Slow Fashion October wrap-up: What more can you do? [with Gina Stovall]

Slow Fashion October wrap-up: What more can you do? [with Gina Stovall]

Somehow October is already coming to a close, and we’re at the wind-down for Slow Fashion October. To close it out, I’ve interviewed Gina Stovall (@ginastovall) who is a climate scientist with a made-to-order clothing company called Two Days Off (@twodaysoffclothing). Naturally I wanted to get her dual perspective on the subject, but I also specifically wanted to end the month — to send us all off into the immediate future — with a focus on the environmental aspect of slow fashion. We’ve been looking inward this year/month, into our own closets and tendencies and preferences (always keeping a thought for the larger impact of our clothing), so I wanted to look upwards and outwards as we wrap it up.

The final pairing of Action Item and Discussion Prompts similarly is about giving thought to how we can each do better going forward, building on what we might have learned about ourselves, our habits and our closets this month. So check those out, and look for @ginastovall on Instagram!

. . .

I’ve been asking this of pretty much everyone this month, because the term “slow fashion” means so many different things to different people. What is your definition of slow fashion, and how did you first become aware of the concept and the underlying factors?

Slow fashion, to me, is clothing that is produced and consumed in a considered manner. Ideally it means clothing that does not exploit anyone in the process of making it, it is made to last, and its entire life cycle is considered so it’s not a burden on the environment. I also think slow fashion encompasses alternatives to traditional retail of today, like buying second-hand, making garments yourself, or simply creating a closet to last season after season and bucking our disposable, trend-driven culture.

I first became aware of the term “slow fashion” after the Rana Plaza catastrophe (like many others). But consciously shifted my buying habits about seven years ago when I started exploring minimalism.

Before the collapse of that factory where so many people lost their lives, I had never thought much about the person making my clothes. This is surprising looking back because I have been sewing as a hobby since I was a teenager. That was when I came to understand my privilege as a consumer in a western country and my ignorance of what impact my purchases have on the world in both a societal and environmental sense. Rana Plaza was the trigger for me to learn about slow fashion.

I can’t say I was completely ignorant of my impact though. I am a geologist and studied earth and climate sciences. I have been trained as a systems thinker, so the concept of “cradle to grave” isn’t new to me. In my early twenties many factors began to converge (i.e my environmental ethics and mental burden of my stuff) and I began living a more minimalist lifestyle. The first thing to tackle was my overflowing wardrobe (predominantly packed with “fast fashion”). I tinkered with capsule wardrobes and learned how to build a closet based on durable, classic pieces that I felt good in and wanted to wear over and over again. I became much more thoughtful in my consumption, went back to thrifting and buying vintage, high-quality pieces. I had finally started to make the parallels between my lifestyle and my profession.

Looking back now I realize that I had a winding road to get to a slower more mindful way of dressing myself, and somehow my hobby of sewing, my chosen career path, and my moral compass were pointing toward the slow fashion movement.

When you talk about clothing that is not a burden on the environment, that’s a giant subject in and of itself, and one I’m particularly keen to explore with you, as a geologist and climate scientist. First, there’s just the sheer volume of clothing that is being produced and discarded and shipped back and forth across the ocean. Can you talk a bit about the environmental implications of that glut of garments?

The environmental burden of garments lies in the way we both produce and consume. The clothes we wear are sewn together which has an associated energy intensity. They are made from fabric that had to be manufactured involving machinery, chemicals, water and other resources. The fabric is manufactured from fibers that had to be grown and harvested (in the case of natural fibers) or synthesized (in the case of synthetics). And all along the way there is that transportation cost to get these materials from one point to another which also requires energy and generates emissions. By the time a garment gets to the consumer it has already lived a long life of its own and that life may be a pretty dirty one when it comes to the environment. If the environmental cost of this garment was built into the price it would be much more expensive than what you find in fast fashion chains. It would also likely make most of us rethink the disposability of these items!

