Slow Fashion October, week 3: Do your clothes add up? [with Martha McQuade]

Slow Fashion October, week 3: Do your clothes add up? [with Martha McQuade]

Martha McQuade (aka @mwmmpls) is one of my heroes. I first ran across her on Twitter around the time I learned to knit (2011) and have admired her from afar and become internet friends with her over time. I wanted to talk to her for Slow Fashion October because she comes at it from all angles. She’s a prolific polymath: an architect and professor and mother of teenage boys, she is also a knitter, sewer and dyer, proprietor of Scarf Shop, and makes clothes for herself as well as for sale, while also supporting a lot of small indie clothing brands and shopkeepers in her hometown of Minneapolis. And she’s one of the most thoughtful people I know. So I thought Week 3 would be a good time to talk to her.

After challenging you in Week 1 to think about how you want to dress and what constitutes clothes that feel like you, then to clean out your closet last week and sort it into yes, no’s and maybes, this week I want to talk about what’s in there, how it adds up, and how to make smart decisions around slowly building a wardrobe that really works. So I’m kicking it off by getting Martha talking about how she does it, and please also check out this week’s Action Item and Discussion Prompts! I know loads of you are champing at the bit to catalog your clothes similar to the way I do it — and many of you are already doing so and sharing that on the #slowfashionoctober feed — so I also just want to note that I’ll have a post for you later this week about my process for that, and I hope to hear about others’!

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I want to start with the same first question I asked Erin last week, since the term “slow fashion” is so different for everyone. What does slow fashion mean to you, and what form does it take in your life and closet?

Slow fashion to me means considered. The dictionary defines “considered” as
1. matured by extended deliberative thought
2. viewed with respect or esteem

Those two definitions are exactly how I think about fashion and my wardrobe. I have built a wardrobe over time of things I love and I continue to work on it by adding to, altering it and shifting what comes forward, and what moves back. Sometimes I get rid of things but I generally have a reluctance to do that. There was a reason I acquired each piece and even if I’m not wearing it currently, I feel like I might in the future. I have things I don’t wear often but that I love, like pieces of art.

The biggest negative impact fashion has on the environment is discarded clothing. By carefully considering what I purchase I’m more likely to keep those items for a long time. I think of sustainability in architecture in a similar way. If we build beautiful, thoughtful spaces out of quality materials that are designed to shade and cool naturally, they will last hundreds of years. I think sustainable materials and products are important but shouldn’t be a solution. We need to start by making things beautiful so we want to keep them around and making them well so they last.

One of the many things I admire about you is you seem to have a really strong sense of your personal style. How did you come to be tuned into the slow fashion movement originally, and has it had an impact on your style in any way? I’d also love to know how much of your closet meets your own criteria of what is slow fashion and how long it took you to get to where you are.

You are so kind! I never think I have a style. I just love clothing. Fabric and construction methods and shapes and colors and textures. When I see an interesting volumetric shape, or feel a thick, smooth cotton, my heart kind of races. I want to touch it and look at it inside-out and see how it drapes on a hanger. I’ve always collected pieces of clothing. I have things in my closet that are 20 years old, and memories of specific pieces that I no longer have. None of them special in terms of brand, for me it’s always the feel and cut and construction.

I actually think style should keep evolving. We all change from year to year — we grow and change and learn. I think our wardrobes should do the same. Experiment and explore and try new things. It doesn’t mean you need to be crazy. (But you could be!) We all try to learn new things and travel to new places and try new recipes, so why not continue to evolve in our style?

I began to become aware of the environmental problems of fashion in the late ’90s when I heard about a “mill end fabric outlet.” I searched to see if there were any in my area, and learned about the fabric waste problem. From there I heard about designers working with “zero waste,” read about clothing filling up landfills and the environmental problems of the cotton industry.

I’m not sure being aware of the problems has had an impact on my style but it definitely has had an impact on my purchasing habits. I’m finding out about small independent designers working ethically and sustainably. The pieces they make aren’t inexpensive, so I acquire things more slowly and thoughtfully.

I think 90% of my closet right now meets my criteria, which again means considered. But of course I make mistakes and have things I regret purchasing, even if I still kind of love them.

Slow Fashion October, week 3: Do your clothes add up? [with Martha McQuade]

Have you always sewn and knitted? What drives you or inspires you to make your own clothes? I mean, you have a lot on your plate.

My mom has sewn and knit (and drawn and done embroidery and fixed appliances, etc. etc.) since I can remember, and she made a lot of my clothes when I was young. I was an obese child, and it was hard to find clothing that fit well and also wasn’t boring. I remember loving the special pieces she made me, often with embroidery or interesting color combinations. The shapes were also interesting while not being too close or revealing, and I felt sheltered wearing them.

I think this experience was what initially exposed me to making but I really took to making things with my hands from an early age. It’s always been something that I need to do. It helps me think. Later on it became a way to have things that I wanted that I couldn’t find.

Making things is also the way I explore ideas and discover things. When you work with real materials unexpected things happen, things that you didn’t intend when you started out. This is the best part of physical making.

In reference to your earlier question about style, I think there is sometimes a danger in making your own clothes when it comes to style. I think people who love to make things love the process. Often the things that are fun and interesting to knit or sew are not the things that we would necessarily wear. Sometimes there is an attempt to make something that goes beyond our ability or equipment, and the result is “homemade” vs “handmade.”

