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.

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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.

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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!

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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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Origin Stories: Cestari Yarns

Origin Stories: Cestari Yarns

BY HANNAH THIESSEN // Knitting can happen to anyone, at any time — with needles, yarn and lessons or tutorials readily available online, in local yarn stores, or even stashed away forgotten in a closet. Animal husbandry, agricultural science and managing a working farm, on the other hand, are huge undertakings, yet it seems like new shepherds and wool farmers are emerging every year, taking hobby flocks’ wool to the market under their own label, or selling to other small businesses. This small-to-small model is what makes a large farm like Cestari (est. 1946) — run by Francis Chester, whose extended family had been farmers in Italy — all the more exceptional. Cestari has become one of the largest and strongest wool producers in the US, and it’s pretty unbelievable to think that it all started in Brooklyn with a boy whose dream was to own livestock. He began with a small farm stand, selling goat-milk products and home-grown vegetables at ten years old. He used the money to put himself through law school — not a passion project, but a backup plan that would prove fruitful later in life. He has since put the law degree to use helping small farms retain their holdings in the face of big businesses seeking to take advantage of tough times.

Chester and his wife relocated to Virginia in 1968, where they fulfilled his life-long dream of owning a larger farm. Augusta County, just outside Lynchburg, is idyllic countryside, complete with the type of rocky soil that sheep tend to love. Chester has also made room on his farm for a less mobile fiber: cotton. Cotton comes with a wide variety of challenges and concerns. Soil depletion is a major impact of the industry as cotton pulls nitrates out of soil at an alarming rate, and has to be rotated to avoid stripping farmland entirely. (You can read more about cotton production and challenges in this wonderful article from Seamwork.)

Luckily, Virginia soil is ideal for a nutrient-rich, underground product that has proven to be the perfect pairing for cotton: peanuts. Cestari Farms work to crop rotate every acre of land dedicated to their cotton product with peanuts in order to keep the soil in good condition and avoid the pitfalls often associated with its production. The resulting lightweight, soft cottons in their 100% Cotton Old Dominion Collection are grown, processed, spun and dyed in their own mill facilities, which means the family is comfortable and familiar with the process and can answer questions and concerns from their customer base with confidence.

Perhaps better known than their cottons are Cestari’s wools. Having started with his own small flock of Targhee and Columbia sheep, Chester felt that the processing of the wool was just as integral to its quality as the growing. In 1969, he and his wife added a mill business to their farm business. They wanted to preserve their wool’s hard-wearing softness over time by not removing too much of the lanolin — a natural oil that sheep produce, which is often removed from wool and sold as a side product to the cosmetic industry. Wools processed at their mill are all scoured gently, not carbonized (an acid burning process that is used frequently in wool production). While Cestari’s Traditional yarn lines tend to have a bit more vegetable matter in the wool, they have a higher lanolin content and the wool retains more of its natural crimp, softness and spirit. When I met Mr. Chester during his recent visit to Nashville, I was impressed by a sweater he was wearing and asked if it was new. He laughed, and said that it was almost two decades old — the lanolin in Cestari wools protects the fibers and increases their longevity, which results in better-looking finished garments over time. Cestari garments can truly be the heirloom pieces that so many knitters intend to make.

As the demand for Cestari wools grew, so did Chester’s network of farmers and farms. He began carefully sourcing wool from other US producers, allowing them to keep doing what they loved, raising high-quality sheep and fleeces. His faith in the domestic textile industry is contagious — listening to him speak about his projects infects you with a desire to cast on and begin knitting something exceptional.

What I find most special about Cestari is not just that they are domestic producers who care about the wool industry, but that they have been able to expand in such a big way and still retain the intrinsic values of their company. In fact, Mr. Chester told me during his visit that they are intending to expand into textile industry education, with a new project on the horizon: a museum on their Virginia property that will show the history of American textile production to the modern day, which is sure to inspire countless future knitters.