I don’t want to make it seem like mass manufacturing is all bad though. It can be much more efficient to produce and ship in bulk than one-off, small-scale making if it is done consciously and in a sustainable manner. The trend I am seeing these days are small makers and brands leading the charge and seeking out the sustainable options, and I truly hope that leadership will scale to the entire industry, and soon!

Slow Fashion October wrap-up: What more can you do? [with Gina Stovall]

And then there’s the question of fabrics and dyes and waste. This is the part that trips me up a lot, honestly, as a person trying to do her level best. I have always believed in natural fibers — it’s what I was taught to value as a kid, and what I prefer to wear (I can’t deal with fabric that doesn’t breathe), and natural fibers biodegrade. Whereas, in addition to the non-degradability of synthetic fabrics, there is increasing evidence of synthetic fibers (micro plastics) being washed into our rivers and oceans with every trip through the laundry. I’m happiest with a sweater when I not only made it myself but know exactly who raised the sheep and how they were treated and where the wool is spun and so on, but not every garment can be like that. Far from it! And there are downsides to my beloved cotton, as well. If we’re trying to do our best by the environment, what actually is the best we can do? And how do you approach fabrics for your Two Days Off goods?

I love that you bring up natural fibers, waste and other chemical processes associated with producing clothes because I think about this a lot for my brand Two Days Off. Because I am aware of the ethical and environmental ramifications in the industry I wanted to be as mindful in my decisions as possible. I decided from the outset that I would focus on natural fibers because they do biodegrade, and I try to stick to 100% of one fiber because they can be recycled. Natural fibers tend to have a lighter impact during production than synthetics, there are newer sustainable practices in the industry that can be leveraged, and like you mention they are breathable, comfortable and tend to wear longer. I also pay close attention to construction because if a garment is made of a nice material but falls apart then it again becomes a burden. So I use French seams, add pockets, reinforce areas that get a lot of stress because I want each piece to do the work over a long time. Finally, since I am small I can use deadstock fabrics. Deadstock is left over yardage from bigger brands that would otherwise go unused and end up in the landfill. This makes me feel better about using traditionally dyed fabrics because I know I am not adding to the demand for them.

You mentioned minimalism having played a key role in your evolution toward slow fashion, so I want to ask: Does minimalism for you mean simply living with less or are you also using it in an aesthetic sense? (For me, it’s both.) I ask because there’s been a lot of discussion (and I asked Martha about this earlier in the month) about whether “slow fashion” necessarily means austerity, or simplicity, or neutral colors. For me, like you, slow fashion primarily means clothing that is as responsible as possible and non-exploitative. It doesn’t mean a certain shape or style or color palette. Do you think a slow closet has to be a minimalist one, in either sense? Or do you think the one just naturally leads a lot of people toward the other? Does “less” have to also be colorless or shapeless?

It used to mean both for me, but since moving to California I feel my aesthetic sense shifting from a Scandinavian minimalism to something a little more wabi sabi. First and foremost, it is living with what I need and what adds value to my life and nothing more. (Which may be considered “less” by American standards!)

I definitely don’t think slow fashion has to be colorless and shapeless! Although admittedly my wardrobe is full of well-loved items that fit that bill. But I do think there may be something to a more austere approach to life and consumption leading to a simpler wardrobe. Or vice versa.

Slow Fashion October wrap-up: What more can you do? [with Gina Stovall]

So how did you decide to get into the clothing business, and what do you hope to accomplish with Two Days Off? How does it relate to your own attempts to dress yourself personally and thoughtfully? And are you making the clothes yourself or working with sewers in LA?

When I began to look at my wardrobe more thoughtfully and turned away from buying fast fashion, I went back to sewing more of my own pieces. A lot of the things I wanted to wear and sewed up weren’t available from ethical sellers and I starting getting interest from friends about what I was wearing. It took me a while to build up the confidence to start my own line and get over the “imposter syndrome” of not being educated in the fashion industry, but now that I am doing this and learning along the way I realize my naiveté about traditional fashion production puts me at an advantage to do things differently and think more sustainably. I personally make everything to-order, and since I am a one-woman show I am constantly experimenting and try new things. My aim is to make high-quality pieces people can love for a lifetime and help broaden the options for those who want to shop ethically.

