Is it more expensive to make your own clothes?

Is it more expensive to make your own clothes?

We talk about all the many reasons there are for making our own clothing (chief among them being the joy and learning and pride), and “saving money” is rarely cited as one of them — even though historically that was the case. You might have noticed as I’ve been documenting my finished objects this year, I’ve stated the cost for each one,* which I’ve done as a form of research and so we could talk about it here in Slow Fashion October. It seems to me the general consensus is that it’s more expensive these days to make clothes than to buy them (feeding into the frequent refrain that only “privileged” people can make that choice), but that depends on about a million things. First and foremost: more expensive as compared to what? In a world where fast-fashion chains will sell you a “cashmere” sweater or tailored blazer for $19.95, we’ve lost all baselines and benchmarks, and all sense of perspective. There are, of course, costs beyond what’s on a price tag — from the human and environmental cost of fast fashion to the value of the time we put into a homemade garment. And there’s also plain old subjectivity. I used to wander into an Anthropologie once in awhile and marvel at the fact that there are apparently quite a lot of people who’ll pay $200 for a poorly made polyester dress. But if you’re accustomed to shopping at Target or Old Navy, you’ll think Imogene+Willie $195 jeans (made in LA of North Carolina or Japanese denim) or a $160 Lauren Winter top is “expensive,” when in reality those prices reflect the cost of quality materials and construction and workers making at least our minimum wage, etc. And then there are Designer prices, which are obviously much higher, even though quality and materials and transparency often aren’t better. So what do we compare our homemade garments to?

I honestly don’t know, in a broad sense, but what’s amazed me as I’ve tallied up my homemade clothing costs this year is how truly inexpensive it’s been, by and large. Here’s the breakdown:

$15.00 : Wool gauze pullover
30.00 : Blue striped dress
15.00 : Muumuu
7.00 : Black sleeveless top
6.00 : Striped sleeveless top
29.00 : Striped skirt
26.00 : Black sleeveless t-shirt
9.00 : Linen box top
7.50 : Striped box top
18.00 : Indigo camisole top
13.50 : Ikat camisole top
14.00 : Green camisole top
$190 — average price of $15.83 per garment

$27.50 : Black lopi raglan
140.00 : Bulky blue pullover
122.00 : Black vest
75.00 : Black cardigan
$364.50 – average price of $91.25 per sweater

For me personally, the best comparison is J.Crew, since that’s who got 90% of my clothes money in my store-bought wardrobe days. (And also: I could have bought that many garments in a couple of orders from the J.Crew clearance section back in the day. Cost aside, this represents a huge reduction in the number of garments acquired within any 10 months of my life.) Obviously, every one of those sewn garment numbers is substantially lower than even 40%-off-the-clearance-price prices at J.Crew. (Compare my cotton camisoles to this, for example.) The sweaters are a different story. Even with that $27.50 lopi sweater in the mix, the average sweater price might be higher than I would traditionally pay for a J.Crew sweater. It’s hard to say, having never tracked and averaged it, but I would guess between the mostly sale purchases and the occasional splurge, I probably spent an average of more like $65-70. Some of which I’ve worn for ages and still cherish; others of which looked like crap in no time. Regardless, I think ninety bucks is a very fair average price for a well-made, natural-fiber sweater.

So yes, between the reduced cost of these items and the fact of homemade clothes necessarily appearing in my closet at a slower rate (I can’t make things nearly as quickly as I could buy them), I am definitely spending way less money on clothes than I used to. That works out to $55 a month! (Or less, in reality — since Purl Soho gave me the yarn I used for the cardigan.) Even if you factor in the handful of store-bought items I’ve acquired during these 10 months, it’s way less than I used to spend.

I should note that the sweaters currently on my needles will have skewed that average by year’s end. One of them is lopi, so another $30-ish dollar line item. My striped Pebble sweater is probably about a $200 sweater when all is said and done (although Shibui gave me yarn). But I also made a very conscious decision to spend about $300 on my Channel Cardigan in progress, and it will be by far the most expensive garment I’ve ever owned. If I saw that sweater at J.Crew for that price (in 100% undyed baby-camel yarn) I would snatch it up in a heartbeat and consider it a worthy investment piece. But in reality, they’d be charging 2-3 times that much for it, and I wouldn’t be able to have it.

There is also the question of start-up costs to consider. For a new knitter or sewer, tools costs real money. And sewing requires space. I don’t know how to factor for that, but it does have to be said. And again what this doesn’t take into account is my time, but I wouldn’t put a price on that — those are my pleasure hours. If anything, I’d credit the learning and enjoyment I get against the cost! How much are those many hours of enjoyment worth to me? And aren’t those the same hours most Americans spend wandering malls or surfing shopping sites? I think choosing homemade over store-bought is a way of buying the time to do it, if you see what I mean.

Anyway, this is the first time I’ve stopped to add up the year’s costs like this and there’s a huge grin on my face right now. But I also want to say these numbers will go up in the future. I’ve been lucky that almost all of the sewn garments up there are in fabric I bought as remnants from local fashion companies. I feel really good about being able to both save money on the yardage and put those remnants to good use, and those aren’t the only fabrics I own that I feel good about. But during the course of this month’s discussion I’ve decided I only want to buy known-origins fabrics and I’m willing to pay for it. So beyond what’s already in my stash, I’ll be trying to stick to good traceable linens and wools, or fabric from my friend Allison’s mill or that’s been woven from the organic cotton of farmers like Sally Fox who are trying to survive. I want to support these farmers and businesses and to know the fabrics have clean origins, which means the yardage will cost me much more than I’ve spent in the past, which will put the garments back in J.Crew full-price range. That alone with keep my stash in check and my new clothes infrequent, and I’m ok with all of that.


*Except things made as gifts. That seemed gauche.


PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion October: How much can we know about where clothes come from?

How much can we know about where clothes come from?

How much can we know about where clothes come from?