Hannah Thiessen is a freelance creative and social media strategist who specializes in yarn and fiber. She knits and dabbles in other crafty pursuits on her blog, www.handmadebyhannahbelle.com, and you can follow her on Instagram as @hannahbelleknits

Origin Stories: Cestari Yarns

PREVIOUSLY in Origin Stories: Wing and a Prayer Farm

Francis Chester/family photos © Cestari; used with permission / yarn photo Hannah Thiessen for Fringe Association

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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Origin Stories: Wing and a Prayer Farm

Origin Stories: Wing and a Prayer Farm

BY HANNAH THIESSEN // If you have the pleasure of following @wingandaprayerfarm on Instagram, you know all about Tamara White and her merry cast of creatures: pot belly pigs and guinea hogs, goslings and chickens, ducks and turkeys. Ponies, alpacas, angora goats, sheep and farm dogs. You might even have seen Bilbo the miniature donkey chasing the mail truck. Tammy shares it all through photos and video, and her worldwide audience is eager to soak up a bit of Vermont farm life from the comfort of a phone screen. I certainly find daily escape from my own life of computers and chores that are so ordinary in comparison, so imagine my excitement when Katrina Rodabaugh offered to “introduce” me to Tammy after she returned from the Hudson Valley Textile Summit they had both attended.

Tammy began her history with farm animals early. The fourth of five children, she grew up in a family of makers, learning to sew, knit, crochet, can, bake and garden at home and through 4-H. The life of a big family kept her busy as a child, and she has carried that momentum into adulthood: She ran her own floral business, worked for a textile manufacturer, and eventually home-schooled her children for over a decade. The children were the impetus for the farm: In their first year of home schooling, Tammy and her husband invested in a dozen chickens, then purchased some Shetland sheep, and continued learning and expanding their skills and animal roster until suddenly they found themselves with a full-blown working farm.

Many of the animals she has brought into the fold have stories all their own, or have found their way to Wing and a Prayer Farm because of unique circumstances or lost homes. Many acquisitions are the result of neighbors’ life changes and an animal’s need for a safe place to land. Tammy has a way of finding just the right name and story for each creature, and has found the ideal balance between pets and livestock: a loving, warm welcome for all, and place for them in the farm’s future.

Many of the animals are fiber-producing, and Tammy has been carefully selecting the finest fleeces at shearing time and sorting them into unique blends for wool lovers: a 100% Shetland is in the works, while the Taconic Twist blend (long wool, mohair and a bit of fine wool) undergoes revisions each time. (This time, it will feature Wensleydale rather than Cotswold.) She eagerly works within her friend-and-farmer group to create new blends and projects, as well. Ellen Mason (Odacier) lent a bevy of Clun Forest fleeces that promise to become “The Happiest Yarn of 2017,” an ideal blend for colorwork and knitting creativity. Mary Jeanne Packer, proprietor of Battenkill Fibers Spinning Mill, lent the Wensleydales for this year’s Taconic Twist. A blend of her own alpaca and Shetland is also currently at the mill and due out this summer.

Tammy is one of many farmers who believed in their work and did not give up when their fleeces did not sell or move in years past, but simply kept experimenting and learning, and are now enjoying the rise in awareness and popularity of farm yarns.

These days she takes the time to educate not only herself, but others, hosting a rotating series of workshops on topics that range from homesteading to garment making. This year’s workshops promise pies, slow (practical) fashion, natural dyeing and shearing, with a culminating event at the farm titled the New England Fiber Summit. In a return to her roots, Tammy leads small groups of industrious students through tasks and skills that, for many, have been lost to time. One thing that I learned is that Wing and a Prayer Farm is ultimately about reclaiming the joy in hard work, stewardship of animals and individuals, and the simple pleasure of knowing (and making) your way in the world. I cannot help but admire Tammy’s advice for those of us who may feel too busy to enjoy wherever we are in our lives:

This is the time in my life when I am enjoying the hosting of events and the raising of fiber animals as much as I am enjoying spending time with my craft. Much of what I like to do sitting at the wheel — or with a pair of knitting needles in my hands or at the sewing machine — is something I will continue to do for the rest of my life. But this workshop hosting, sheep and goat wrangling, and alpaca handling is limited. One day my body will not want to carry 50-lb. grain bags or hoist hay bales into the loft. One day my body will be more than happy to sit tight in the morning, sip a cuppa and knit. But that day is not quite here yet!

Origin Stories: Wing and a Prayer Farm

Hannah Thiessen is a freelance creative & social media strategist who specializes in yarn and fiber. She knits and dabbles in other crafty pursuits on her blog, www.handmadebyhannahbelle.com, and you can follow her on Instagram as @hannahbelleknits

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PREVIOUSLY in Origin Stories: Upcycled Wool and the Gang

Photos © Wing & a Prayer Farm; used with permission

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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PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion Citizens: Tom of Holland

Photos © Elizabeth Suzann, used with permission

Swatch of the Month: Finding inspiration in Georgia O’Keeffe

EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s post marks a full year and the last installment of Jess’s lovely and thoughtful Swatch of the Month column, and it might be my favorite one! It’s been a true pleasure, Jess, thank you for going above and beyond. And if anyone missed any of it, you can read through all twelve of them right here.
—Karen