I often am asked (or hear people musing about) whether a comparatively small community of people deciding to make changes in how they approach dressing themselves can ever have a meaningful impact, and I think it’s the same argument that comes up around meat (the climate impact of every household eating one less chicken a week, for instance) and the environment generally. Like it seems silly to pick on plastic straws when they’re just one of a million seemingly insurmountable contributors to the problems. Do you feel like it makes a difference if we choose to opt out of fast fashion, or to buy less, keep things longer, be more careful where and what we acquire? How do we gauge the impact, or can we even?

I absolutely believe it makes a difference. And after years of studying and working on climate change solutions I can say that these lifestyle changes are meaningful and measurable. Climate professionals aggregating data on our impact can correlate the amount of cattle slaughtered and sold or the number of t-shirts produced to the amount of greenhouse gases emitted. When our demand goes down those emission go down — in part it’s overconsumption that has thrown our planet out of whack. When each of us is mindful about what and how much we consume (of anything) it adds up, not to mention it teaches future generations better habits of consumption. And finally, and possibly most importantly, when people (the market) demand more from businesses it will be supplied. I truly consider the slow fashion movement as a Movement. Small indie brands like mine are stepping up to fill the need for ethical options and slowly we are see bigger brands hopping on board. Pretty soon I hope slow fashion will be the norm. It is up to consumers to hold industry accountable and push them to represent our values.

Slow Fashion October wrap-up: What more can you do? [with Gina Stovall]

We’re coming to the end of a long month of a complicated, multi-faceted discussion of all the issues underlying and surrounding slow fashion. For people grappling with how to do better, make better choices — especially those just getting started — what do you think is the most important thing to concentrate on? What are one or two things you think everyone can do that will start to make a difference?

Start with what seems achievable to you and don’t compare your efforts to what anyone else is doing. Also, do your research. You can’t know if something aligns with your values if you don’t have the facts. So start by reading the labels of the clothes you own. What is it made of, where was it made, can you ascertain who made it and in what conditions based on the brand? The next time you go to spend you money after asking these questions I bet you will ask them again and again.

. . .

Thank you so much, Gina! And thanks to everyone for making this year’s Slow Fashion October such a great conversation. Of course, October is not over yet and the conversation will continue on the #slowfashionoctober feed, but I also want to note that all of this year’s content will be preserved on the Slow Fashion October directory page, on @slowfashionoctober, and in the saved highlights at the top of the Instagram profile page. (If you haven’t seen all of the great stuff shared in those Story highlights, please do take some time to scroll through them! Such treasure.) All of the actions and prompts will be there any time you want to work your way through the steps — any month, any year!

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PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion October: How many clothes do you make/buy each year?

 

Q for You: How many clothes do you make/buy each year?

Q for You: How many clothes do you make/buy each year?

Last weekend, I tackled the closet cleanout challenge for Slow Fashion October (you can see how far I got in my saved Story), and also posted on Instagram about having gone about 6 months without buying a single solitary garment or shoe — 100% unintentionally and unknowingly — and how since then (in the past 11 months total) all I’ve bought is four t-shirts and four pair of shoes, plus a piece of outerwear. (I guess I can use the word “vest” for it, but it seems so inadequate!) In thinking about that, I asked myself whether I was so content and oblivious because I was adding clothes to my closet through making instead of buying. We’ve talked about the fact that if you’re making your own clothes, it’s essentially impossible to acquire them at a typical shopping rate — it’s inherently slower. But looking back through the same period, I’ve knitted two sweater vests (sweatshirt vest and plum Anna) and a pullover, and sewn two sweatshirts (short-sleeved and long-sleeved, both not quite right!) and two pair of pants (recycled denim and natural canvas). If you count the outerwear vest and the yet-to-be-seamed blue Bellows, I’ve added a grand total of 12 articles of clothing to my closet in 2018. Add in the pajamas I made during Summer of Basics and it’s a whopping 15! I wish I had some way of knowing what my lifetime average was up until last year, but I can tell you it’s a long way from 1-ish garments per month. And yet, somehow, even this list of items seems almost excessive to the me I’ve gradually morphed into over the past few years. I find the whole thing mind-boggling.