In addition to the handmades, you also have clothes in your closet from small and local-to-you brands. How do you decide what to add to your closet, what to make and what to buy, and what advice do you have for creating a cohesive, hard-working closet?

There are a few things that drive my acquisitions. A big one is wanting to support local stores and brands and independent brands, especially those that are striving to be sustainable and ethical in some way. I want these businesses to succeed, so we have more choice and diversity in slow fashion.

Another driver is beauty. I only want items that I find beautiful. Beauty for me is defined by texture, material, color, construction, shape. If I choose to make something it’s usually only because I can’t find something I want, I have an idea of a design I want to make or there is a process I want to try.

Items that are very specific and technical, like shoes, lingerie, jeans, etc., I want to purchase from someone who is an expert at making them. I could never achieve the level of quality that someone with the experience and proper equipment is able to attain. That’s not to say that I won’t try to make one of these things someday, but for me it will be more of a process exercise.

Some things that have worked for me in creating my wardrobe:

Develop complete outfits. Not every piece in your wardrobe needs to go with every other piece but every piece should go with something to make an outfit you love and feel good in.

Pay close attention to how you feel wearing your clothing. This is one of the most important facets of slow fashion for me because I know if I feel good (happy, confident, motivated, creative) in a piece of clothing or an outfit, I will love and treasure those pieces, take care of them and keep them for a long time.

Allow yourself to splurge on a beautiful accessory that you can add to a plain outfit to make it feel more unique. I have a pair of rust-colored suede boots I love, and they seem to transform every outfit. When I wear them I feel like I have a superwoman cape on.

Slow Fashion October, week 3: Do your clothes add up? [with Martha McQuade]

I think a lot of people have the idea (unconsciously or otherwise) that there’s some ideal of a perfectly responsible and transparent closet, and that anything short of that is failure. So we feel doomed to fail right from the outset. It would be amazing if we could know the origins of every skein of yarn, or yard of fabric, or sock or shirt that we buy, but that’s not really realistic.

I think everyone needs to do what they can. As you mention, you can easily get overwhelmed. One thing everyone can do is buy less and think more. Another is talk to everyone you know about the problem. You will be surprised at how many people don’t know about the problem of discarded clothing in our landfills. I think often about the fact that even if I’m wearing 100% sustainable fashion, no one looking at me knows it. I can do my part, but there’s just one of me. But if I talk to everyone I know about the issue of fast fashion, more people become aware — and they tell two friends, and so on.

One of your many ventures is hand-dyeing natural fiber scarves for Scarf Shop, and you have made small-batch clothes for sale in the past (if I’m not mistaken?), as well as making many of your own clothes. I think for people who don’t sew or knit, it can be hard to understand why responsibly made clothes cost what they do. But when you sit down to make yourself even a t-shirt — or you recoil at the idea of knitting a whole sweater or sewing your own jeans because you can see what a project that is — you do start to think “how can a store be charging $19 for that?” How do your efforts at DIY and for-sale goods inform each other and your view on the state of the fashion industry?

Of course, making things myself has shown me just how long it takes and what good materials cost. But as a consumer with a family to support I also know it’s a struggle to make ends meet. I’m very interested in companies exploring sustainable processes that are also economical. Bringing costs down on sustainable fashion will allow a greater range of people to access it. Cutting down the time it takes to make something is one way to bring costs down. There is a local Minneapolis brand, Hackwith Design House, that has from their inception been exploring simplified construction methods and clothing shapes to cut down production times. Their price point is in a middle range that for me seems to be the sweet spot — not so cheap as to be disposable but not unattainable either. Everlane is another company who is able to keep their prices down, at an even lower price point than Hackwith. Some of their prices seem questionably low. I love the brand but am curious to see what happens as they grow and need to support an ever larger company.

Slow Fashion October, week 3: Do your clothes add up? [with Martha McQuade]

What do you make of fast-fashion brands engaging in “eco” initiatives like denim recycling programs or launching sub-brands that claim to be sustainable? Should we applaud any effort to do the right thing, even from companies that are huge contributors to the problem in the first place? Do you think it’s greenwashing or a legitimate attempt to do better? (Obviously I’m asking you to overgeneralize — this is a really big topic!) It makes me think of that old Jerry Seinfeld line that having a no-smoking section in a restaurant is like having a no-peeing section in a pool. Can a company that is a massive part of the problem turn around and have a program or division that’s “clean”?

I think sustainable lines in fast fashion companies are important. They are probably the introduction to the issues and problems in fashion for most young people. And once you know about something you start seeing it everywhere, and your awareness grows. And as people grow in their understanding, they will begin to change their habits, and if enough people start changing their habits it can have an impact on these fast fashion brands. So full circle. Obviously the sustainable lines in these fast fashion companies are not perfect, but I feel like they have an important place, and one that will reach many more people than the small company in the corner quietly making 100% sustainable clothing.

I think one thing you and I have in common is a love of fashion in the same way as art and architecture. I love to look at what designers are doing, even if I’m not going to buy their clothes (for reasons of cost and/or origins) and be inspired about things I might make or ways I want to dress myself. Do you feel like the problems with the fast fashion industry (and certainly there are also big-ticket designers making clothes in non-responsible ways) take away from the value of fashion as art and design?