So far with the Slow Fashion October conversation (here and on the #slowfashionoctober feed), we’ve been sticking mostly to the pleasant parts — talking about the ways and means by which we can and do opt out of Fast Fashion (see Long-Worn and Handmade) and feel good about those choices. That’s all a lot easier to talk about than this week’s subject, Known Origins, which is sticky on multiple levels. I finally watched The True Cost Saturday night and was reminded in technicolor that the more you know about the actual global humanitarian and environmental crisis that is our clothing industry, the more hopeless it can seem. There was not much in there I didn’t already know, and yet it kept me awake that night — and honestly, just thinking about it makes me want to cry.

Can I describe the problem of fast fashion in a paragraph? I can try. Major corporations in the western world want to sell us as much clothing as possible, and to reap the highest profits possible. They’ve decided the best way to do that is to sell things at impossibly cheap prices. While the prices have plummeted in the last couple of decades, the cost of making clothing has not gone down — someone has to grow (or manufacture) the fiber, weave it into cloth, cut and sew the cloth into clothing, ship it across the ocean, distribute it to stores, advertise it, and still put half of the purchase price into the brand’s bank account (with a good chunk of that, in turn, going directly to the CEO). And yet, they’ve decided even a complicated garment like a pair of jeans should cost less than $20. (I’m suddenly being followed around the internet by an ad for Walmart jeans for $6. Think about that!) That means they need a factory to sell them the jeans for a few dollars, including the cost of the fabric and the hardware — and the labor. That mathematically can’t be done in America, where we have minimum-wage and other labor laws, so they do it in countries where there are no such laws. People in places like Bangladesh and Cambodia are working in garment factories for a few dollars a month (and we’re not talking about a 40-hour workweek), being poisoned by the toxic waste that’s continuously dumped into rivers (because there are no regulations, either) or worse: dying in unsafe buildings when they collapse or burn down. They are literally giving their lives so our clothes can be as cheap as they are. And they are cheap in other ways, too: If the corporation is only going to make a few dollars per garment, they better also make sure we buy new ones every week. So they’re literally clogging the planet with shipload after shipload after shipload of badly made, largely synthetic (read: non-biodegradable), sweatshop-labor clothing. We, on the whole, buy them up as quickly as they crank them out, in record numbers of garments-per-person, and dispose of them just as quickly. And of course, there’s nowhere for them to go.

Those are the known origins of most chain-store clothes. So what about the opposite? There are people in the US and elsewhere trying to bring back garment jobs and industry — people like Elizabeth Suzann, for example, who I know a little bit socially and admire tremendously. I don’t know of a better example in this regard. Liz has insisted on in-house production since the moment her company grew beyond just her sewing alone in her spare room for her Etsy shop. Every garment is sewn in her Nashville studio, where you can walk right in and see the cutters and the sewers and the big bright space they work in. All along, many of the garments have been sewn from cloth woven for her here in Nashville by my friend Allison Volek-Shelton of TN Textile Mill (formerly Shutters and Shuttles). And for her latest collection, she’s gone so far as to source the wool from Imperial Stock Ranch (makers of Imperial Yarn) in Oregon. If she could, I believe Liz would raise and shear sheep on her property and grow cotton out back. She wants to know that every laborer, every bit of waste, every detail all along the way is handled with care and respect for the humans and the planet. The “problem,” such as it is, is that making clothes in the US is unusual and thus difficult and thus costly. Even though they cost a fraction of factory-made (often synthetic) designer goods, not everyone can afford her clothes — and decisions like known-origins wool only drive the prices higher. But for those who can afford them, it’s critical to support her efforts and those of anyone like her, because it’s the only way any version of a garment industry will become viable in this country again. Others will see that they’re doing it successfully, and they’ll do it too, and as it becomes less rare and less difficult — as resources return to support these businesses — prices will come down.

Likewise the farmers. Imperial is a great example of a yarn where you can know exactly where it came from and what sort of people and practices you’re supporting by buying it. In Texas and California, there are cotton farmers who want to grow cotton without poisoning the land and themselves with pesticides. There are people spinning that organic cotton into yarn and weaving it into cloth, and again, because these things are rare, they are difficult and comparatively costly. But if enough people buy the cotton and the yarn and the cloth, then they’ll be able to keep doing it, and hopefully more farmers will follow suit. The only way it can happen is through consumer demand.

As garment makers, if we care about these issues, we want to know more about where our yarn and fabric come from. As I’ve said before, yarn is increasingly easy. Just a few years ago, when I was first knitting, there weren’t that many yarns in the world that were transparent about their supply chains, making public efforts to support what’s left of yarn infrastructure in this country and encouraging its regrowth. But these last few years have seen a huge surge in small-batch yarns and mini-mills. Knitters have begun paying attention and supporting small yarn producers with their purchases, and creating a market so that more and more people have jumped in. It’s still the case that the people selling the yarn often aren’t able to make any money on it — even at $24/skein. The costs are still too high. But the more people keep making it, the more business the supporting businesses (scourers and dyers and mills) do, the more things will change.

The same can’t be said for fabric, unfortunately. Whether in finished garments or as bolts in the fabric store, fabric is much harder to trace. There’s a rise in blue-jeans manufacturing in LA these days — more and more brands supporting the factories there, and consumers supporting them in turn, which is a fantastic step in the right direction. But in most cases, there’s still no way of knowing where the cotton came form or how it was dyed. If you ask a big bolt fabric company about the overseas factories they work with, you’ll get a boilerplate response about how they abide by all the labor laws. But the point is: there aren’t any; that’s why they manufacture where they do. It’s the same as the big clothing companies.