Swatch of the Month: Finding inspiration in Georgia O'Keeffe

BY JESS SCHREIBSTEIN | Last January, my partner and I went to New Mexico for my 30th birthday, and I haven’t really been able to shake the place from my mind. Even in the dead of winter, the landscape feels alive and endlessly inspiring. Rust red rock erodes and splatters the sides of the freeway like paint, and bleached ivory and camel-colored cliffs look outright sculptural against the expansive sky and low-lying rabbitbrush, cholla and piñon. At higher altitudes, like in Santa Fe, you’ll wake up to a dusting of white snow over everything that’s usually gone by lunchtime. It’s easy to see why New Mexico, and Santa Fe in particular, has attracted tradesmen, artists, medicine people and even nuclear physicists for generations. There’s a magnetic, intoxicating quality to it.

Of its many famous inhabitants, Georgia O’Keeffe is one of the most well-known. While her husband, the famous photographer Alfred Stieglitz, preferred the energy of New York City, O’Keeffe preferred quiet and isolation for her painting. She first traveled to Santa Fe in 1917, when she was a relative unknown, and instantly fell in love. She later wrote, “From then on, I was always trying to get back there… and in 1929 I finally made it.”

Before we went on our trip, I picked up a copy of Laurie Lisle’s biography of Georgia, Portrait of an Artist, and continued to read it during the trip and after we’d returned home. The descriptions of Georgia’s attitude and approach to making a life – her painting rituals, design sensibility, mode of dress – were equally reflective of place and her own persona, both modern and of its time and completely her own.

Swatch of the Month: Finding inspiration in Georgia O'Keeffe

HER LIFE

Georgia and Stieglitz met in New York where he ran his famous modern New York gallery, 291, which introduced American viewers to artists like Matisse, Rodin, Cézanne and Picasso. He was married and more than twenty years her senior, but they instantly fell in love. In 1918, Georgia accepted Stieglitz’s offer to move from Texas (where she was living and teaching at the time) to New York, where he would financially support her so she could paint. He displayed her early charcoal drawings and, later, her now-infamous flower paintings on the walls of 291, and her career took off. By the end of the 1920s, she was the most successful and highly paid woman artist in America.

In 1924, Stieglitz divorced his wife and he and Georgia married. Their marriage was intimate and passionate, but also a constant struggle through Stieglitz’s repeated infidelities and Georgia’s vying for professional and personal independence. Lisle writes:

“When some people resented her special position as Stieglitz’s paramour, she found it necessary to remind them that he had given her two shows before ‘he knew me personally,’ as she put it. After their marriage, when people addressed her as ‘Mrs. Stieglitz,’ she briskly corrected them with, ‘I am Georgia O’Keeffe.’ ‘I’ve had a hard time hanging on to my name, but I hang on to it with my teeth,’ she explained. ‘I like getting what I’ve got on my own.’ Once when an interviewer referred to Georgia as his ‘wife,’ Stieglitz objected on her behalf. ‘Don’t call her my ‘wife.’ There was a Mrs. Stieglitz I was married to for twenty-four years,’ he said. ‘From the beginning she just felt she was Georgia O’Keeffe, and I agreed with her. She’s a person in her own right.’”

While Georgia was deliberate about her appearance and persona throughout her life, and Stieglitz largely supported her, he was also responsible for perpetuating an overtly feminine and sensual interpretation of her work. Stieglitz took hundreds of photographs of Georgia in their early years together, many in the nude, which created a public sensation and defined her as a sexual being. He also encouraged the interpretation of her flower paintings as female genitalia, although Georgia flatly denied this. She wanted to be respected as a serious artist, not a serious “woman” artist. She rejected modern feminism, wanting to be compared to men’s work without her identity diminishing how others saw her.

In 1929, after Georgia had been hospitalized for exhaustion and depression, she traveled to Taos, New Mexico, with a friend for several months where her spirit and work were reignited. She bought a Ford Model A and learned to drive, and enjoyed exploring the landscape and collecting bones, rocks and other found objects for her paintings. In 1933, she was hospitalized again for a nervous breakdown, and returned to New Mexico in 1934, when she visited Ghost Ranch for the first time. For the next twenty years, she traveled every year between New York and New Mexico, leaving behind Stieglitz in New York. In the 1940s, she bought Ghost Ranch and later a crumbling hacienda in Abiquiu, which she restored as a home and studio for herself. After Stieglitz died in 1946, she spent the last thirty years of her life there. Her homes are beautifully captured in the book pictured here, Georgia O’Keeffe and Her Houses.

