over wholesale to another, unknown person.

Slow Fashion Citizen: Sonya Philip

We tend to put such an emphasis on formal education but sometimes we forget that informal education is just as important if not more influential. Although you’re self-taught as an artist and designer I believe your father was an architect and your mother was an interior designer. Do you think this access to arts and design at home influenced your thinking as a child and even as an adult? Meaning, do you think this informal training acted as a form of early arts education for your current design work?

I travelled a lot with my family, and every trip would involve stops into museums, churches or castles. I think it absolutely taught me to look and notice things. I find myself always pointing things out to my kids and in turn they show me things. That act of noticing and describing is really important to me, that way we interact and process the physical world around us. Observing what we find pleasing is a way of developing our own tastes.

You and I also have this other random connection that we went to the same MFA Creative Writing program at Mills College, although we graduated in different years. Do you think this parallel study of writing and poetry somehow influenced your work in fashion and craft? I sometimes think that training in any creative medium allows for a certain exploration, deepening of engagement, attainment to details, and ultimately creating a toolset of inquiry, critical thinking, observation and experimentation that can be adapted to other art forms. While you didn’t formally study design you formally studied poetry — do you think there’s a link between the two?

What I learned with poetry was the importance of developing a practice, as well as using a series as a means to construct a larger body of work. My poems, like my artwork, are very small, and grouping them together to create a larger and more sustained piece was a big Eureka moment. From my education as a whole, I loved being an undergraduate — each new course catalog was a packed full of possibility. I am thankful that I was able to take so many classes in many different subjects and really feel there was opportunity for a cross-pollination of ideas among them.

Your work sits at this intersection between fine art, traditional craft, fashion, social practice and contemporary design, but it also sits in the larger community of Slow Fashion. Can you name 3-5 leaders in the movement that you find the most inspiring right now?

For me, Cal Patch is the godmother of 100 Acts of Sewing — without her gentle guidance I would still be convinced I couldn’t sew. Another person I gain lots of inspiration from is Tom van Deijnen and his Visible Mending Programme. His care and attention to detail just blows me away. Lastly, if you haven’t looked through the photos of Kate Fletcher’s Craft of Use project, you need to set aside a few hours to look through this incredible site.

Slow Fashion Citizen: Sonya Philip

Looking outside of Slow Fashion at your earlier and ongoing work in fine arts, fiber arts and poetry, can you name 3-5 artists, authors or poets who continuously inspire your work in Slow Fashion?

I am enjoying both the fiction and nonfiction work of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — she writes so eloquently about feminism as well as the experiences of immigrants. Another person is the artist David Ireland, after visiting his house at 500 Capp Street, I was in complete awe of his work, this embodiment of social practice. Lastly Ruth Asawa is inspiring to me as a hometown artist, but also as someone who worked to create an arts program in local public schools when the budgets were cut. I greatly admire balancing those roles of artist, activist and mother.

And lastly, three creative tools you could not live without?

I could not live without a notebook and a pen — I am always writing lists or jotting down thoughts. Also I would be pretty lost without a sewing machine!

Katrina Rodabaugh is an author, artist and slow-fashion advocate. Visit her website www.katrinarodabaugh.com or follow her on Instagram at @katrinarodabaugh

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PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion Citizens: Liz Pape of Elizabeth Suzann

Photos © Sonya Philip, used with permission

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Slow Fashion Citizen: Liz Pape of Elizabeth Suzann

Slow Fashion Citizen: Liz Pape of Elizabeth Suzann

BY KATRINA RODABAUGH // There is so much to love about the clothing label Elizabeth Suzann it’s dizzying to know where to begin. The obvious entry point might be the beautiful lines and subtle geometric shapes of her garments that push these classic designs into cutting-edge contemporary minimalism but somehow beckon to the studio artist and the professional urbanite simultaneously. (Just look at that oversized diagonal pocket on the beloved Harper Tunic for solid proof.) Or maybe it’s the beautiful natural fibers, ranging from linen to silk to wool in the most delicious neutral colors, and how they effortlessly combine with other garments in her collections to make the dream wardrobe for linen-loving minimalists everywhere.