Not at all. In fact, I think that the role of fashion as art and design is even more important now. Just as all types of art have been used historically to bring awareness to societal issues, the art of fashion can be used to highlight the problems in the industry, and we’re starting to see some of this.

One note about the art of fashion: I think in the broad fashion world slow fashion is thought of as not just a movement but as having a particular style. One that leans towards plain clothing, in natural colors, without pushing any boundaries in terms of design. There is a quote I love from Leandra Medine, founder of Manrepeller, that says “your interest in fashion should not make you look like you are less than smart.” I feel very strongly that an interest in slow fashion should not make you look like you are less than fashionable. My greatest hope is that one day it’s all just fashion, and that slow, ethical and considered are a given.

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For more of Martha, follow @mwmmpls on Instagram!

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PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion October: Week 2, What’s in your closet? with Erin Boyle

Photos © Martha McQuade, used with permission

Q for You: When do you give up on a WIP?

Q for You: When do you give up on a WIP?

This is that time of year where I’m off behind the scenes shooting beautiful photos of upcoming goods — starting with a new waxed canvas Field Bag color tomorrow! — and I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but in every set of lookbook photos there’s inevitably at least one with a luscious pile of grey wool and a certain sleeve in progress. It makes me laugh how many shoots this WIP has gone on, and I almost don’t ever want to finish it because it’s so great for this purpose! But in reality, it’s the Sawkill Farm sleeves and skeins from a sweater I started three years ago. There are older projects in the aforementioned pile of WIPs and yarn that needs to be sorted, but I consider them abandoned and awaiting frogging, whereas this one stays in its designated Porter Bin on my WIP shelf. One of these days, I’m going to figure out exactly what shape of sweater body these two sleeves want to be attached to, at which point I’ll resume knitting; meanwhile I’m perfectly content for it to hang out.

So that’s my Q for You today: How do you know the difference between and old WIP and an abandoned project? (Knitting and/or sewing.) Is there a time limit or some other criteria? And what’s the oldest WIP in your house?

(With special thanks for Kate Gagnon Osborn and Jen Beeman for sparking this Q.)

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PREVIOUSLY in Q for You: Do you wind yarn as needed, or all at once?

Slow Fashion October, week 2: What’s in your closet? [with Erin Boyle]

Slow Fashion October, week 2: What's in your closet? [with Erin Boyle]

Week 1 of Slow Fashion October has been so inspiring — I’m in awe of the diversity and thoughtfulness of responses to the What’s Your Look? action item and discussion prompts that have been shared (so voluminously!) on #slowfashionoctober so far. I’ve been highlighting what I can on the @slowfashionoctober feed and Story, so make sure you’re keeping an eye on that. This week, we’re going to dig into our closets and start making sense of what’s in there as compared to how you mean to be dressing, as explored last week — again, all in pursuit of a better loved, longer lasting, slower closet. You can find this week’s Action Item and Discussion Prompts on the Slow Fashion October directory page and on @slowfashionoctober. But the short version is: It’s time to clean out our closets, responsibly. So welcome to week 2: What’s in your closet?

Today I’m happy to be able to publish this conversation with Erin Boyle about taking care and ownership of our clothes. Erin is the author of the book Simple Matters and the simple-living blog Reading My Tea Leaves, and if you follow her @readtealeaves on Instagram, you know that she’s doing her best to walk the walk every day, in every way, always thinking and learning and challenging herself and others.

. . .

The term “slow fashion” has different meanings to different people, so let’s start with what does it mean to you?

More than anything, for me Slow Fashion has been about thinking proactively about my clothing choices rather than retroactively. Fast fashion (and the incredible quantity of clothes that the industry puts at our disposal) aside, my relationship to clothing has often been knee-jerk. Something inspires me, or it doesn’t, and I make my move accordingly. But it’s not often until after I wear it — really welcome it into the fold — that I come to love a particular piece of clothing. After thirty years of dressing myself, I’ve gotten better at identifying what I’m going to love for the long haul, but not perfect. This is the most challenging part of getting dressed for me: finding things that I genuinely love to wear every single time I put them on. For me, really loving something is always the goal because the stuff I love is the stuff I’ll wear and I think wearing your clothes — really wearing them — seems like one of the most sustainable choices we can make.

What makes me love something? The fit and look and cut, definitely. But also the story. I love knowing that something has been made with care, or loved by someone before me, or contributed positively to a community. It’s a privilege to get to take the time to bring all of that into consideration when building a wardrobe, but I think for me, that’s the beauty of it.

When did you first become aware of the trouble with fast fashion (and how), and what was the state of your wardrobe at the time? Were you ever a big shopper?

I can’t tell you with certainty what first got me thinking about fast fashion. I know it was shortly after I moved to New York City in 2011. At the time I was working for a sustainable agriculture nonprofit and I think that working in sustainability more generally got me thinking about all of the ways that we need to have conversations about our consumer choices and the impact of them on people and the planet.

I had a fairly lean wardrobe at the time — most of it purchased on sale at major retailers — but it was a real hodge-podge. I was fresh out of graduate school, I’d just moved to an expensive city, and I’d never spent a lot of money on clothes. (In fact, growing up, I got a lot of messages about the ethics of not spending a lot of money on clothes.) What’s most notable about the state of my closet at the time is that I didn’t have very much in my closet that I really liked to wear. Getting dressed felt like a slog of putting on clothes and taking them off and trying to put outfits together from components that I didn’t really like or that didn’t go together.

