Hello, folks. It’s been a while again, hasn’t it? I’ve got plenty of new projects to show you – a couple of new dresses have made their way from the sewing machine to my wardrobe, and I’ve been knitting away like a fiend for the past couple of months – but my posts on The Little Quince have been impeded somewhat for the last month or so by quite how bloody busy I’ve been. There have been weddings, beer festivals, family visits, a holiday in the arse end of the Pennines (which was much lovelier than I’ve made it sound, you’ll be happy to know)… you name it, and Mike and I seem to have been busy doing just that. Then throw three weeks of broken internet into the mix, too, and… well, yeah.
You’ll no doubt soon be sick of me, though, as I’ll be posting regularly for the rest of October – at least once a week. Before you burst into tears and ask what on earth you did to deserve this, I should probably explain that October is Slow Fashion Month, an initiative established by knitwear designer Karen Temple to, in her words:
… celebrate not only our own makes (although definitely that!) but clothes that have been made for us by others; worn over the course of years or decades; handed down or rescued from thrift shops or attics; mended; handcrafted in the small studios of slow fashion designers and/or from ethical fabrics; and so on. I want it to be about responsible and sustainable fashion in all its splendor, in other words. An opportunity to discuss and explore the wide range of topics that are at the core of slow fashion.
I’m a little late to the party for the first week of Slow Fashion October thanks to the impressive inefficiency of my internet service provider, but the intricacies of and the discrepancies around fashion and clothing is a conversation worth having, so I’m belatedly heading back in time a week to join in with Week One: ‘Introductions‘. I don’t think I need to tell you all about myself, per se (you can head back to my first ever post if you’ve missed the memo there), but I think it’s worth reiterating where I stand on the issues Karen outlines above.
You might remember from one of my early posts that my foremost resolution for the year has been to work on building a more responsible wardrobe, through:
- Sewing more clothes myself, and improving my sewing skills so I’m able to do more of this
- Picking up the items I need second-hand wherever possible
- Only buying new clothes with a high level of ethical and environmental responsibility in their manufacture.
This blog, set up in January, is my way of documenting my adventures in responsible fashion, and I hope that much is evident from my posts, but I don’t think I’ve gone into much detail about my reasons for embarking on that mission, my day-to-day rationale for making the decisions that uphold it, or the challenges and discrepancies I frequently face. So, under a few miscellaneous headings, here are a few garbled pieces of explanation.
I don’t know whether I’d call myself strongly-principled. I’m not nearly as much of an activist as I should be, but I hold strong opinions on certain matters – social justice, feminism, the environment – and, by and large, I practise what I preach.
The diversity of the issues that concern me, though, means that I sometimes find it hard to reconcile their conflicting demands. For example, my standpoints on animal welfare and the environmental impact of intensive agriculture lead me to eat a largely vegan diet, but I still eat (local) honey because the monumental environmental impact of extracting agave syrup and shipping it halfway around the world leads me to conclude honey is the less shitty choice of the two. I’m still learning, and I continue to use the knowledge I gather to inform the choices I make every day.
Here are a few of the ethical standpoints I stand behind in my slow fashion choices:
- Shopping with small, local, independent businesses is, by and large, a brilliant thing to do.
- Using yarn from British sheep is preferable to using merino shorn from mulesed Australian sheep and shipped halfway around the world, and choosing yarn from rare breeds supports their maintenance and stewardship.
- If angora isn’t disarmingly expensive, chances are it came from very unhappy rabbits.
- ‘Made in Britain’ labels tend to indicate higher standards of labour conditions than ‘Made in China’ or ‘Made in India’, and that the clothes have travelled less far.
- ‘Organic’ is a good place to start an ethical journey, but it isn’t the be-all and end-all.
- Repair rather than replace, if possible, and buy the best quality you can to maximise longevity.
And yet, while these are all reasonable choices to support, some of them are directly contradictory, or choosing to support one is to choose to let another fall by the wayside. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to reconcile some of the conflicting choices I make: while I do openly prioritise some over others, I could never put them into an objective order of importance. Sometimes I fall one side of the fence and sometimes on the other; sometimes I leap decisively to one side but still look longingly to the other; sometimes I stay sat on the fence wobbling precariously and try not to fall flat on my face. So it goes.
A few months ago, Mike’s phone came to the end of its contract, and he started looking for a new one. Being a thorough sort of chap, he spent hours looking at the models available, trading off tariffs and weighing up his possibilities, while I got bored and wandered off to bed Eventually, he chose the package he wanted and started placing an order.
A few minutes later he joined me in the bedroom, looking slightly taken aback.
“I’ve just realised,” he said. “I’ve spent the last two hours looking at brand new phones when I have a completely functional one right in front of me. I don’t need a replacement – my old one’s perfectly fine. I’m a little bit freaked out by how easy it was to convince myself that I needed a new one.”
(He picked up a SIM-only contract, installed a different-looking interface and bought a new case for his old phone, by the way. I know, I know, I tell the best stories.)
We’ve all done it – convinced ourselves that we ‘need’ something when, in fact, we just want it for the sake of it. Phones, gadgets, clothes…
It’s an objective fact that I don’t need any more clothes. I’m relatively ruthless with my wardrobe – things I don’t wear are turfed out quickly, and I’ve never had a wardrobe that’s full to bursting – but generally I don’t struggle to find things to wear among the clothes I already have. And, of course, I haven’t been buying any more, so it’s OK, right?