But if the designs and fibers didn’t immediately win you over, just scratch the surface of designer and owner Liz Pape’s ethical fashion philosophy — why she offers a living wage to all of her employees; how she’s kept her operations under one Nashville TN roof; that she sources beautiful biodegradable fibers, refuses to follow the traditional seasonal collections of the fashion world and instead makes three collections for all months and seasons (Signature, Warm Weather, Cold Weather). Then start reading her blog. Just start with any post. Just dive in with any question about why she creates clothing the way she does — and, yes, why she needs to charge the prices she charges — and I promise even the toughest critics among you will feel a quiver of light and hope in your Slow Fashion-leaning heart.

If you still aren’t convinced, take four more minutes to watch the video for the Diversity Campaign because it’s the best thing I’ve seen in fashion videos, maybe ever. What designers go this far to connect with their customers and to let their brand be defined by the actual community of humans supporting this important work? So much love. So much celebration. So much connection, all through clothes that are made with intention and worn with pride. Swoon.

I’ve loved Elizabeth Suzann for a few years but sharing her story in this series made me an official Fan Girl. If I could give Liz Pape the Gold Star of Contemporary Ethical Designers, I’d hand it over in two seconds flat. I can’t think of another fashion label that I’d rather support in all their efforts to create a more ethical and ecological fashion future. Liz Pape is the real deal and she’s raising the standards for designers and consumers alike.

. . .

Welcome, Liz. I admire your designs and your work ethos so much, and it’s truly an honor to be able to share your story. To get started can you just tell us about the beginnings of Elizabeth Suzann? When did you launch? What was your impetus for creating an ethical clothing brand?

I launched Elizabeth Suzann in late 2013. It was a very organic thing – I didn’t have this big concept or pitch or business plan. My husband and I moved to Nashville right after I finished undergrad so he could attend law school, and I was in a kind of limbo for a year. I was planning on pursuing grad school (studying art history), so I was taking some time to look at schools and make a game plan. I had sewn in college and made money on the side that way. I reevaluated what I was making, really simplified things aesthetically and thought hard about what I wanted to make, worked on my pattern drafting skills, and experimented with different textile techniques. I took a very small selection of pieces to a local craft fair – Porter Flea – and everything did really well there. After that weekend I realized there was some actual potential here, and I started taking things seriously.

I got a business license, did all of that jazz, and started selling online in addition to traveling to craft shows in cities like Brooklyn, Chicago and Austin. Customers I met at craft fairs would come back and order from my Etsy shop, and shortly after I had enough online business that I stopped doing the shows. I moved off Etsy to a standalone site, and we just kept rolling from there. I think it was a few months between that first craft show and moving into my first studio, in the back of a gym downtown. I was doing everything myself (design, drafting, sourcing, cutting/sewing, packing/shipping, support, web design, photography — all of it) in the beginning, but I brought on an intern, then hired a part-time seamstress, and another — it just kind of happened one step at a time.

In regards to starting an ethical clothing brand, I don’t really look at it that way. I started Elizabeth Suzann because I was making things I loved; things that I thought had value. The way that I made those things was just the way that made sense to me. There wasn’t a decision point where I chose to “launch an ethical brand.” I try to do the right thing whenever I have the opportunity to make a decision, and the result of many decisions like that is a responsible business. In the beginning I did think really hard about the choice to add physical products to the world. I knew that to feel comfortable bringing consumable things into existence, they would need to be damn good, and they would need to be made in a way that I feel good about. I have no interest in being one of many, in producing products you can buy elsewhere. I have no interest in being ordinary or adding detritus to an already detritus-filled world.

Your designs are timeless and classic, and yet they have this compelling contemporary edge. Your website says, “We seek classic silhouettes that are still modern, with style that transcends time and place.” Was this minimalist approach at the center of your brand from the beginning? Meaning, did you set out to create clothing that was somehow both classic and contemporary?

I think the seeds of it were there in the beginning. When I first started selling clothing in college, it was ridiculous. It was all incredibly kitsch, bright, printed – lots of vintage inspired things, lots of lace and trim and excess. It was popular with the college crowd, and it was what I was wearing at the time. But I never felt like myself in garments like that – I always felt like I was wearing a costume. That’s still how I feel about a lot of color, or anything too “of a style.” So when we moved to Nashville and I started working on that first little collection for Porter Flea, I tried really hard to get to the root of why I never felt comfortable in my clothes. I found that the images that really resonated with me as a person and the things I felt most comfortable in were the simplest ones. Denim, white cotton, blacks and creams. Basic button downs, well-fitting pants.