So what’s a concerned consumer who can’t make 100% of their clothes (from traceable materials) to do? That’s what I’d like us to talk about this week — the small steps we can take with regard to our consumption. What are the better-if-not-perfect sources for store-bought clothes and shoes? What clothing and shoe brands are doing production responsibly — at home and overseas? Where can we find fabric we can feel good about? How do we continue to support and grow the known-origins yarn market? And how do we convince the mega-corporations that our clothes don’t need to be dangerously cheap — that there are some of us who’d rather pay a fair price and know the workers were fairly paid, too.

PHOTOS: (Top) a mountain of discarded clothes and (middle) Texas cotton farmer LaRhea Pepper, both from The True Cost; (bottom) a model in Elizabeth Suzann’s 2016 Cold Weather Collection shot with the Imperial Ranch sheep that provided the wool


PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion October: Elsewhere 3

Walking a mile in self-made shoes

EDITOR’S NOTE: Back in June, I posted a link to an interview on the Big Cartel blog with a staffer, Mollie Silva, who was using her art grant to learn shoemaking. It’s a subject many, many slow fashion advocates and Slow Fashion October participants have expressed interest in, so I asked Mollie if she would write a bit for us about her experience learning the craft. I hope to score a pair of Mollie’s turquoise oxfords one of these days, and to someday follow in her footsteps. (Sorry, couldn’t resist!) Meanwhile, here’s Mollie—

Walking a mile in self-made shoes

Ten months ago I walked in to a handmade boot shop in my hometown of Tucson, Arizona, and asked a seventy-seven-year-old bootmaker if he’d be willing to take an apprentice under his wings. Ten months and one cross-country flight later, I walked in to Brooklyn Shoe Space in New York for a shoe patternmaking class with some of the most talented young handmade shoemakers in the country. But this time I walked in wearing my own handmade shoes.

By day I work for a scrappy independent ecommerce company called Big Cartel. And for almost a year now my nights and weekends have been spent learning the craft of handmade shoes. A year ago, I could have told you I loved shoes and that I’d always had an interest in learning to design and make them. I couldn’t have told you that I’d now have made ten pairs for myself and am on my way to making them for others too. Growing up on a farm, I learned at an early age the importance of knowing where and how the things you consume in your life are made. I’ve always had a respect and awareness around that, and as a result, a love for handmade and as often as possible locally sourced goods. It’s what fuels my passion for my work at Big Cartel, supporting artists and independent makers, and what led to my seeking out a better way to shop for shoes.

For years I had looked for a way to learn the craft of shoemaking. There are traditional routes like fashion-focused design schools and footwear schools. But they’re expensive, a huge time commitment, and just never felt like quite the right fit for me. I learn best by doing. So when I started thinking about what I wanted to do with my employee art grant, a perk all employees at Big Cartel get, I started to rethink about my path to shoemaking. I searched for a local cobbler on Yelp that might be able to get me started and found Stewart Boot, a handmade western boot shop just a couple miles from me in South Tucson. Victor Borg, the owner, and all the other talented craftsmen at Stewart know boots. It’s what they’ve spent the majority of their lives doing, as it takes a lifetime to do the work they’re able to do. They are truly artisans.

I felt way in over my head on day one. And honestly, I still feel that way often. But along the way I’ve learned an enormous respect for having a craft, the patience it takes to learn it, and the humbling experience of undertaking learning a trade that takes a lifetime. I have questions every day and I expect to for as long as I continue to make shoes. And from the people I’ve met along the way I’ve learned that everyone else always has those questions too. The important part is to start, and once you start, to keep going.

The challenges to learning shoemaking are many. First, there is no easy way to learn. The information you need to know isn’t widely available online or even in traditional learning environments. The old way of apprenticeship has slowly died off and along with it people that are able to teach. It’s why I’m in Brooklyn this week learning patternmaking. It won’t be the last time I have to seek out resources beyond my hometown either. Second, components are hard to find. Manufacturing is still shrouded in a cloud of mystery and secrecy that makes it tough for a newcomer to know where to go to get the materials they need. Luckily, there are people working to change that. More and more resources are becoming available almost every day and veteran shoemakers and young shoemakers passionate about the craft are working to share knowledge, make it accessible, and ultimately share the love of handmade shoes with as many people as possible.

There’s a new garnered interest in shoppers as well around knowing where their things come from and an even greater appreciation for knowing the maker. It’s a personal connection that makes having or wearing that item that much more special. And that’s what keeps us, as makers, not only in business but passionate about what we do. The feeling of wearing my own handmade shoes and being asked where I got them never gets old. Nor does the feeling of making something that is so treasured for someone else. There’s a personal story in every pair — even if that story was having to pick stitching out by hand and start over because you forgot to rethread your machine with the right color before starting.

Despite the challenges, I can tell you it’s worth it. I am just as passionate about making shoes today as I was on day one. More passionate. If you really love something, you will find people willing to help you along the way. Just start somewhere, anywhere. In ten months you might find yourself flying across the country with wonderful people, sharing, learning, and being just as excited as you are about what started as your weekend handmade hobby.
Mollie Silva

Shoes and Craft — a shoemaker’s blog about shoemaking
Shoemaking Tutorials — video channel
Brooklyn Shoe Space — in-person classes and co-working space + blog
Bespoke Shoemaking — a comprehensive guidebook


PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion October: Why I make my own clothes

Why I make my own clothes

Why I make my own clothes

To kick off Handmade week of Slow Fashion October — being as we’re nearing the five-year anniversary of this blog and with so many new people reading all the time — I thought it might be good to take a step back, reintroduce myself, and talk about why I make my own clothes. Or why I make as many of my own clothes as I do, and why I care where the rest of them come from. It’s a subject I’ve talked about in a lot of essays and interviews and podcasts elsewhere, and that I write about as a gradual and omnipresent matter-of-course on this blog, but I don’t know if I’ve ever tried to put it into a single blog post before. It’s really, really long but I hope you’ll find it worth your time, and I look forward to your thoughts! So here goes—

