Can Slow Fashion impact Fast Fashion?

How can Slow Fashion impact Fast Fashion?

There’s a corollary to my post on why I make my own clothes, which I think is an important point on which to end the month (aka Slow Fashion October). That is: I don’t make all of my own clothes, nor will I. Not only do I think it’s not necessary to make 100%, and not only do I not want to restrict myself in that way, I believe it’s critically important to support the companies that are trying to make a difference in our messed-up clothing industry. In other words, opting out of fast fashion is a good step, but so is opting in to better alternatives.

If there’s one thing that’s become crystal clear to me in these past four years owning a small business, it’s that it really does matter where you spend your money. For one thing, every dollar you spend is a vote. When you give money to a business, you’re encouraging them to do more of whatever they’re doing, whether those practices are harmful or beneficial. More so, money is fluid — handing it to a company isn’t the end of it. I’ve come to see myself as a caretaker of people’s money. When you buy something from me, you’re supporting me and my business and my two part-timers, of course. (And thank you!). But more important, you’re entrusting money to me, and I consider it my duty to re-spend it responsibly. I spend it on product that creates jobs in Nashville and New Hampshire, where our Field Bags and totes are sewn. I place orders that support the businesses of small producers like Ambatalia and Bookhou and Little Seed Farm who do quality, conscientious, beautiful work. And I give a percentage of it to charity — specifically to Heifer, who in turn provide fiber animals to impoverished families, where those animals represent milk and fiber and income. My point being not to pat myself on the back at all, but simply to say that I know first-hand, feel it daily, and understand quite deeply that how you spend your money matters — whether that’s a farm or a small business or a corporation. And that informs my view of all of this.

As for me and my closet, I love pulling on handmade garments, and yes feel quite humming on those rare occasions when I’m dressed entirely in handmade (apart from my underwear and shoes). But what actually feels best to me is any outfit that’s a blend of all the things we’ve talked about this month — long-worn/mended, second-hand, handmade and small-batch/known-origins. Say, a handknit vest and homemade top with local jeans. Or a locally made tunic with my ancient mended camo pants. Or even a ten-year-old t-shirt (from who knows where) with a handmade sweater and jeans from J.Crew’s made-in-L.A. line, Point Sur. I like knowing that I’m not just opting out of the ready-to-wear industry altogether and hoping the situation will improve without me, but that I’m using what purchases I do make as a way to support sustainable small-batch makers and even big companies that have done something I want to encourage, like J.Crew making jeans in L.A.

On those occasions when I’m able to buy a piece from Elizabeth Suzann or Lauren Winter or Han Starnes (because I’ve shopped less, saved by making, and then waited for a sale!) I feel like the purchase is the message — I’ve supported their business and cast a vote for them to do more of what they’re doing. But when deciding to buy from a mega-company like J.Crew because they did a thing I support, I feel like I need to go beyond just making the purchase and actually tell them that I bought those jeans as a result of that choice they made, that it’s not incidental. And to add that it would be even better if they’d use North Carolina denim.

And what about those overseas factory workers? I’ve heard so many people say that we’re doing them a favor — that the jobs created by our spending are better than what they had available to them before. Maybe that’s true — I have no way of knowing. I agree that people in other countries need jobs, too, but I also see that our corporations don’t have to insist on impossibly cheap price tags on our behalf. They don’t have to pocket enormous profits after telling the factory they won’t pay enough for the goods that the factory can afford to pay the workers a decent wage. We’re keeping people in poverty with our insistence on $6 t-shirts and $15 button-downs. So I’m raising again that I want to find a way to communicate to these companies that there are a lot of us who want another option — to pay a fair price and know the workers were fairly paid as well. If you have any specific ideas about that, please share them!

The conversation we’ve been having this month has been amazing and meaningful and I know for real that it impacts people’s thinking and choices. But we have to make ourselves heard in the marketplace. Consumer demand is the only way change happens, and financial support is the only way new things are possible.

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As I’m always saying, there’s no such thing as a pure closet. Everything we make and buy will have some element of trade-off; the point is to maximize the good and minimize the problematic as much as we can, to be thoughtful about our choices, and to do whatever is possible and affordable within our own circumstances. Even the smallest steps add up when enough people take them.