And for the first time since beginning to knit, I’m taking as long to pick my next sweater project as it would have taken me to knit one!

Who am I?!

Last night I was reading this bizarre piece on newyorker.com that was sent to me by a #slowfashionoctober friend, about how Rent the Runway has pivoted from special-occasion wear to become a source of everyday clothes for tens (hundreds?) of thousands of women. The article opens with a sort of suggestion that it has something to do with the slow fashion movement, but I have a hard time seeing how a company that’s buying up thousands upon thousands of garments of questionable origin and shipping them endlessly around to one person after another after another after another (with dry cleaning in between each) is any kind of antidote to the ills of fast fashion. NEVERTHELESS, it opens with some mind-boggling stats: “Each year, as Hyman is fond of pointing out, the average American buys sixty-eight items of clothing, eighty per cent of which are seldom worn; twenty per cent of what the $2.4-trillion global fashion industry generates is thrown away.”

Sixty-eight items of clothing per year? As an average?! At my most gluttonous, I’m certain I never bought 68 items of clothing in one year. And obviously making anywhere near that number is hilarious to even consider. All of which brings me to my Q for You: How many articles of clothing do you add to your closet in a year? And what percentage of them do you make versus acquiring them through other means? I know not everyone is in the habit of assessing their closet in the sort of gory detail I do for this blog, so I don’t assume you know exactly, but what’s your best guess? Or a range. As always, there’s no right or wrong answer! I’m just. So. Curious.

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I look forward to your responses, and wish you a happy weekend. I’ll be back to sorting through my piles if anyone wants to join me! I’ve got a really great closing interview lined up for Monday, and plenty more yarny posts to come next week!

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

Maker Crush: Llane Alexis

Maker Crush: Llane Alexis

I recently started following textile-based artist Llane Alexis on Instagram (@llanealexis) after a tip from @jenhewett (you know), and I’m kind of stunned that I never knew about him while I was still in San Francisco, where I would for sure have shown up at his studio wanting to see his work in person. Born and raised in Cuba, he’s been living and working in SF for almost 20 years and made a shift from painting to textiles when he became aware of the level of fashion industry waste. He now uses industry scraps in his work, which ranges from fabric wrapped objects (furniture, chandeliers) to tied-rag orbs to dolls and assemblages like this dress made entirely of waistbands. As we talk about repurposing and refashioning, and about what to do with garments that are too far gone, this week for Slow Fashion October, his work seems especially relevant and inspiring. Go check it out on his website and follow him @llanealexis.

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PREVIOUSLY in Maker Crush: Natalie of The Tiny Closet

Photos by Peter Vanderpast (@pder), used with permission

Slow Fashion October, week 4: What needs fixing? [with Katrina Rodabaugh]

Slow Fashion October, week 4: What needs fixing? [with Katrina Rodabaugh]

For this last full week of Slow Fashion October, I want to focus on that “maybe” pile you pulled from your closet during the cleanout, or the stack you likely already have sitting around somewhere — the near-misses, worn out favorites or should’ve-beens that you’re having trouble letting go of, either out of regret or sentimentality or maybe, just maybe, because there’s a way to turn them a pile of “yes.” (And by the way, we’re having the critically important conversation about how to responsibly re-home the “no” pile right here.) So this week’s interview is with our ol’ friend Katrina Rodabaugh (of the Slow Fashion Citizen interview series), whose new book Mending Matters has also just published! Katrina is such a great advocate for starting with secondhand and handmade, and then dyeing and mending as well as altering and refashioning, all ways to take something that’s not at its best for you, for whatever reason, and transform it into something you’ll genuinely love.