I come to this naturally — you’ll see it’s been an evolutionary process for me, but one that has everything to do with how I’ve lived my whole life, and that I trace back to my roots. My parents both grew up on the farm. My mom and her sisters made their own clothes, and she made ours when we were little. She raised me the way she was raised, passing along all of the domestic skills she had learned and used in her daily life on the farm — from hand-stitching to canning to whatever. But as I was a child of the suburbs, I didn’t use it much. Other than sewing. I was obsessed with clothes from the time I was a toddler (I still remember the day I told her that after careful consideration I had decided I no longer wanted to wear patent-leather maryjanes) and in the ’80s, we were all about tampering with our clothing. Between “Pretty in Pink” and Madonna, cutting, recombining, embellishing and otherwise personalizing one’s clothes was all the rage. I’ll spare you the tales of the pegged men’s 501s and hospital scrubs turned into Hammer pants, but I also had proper sewing skills, and wowed my 8th-grade sewing teacher by showing up with a pattern and fabric to make a popover anorak with a front placket and hood. (It was navy blue duck, well-made, as I remember it, and I wore it so proudly!)

But before that, I was a little kid in and of the ’70s — when Earth Day was invented and community recycling began with newspaper drives at the elementary schools. Watching Saturday morning television meant being treated not just to Schoolhouse Rock, but the crying Indian and “give a hoot, don’t pollute.” We were raised to be environmentalists, and that has never felt like a passing fad to me. A constant uphill battle, yes, with some eras more in tune than others, but not something anyone who believes in it ever stops believing or caring about.

There are countless ways in which this informs my life. As a print designer in my first years out of school, I would never have considered using anything other than recycled papers. At Fringe Supply Co., we almost never use paper bags — 95% of orders are packaged in muslin bags which I count on you to reuse, and you won’t find any promotional trash in there either. I’m not perfect, by any stretch — and I never mean to preach when talking about these things. I’m just offering a few small examples in an attempt to describe who I am.

Interior design is another lifelong fascination, and for a time I was editing and writing books on the subject, but I’ve never liked store-bought furniture. Every home of mine has been chiefly furnished from garage sales, flea markets and hand-me-downs (or pass-arounds between my sister and me and some of our friends), with just a little bit of Ikea thrown in here and there. I buy couches and mattresses new, and have recently bought two small pieces directly from local makers, but just about everything else comes with its own past life and stories to tell.

And yet until a few years ago, I hadn’t found a way to approach my closet with the same mindset as the rest of my life. I’ve never had the patience for thrifting — although Ann has me thinking — and my love of fashion made me gluttonous for store-bought clothes … as it does. (The very opposite of how I feel about furniture.) When I learned to knit, it made me want to sew again, and I also started following or hanging around with some extremely thoughtful makers for whom making their clothes was about more than just the clothes. I’ve written an ode to some of them here, and I am so indebted to them and the rest of this community that opened my eyes to the rewards of the effort. It’s been a slow and gradual evolution in my brain and in my closet these last five years, but at this point there’s rarely a day where I’m not wearing at least one item I made — something that seemed inconceivable to me only a couple of years ago — and I’m working on the “directly from local makers” part, as well.

It might have taken me a lot longer to get here, but for me, there’s no going back.

I make my clothes for many reasons:

1) It’s fun. I love the entire process: hunting for inspiration and/or patterns, choosing yarn or fabric, plotting out my garment … and I love the time spent doing the actual sewing or knitting. I work very long hours, usually seven days a week, and have very little free time — so that time is precious. I snatch an hour to knit before bed when I can, or a few hours to sew on a Saturday once in awhile, and it’s that time that feeds my soul — and where I feel the most like myself.

2) It fills me with pride and satisfaction. I love learning, and love being capable of things. Knitting and sewing provide endless opportunities to expand and explore new skills, and the feeling of finishing a garment and putting it on defies description. It’s an awesome experience — and one no purchased garment can ever hold a candle to.

3) I’m a control freak. I’ve spent my whole life with ideas in my head about how I want to dress, and an inability to match it with what’s available in stores. I’m also, like pretty much every human alive, not a perfect match for the standardized measurements that mass-market clothes are made to. I have broad shoulders and a small chest, a long torso and arms for my height. It was great in the ’80s when everything was giant on top anyway, but otherwise challenging. And I loathe plastics and synthetics, which are taking over the world. Literally. By making my own clothes, I have control not only over the color and fiber content of my clothes, but the fit as well. It takes time to develop the skills to modify things to one’s liking, to understand how a yarn will behave, and so on, but exploring all of that is part of the joy — and again, the payoff is beyond worth it.

4) I know who made my clothes. When I was first hoarding store-bought clothes as a teenager, they were at least made in the USA. My mother taught me to look for that on labels when I was a child, and in those days 80% or 90% of the clothes sold in the US were made here, so it wasn’t that difficult. But as the entire garment industry moved offshore in recent decades, it became nearly impossible. The best of the big brands who have overseas factories cranking out crappy clothes at earth-damaging rates of production might insist on working only with factories that abide by local labor laws, but the whole point of manufacturing in those countries is they don’t really have much in the way of labor laws. And they also can’t know if the factory is subcontracting behind their back. The fact is, when you buy a garment in a chain store, you don’t have any way of knowing where it was really made, by whom, in what kind of conditions, and how poorly they may have been paid. When I’ve made something myself, I know nobody was harmed in its making. (We’ll talk a lot more about all of this next week, as well as the challenge of knowing where your fabric and yarn come from.)

5) I value every garment. It’s not just about pride — although, again, there is that. When you’re making clothes yourself, you (learn to) take your time in deciding what to make and with what fabric or yarn, and consider how it will fit into your wardrobe and your life. You may spend hours or months in the process of making a single garment, and you don’t think of it as disposable. Each garment is a treasure and a time capsule — a record of where you were literally/physically and skill-wise as you were making it. Just like growing your own food changes your feelings about what you eat, making your own clothes changes your relationship to getting dressed.