Here are just some of the possible steps to consider:

– Wear the things you already own for as long as possible. Using what you have (rather than discarding it and/or acquiring anything new) is the most environmentally responsible act there is. (And don’t forget: No one wants your old clothes)

– Additionally on the long-worn front, acquire things second-hand — either via thrift stores, online consignment or clothing swaps. Thrift stores can also be a great source for fabric, as well as sweaters for unraveling into yarn.

– Make as many of your own clothes as makes sense for you. For every garment you make, you can be sure no factory worker was exploited in its making. If you can also use traceable yarn or fabric, and avoid materials that may have been produced in damaging ways, so much the better.

– If you have a fabric outlet in your area that sells remnants and overstocks, support them. Even if the fabrics weren’t sustainably produced, you’ll be putting them to use and keeping them out of the landfill. (And saving money!)

– Buy directly from small, sustainable brands if that’s within your reach. Help them survive, thrive and multiply.

– If you shop in small boutiques in your area, ask them what they have that’s from sustainable brands. Let them know you want that. The same with your local yarn and fabric store — make a point of asking what’s local/sustainable/traceable, and support what you can afford to.

– If you see “import” on a product page in lieu of where something was actually made, ask them to be more specific. If they aren’t willing to say “Made in Bangladesh” or “Made in Cambodia” they shouldn’t be manufacturing there in the first place, and we (the consumer public) shouldn’t let them get away with not disclosing that.

– And the hundred things I’ve overlooked that I hope you’ll make up for in the comments. ;)

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I can’t thank you all enough for the amazing conversation this month. I always think I’m hyper-aware that I don’t have all the answers — far from it — and you still always challenge me in ways I didn’t see coming. The discussion on #slowfashionoctober this month has been smart and introspective and inspiring on so many levels. I know everyone will carry it forward throughout the year, but today I’d love to hear from you what your most important takeaway is, how your thinking has changed, or what you plan to do differently.

And if you missed anything here on the blog, the full batch of posts from this year can be scrolled through here.

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PICTURED
top left: 10-y-o J.Crew cardigan, even older and very mended J.Crew jeans, homemade plaid top
top right: homemade wool gauze pullover, J.Crew striped top, Point Sur jeans (made in US)
middle left: handknit vest, Fischer wool button-down (made in US), old J.Crew ponte pants
middle right: homemade linen dress and handknit vest
bottom left: very old and mended Gap camo pants, homemade top
bottom right: Elizabeth Suzann sample-sale tunic, same ancient J.Crew mended jeans
[Gap boots from a few years ago (China), very old tan J.Crew sandals (Italy), Salt Water sandals (China)]

PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion October: Slow Fashion resources

Slow Fashion resources

Slow Fashion resources

This final week of Slow Fashion October, “Known Origins,” has been amazing so far — the comments on my last two posts alone are so fantastic; go take a look here and here if you haven’t read them — and then there’s the wealth of great contributions on the #slowfashionoctober feed, which will continue through the weekend. As always, I’m calling out a few on @slowfashionoctober, but it’s impossible to do such a rich conversation justice.

For today’s links, I had this grand idea that I was going to put together an extensive, categorized resource guide for us all to lean on and build over time, and got completely overwhelmed just trying to get it started! It’s a deeply daunting task. So I’m just going to share a few links that either I personally know and believe in or that came from you guys and I’m particularly excited about. And I’m going to ask that you leave more suggestions in the comments below. Even (or especially) if you’ve left them already on other posts or on Instagram, I would love to have them all on one page, so please repeat yourself!

What’s below barely even qualifies as a scratch in the surface, but it’s what I can do at this moment — I hope it’s of some use.

Please note that it is not my intention to imply that “made in USA” is automatically a clean bill of health — it’s not. The following are all companies with a stated mission of sustainable practices. Most of the “made in USA” ones actually do in-house production, but some are simply sustainable brands doing domestic factory production.

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CLOTHES

Made in USA:

Alabama Chanin – one-of-a-kind garments hand-stitched by a network of independent sewers, using organic cotton jersey
Han Starnes – clothes made the in the south (sweaters in Peru), with an emphasis on traceable materials
Elizabeth Suzann — clothes made-to-order in their Nashville studio, plus transparency about many of the fabrics
Imogene+Willie — jeans made in Los Angeles, generally of Japanese or North Carolina denim
Jamie and the Jones – clothes made in their Nashville studio, many with locally loomed fabrics
Lauren Winter – clothes made in their Portland OR studio with an emphasis on sustainable materials
Pansy – organic cotton undies and bras, made in California
State – upcycled smocks and garments sewn in GA and NYC of sustainable materials
Tradlands – menswear-inspired clothes sewn in Chicago, emphasis on quality/longevity and timelessness
Zady – garments with every detail of the supply chain spelled out on the product page

Responsibly made elsewhere:

Ace & Jig — work directly with Indian weavers to develop their woven fabrics (top photo)
Blockshop Textiles — work directly with Indian blockprinters to develop their printed fabrics
Everlane – claim to use only the best overseas factories, less concerned about materials
Patagonia – activewear with an emphasis on sustainable sourcing and fair-trade sewing
Rêve en Vert – designer goods, limited to brands with sustainability at their core

. . . . .