This week’s Action Item and Discussion Prompts revolve around this same topic, of course. And if you’re not already following @katrinarodabaugh on Instagram, mend that asap!

. . .

During the initial Slow Fashion October, one of the first things I asked people to share was the oldest/dearest thing in their closet. It was really striking how many posted a pair of shoes, and could say exactly where they got them, how long they’d had them, how many times they’d had them repaired to try to keep them going. I say striking because given the state of most shoe-repair shops these days, it seems to be a dying industry, and because I don’t think we generally take the same approach to our clothes. It seems like when something develops a hole or a stain or didn’t work out for whatever reason, our thought is simply to let it go. Why do you think that is?

I think there are two parts — I think the first part is emotional attachment and I think the second is value. Sometimes we keep garments in our closets simply because we have a sentimental or emotional connection and don’t want to let them go. The wedding dress is the classic example. But, also maybe a grandmother’s coat, a favorite sweater from college, or an outfit that a child wore repeatedly. Handmade garments fall easily into this area too because we feel invested in making them so we’re less likely to discard them.

But I think the second area is value. We keep things we value. Sometimes this means financial worth — we pay more money than usual for a garment, say a great pair of leather boots, and we’re willing to keep investing in them because of the initial financial cost of the boots. But, also value can mean how hard they were to acquire — we value them because they were hard to find or we value them because they fit perfectly. And, of course, value can mean craftsmanship or aesthetic beauty too.

There are all kind of ways to modify or update garments to breathe new life into them or make them work better for us. You’ve been posting recently about making even minor alterations to things that turned duds into wardrobe heroes. Can you give a few examples for those who maybe don’t follow your Instagram account (yet)?

I think natural dyes are a great way to reinvigorate garments. Color is amazing at transformation. So, if I purchase clothes that are biodegradable and made from cellulose (plant) or animal fibers then I can toss them into a natural dye pot when they get stained, discolored from laundering, or I just want to shift the color. Indigo dye is a great solution for cotton, linen and hemp clothing that needs a boost. Of course, mending, patching and altering clothing is a great way to reinvigorate too.

Slow Fashion October, week 4: What needs fixing? [with Katrina Rodabaugh]

Things like shortening a top or taking in a skirt or pair of pants are really easy to have done at a tailor or dry cleaner, for those who don’t have the time or skills to do it themselves. Dyeing is another possibility for transforming a tired or unloved garment, but that one’s not quite so simple or so easy to outsource. (Teenage me who had no qualms about dumping Rit dye into the bathtub is laughing at homeowner me right now.) I often wish dyers — especially natural dyers — did offer this as a service! I have at least three things right now that could use a dye job, but gathering the tools and supplies and setting it all up is something I find daunting. What are your thoughts and advice on that?

I think my role in slow fashion is really that of a teacher, writer and activist. While my tools are that of a fiber artist my passion is in helping folks to reconsider their wardrobes from a sustainable standpoint. I have a background in art and writing but I’m not a trained fashion designer. So, I’m thrilled to show someone how to dye, mend, stitch or rethink their clothing but it’s not currently my interest to take custom orders or start a clothing production line. Maybe someday, but not right now. I think it’s just about different strengths and focuses.

Some dyers might be willing to take custom work but there’s consumer education that has to happen too. Natural dyes express differently than synthetic dyes and predicting the exact outcome is often imprecise. It’s more like cooking — the ingredients vary depending on season, location, weather, water, fiber and the experience of the dyer. If the customer was willing to accept their clothing back in a range of color — not a specific shade of yellow but a yellow within a range — then I think more dyers might be interested in custom work. But we have to allow for some uncertainty and imperfection as dyers and makers — that’s the beauty and practice of the work is that it evolves and shifts.