I’ve never been a huge shopper. I’ve always been interested in clothes and fashion, but somewhat more as an observer and admirer than a participant. As a kid, I wore mostly hand-me-downs and always felt a little wistful about it. I remember feeling a sense of excitement and freedom when I discovered fast fashion brands as a teenager and realized that there were clothes that I could buy myself with babysitting money.

As I got older, I started to think more about quality. It’s a bit of an American cliché, but I lived in France during and after college and I was really struck by the different relationship to clothes that the women in my life there had. Maybe most noticeably, their clothes were of a visibly superior quality to mine and they wore them over and over again. Teachers who I worked with would show up to teach in the same outfit for several days running. For the first time I really started to notice the difference between cheaply made clothes and sturdier, longer-lasting ones.

I think the final push for me to try to change the way I get dressed was really understanding the human and environmental cost of so much sartorial indecision. I was frustrated by a cycle of buying clothes and then feeling like I didn’t really want to be in them. And ultimately I wanted to do my best to not contribute to a wasteful and harmful system.

Slow Fashion October, week 2: What’s in your closet? [with Erin Boyle]

From first-hand experience, and through having this conversation for several years now, I know it’s common for people to feel almost in a state of shock when they find out what they’ve been unknowingly contributing to. [I should inject here, too, for anyone new to the subject: the best introduction I know of is the documentary The True Cost.] There’s a natural urge to want to empty the closet of anything questionable, but that’s not really the responsible solution, right? What’s your advice to people who are at that point and wondering where to even start? 

It is shocking. I think the first natural urge for me personally was to cut a lot of shopping out of my life cold turkey. I hadn’t been a huge shopper before, but when I’d eliminated a lot of my go-to sources for clothes shopping, I was left with options that required a lot more care in terms of decision-making because the price points were so much higher. When I couldn’t afford what I most admired, I largely abstained from buying very much of anything new.

That said, I’m also a true believer in keeping only what I love and use, so I’m very familiar with the impulse to purge more generally. I don’t have a lot of space to store clothes, but more than that, if I’m hanging on to something and not wearing it, my reason for keeping it is usually negative. With a few exceptions I think if there’s something in my closet that I don’t wear, it’s because I don’t love it and I’m keeping it because I spent hard-earned money on it, or someone gave it to me, or I’m afraid of hurting feelings. It sounds a little woo-woo, but keeping things out of a sense of guilt or obligation mostly sounds like keeping around a lot of bad energy.

But for me, the biggest reason I never did a wholesale swapping of a fast-fashion wardrobe with a more sustainable one, is that it flies in the face of what for me is the best part about sustainable fashion in the first place — a relationship to clothes that means making careful, thoughtful, slow choices so that I end up with things I really cherish.

I think one of the biggest contributors to our disposable-fashion mentality has been the rise of the charity donation bin. Not only are the dropboxes seemingly on every corner now, but the messaging is that you’re doing a good deed. Speaking from personal experience, I definitely used to think “hey, it’s cheap and if I wind up not loving it, I’ll donate it and someone else will benefit.” Who knows how many purchases I justified that way. Clearly, being able to get rid of things easily makes it feel ok to acquire at a ridiculous rate, leading to the destructive churn we find ourselves in. Can you talk about why it’s not really that simple?

I think it’s fair to blame the fast fashion industry more than the drop-boxes, but I know what you mean. Donation bins make it exceedingly easy for folks to clean out their closets without thinking about the ramifications of the clothes they’re giving away. I write about this in my book, Simple Matters, and reference Naomi Klein’s work, which essentially debunks the notion that the clothes we give away are always going toward a good cause. Simply: There are more clothes produced than we have uses for. Shipping our clothes overseas disrupts local economies and craft traditions. And cheaply made clothes that degrade quickly are of very little value. We certainly shouldn’t be putting our old clothes in the landfill, but neither should we imagine that every ratty tee-shirt we give away is going to live a productive second life.

And a lot of what gets donated is barely worn — but even then, there’s too much (and often of poor quality) for the charities to be able to sell, which is why they wind up in bales on boats back across the ocean again. Once you stop thinking of clothes as easy to get rid of, I think that inherently slows down the rate of acquisition. “What will I do with this if it doesn’t work out” is a head-scratcher. So what are some ways we can responsibly find new homes for the clothes that need one?

I’ve written quite a bit about this in this post, but my favorite approach is to find a specific person to give a specific item. Just because I don’t personally value something enough to keep it, doesn’t mean that that item is valueless. Whether I resell something or give it away to a sister or a friend, I think having a specific person in mind when I separate from my clothes is the most responsible route to take.

Slow Fashion October, week 2: What's in your closet? [with Erin Boyle]

The focus of your blog is “life in a tiny apartment,” meaning you have some built-in limits: not a lot of room for a closet to get out of control in the first place. I probably have a little more room than you do, in that I have a whole little 1953 closet to myself. I describe it as portion control, and strive not to exceed the capacity of that closet, and it makes me think hard about what I want to let in. That said, I’ve argued that “small” or “capsule” isn’t necessarily a requirement of a slow wardrobe. I think it’s about how thoughtful you are about what you acquire, from where, and then taking responsibility for it — keeping it out of the landfill. Do you think we have to think small to be responsible?