SHOES

Made in USA:

• Bryr – handmade in San Francisco of US leathers (European bases) (bottom photo)
Cobra Rock Boot Company – handmade-to-order in Marfa TX
Sven Clogs – made of US leather and sheepskin (bases from Austria and Sweden)
L.L. Bean – their famous duck boots are still made in Maine

Responsibly made elsewhere:

Jane Sews – work with artisans in South Africa (also small-batch clothing)
Nisolo – work closely with artisans in Peru, offering above-fair-trade wages and job training

Really looking forward to what you guys will add to this batch, especially.

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FABRIC / YARDAGE

Hellgate Fabrics – natural-fiber fabrics from countries with fair labor practices
Huston Textile – fabrics loomed in their Rancho Cordova CA mill
Organic Cotton Plus – organic cotton plus hemp, wool and more
TN Textile Mill – fabrics loomed in their Nashville TN mill
Vreseis – fabrics woven from Sally Fox’s organic color-grown cotton

. . . . .

YARN

The thrilling thing is there are WAY TOO MANY great traceable/sustainable yarn options to even begin to list — which I don’t think I could have said even a couple of years ago. (Here’s hoping the same can be said of fabrics a few years from now!) I covered some ground in this yarn resources post last year, so please take a look at that — and at the comments on it for even more. And again, please mention your favorites in the comments below! We’re blessed that there are so many …

 

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PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion October: Is it more expensive to make your own clothes?

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:

SEWN
$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

KNITTED
$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.

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*Except things made as gifts. That seemed gauche.

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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

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PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion October: Elsewhere 3

Elsewhere: Slow Fashion October edition 3

Elsewhere: Slow Fashion October edition 3

So I have some terrific links for you guys this week, but what I also would really like to do is hear from YOU! There’s been so much shared all over the web throughout Slow Fashion October — in comments on the posts here and on the @slowfashionoctober highlights at IG, on blogs all over, and of course the entirety of the #slowfashionoctober feed. What have been your favorite posts and moments and ideas so far? Please link to your favorites in the comments below!

– I’ve read this post three times it’s so good: “This is what I’ll carry with me when I wear my sweater in the wide world. Secret, humming power.” (photo above, left)

– Felicia Semple on trying to define Slow Fashion from the consumers’ point of view: “All we can do is our best; to be informed and make choices that make the most sense on any given day. We need to accept that often we will make those choices in uncertainty, but strive to take responsibility for them regardless.”

– “I want to talk about what I sometimes feel is the elephant in the room when it comes to Slow Fashion. Not the longevity of the garments but the longevity of Slow Fashion as a movement.”

– “Apparently I paid a lot for marketing

– “Every day I do just one thing before bed — press a seam, sew a block, mend. I make tiny progress and I end my day with what I love.”

– “To others it’s just a white shirt but to me it represents what can be achieved in small steps and finding focus in a chaotic season.”

– “A thing I know is that making for my favorite people is a way to take care of them.”

– “Sewing has given me a lot: a mental capacity for new skills … an appreciation of quality work … and a moral sense of responsibility for all people the world over who make clothes — because some of us do it in our homes for ourselves and some of us do it in unsafe factories for other people. Sewing taught me to care about that as more than just an idle worry.” (photo above, right)

– “Hoard your clothes, kids!!!

– “Even if you only make one garment in one year, that’s something. And even if you knit one scarf, that’s something too. No shame if you cannot make your entire wardrobe; you still have a place in slow fashion.”

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Hey, if you’re in Middle Tennessee, I hope we’ll see you at Fiber in the ‘Boro tomorrow. And I hope you have a marvelous weekend no matter where you are!

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PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion October: Walking a mile in self-made shoes

 

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—
—Karen

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

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES
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

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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.

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PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion October: Elsewhere