6) I no longer have a taste for store-bought clothes. The end result of all of the above — of having a closet full of clothes that each have a story to tell — is that what I once spent so much time and money pursuing, I no longer have any interest in. Store-bought clothes feel as soulless to me as store-bought furniture always has. For that — and for the fact that I no longer ever set foot in a mall — I am so grateful.

A few years in, my closet is not 100% handmade or known-origins — maybe more like 50%. I have clothes left over from my shopping days that I will wear as long as they last, and then find ways to repurpose. There are still times at present (although rarer all the time) where I buy a garment that’s the equivalent of an Ikea piece in my house. But it’s called Slow Fashion for a reason. Nobody’s closet was built in a day, and rebuilding takes years. Fortunately, it’s a ton of fun getting there.


PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion October: Elsewhere

My week in the Craftlands

My week in the Craftlands

I got home from my weeklong, double-header trip Tuesday night, planning to write a bit about it for yesterday’s post. But in addition to being exhausted and wanting to hang out with my husband, my mind was just too full from the trip. I needed a minute.

I wrote a very short Craftlands post about Knitting With Company back in June, when I was first invited to be a featured guest at their October event in Minnesota. It overlapped with the Nordic Knitting Conference in Seattle — an every-other-year occurrence that I had planned on attending since missing the 2014 event — and I decided to do both, because I’m a crazy person. But sometimes crazy pays off, and I’m so glad I didn’t miss either of these events — especially because both wound up feeding my Slow Fashion October brain in various ways.

Knitting With Company is ostensibly just an opportunity to hang out in a lodge setting and knit with some well-known designers — and a bunch of other wonderful knitters — for a few days. While there are no classes, though, there are talks by each of the four headliners (for lack of a better word), which are always Julie Hoover and Catherine Lowe plus two special guests. At this one, that was me and Norah Gaughan, who is as delightful as can be. I absolutely loved hearing Julie, Catherine and Norah’s talks. Each discussed their path as a designer, showed examples of their work and talked about their motivation and their process — each of them so different as designers and presenters, but so exceptional when it comes to the thoughtfulness and knowledge and experience they pour into their patterns. For my part, this being October, I wanted to find a way to talk about slow fashion and Slotober without it being a “lecture” in any sense. So I decided to show slides of 12 garments from my wardrobe (knitted, sewn and mended) and talk about the lessons I’ve learned from them — skills, sentimental value, longevity — that variously highlighted slow fashion principles while also, hopefully, maybe, giving everyone something to think about with regard to choosing projects and yarns well. (Mostly a learning-from-my-mistakes scenario!) So for me, those few days were casual and relaxing yet thought-provoking and inspiring.

And of course, I like knitters and enjoy being surrounded by them — and especially enjoy being a curiosity to the other guests in an establishment. I witnessed one of my favorite knitterly moments ever, too. A woman named Tammi, who I was instantly fond of, had just finished Julie’s Ludlow scarf  pattern and wanted to know if Julie would be in a photo with her and her scarf. Julie hates being in pictures but is one of the best photographers around, and so she offered to take Tammi’s FO photos down by the water. Not only was it amazing — the very idea of the photgraphically gifted designer shooting a knitter’s FO photos — but Tammi owned that little impromptu photo shoot like nothing I’ve ever seen. She was striking poses and smiling radiantly and my heart fell out in a puddle as I watched from the balcony. And yes, Julie also submitted to the joint selfie. Everyone was just lovely, and if any of the attendees are reading this: I loved meeting you.

My week in the Craftlands

Nordic Knitting Conference was the opposite of Knitting With Company. Held at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle, it’s a tightly packed schedule of classes and lectures, and I definitely nerded out on how focused and academic it was. Arriving late, I only got to take three classes: one on the Skolt Sami* people and their unique style of colorwork; one on a specific Sami woman named Skaite-Maria who was something of a minimalist going her own way; and a looser survey of Nordic styles and traditions and their influences. I ate up every minute of it and can’t wait to go again in 2018.

My week in the Craftlands

But here’s the thing — between the two events, I found myself in the midst of multiple tangential conversations about how, historically, much of one’s wealth was tied up (no pun intended) in the textiles one owned. Think of pirates stealing people’s chests of cloth and clothing, or of the traditions of trousseaus and hope chests. We talk a lot about how many fewer items of clothing people used to have in their closets (in, say, the first half of the 20th century), but long before that people spun and wove and tatted and knitted and crocheted. Farm folk pored over their lace borders and collars, tucking the finest of them away for their future lives, and rich people invested in brocades and tapestries and bespoke clothing. What we take for granted and amass thoughtlessly and toss off without a care, our ancestors placed incredible value on.

In the Nordic survey class, the teacher, Susan Strawn, talked a lot about museum collections — how they are built and cataloged and viewed. She mentioned that what gets donated tend to be special occasion clothes, worn once and not all that descriptive — wedding gowns, christening garments. What academics and researchers and curators long for are the everyday clothes that were worn and darned and have stories to tell. (I could talk about that green child’s sweater up there for hours.) Isn’t that what we keep saying in #slowfashionoctober? What I’ve learned from my clothes these past few years — what I was driving at in my talk and have written about so often — is I want every article of clothing in my closet to have a story to tell.

I also got to thinking, over the course of those three classes, about mending — and the fact that people not only made their clothes, historically, but that they were conceived with wear and mending in mind. The Sami mittens are one great example among many: The teacher of my two Sami classes, Laura Ricketts, was talking about the braided cord that hangs from each Sami mitten, which is used to secure them (to your waistband, your reindeer, whatever!) when you need to take them off for any reason. When she first began knitting replicas of mittens she’d seen in museums, for teaching purposes, she thought it would be clever to use her cast-on tail for the braid, to save time and yarn. No no, the locals told her — it’s attached separately, because if the braid gets damaged or worn, you want to be able to replace it without compromising the mitten itself.