I don’t think you have to think small to be responsible, but limiting factors really help me personally to parse what’s important to me and stop me from participating in mindless accumulation. But I’d also say that the whole point of thinking more mindfully about my closet is to make getting dressed less of a chore, not more of one. I’m not here to be a killjoy. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how getting dressed can be and often is, a way to feel good. Finding joy in material possessions is a lovely thing. For my part, I am currently the owner of four very special sweaters. Do I need all of these sweaters? No. Do I love wearing them? Yes! Does it make me happy to spend the winter in things that are cozy and wonderful and that make me feel happy? Yes! Absolutely.

You’re very crafty, in the sense of finding furniture on the street and transforming it into something beautiful, making garlands from dried flowers, and a million other examples. But you don’t make your own clothes. The response I hear from people all the time upon learning about the issues with fast fashion is “I can’t possibly make all of my own clothes.” Which isn’t necessary! In fact, I’ve said before that I don’t want to make all of my clothes — I like being able to support brands who are doing the right thing, and there is an ever-expanding realm of clothing brands out there striving to make clothes in a more local and responsible way. But when the laborers are being paid fairly and the clothes are constructed of quality materials and made to last, the clothes often come with a higher price tag (depending on what you’re comparing against). You live in NYC, one of the most expensive places on earth. You’ve spoken recently about still having student loans you’re paying off, and you need to pay for childcare. On the other hand, you have the benefit of working with sponsors for your blog, some of whom are slow-fashion brands, and I know you only work with brands whose business and ethos you genuinely respect. So with all appropriate disclosures, what are some of the resources you’ve found for responsibly made clothing that’s not out of reach for the average working person?

Full-disclosure is that this question is tricky for me. When I decided to write my blog full-time and I had to take on the personal responsibility of figuring out how I would finance my work there, I decided that I would make it a priority to work with and direct folks to companies that I think are doing admirable work and causing minimum harm to people, to the environment, to consumers, etc. Given the opportunity between directing folks toward a shirt made by a small designer making tough decisions to preserve the integrity of her product and a fast fashion label, the choice was clear. But absolutely, many of the goods that are thoughtfully made come with a high price tag and many of them come at price points that are unattainable for me, too. (That’s part of the premise behind the Make-Believe series on my blog.)

I never want folks to feel alienated or like they can’t participate in ethical consumerism without extremely deep pockets and I do try to work with brands that have a range of price points. But we also live under capitalism and it’s inherently exploitative. A lot of sustainability measures can be co-opted as pure marketing fluff and there’s an enormous amount of greenwashing to try to wade through. I think folks are right to sometimes feel skeptical. Still, I think there are people working hard to minimize harm and produce superior products within a flawed system. Making environmentally responsible decisions and paying fair wages costs a lot of money. Beyond that, we’ve all gotten used to artificially low prices. I’m constantly asked to provide examples of less expensive clothing in the same breath that I’m asked to provide examples of clothing that’s being made sustainably in every sense of the word. That’s a really tricky task. It sounds like a bit of a cop-out, but I’m not really convinced you can have things both ways.

And this is where the subject of “privilege” comes in. Each year when we do this, I hear from quite a few people who, quite understandably, feel left out of the slow fashion movement. People might say “All of my clothes are from the thrift store because that’s all I can afford” or “I’ve never had the luxury of acquiring and discarding things at a rapid rate.” To me that suggests you’re not part of the problem, which is great in that sense. But I also 100% understand the underlying desire there to be able to afford small-batch farm yarns or handwoven fabric or beautifully made, natural-fiber, small-batch clothes from transparent companies. It feels good to support those efforts and have those things, but they do come with a higher price tag. I can honestly attest that I made my initial shift toward slow fashion during one of the leanest times of my life (a serious tight-rope-without-a-net moment) by gradually changing my mindset about how much I need in the first place. But I acknowledge that even being broke and trying to make those choices is different when, like me, you don’t have kids or debt, and you do have the ability to make some of your clothes for yourself. It’s SO complicated. What are your thoughts on that aspect of it all?

It is complicated. On the consumer level, I think people need to be given the space to make choices that reflect their values and stay within their personal constraints to the best of their ability and knowledge. We all have to compromise sometimes. And I acknowledge that having this conversation in the first place is a privilege, no scare quotes needed. I have the time and space and energy to devote to thinking about where my t-shirt came from (to say nothing of trying to decide whether or not I really love it).

I guess at the end of the day, I’m not sure if everyone wants to wear natural-fiber farm yarns or small-batch clothes — or if that should even be the goal — but I do think everyone wants basic access to fresh food and water, to clean air, to roofs over heads, to healthcare, to safe working conditions. I think at its core, shifting away from fast fashion needs to be about that. How do we find a way to hold corporations responsible for creating safe working environments? How do we value the people who make our clothes? How do we convince companies to be good stewards of the planet?

That’s a really great way of framing it, and gets at why I tend to think of it as an imperative — stopping to think about the impact of our buying habits — more than as a matter of privilege.

Another really complicated subject is kids clothes — especially given how quickly they go through them. You have two small children: What is your approach?