Slow Fashion October, week 4: What needs fixing? [with Katrina Rodabaugh]

Some of my favorite projects — my own or things I’ve seen others do — are refashioning projects. Taking a garment that’s wrong in whatever way and making something else out of it. That could be a garment already in your closet (like the way-too-big Clyde dress I bought for a song at last year’s Elizabeth Suzann sample sale and haven’t yet figured out what else it might become) or a lot of clever people will hit the thrift store not just looking for great garments but for garments that have the potential to become something else. Do you think that takes a special eye, or just practice and a new way of thinking?

I love redesign. I think it’s really untapped in the fashion world — there are so many beautiful clothes to be found secondhand or even in our closets that could benefit tremendously from great redesign. I think it’s about practice and a willingness to experiment as a maker. But I really hope to see more fashion designers moving in this direction too. Especially with secondhand clothes because there is such a need to keep them from the landfills.

And then of course there’s the matter of mending, the subject of your new book. Mending is another of the lost arts, and part of why I think we dispose of even our most-loved clothes without considering if they could be saved. Most people have no idea how to “properly” darn a sock or fix a tear in a shirt. But the rise of “visible mending” has said, in effect, “you don’t have to be good at this or able to make it invisible.” It’s become cool to let your inexpert mend show and treat it as art and personalization and expression. But of course, even then, you do have to get a few basic things right for it to do the job. All of which you address in your book. Do you think visible mending is a trend or a movement?

I hope it’s a movement. When I turned my fiber arts studio towards sustainable fashion five years ago there were only a handful of menders online. And now there are hundreds of menders and so many folks integrating mending into their craft work. I hope that mending is finding its place in the craft and maker movement. It’s a great way to use hand-stitching, basic design, and a visual approach to repair. Yes, the repair needs to be sturdy — and I share all my techniques in my new book, Mending Matters — but once you have the basics you can progress quickly, like any craft.

Do you think visible mending leads people to also want to learn more about the “proper” ways (for lack of a better way of saying that!) and hone their skills? Is it a gateway hobby?

I think it’s like any other craft. I’m a beginner knitter so I’m only looking at basic knitting patterns right now but I hope to advance to more intermediate patterns and someday advanced patterns too. But first I have to learn the basics, exercise patience and just keep practicing. When I first started mending I wasn’t using the same techniques I use now. Through so much trial and error, student feedback, teaching, researching and writing I’ve developed techniques I feel really good about. But it took five years to get to this point in my mending work. If folks keep mending, they’ll make beautiful repairs with enough time.

Slow Fashion October, week 4: What needs fixing? [with Katrina Rodabaugh]

What do you think is the best, most rewarding aspect of altering/refashioning/dyeing/mending or otherwise exerting influence over your clothes?

Creative expression. Making the garments truly my own. Using the basic elements of design to repair jeans and knowing that I leave my imprint as a fiber artist on the garment. But, also being able to infuse my wardrobe with an aesthetic that feels like my art. And it’s a political statement too — better for the planet and the people.

And what’s your best advice for someone who is interested in some or all of this but has no idea how to start?

I always refer to that beautiful Arthur Ashe quote, “Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can”. I came across that quote years ago and I’ve been using it ever since — it’s the best metaphor for sustainable fashion. Just one garment at a time.

. . .

Thank you, Katrina — I hope everyone is feeling inspired to get into fix-it mode!

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PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion October: Weekend Reads

Weekend Reads

Weekend Reads: slow fashion, knitting, sewing

There’s the new UN report on climate change, the BBC documentary on fashion pollution, and also some lighthearted and inspiring stuff to talk about and explore!!

– Before I forget: If you’re at Rhinebeck this weekend and looking for a Field Bag, you’ll find it in the Harrisville Designs booth in Building A. (Eat a falafel for me! Hug a sheep for me! Say hi to everyone for me!)

– Tomorrow is International Repair Day, just in time for mending week coming up!

– Everything about this post of Mimi’s is amazing on all the levels

– Have you heard there’s a Fall 10×10 starting Monday? (I have a funny little idea I might make happen …) And that Lee Vosburgh has made a downloadable “define your style” guide? I haven’t had a look at it yet, so tell me what you think if you beat me to it!