There was an older Norwegian woman in the Nordic traditions class — a museum volunteer, who was dynamic and saucy and had the most awesome voice and accent. She was a child in Nazi-occupied Norway and had heart-wrenching stories to tell about life during the war, including the ways people had of removing the lower part of a sleeve to re-knit it when the cuffs wore bare, sewing clothes for the children from the worn or outgrown garments of the grown-ups, her father’s suit that was “so shiny and so thin” from wear. We, the general public, do not know how to darn our socks or elbows, or re-knit our cuffs. Store-bought clothes rarely even come with extra buttons stitched inconspicuously to the front placket or side seam anymore, because who ever replaces them? A shirt with a lost or broken button is one for the donation bin — where, ironically, the lost or broken button will likely get it sorted into the landfill pile rather than resold in the charity shop.

I feel this more intensely all the time: It’s not just knitting, what we’re doing. Not just sewing. Not just mending. It runs so much deeper than that.

Also: I got a lot of knitting done. ;)

My week in the Craftlands

*You may know the Sami as Laplanders, but that’s apparently considered a pejorative term. The things you learn!

PREVIOUSLY in Craftlands: Cordova, Alaska

21st-Century Thrifting: On the Hunt for Dries Van Noten

Ann Shayne and Kay Gardiner — the Mason-Dixon ladies — are two of my favorite people in the yarn world, and I’m really happy they now have a webshop and warehouse because it means Ann now works in the same building as me, which means I get to have lunch with her from time to time! A couple of weeks ago, she told me about her idiosyncratic take on thrifting, and I thought it was the perfect way to kick off Long-Worn Week of Slow Fashion October. So here’s Ann—

21st-Century Thrifting: On the Hunt for Dries Van Noten

I have a very specific way of approaching slow fashion: I buy old clothes on the Internet.

One very specific kind of old clothes: anything by Dries Van Noten, the Belgian designer.

A decade ago, I discovered Dries Van Noten when I was lying flat on my back in bed with a cold. It was late, and the Nyquil was kicking in. The Style channel was on, and Elsa Klensch was recapping fashion shows. Willowy women floated into my bedroom, wearing Japanese-inspired fabrics and shapes, and Elsa talked about how this Dries Van Noten person was drawing on paintings by Whistler for inspiration.

Sublime. I thought I was hallucinating. I was a goner.

And I was really gone when I found that his clothes came with astronomical price tags.

That was in 2006. I began to follow Dries the way some people follow the Green Bay Packers. I await each new season, curious to see what will happen next. His fashion shows in Paris — here’s the most recent one — are ten-minute dream worlds where his explosions of color and pattern and texture and shape can bring me to tears.

I do not typically cry about a pair of pants, just saying.

I sense in him something rare: a combination of patience, curiosity, discipline and refinement that should be held up as an ideal for anybody who creates things. The energy necessary to create four collections of this quality each year — two for men, two for women, for 25 years — is hard to imagine.

This is my favorite Dries video because it shows him talking, filmed in his gorgeous Antwerp studio.

21st-Century Thrifting: On the Hunt for Dries Van Noten


Dries Van Noten runs his fashion empire in an unorthodox way. He owns his company, meaning that he answers only to himself, not to a corporation pushing him to improve profits, expand The Brand, or create bedsheets or beach towels or derivative crap. He preserves a pure vision this way.

The Independent writes:

Van Noten isn’t interested in keeping up with his competitors. In fact, he refers to them as “colleagues” – an indication, perhaps, of a magnanimous spirit that is rare in an industry transfixed as much with the bottom line as it is with hemlines. “Style-wise I do the things that I want to do,” he says. “But organisation-wise you have to run a company, you have responsibilities.”

Those responsibilities include to his stockists, his staff, and his suppliers. “I try to see that every season we have prints, so that we can work with our six printers. In India we have a cottage industry involving 3,000 people working on many techniques of embroidery, so for me it’s important that in every collection we have embroideries. Sometimes they’re very in-your-face and visible, sometimes they’re subtle. But they’re always there, so that I can give work to these people.”

The Financial Times writes:

Dries Van Noten, the Belgian designer for whom embroidery is a part of his signature, has been working with the same family-owned business in Calcutta for the past 25 years. “A lot of people assume that if you are going to do embroidery in India, it’s ipso facto ethnic,” says Patrick Scallon, a spokesman for the designer. “But it’s a very respectful creative process. He has his designs, they have their views, and they both inform each other.”

Dries Van Noten’s relationship with the Indian embroiderers has been carefully nurtured, with one full-time member of his staff essentially splitting time between the workshop in India and the designer’s base in Antwerp, as choices are made about beads and fibres.

“It demands investment,” Mr Scallon said. “You can’t just phone it in. Maybe some companies send the work off through an agent but it is worth it to invest in this relationship.”

Most extraordinary: Dries buys no advertising. You will never see an ad in Vogue from Dries Van Noten. But you will see him in the editorial pages, because the editors can’t deny the quality of his work.

21st-Century Thrifting: On the Hunt for Dries Van Noten


My first piece of Dries was a skirt I found in London, 60% off. It was by far the most I’d ever paid for a skirt. Ten years later, it’s my favorite skirt, a dark jacquard with asymmetrical tucks that make no sense except that they shape the skirt in a fantastically tidy way.

I found a few pieces on sale here and there: A coat with a deep brocade border; a quilted skirt; a jacket with Japanese fabrics; a shirt with crewelwork all over it. For the most part, and for many years, my fascination was abstract. I couldn’t see how to justify spending so much on clothes, no matter how much I admired them.

Technology, as has so often happened in my life and work, changed the whole Dries situation.

Clever shoppers have shopped thrift stores for ages, but I never had the focus for them. Too much randomness for me. Now, the Internet has revolutionized the market for clothes sold by consignment. Sophisticated technology allows you to find exactly what you’re looking for. The online consignment business has exploded, and it’s possible to buy the most exquisite clothes in the world for a fraction of their original price.