I follow a similar approach with my kids’ clothes as with my own. We try to keep their wardrobes lean, to buy things that are well made and sturdy enough to hold up to lots (and lots) of wear. We also tend to buy a bit big at first and to keep our kids in clothes until they’re well past snug. Right this minute, my son is dressed entirely in hand-me-downs from his big sister and my daughter is dressed in leggings that are cropped (though not by design). (Hopefully they won’t also be wistful about that one day.)

And knowing how committed you are to environmentally friendly practices in all aspects of a household, what advice do you have with regard to laundry methods that are good for both the clothes and the environment?

Laundry is a challenge for our family because we live in an apartment building in New York City that doesn’t have washing machines or dryers — not in-unit, or in the building. We send most of our laundry to the local laundromat, so we’re fairly separated from the process but I wrote a lot more about measures we take to keep our clothes in good shape in this post. I also try to remember that clothing is not a suit of armor. Clothes get stained, and ripped, and worn through.

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Amen to that — and by the way this last photo is from the night when Erin recently wore her wedding dress out for date night.

Slow Fashion October, week 2: What's in your closet? [with Erin Boyle]

For more from Erin, do check out her blog where you’ll find an entire series of posts on Growing a minimalist wardrobe. (As I told Erin a couple of years ago, her blog is where I turn when I need a moment of calm.) And of course follow her on Instagram for lots more!

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PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion October: Weekend Reads (and more)

All photos © Erin Boyle / Reading My Tea Leaves, used with permission

The stories clothes can tell …

Stories my clothes can tell ...

Two years ago, I wrote a short essay about the moment I realized I’d lost all interest in storebought clothes, which was published last year in Hannah Thiessen’s book Slow Knitting. It’s still one of my favorite bits I’ve written about how transformative slow fashion has been for me, so I reached out to the publisher and got permission to republish it here in honor of Slow Fashion October

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Slow Knitting by Hannah ThiessenI’VE BEEN a clothes horse and fashion junkie my entire life, and have always understood fashion as an art form, style as an act of creative expression. I was the typical kid who never properly appreciated all the beautiful clothes my mom made me, and the atypical kid who lived for the Saturday morning runway news on CNN. (Google “Elsa Klensch,” seriously.) I’ve also always understood that clothes could become special to you, souvenirs of a place or time in your life — the outfit you picked out to boost your confidence upon arrival at sleepaway camp for the first time, or the dress you were wearing the night your husband proposed. But I had no idea how many levels of meaning a garment can hold until I began to make my own in earnest.

As every knitter knows, we stitch our lives into our projects. A sweater can take weeks or months to complete, and when you put it on, you’ll always be aware of the trips, waiting rooms, or cross-country moves the sweater accompanied you through. Learning to knit a few years ago led me back to sewing (after years of gradually forgetting most of what my mother had taught me), but before I really dusted off my machine, I enlisted a talented friend to make me two garments that were beyond my skills — a dress for my brother’s wedding and a tunic with a faced yoke and hand-stitched finish, both of them beautiful. And both complete with memories of working with Alyssa on them — going to her house to try on muslins and all of it. Not fancy clothes, but genuinely one-of-a kind. At the same time, I was filling my closet with sweaters made with my own two hands and their respective sets of memories, and slowly falling out of love with storebought.

The more you think about this stuff, the more you tune in to — and it turns out there’s a whole other level beyond the making itself, such as where the yarn and fabric come from, and how they came into your possession. I have a vest, for example, knitted of Hole & Sons wool, from British sheep I followed on Instagram for years before the farmer decided to make yarn from their fleece and I got to have some! Direct from that beautiful farm. I have multiple yarns produced by friends who worked directly with the farmers and mills to make something meaningful and unique for their shops, despite making no profit on it, and those stories and friendships will be part of whatever the yarns become. I have a top sewn from fabric a friend back in California sent me after I’d moved away to Tennessee, that she dyed in the natural indigo vat she worked so long and hard to bring to life. It’s some of the best sewing I’ve ever done, and so represents both of our triumphs. The list goes on. And on.

I remember the moment I realized that my lifelong relationship with clothes had changed irrevocably. My husband and I were in a J.Crew store (long one of my most reliable sources) and I was standing in the sale area, sliding hanger after hanger along the racks, unmoved. Even the lilac cardigan I’d coveted in photos — now more than half off! — stirred not an ounce of want, and not just out of concerns about what sort of faraway factory it might have been made in, and whether the workers were paid a living wage. (Although of course there’s always that.) I just remember feeling so intensely, these are just clothes. I have the power to make treasures.

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On a similar note, I posted on Instagram the other day about how the simple outfit pictured above is actually a walking scrapbook, a post that began with the words “My clothes tell stories, even if only I can hear them… .” I plan to tell these stories more often and would love to hear yours, too — both during and beyond Slotober. Let’s use hashtag #myclothestellstories, shall we?

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PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion October: Style Crush x 3

© Karen Templer for Abrams Books/Hannah Thiessen; reprinted with the publisher’s permission

Slow Fashion October, week 1: What’s your look?

PLEASE NOTE: This mood board and palette are a nutshell version of my look. In no way do I think it needs to also be your look! Let’s figure out what yours is. But if this feels like you, too, by all means have at it!

Slow Fashion October, week 1: What's your look?