99% Invisible is my very favorite podcast I rarely get to listen to, but I’ll be spending part of my weekend listening to their recent series, Articles of Interest, with episodes on plaid, pockets, blue jeans, kids clothes and more (thx, everyone)

–  I 100% agree with what Heather said about the overlap of sewing “frosting” and slow fashion (and I have a little #sewfrosting plan of my own)

– If I were anywhere near the Rhode Island School of Design, I’d be checking this out: “Repair and Design Futures is a multidisciplinary exhibition and programming series that investigates mending as material intervention, metaphor, and as a call to action.” (thx, Vanessa) (photo, above bottom)

– I will be in Palm Springs before their exhibition Scraps closes, though! (via @kikiluscious)

– I loved Ash Alberg’s thorough responses to this week’s Slow Fashion October prompts (among so many others!)

– For the month of Slotober, Emily at Reunion Yarn is offering her Unraveling Club online workshop (how to unravel sweaters and reclaim the yarn) for just $10, no code needed

– I would wear this apron every day, everywhere

– And maybe this quilted wonder on top of it (#tamaracksociety goals)

– And this is just jaw-dropping

Please note that I’ve corralled all of the great stuff I’ve been sharing in the Stories for the @slowfashionoctober account as saved highlights at the top of the profile page, so in addition to catching up with the posts in the main feed, do take a little time to flip through those — there’s just so much amazing, thoughtful, heartfelt, inspiring stuff.

Thanks again for spending some of your time here this week, dear readers. See you on #slowfashionoctober over the weekend and back here on Monday!

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PREVIOUSLY: Winners + Weekend Reads + More

How to make a visual closet inventory

How to make a visual closet inventory

OK, so I’ve had a lot of questions about how I do my photographic closet inventory and Closet Rummy™ outfit planning — especially since talking about it on the Love to Sew Podcast — and with so many people participating in the closet cleanout challenge for Slow Fashion October, I wanted to post a full rundown on how I do it.

This has been the single most effective thing I’ve ever done in terms of helping me really really KNOW what’s in my closet and how it works together; saves me time getting dressed; and prevents poor making/purchasing decisions. For instance, if I’m considering knitting something like a navy blue pullover, let’s say, it’s easy to think “oh hell, that’ll go with everything.” But when I can pull up all of my pants (har!) and say, Now really, which of these will you wear it with?, and the answer turns out to be two plus jeans, that’s informative. (Like is that enough to justify it, or will it lead to the ol’ “I need to make x, y and z to go with my navy sweater.”) Or if I’m obsessing over a pair of shoes, I can glance at the most recent outfit rundowns and ask myself How many of those outfits would I actually wear them with, and are they better than whatever is already pictured there?

It’s funny how many people have said to me “I know your closet better than my own,” and that says it all about how clear and illustrative it is to have this sort of photo inventory, and to consult it regularly.

My process might not work precisely for you, but I hope you’ll be able to adapt it in a way that will! Here are my steps:

1. TAKE PHOTOS

This takes like two minutes, total, when it’s a matter of adding a new acquisition to your existing inventory (and hopefully you add rarely anyway, right?), but it can feel daunting when you’re starting from scratch. So I don’t recommend trying to photograph your entire closet. Pull a selection of the clothes that are relevant right now, that you’ll be wearing in the next month or two, and just photograph those. Then you can add gradually over time.

– Place the garment against a white wall or surface and in daylight. (You don’t want a surface color or the yellow tint of artificial light throwing you off.) Our guest room gets excellent natural light so I use the wall adjacent to the window for this (and the rice paper blind acts as a natural filter). I take a painting off the wall and hang the garment on that nail, then aim my iPhone at it. It would be even better to have a large sheet of white foam core or illustration board (from the art/craft store framing department); lay it on the bed or floor near a window or open door; and lay the garment on there with no hanger. I do this with shoes and mean to start doing it that way with clothes to eliminate the hanger.