This kind of light bulb went off, and I realized that I was trying so hard to express myself with all of this color and noise and complicated shape, but in reality I was drowning my identity. I began to appreciate the challenge of communicating more with less. I think the first year of ES I was still figuring this out and navigating my relationship with color and shape. (I am naturally drawn to exciting, loud things and still love this in others’ work – I just knew it wouldn’t be my highest point of contribution.) I think I really hit my stride aesthetically at about year two, in 2015. The sustainability of simplicity is huge to me as well – you will get exponentially more wear out of a garment that feels timeless and can pair with anything than you’ll get out of that beautiful but highly particular printed blouse.

I admit, I first fell in love with your silhouettes, but I was really sold on your use of natural materials. Since beginning my Slow Fashion project in 2013, I’ve become very interested in the fibers used to make my clothing. Your designs use the most beautiful natural fibers like linens, silks and wools. How do you go about choosing your fibers and fabrics? Which one is your personal favorite?

Natural fibers are so divine. Sometimes it’s hard to describe to someone who isn’t familiar with textiles why natural fibers are so wonderful, but it’s one of those things you can’t ever go back on once you’ve fallen in love with them. As a teenager and early twentysomething, I couldn’t tell the difference between polyester and silk. But I did know that all of those poly-chiffon tops I wore made me incredibly sweaty, and they looked great on the hanger but always fell flat when I put them on. I somehow ended up with a silk blouse in my closet from a thrift store, and it just felt so different. It felt alive; it felt luminous. It was comfortable and soft, and complemented my skin. Now I can’t unsee the difference — I can spot polyester, nylon and viscose from a mile away. Silk and linen have been my favorite fabrics from the beginning. Silk for it’s luxurious and unbridled beauty (the subtle sheen, unbelievable movement) and linen for it’s durability, rustic but elegant aesthetic, and complete comfort. I added in cottons and wools where we needed them for pants, coats, etc., but linen and silk will always be our core. I really love fabric and enjoy getting to the bottom of the source to make sure we’re using the best product possible. Last year we developed a new wool supply chain with an incredible ranch in Oregon, and I’d like to go that far down the supply chain with each fiber, one by one. When designing products now, I always start with fabric first. I review swatches, order sample yardage and test wash a few yards. Then I can start looking at silhouettes and get a feel for where the fabric will serve best.

Slow Fashion Citizen: Liz Pape of Elizabeth Suzann

So your designs are incredible, your fibers are beautiful, but your work ethos really melted my heart. When I read the post about your transparent budget — when you shared your costs on the Artist Smock and showed blog readers your actual profit — I was hooked. I so appreciated this cost breakdown and your thoughtful approach. Were you nervous to show these figures? Did you think it might dissuade costumers in some way? Sharing finances can seem so private.

Thank you! That was definitely a scary piece to write. As I’m sure so many of you are familiar with, the price of high quality, ethically produced clothing made with good materials is a sensitive subject. Some shoppers feel that prices are astronomically high, some think they are fair, others are willing to pay it but think that companies like ours must be rolling in cash. I felt a need to kind of clear the air and get our story out in the open. I am really proud of our business, the unique way we manufacture things, the opportunities we’re able to provide for our staff, and the products we make. I don’t ever want there to be any confusion or doubt surrounding the way we run our business. I was really nervous to share real numbers, primarily because private companies almost never publish that kind of information. I was bracing myself for a lot of negative feedback, but it never came. It was our most popular piece of content ever, and customers really appreciated the concrete, no-frills information. I think brands can get so caught up dancing around the truth, trying to present things in a way that customers will understand. That is exhausting, and customers are smart. Telling the truth in a non-watered down, non-salesy way resonates really well with our audience.

I imagine there are plenty of hurdles in running a sustainable fashion brand but could you tell us about one of your biggest challenges to date? I imagine sometimes just finding time to sleep might be the week’s biggest hurdle, no?