Here’s what I would love to see happen this Slow Fashion October. I would love for each of us to get (at least) one step closer to having a closet full of clothes that we absolutely love and wear and feel great in and feel great about. Clothes we want to take care of and mend and make last because we will be so sad when we’ve finally worn them out. If that means a rainbow of color and sparkle and skirts that twirl, then that’s what I want for you. If it means black trousers and white button-downs and grey sweaters, then that’s what I want for you. Whatever it is, it will take time to build it into just what it needs to be — slow fashion is slow — but we’ll talk through how to get started and how to get there, gradually. Because every closet that fills more slowly and thoughtfully, that lasts longer and suits its owner, is a chink in the fast-fashion industry. And chinks add up. So that’s what I want us to do this time around. Whether you’re brand new to slow fashion and trying to figure out where to start (in which case, here are some resources!), or whether you’ve been working on a slow closet for years (as I have), every closet benefits from a periodic assessment and course correction, a reckoning with the wrong decisions we are all capable of making, and a renewal of intention.

The key to having a loved, lasting, low-turnover closet is to put the right clothes into it. The right clothes for you. And the key to that is knowing who you are and how you like to dress; making good choices for your body and soul and style and lifestyle. So that’s where I want to start: with a little getting-to-know-yourself exercise.

About five years ago, Bob and I were in a little shop in Berkeley that he liked to pop into. He was on a hunt for a (California) winter jacket, and found one he liked on the rack — a waxed canvas utility jacket sort of thing in his favorite color, which I like to call smudge. He pulled it on over his typical logo t-shirt and baggy jeans (i.e., not a look) and turned to look at the sales girl to see what she thought. She cocked her head and made a slightly quizzical face and said, “Mm, what’s your look?” And we are still giggling about it to this day, simply because Bob doesn’t have “a look,” which is clear from looking at him. But the fact is, that was exactly the right question. The only way that jacket was a smart decision for him is if it not only fit him, physically, but fit in with his life and the rest of his clothes. And that’s the question I want you to try to answer for yourself this first week and on into Slow Fashion October. What’s your look?

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ACTION ITEM

Each Monday this month, I’m going to give you (and myself!) an Action Item — one step to take in the gradual process of better knowing ourselves and the contents of our closets, and making sure they’re compatible. So here’s the first one:

Make a mood board or pinboard that reflects your ideal style — colors, shapes, attitude. Think about how that has evolved over time, and the difference between what you like or admire and what actually feels like YOU — these are not the same thing. Just because something looks great on a friend or celebrity or passerby or pattern model, and you love it, doesn’t mean you would feel like you in it. Look for images that make you go Now that’s me right there; that is who I want to show the world. You might also be inspired by a landscape or a vintage car or a movie still; whatever speaks to you, not just outfit photos, but certainly that too. This may involve photos of clothes that aren’t necessarily slow fashion, and that’s totally fine — it’s not a shopping list! It’s just to create a visual reference for your style that can help you focus and guide your decision making. (For some people, this could be a single photo that says it all to you.) Tear out photos and put them in a file folder or on a cork board, or use Pinterest to find and gather things online, or a saved images folder on Instagram, or whatever works for you. Take your time with it — do it gradually, trying not to overanalyze what you’re throwing in there; reflect; edit. You’ll start to notice patterns: recurring colors or shapes or types of garments. Take note of that. Get it to where it really tells you something about how you want to dress. If you feel like you could use advice on how to get started, please feel free to ask below.

Those of you who are regular readers here will recognize this Action Item as part of the Wardrobe Planning process I put myself through a couple of times a year, and which has been wildly beneficial for me in shaping a high-functioning closet. (You can see my seasonal mood boards at Pinterest, but the one that speaks to me the most strongly about how I would actually like my closet to feel, in terms of color and mood, is called all things lovely.) For the sake of today’s post, I decided to put together a mini-mood board of just a handful of images that speak to me of myself past, present and future, and wound up with the 9 images above, which manage to say pretty much everything about how I like to dress!

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DISCUSSION PROMPTS

I’m also going to give you some discussion prompts each week, as in years past. These are meant to get your wheels turning and also give you ideas for things you might want to share in comments, among your friends, or on Instagram with the #slowfashionoctober hashtag. This week’s:

Do you have a color palette?
Whose style inspires you; do you have a muse or icon?
Is there a brand you’re always drawn to, for their clothes and/or how they put them together? Why?
What shapes and styles of garments work best for you, your life and your body?
What are your clothing pet peeves? (lengths, necklines, sleeve types …)
What is your favorite garment or outfit (right now or always) and why?
What is the image you would like to project with your clothing?
Can you describe your style in five adjectives?
What showed up in your mood board that surprised you?
What’s an example of something you own and love (had to have!) but never wear, and why not?

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Other than that last question, try not to even think about what’s actually in your closet right now — we’ll get to that next week. For now, just think about what a deeply loved and truly you wardrobe would look and feel like. And let’s talk about it!

For an intro/preview of what’s to come, where I’ll also collect all of the links to this month’s content, see the Slow Fashion October directory page.

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PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion October: 20×30 outfits and afterthoughts

Faux Fall outfits!

Faux Fall outfits!