However chuffed I may feel that the majority of this year’s additions to my wardrobe have been handmade rather than shop-bought, the stark fact remains that, though I might not impulse-buy clothes these days, I still often start knitting or sewing projects based on what I fancy right there and then, rather than on what gaps there are in my wardrobe.
I’m a huge fan of circle skirts, for example: they show off big prints to their best advantage, they’re swishy and excellent, and the shape makes my bum look amazing. And yet I know that I hardly ever wear the ones I have: I struggle to find good tops to wear with skirts and, most importantly, I don’t want to spend my life ironing acre upon acre of fabric. My selection of Mortmain dresses, meanwhile, are wardrobe staples: I may have already made three and be planning more, but they’re the kind of everyday dress I like to wear to work and in the pub and on the sofa and to the park and… you get the idea. If I make a Mortmain, I know I’ll get my money’s worth of wear and enjoyment out of it; if I make a circle skirt, I’ll love it but it will languish on the hanger. What a waste of time and resources.
Just because I can make an item for myself, it doesn’t mean that I need to. My turnover of handmade clothes is far lower these days than it used to be because my foresight is better, but every now and again I still feel a bit of a pang as I consign an old sweater – started on a whim, finished with a sinking heart and immediately relegated to the drawer – to the ‘donate’ pile. It’s a lesson I’m still learning.
Something that became evident when I worked in a knitting shop is the extent to which handicrafts have become luxury hobbies in recent years. The textile industry is booming; fabric and labour come cheap these days; people in the western world don’t knit and sew because they need to. That’s obviously a fantastic thing, since it means individuals generally aren’t priced out of basic clothing, but it renders the concept of ethical or self-made fashion unattainable for many people. It’s only too easy to frame that as a fault of the individual – after all, people should just learn to knit their own clothes if they’re bothered about the issues surrounding the textile industry, right?
Wrong. Think about the economic limitations of slow fashion: if I were working inhumane hours in a dangerous industrial environment for an unfeasibly low wage, would I save that hard-earned cash to spend it on local wool so I could spend six weeks knitting myself a new sweater? I think not. If I had to make my entire family’s clothes from scratch because otherwise they’d have none, would I jump for joy at the thought of coming home to my darning basket? Nah mate. If the price difference between an £80 pair of jeans made from organic cotton in a Fairtrade co-op and £3 pair of jeans of questionable origin were literally my entire month’s food budget, which way would my priorities fall? The answer, I think, is obvious enough.
I make my own clothes and participate in slow fashion activities because I’m lucky enough to have the time and resources to make that happen. I’m able to sew and knit and spin for pleasure, rather than because I’d struggle to clothe myself if I didn’t. And for all I bang on about the importance of ethical fashion, I’m only too aware that many people don’t have the means to make that choice, whatever their preference might be. The ethical agenda isn’t a stick to beat people with.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling all virtuous and smug because I make a lot of my clothes these days, but it doesn’t mean I never succumb to my desire to order unbelievably cheap jersey from Chinese eBay shops, or superfine Australian merino yarn in the LoveKnitting sale. Barely any of the fabric in my stash is organic and, to be quite honest, I don’t know much about the processes it has gone through to arrive on my sewing table.
When it comes to ethical fashion, I’m far from a role model. I still buy tights and socks and underwear from high street shops, and I don’t question their origins or production methods as much as I should. When I choose fabric or yarn, I don’t always remind myself that stashing up on materials of questionable origin isn’t really a great deal better than buying the finished item (if you don’t count the fact that the labour is done by my good self rather than a Taiwanese child).
My dedication to ethical fashion isn’t yet where I want it to be or where it should be. Unpalatable as that thought is, I’m trying to use it to spur myself into taking greater pains to make better choices and think more critically about why I buy the things I buy. It’s a continuous process and, really, I don’t think it should ever stop.
Slow fashion and ethical textiles aren’t a question of ” I’ve done my bit, job’s a good ‘un.” It pays to remember that every choice we make has a knock-on effect of some kind, whether that’s giving our tacit financial backing to an ethically questionable industry by buying sweatshop-made clothes or enabling a pattern-cutter to treat themselves to a cup of coffee by supporting their living-wage employer. Putting our money where our mouths are is not only a powerful and legitimate form of protest; it’s effective. In 2008, Ethical Consumer ended its long-held DKNY boycott after a campaign by the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops successfully swayed the fashion house’s procurement processes – I’d rather run ten campaigns like this single-handed than be complicit (directly or indirectly) in another Rana Plaza incident.
These points, in a very large nutshell, are just a few of the reasons why I support Slow Fashion October.
This has ended up being a bit of a serious post – a bit heavier on the moral messages than my usual – but it’s something I’ve been meaning to write, as for some time I’ve been wanting to lay out the reasons why I blog. I may major on the goofy posts about pretty dresses, but my rationale couldn’t be more serious, really.
Week Two of Slow Fashion October should be much more lighthearted, you’ll be pleased to know: the theme is ‘long worn’, and I have plenty of ancient sweaters full of darns to show you. Til next time, you lovely bunch.
(Oh, and if you’d like to follow the progress of Slow Fashion October, see who’s participating and read what they have to say, or join in the conversation yourself, head over to the Slow Fashion October feed on Instagram.)