Growing up, Georgia always stood out for her unusual but self-assured attitude and wardrobe. While other girls wore ruffles and floral print dresses, Georgia dressed in all-black, preferring tailored, structured garments. According to Lisle, Georgia’s former classmate Christine McRae wrote many years later:

“The most unusual thing about her was the absolute plainness of her attire. She wore a tan coat suit, short, severe, and loose, into this room filled with girls with small waists and tight-fitting dresses bedecked in ruffles and bows. Pompadours and ribbons vied with each other in size and elaborateness, but Georgia’s hair was drawn smoothly back from her broad, prominent forehead, and she had no bow on her head at all, only one at the bottom of her pigtail to keep it from unplaiting. Nearly every girl in the study hall planned just how she was going to dress Georgia up, but her plans came to naught, for this strongminded girl knew what suited her and would not be changed though she approved of other girls dressing in frills and furbelows.”

Her style didn’t change much as she grew older. Georgia wore predominantly androgynous, at times monkish, attire. She was a master seamstress and sewed and altered many of her own clothes, preferring natural fibers like silk, cotton and wool and keeping some of her dresses for as long as sixty years. And although she’s known for her vividly colored paintings, she was highly sensitive to color and insisted on everything else being minimalist in color and detail, choosing to work in empty white rooms and to dress in black and white almost exclusively. She once said, “Nothing is less real than realism ― details are confusing. […] It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get the real meaning of things.” At another time, when she was asked by a reporter, “Don’t you like color?,” she responded, “Color does something to me,” and tried to explain why she needed to paint in a colorless room. “I like an empty wall because I can imagine what I like on it.”

Now, thirty years after her death, Georgia’s work and personal style have seemed to erupt across our public imagination. I see portraits of Georgia – mainly the ones by Stieglitz – across social media regularly, and her design sensibility seems to be fresh and on trend. Even Solange paid homage to her in her music videos for her album “Seat at the Table,” saying, “I shot a lot of my [music] videos in New Mexico, just that entire Georgia O’Keeffe vibe — I’m dying to see her exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum.”

Speaking of that exhibit, Georgia’s wardrobe and work are now on display, side by side, in Brooklyn Museum’s exhibit, Living Modern. The reviews from The New Yorker (previously linked out by Karen), The New York Times, Huffington Post and New York Magazine are all worth reading for their take on the exhibition and Georgia’s style, as well as lots of photos. I haven’t made it to the exhibition yet myself, but I’m hoping to catch it before it closes this summer.

Swatch of the Month: Finding inspiration in Georgia O'Keeffe

THE SWATCH

Using Georgia O’Keeffe and Santa Fe as a touchstone, I wanted to knit a fabric that reflected the New Mexican landscape she loved, and that would feel at home in Georgia’s wardrobe. It would be easy enough to find a black or cream yarn (I have plenty in my stash) that Georgia would have undoubtedly worn, but I chose a rust-red wool and hemp blend with flecks of cream from Elsebeth Lavold. When I saw the skein of Misty Wool in a yarn shop, everything clicked for me – it so perfectly mirrored the color and texture of the New Mexican landscape.

Next, I wanted the fabric to have both structure and texture, as well as honor Georgia’s minimalist style. Much of Georgia’s early work is comprised of abstract black and white lines and shapes, and her later work continues a focus on lines, divisions of space, blocks of color. With these elements in mind, I chose a herringbone stitch from my stitch pattern book, Barbara Walker’s A Treasury of Knitting Patterns, something that I thought could be easily incorporated into a heavy jacket or rectangular shawl.

Swatch of the Month: Finding inspiration in Georgia O'Keeffe

Yarn: Elsebeth Lavold Misty Wool in Color 11
Needles: US 7 / 4.5 mm bamboo needles
Gauge: 30 stitches / 28 rows = 4” in stockinette stitch

M E T H O D

For stitch method, please see “Little Herringbone” stitch pattern on page 98 of A Treasury of Knitting Patterns by Barbara Walker.

Jess Schreibstein is a digital strategist, knitter and painter living in Baltimore, MD. Learn more about her work at jess-schreibstein.com or follow her on Instagram at @thekitchenwitch.

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PREVIOUSLY in Swatch of the Month: Fun with stockinette

New Mexico photos © Jess Schreibstein / book pictured is Georgia O’Keeffe and Her Houses