This is 30 days of outfits, fashioned from a total of 27 garments and 5 pair of shoes. (See the closet inventory for details.) There are also probably another 10-15 to be had simply by swapping out, say, one of my other two camisoles for the green one pictured, or a different pair of the wide-leg pants in nearly any scenario. These also range from not really warm at all (fine at the moment) to too warm if there’s really no cooling trend in the next 30 days, but I think I’ve given myself a fair chance of not having to think about getting dressed until the end of October. And with the light layers and sweater vests and closed shoes, and a little bit of sleeve action in there, most of these outfits do give me at least a hint of that Fall feeling. Hopefully that will keep me content until actual sweater weather arrives! (Although I should note that 6 of these involve the faded old jeans that are currently at Indigo Proof, so those combos are fictional until the jeans come home to roost.)

I believe there are only 5 garments here that have not factored into previous rounds of Closet Rummy™, and 2 first-appearance pairs of shoes (although one of those is just a replacement pair of white sneakers, so not exactly a paradigm shift), and yet I think there are only 2 or 3 outfits out of the 30 here that I’ve ever worn in these exact combinations, and then only once. It’s not that I’m averse to repeating outfits within a span of a season or whatever — this summer I’ve basically worn the same five outfits over and over and over again — but this is really the central challenge of a slow-turnover closet for me: forever finding new ways to put the same things together, as I am a person who is easily bored and who also finds joy and creativity in getting dressed.

Faux Fall outfits!

One of my favorite things about this exercise is that, once I have a given set of garments laid out in a grid like I do, I can see things I never would have thought of. Like in the top row up there: a Wiksten Kimono + Fen Top twin set! We’ll see if I ever actually wear it, but it amuses me greatly. And the more I’ve done this, the easier it is to also just glance at the grid and spot combinations without needing to actually spell every one of them out like this.

I’ve had a lot of questions lately about how I do this, and I truly have found it to be the most beneficial thing in understanding my closet and choosing more wisely about what to add and subtract from it, so I’ll dedicate a whole blog post to it during Slow Fashion October.

Faux Fall outfits!

PREVIOUSLY in Fall 2018 Wardrobe: Not-quite Fall closet inventory

Not-quite Fall closet inventory

Not-quite Fall closet inventory

As much as I wish it were the onset of Sweater Weather here, I’m trying to be super realistic this year and just straight up accept that it will likely be late October before I can put on an actual sweater. So rather than taunt myself by including pullovers and cardigans in my not-quite-fall inventory, I’m pretending for the moment that they don’t even exist. What I can do now is start in on some lighter and/or sleeveless layering and switch (mostly) from sandals to closed shoes, and those little tweaks will at least make me feel like there’s a progression happening. I’m thinking of it as Sweater Vest Weather. If the temperatures do drop, I’ll be pleasantly surprised and will have no trouble reaching for the sweaters! Otherwise, you won’t see them here until I get to do winter-ish outfits (but if you care to see them in the meantime, I did a full sweater inventory last month right here).

I alluded yesterday to the idea that I’m organizing Slow Fashion October this year around the process of assessing, editing and (re)building a slow closet, and for the sake of this inventory and my need to change things up a bit, I’ve jumped ahead and pulled a few new/old items from the periphery of my closet to breathe some new life into the things I’ve been wearing ad nauseum.

That said, I’m holding off creating any kind of Make list until I’ve completed the deeper dive that’s about to happen. Right now, I’m all about what I already own. So above are the 33 garments that will form the backbone of my wardrobe for this in-between moment and beyond. It’s quite late at night as I’m putting this together, so I only have time to highlight the few recent or resurfaced things. For details on the rest of the items, please scroll back through the closet inventory archive.

ROW 1

— Khaki cotton blazer (J.Crew c. 2009)
— Black cotton kimono sweater (Elizabeth Suzann, sample sale 2017, no longer available)
Blue striped kimono jacket (2018)

For ages, a blazer was my favorite kind of garment in all the world — I wore one nearly every day. When I moved cross-country I donated most of them to Dress for Success and kept only two, one of which I’m suddenly eager to dust off and start wearing again. I’ve also decided to hang onto the previously debated Elizabeth Suzann kimono sweater thingie and give it a chance. Many are the times when I was unconvinced about something and wound up addicted to it, and since it’s already in my possession I feel like I should try. If that doesn’t happen, I know there are plenty of people who’d like to give it a good home. And I’ve also decided to let my pajama-y Wiksten Kimono (which I lovingly refer to as “my housecoat”) leave the house. It’s the lightest imaginable layering piece and gives me a hint of that fall feeling without creating any real warmth.

ROW 2

Second from the left is the ES Clyde jacket I refashioned into a vest in May, and far right is the State Smock that was white in previous inventories but I indigo dyed at Squam in June.

ROW 4

Second from the left is an Everlane sleeveless tee that I screenprinted under the tutelage of Jen Hewett in SF last week. The op art is an old piece of my husband’s, and there’s a second one with a cactus drawing on it so both will turn up in future outfits. (They’re not likely to be white for long, but it’ll be great while it lasts.)

ROW 7

Left is the linen-cotton pants I made a couple weeks ago, and center are my tissue-thin old beloved jeans that have now made their way into the queue at Indigo Proof, for those of you on the edges of your seats about that! (Or is that just me?!) They’ll be back with me soon, shored up except for the giant hole in the thigh, so that one will have to be patched, but I’ll be able to wear them again!

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PREVIOUSLY in Wardrobe Planning: Spring ’18 Mood and Strategy

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