The Dries I used to dream of is now something I can collect without any pain to my pocketbook. It is indulgent in its way, sartorial ice fishing. You never know what you’ll catch. And often, you come up empty. But I’m telling you about this because this new consignment technology means that beautiful, well-made, enduring clothes are available to us in a way they really weren’t, even a few years ago. Yes, eBay has been doing this for years. But eBay is the Model T of this technology.

If the goal is to find clothes that last, that are made by designers who care about the people making their clothing, that inspire you every time you wear them, then sites like The RealReal and Poshmark are doing something of real value.

And something that is a lot of fun, too.
Ann Shayne


Thank you, Ann! For my part, although I’m a devout garage saler and flea marketer when it comes to furniture and home goods, I’ve never been a clothes thrifter. But over the past couple of decades, I have managed to hold on to some things so long they’re actually vintage — it’s just they’ve been in my closet the whole time! That’s what I crave now, as I said last year: clothes with long lives and legacies. What about you — is thrifting part of your wardrobe, and how so?


PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion October: Elsewhere

Swatch of the Month: Life at Hinterland

It’s interview week here on Fringe! This one is by Jess with Hanahlie of Hinterland, who I had the pleasure of meeting last year — remember this? — along with another exquisite swatch by Jess. But I also want to mention Hinterland’s first pattern collection just came out, with the colorwork cardigan I’ve been waiting for a better look at! So, so good.

Swatch of the Month: Life at Hinterland

I’m not sure how I first heard of Hinterland – maybe it was through Instagram, or maybe it was an interview with Hinterland’s founder, Hanahlie Beise, on the Woolful podcast. Regardless, I’d heard only good things about their yarn and was stoked when Hanahlie reached out and offered to send me a couple skeins of their Canadian Rambouillet-alpaca blend, Range. Hinterland is a hyper-local labor of love based in Vancouver Island in Canada, and has only been around for about two years. But once I had the yarn in my hands, I knew it was something unique and quite special.

It sparked an idea to do something a little different for this edition of Swatch of the Month (or “swatchbuckling,” as Karen and I half-jokingly refer to it). I wanted to learn more about this yarn and how it came to life. I pitched the idea of doing an interview with Hanahlie, and she graciously accepted! So with this post, we’re getting a behind-the-scenes look at Hanahlie’s life on an alpaca farm and her vision for Hinterland and their line of yarns.

Swatch of the Month: Life at Hinterland

JS: Hey Hanahlie! As the owner of Hinterland Yarns, you now run an alpaca farm and produce an entire line of yarns. But that wasn’t always the case. Can you tell us about what you were doing before Hinterland, and what led you to wanting to build your work more around fiber?

HB: Before I started Hinterland I was working as a photographer and a graphic designer at Caste Projects, a design studio owned by my husband and me. It felt like I was in front of a computer every day, and that was the case most of the time. My heart wasn’t in it anymore, and I needed a change. I longed to be outside, working with animals, doing things with my hands.

I have always loved material, texture, pattern … textiles in general, so was trying to come up with ways on how I could incorporate those things into my new business. I was big into needle felting, and made this massive bear mostly for an experiment, but also for a design show that was happening in Vancouver at the time. I learned how to knit, and discovered this amazing fibre community. We moved from Vancouver to Victoria (on Vancouver Island), and my search for wooly beasts began.

Originally I was hand-spinning yarn and experimenting with blending alpaca with other fibres. But as my herd grew, I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the hand spinning. I started buying more fibre from neighbouring farms who have animals but don’t use the fibre. I’d blend it with mine so I was able to meet the minimum requirements of the mill and away I went! I first experimented with blending with Corriedale wool, and other wools, but once I found Rambouillet merino, I knew I had it! I finally settled on 50/50% ratio, and I think it’s just perfect for garments now.

It sounds like your alpaca flock came together almost by accident or chance. How did you decide that you wanted to focus on alpacas, rather than sheep?

Alpacas were sort of a surprise. I was on the hunt for sheep — I still love sheep and hope to have some one day. There was an ad online for a farm retirement sale, and with that were about 20 yearling alpaca boys. So I thought, why not go out and look at them? I hadn’t really been around alpacas or llamas before, and when the owner took me into the field, all these yearlings came running, jumping, pronging toward me – it was the cutest thing ever. They were beautiful and somehow mystical … and totally stole my heart. After that day I went home and started doing as much research on alpacas as I could, and basically about four days later I bought my original six.

As a farmer and business owner, what does a day-in-the-life of Hanahlie look like?

Typically I get up and take my dogs for a hike or a run. I love that part of the day, being outside first thing with those two. Once they’re tuckered out, I usually head to the barn to do my regular alpaca clean up and feed. I try to get all of my chores done by around 11 or 12 so I can have the rest of the day for computer work. If I don’t have a lot of online orders or emails to respond to I get down to packaging finished yarn, or sorting raw fibre into my next yarn order. It seems like I always have plenty of packaging or sorting to do. Those jobs are never done.

Tell us more about your alpacas.

Over the years my husband and I have been taking on rescue alpacas, shearing for the animal shelters here. When we can, we’ll take them home — and for the ones we don’t have room for, we try to find them homes. I wish I could take them all. We are still pretty small, just 16 alpacas and one llama.

Alpacas and llamas are really interesting. They are very intelligent and have excellent memories. I have gotten to know all of their unique personalities over the years. We have one boy, Bronson, who’s a bit of a bully, but also just a goof. Nutmeg is always looking for treats, so will trot up close and give kisses. Then one of the new rescues, Arthur, who is a very sweet boy, likes to just follow me around wondering what I’m going to do next. They’re all different, so it’s just nice to be around them watching them interact and listen to them make their little hums and grunts.