Ha — I think you are right on. We’ve certainly had our fair share of unexpected challenges, and every day is an exercise in fire-fighting and rapid problem solving. But I think the longest, hardest hurdle I’ve encountered is figuring out how to not always be working. The growth and never-ending pace is exhilarating, but also a recipe for burnout. Our team is incredible though, and this year we’ve seen staff really step up, which has brought a bit more balance to my life.

Slow Fashion Citizen: Liz Pape of Elizabeth Suzann

And then, what’s been the biggest reward in running a Slow Fashion company? Because I think your work is SO important, but I wonder what you think is the most satisfying aspect.

I think the biggest reward has been seeing and hearing our customers and staff articulate our vision in their own words. That feeling that others are really understanding and believing in what you’re doing — and also feel invested in it on their own — is incredibly fulfilling. It’s like our mission has a life of its own, and it resonates a bit differently with everyone, which is magical.

In my opinion, your work is some of the most exciting work in fashion design right now. But I’d love to know what you think: Who do you think are the most exciting Slow Fashion designers creating work today? Could you name a few of the folks you think are truly at the forefront?

Han Starnes is a local favorite. She has such impressive aesthetic discipline — she never puts out any work that doesn’t perfectly align with her vision and perspective. I admire that so much, and wish I had a bit more restraint. She uses absolutely divine fibers, and manufactures things in a very careful and intentional way.

Alabama Chanin is one of the icons here — they have taken slow fashion to the next level. Their hand-stitched pieces are literal works of art, made by a team of artisans in Florence, Alabama. All organic cottons, all beautiful silhouettes from the mind of Natalie Chanin. She’s also created such a strong community around the brand — I love the whole ecosystem there.

Your Diversity Campaign made me love your work even more. I watched the video of the selected customer-models visiting for the photo shoot and I was actually teary by the end. There was so much joy and connection in that room! Did you expect it to be so moving?

We absolutely did not expect it to be so moving. I was incredibly excited about the project, and of course had high hopes for it, but man I was totally unprepared for the emotion and strength in that room. Meeting the women who embody the spirit of the brand, hearing how our clothing has impacted their lives, watching them be both vulnerable and strong in front of each other and the camera — it was incredible. It felt like summer camp, and we all left with a group of friends for life. It was so powerful and meaningful both for our customers to get this immersive, personal experience with the brand, and for our team to get this immersive, personal experience with the women we serve. Epic.

Okay, top three creative tools you couldn’t live without?

1 – My iPhone. I know that’s probably awful! But seriously, I take notes all day long (I send myself emails with thoughts all day long — by the end of the day my inbox is a mess), screenshot images that inspire me, and use it to stay connected with our customers. Our business would be very different without this device!

2 – A good, fresh pen.

3 – A blank bulletin board. I just can’t get that into Pinterest, I need to see things physically, on a large scale. Old school mood boards all the way.

Lastly, advice you’d offer to emerging fashion designers interested in sustainable and ethical fashion? Any tips or encouraging words you might lend to someone who is just starting out?

Don’t be afraid to take risks, but more importantly don’t be afraid to work your ass off. This isn’t the exciting, magic trick advice most people hope for, but I truly believe that what separates most successful businesses from those that never get off the ground is sheer effort. The product must be great, the process must be great, but those two things alone won’t cut it. You have to be willing to put everything into it. The encouraging flip-side is that, if you’re willing to put in the effort, I’m pretty confident you can do just about anything. Focus on filling a need, find an original way to contribute to the conversation, find your unique perspective — that is where you’ll add value. Don’t try to cash in on an idea that’s already saturating the market — you’ll just be playing perpetual catch-up. Trust your instincts, do the right thing, and you’ll be fine.

. . .

Thank you so much for joining us, Liz. It really is an honor to share your story in this series. Your commitment to Slow Fashion — or more simply to people and the planet — is so exciting and inspiring. I can’t wait to see what you do next. I’ll be cheering from the sidelines.

See also: How much can we know about where our clothes come from?

Katrina Rodabaugh is an author, artist and slow-fashion advocate. Visit her website www.katrinarodabaugh.com or follow her on Instagram at @katrinarodabaugh

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Photos © Elizabeth Suzann, used with permission