– Why is that better? Ideally, you’d have nothing in the photo that isn’t the garment, and especially nothing that’s adding an extra color. If you make a black-and-white outfit combo and the shirt is hanging on a pink hanger or background, it will register on your brain as a black-and-white-and-pink outfit, which it’s not. My wooden hanger is at least a neutral, but it would be better to have a white hanger or no hanger at all.

– Do your best to hold the camera so it’s parallel with the garment. You want the photo to be as straight and accurate as possible, with no distractions or distortions. And I try to keep the scale the same from one photo to the next, so the relative proportions are evident — although that’s not always strictly possible. The hanger (along with the paneling of my guest-room wall) is helpful in that regard: I try to keep the hanger about the same size and position in the frame when shooting tops, for instance. You could also make markings on your foam core for where you want the hanger and the edges of your photo to be, or whatever works!

2. EDIT AND SAVE PHOTOS

-iPhone photos, at least, tend to be quite yellow and/or grey, and you’re not likely to have perfect light every time, either. I use the A Color Story app on my phone to correct the photos (as previously discussed here, along with tips from Jen Beeman and Brandi Harper) but you can use the built-in edit function or any app you like. If you are not familiar with photo editing, a few simple steps will go a long, long way. Use the Sharpen function. Play with the Brightness and Contrast settings, and try the Curves tool in ACS. (It can be as simple as grabbing the center dot on the curve and dragging it toward the upper left corner a little or a lot.) Use the Warmth slider to correct the blue/yellow balance, and the Tint slider to balance the green/red tones. Seriously, with just a little trial and error you’ll get the hang of it! Then it will only take you a few seconds per photo once you do, and you’ll be able to use those skills to improve all of your photos.

-Again, try to be as consistent as possible with editing the photos so they’re all nice and clear and bright.

– If nothing else, make an album in your camera roll and keep all of your garment photos together in there.

– Even better is to save them together in a folder on your hard drive or in the cloud, which is what I do, with descriptive filenames like “black linen pants” and “ivory fisherman sweater.” I have few enough clothes that I don’t subcategorize them, apart from the fact that I keep shoes in their own folder, but if you want to make folders for pants and dresses and sweaters, go for it! (That might also help you see any imbalances, like if you have 20 pairs of pants and only two shirts.) Again, organize them in whatever way works best for you. I like having mine on a cloud-based service so I can access them from anywhere, anytime I might need to.

3. COMPILE PHOTOS INTO OUTFITS

– Once you have them saved somewhere, even just opening up that folder in grid view wherever the images live can be enough for you to see your whole closet at a glance, and that alone will likely give you outfit ideas or guide your future decision making.

– Since I use Photoshop every day of my life, I use it to compile my outfit grids for the Wardrobe Planning posts, which I then print out and keep handy. There are quite a few apps now that apparently allow you to do the same sort of thing, but I have not personally tried any of them, since I have a process that works for me. Stylebook is the one that gets mentioned to me the most often. Capsule Wardrobe was created by knitter Kelsey Leftwich. And I recently ran across one called Personal Lookbook on Instagram. I’m sure there are many more, and would love to hear from anyone who has used any of them!

– But you can also line up pics into outfits anywhere you can import a photo. It could be a spreadsheet or a word doc or just about anything, really. The only important thing is that you be able to place any given photo more than once, since you’ll want to incorporate any given garment into multiple outfits, right?

Like just about anything, this could feel daunting and time-consuming while you’re in startup mode, trying to figure out your best tools and techniques and process. But once you find a system that works for you, it will actually save you a ton of time and take only a few minutes here and there to update — and then a fun hour here and there planning a month of outfits or what to pack for your next trip.

I hope everyone will share their own strategies and advice in the comments below! And if there’s anything I’ve left out, just ask!

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By the way, pictured is my recently finished Anna Vest, the pattern for which published yesterday. It’s my 21st FO of the year, the third knitted garment I’ve finished in 2018, and there are a few other details on Ravelry. So this photo has been added to my wardrobe files!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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For more of Martha, follow @mwmmpls on Instagram!

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

Photos © Martha McQuade, used with permission