Their fibre is really amazing too. It’s lightweight because the fibres themselves are hollow (similar to the structure of human hair), so they also retain heat very well. Because the fibres are fairly straight, it creates amazing drape in garments. I love that aspect of it too.

Hinterland yarns are blended with Canadian born and raised Rambouillet and Corriedale sheep, and you even carry a Washington-grown Navajo Churro lopi. Why did you choose to incorporate these specific breeds into your family of yarns?

The Navajo Churro came originally as a felting fibre, but because I had bought so much from that farm in Washington I ended up making some rug yarn and lopi with it. Navajo wool is somewhat similar to Icelandic wool in that it has a soft downy undercoat as well as a coarse guard layer so it is suitable for lopi. I’ve been learning how to weave, so have high hopes of making some hand-woven rugs with my Navajo yarn one day.

I was originally trying to blend my alpaca with Corriedale wool, before I got into the Rambouillet. I thought the alpaca could balance out a more rustic wool like Corriedale. It is a beautiful yarn on its own, still very soft, but didn’t quite have the loft I was looking for. The ladies at the mill convinced me to try out Rambouillet, so I did! The Rambouillet is a merino sheep, so it’s got a lot of lanolin (which I love), the wool is incredibly soft, with lots of bounce and loft. It ended up being the perfect blend with my alpaca.

Hinterland yarns are woollen spun and minimally processed. Can you tell us more about your vision for Hinterland and how that informed the development of your family of yarns?

I wanted a more rustic feeling yarn that was suitable for our climate up here on the coast. It’s generally pretty wet up here, so woollen-spun fabric is warmer and fluffier, so softer feeling against the skin. Canadian merino-type sheep (like the Rambouillet merino) have had to adjust to living in a harsher climate so the wool ends up being more dense and wild. It’s still amazing and soft wool, but not as consistent to something like New Zealand merino for instance. I also wanted to make a garment yarn, so needed something that would balance the alpaca out and create a yarn with memory and bounce.

The wool and fibre is washed just with organic and biodegradable soaps by hand, then picked, carded and spun with old machinery. It’s not perfect, but I kind of love that aspect of it. It’s a very old, mom- and daughter-owned mill, so I am happy to support them too.

Sounds like supporting Canadian wool farms and mills is very important to you. What are the biggest benefits and challenges of staying committed to a locally-sourced and produced yarn?

I am constantly learning about the wool industry here — what it was, and what it has become. Canada was once a big wool producing country with many mills and wool-producing farms. A lot of the machinery that is still here is very old, very few people know how to do repairs, so a lot of the time they are working with equipment that has been on its last leg for a while. Many wool-producing farms have also bred meat stock into their herd to create a more dual-purpose farm, but which often lowers the quality of the wool. That’s not always the case, for sure, but it is something I have come across.

Plus, it has been challenging to find consistent farms to work with, but I think that’s because so many farmers here are getting to a retirement age and are not as interested anymore. I am getting there, but I definitely have to work with many farms in order to make a viable production. I am sure that is the case for most yarn producers, but it is a learning curve for me!

Regardless of the ‘what it was’ though, I am very excited about the future of farming in Canada. I feel like I’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response to the yarn I am making, and it has allowed me to reach out to other wool- and fibre-producing farms to help support them by purchasing wool they have otherwise been unable to sell. That part feels really great too.

Another benefit to this for me is that as my yarn business grows, it will allow for us to take more rescue alpacas and llamas into our herd and grow in that way too. That part makes me feel really good, because there isn’t a week that goes by where I don’t get an email about some animals needing to be re-homed.

What’s next for Hinterland?

Along with continuing to make my yarn — eventually coming out with few new weights — I do have a few other plans for Hinterland and how to grow the business in another way. I’ve been conceptualizing a new project that is called Colour in the Cauldron, which is a natural dye research and residency programme that takes place in Oaxaca, Mexico. In Oaxaca we will be visiting the five main valleys around the centre of Oaxaca to visit and learn from various master weavers and dyers. Alongside these tours will be an intensive natural dye course where we learn about the natural plants and insects in the area traditionally used to create vibrant colours.

My long-term plan for Colour in the Cauldron is to open up the residency to various parts of the world that have an ingrained textile history. Places like Peru, Guatemala and Iceland are currently top of mind for various reasons, but there are just so many amazing places in the world where textiles are an enormous part of cultural identity and storytelling. This could be a lifelong journey of exploration and learning.

Swatch of the Month: Life at Hinterland


Once the yarn arrived in the mail, I couldn’t wait to swatch with it. The last time I knit with alpaca was years ago for an ill-fated hat with a 100% alpaca yarn that felt very dense and heavy. So I loved that Hinterland’s yarn was blended 50/50 with Rambouillet to give it some lightness and loft from the wool, while still retaining the softness from the alpaca.

Range has a rustic, nubby look and the strands oscillate between thick and thin. With the Maple colorway, you can even discern fine red fibers twisted around the center core of the yarn, with flecks of cream and tan. It’s incredibly soft, and I can easily see this yarn become a slouchy, simple ribbed hat or a stockinette cardigan that would allow the yarn to speak for itself.

However, I was itching to see how this yarn worked up in cables, and I couldn’t get the cables from Michele Wang’s newest design for Brooklyn Tweed, Auster, out of my mind. I’m happy to report that the cables look simply stunning in this yarn, and I’m already plotting to make a wide, cabled scarf in this stuff.
Jess Schreibstein

Swatch of the Month: Life at Hinterland

Yarn: Hinterland Range in Maple colorway (gift from Hinterland)
Needles: US7/4.5mm wood needles
Gauge: 21.5 stitches / 25 rows = 4 inches in cabled pattern, below


For the cable chart, please see the Auster pattern by Michele Wang in Brooklyn Tweed’s Fall 2016 Collection


PREVIOUSLY in Swatch of the Month: On the lopapyesa trail

Yarn and swatch photos by Jess Schreibstein; farm photos © Brian Van Wyk, courtesy of Hinterland