Thursday, 19 October 2017

Refashioning project: improving the fit of a stretchy sweater

One of my biggest problems with fast fashion is its short lifespan; so many high street clothes are destined for landfill sooner rather than later. We can extend the lifespan of our clothes by choosing selectively and washing carefully, but what do we do when the clothes we like start looking a bit worse for wear?

I bought this sweater in Primark a few years ago; I liked the contrasting knitted textures and the metal sequin details on the shoulders. Unfortunately, it inexplicably grew sideways every time I washed it, and the ribbing at the hem and cuffs went wrinkly. The sweater wasn't oversized enough to create an interesting volume contrast if I wore it with something fitted, but it looked too baggy and shapeless to be part of a 'smart' outfit. It just wasn't my style any more and wasn't working as part of my wardrobe. I knew if I took it to a charity shop it wouldn't fly off the shelf as it had obviously been worn and washed a fair few times, so my only options were to abandon it to the textile recycling, or try to transform it into something I would be happy to wear.

I unpicked the side seams and most of the raglan armhole, leaving about 3cm where the armhole met the neckline, as I wanted to leave that intact. I turned the sweater inside out and marked a vertical 'centre front' and 'centre back' line, measuring the mid-point of the neckline, the hem and the widest part (underarm to underarm). Stretch clothes can warp and twist around the body if the pattern pieces aren't positioned correctly on the fabric when they are cut out, so refashioning a garment like this can be a good opportunity to correct this problem. I marked a possible new side seam line based on my bust and waist measurements, then pinned it on my dressmaking stand to check it.

Having a dressmaking stand or mannequin is really handy if you do a lot of dressmaking, but if you don't have the money or space for one you can fit the garment directly onto yourself instead; just use safety pins instead of straight pins so the pins don't get dislodged as you take the garment off, and get a friend to help if necessary! Fit with the sweater inside out, and use the chalk centre front and centre back lines as a guideline to avoid pulling either side too tight; these two lines should remain vertical. 

I also altered the sleeves, using my bicep and wrist measurements as a guide, but allowing a few centimetres of 'ease' so the fit wouldn't be too snug.

Stretch clothing is usually assembled using specialist machines in factories, but it's possible to alter stretch clothes at home with just a regular sewing machine. I used a long, narrow zig-zag stitch to sew the seams, and a shorter, wider zig-zag on the edge of my seam allowance to stop it fraying. The seams have enough stretch to allow me to pull the sweater on or off easily, but the new fitted shape is much more my style. I can wear it tucked into a skirt for work, or with trousers for a more casual look

I couldn't resist posing with some of the wonderful willow sculptures at Wakehurst Place, then got a bit silly with the light/colour balance while I was editing my photos, but it looks like my upcycled sweater is the perfect thing to wear in a psychedelic autumnal wonderland! 

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Our fashion choices can speak volumes about us, but we all need to be part of the conversation

Our clothing is a powerful method of non-verbal communication, and can have a really positive impact if we are able to make it work for us. But what do we do if the fashion industry isn't giving us the chance to say what we want to say? 

I've written about about the limitations of fast fashion when it comes to fitting or flattering our bodies, but I've also written about the fun we can have with our clothes, even indulging in some closet cosplay to give us the confidence of our favourite fictional characters when the going gets tough. I strongly believe that clothes should make you feel comfortable, both physically and psychologically, but I also think clothing works well as armour, equipping us to deal with challenging situations by projecting an image of strength, competence or resilience that perhaps we need a bit of help to feel authentically. 

I've been dealing with both physical and mental health issues recently, and sometimes the thought of everything I need to do in a day makes it almost impossible to get out of bed. But I know that flopping around in my pyjamas will only make me feel worse, so every evening before I go to bed I lay out a nice outfit, and every morning I force myself to put it on, to brush my hair, apply some make-up. Seeing the person I want to be looking back at me in the mirror reminds me that I am more than my problems, I have the strength to cope with difficult situations and work towards the goals I have set for myself. It might sound shallow, but looking good makes me feel much better about myself; it makes me feel like I should be out and about in the world, rather than huddling at home. 

My relationship with my clothes has changed and evolved since I became a more conscious consumer; taking part in Labour behind the Label's Six Items Challenge cemented my view of my favourite clothes as valuable and versatile rather than disposable, and while I'm thinking much more carefully about the clothes I buy new now, I also apply the same scrutiny to the clothes I already own. If my clothes aren't looking their best, or making me look my best, I alter them, mend them, or decide they weren't really meant for me and take them to a clothes swap or charity shop. I remember my dad making fun of the designer logo trend that was popular in the 90s ("they should be paying me if they want me to advertise their brand!"); it wasn't a fad I ever bought into, but I do want to be a good advert now for ethical and sustainable fashion. I want people to see that alternatives to fast fashion are smart and stylish, and to dispel the outdated and inaccurate stereotypes that occasionally still linger around eco-friendly or second-hand clothes. All the outfits I've worn this week feature clothes from swaps, second-hand shops, or are rejected manufacturing samples or things I have made myself! 

The fact that the clothes I am now choosing to buy are manufactured in ways that align with my personal values adds another feel-good factor to my wardrobe. I know I'm trying my hardest to have the smallest possible negative impact on other people and the environment; my values are lived, not performative. Ethical fashion blogger Tolly Dolly Posh makes a strong case for ethical and sustainable fashion as a feminist movement, and points out "FEMINIST" t-shirts need to be more than just a slogan stamped on a shirt that has been made in a sweat shop. This was certainly a concern for my friends at The Suffragette City, who didn't want their "Same Shit, Different Century" fundraising t-shirts and bags (created to raise money for Abortion Rights) to be asking for a better world through their slogan only. They chose to partner with Rapanui (through Teemill) a company who make their clothes and bags from organic cotton in an ethically accredited wind-powered factory.

There is an element of privilege here, because ethical products are often more expensive than their fast fashion equivalents, but there are also vast, global issues under the surface: if the average consumer's wages are so low that we are unable to clothe ourselves or our families without buying items made in sweatshops, should we be clamouring for more sweatshop-made clothing, or for global change that results in less wage inequality so that we can all have nice things? Ethical and sustainable brands are usually run by young entrepreneurs, keen to make a difference but aware that they have bills to pay. High street fast fashion brands are run by some of the richest people on the planet, who somehow still can't afford to pay their workers a fair wage. I know who I would rather give my money to! 

Ethical and sustainable fashion can be inaccessible for reasons other than cost; this Refinery 29 article features plus-size fashion bloggers discussing the problems they have faced trying to find clothes that fit their values and their bodies. I received a detailed and thoughtful email from my aunt, a savvy charity shop bargain finder (it must run in the family, my sister and cousin have a talent for it too!) who wants to find ethical fashion for older women at a price point she can afford on a pension. Although the new brands I have been looking at definitely seem to have more diverse models, it’s important for all customers to see themselves represented, so that ethical and sustainable fashion will be seen as the norm, as something for everyone, rather than as a niche purchase for people with money and the time to go searching online for the perfect piece of clothing. 

So what can we do to get the clothes we want, in a way that is good for everyone? We can ask for what we want! Contact small brands and ask if they can make something in your size (some of these brands work on a bespoke model in the first place to avoid the wastage of unwanted stock, so it might be possible without a large increase in price), or ask what their plans are for including your size in their range in the future. Sometimes a brand has to start with a capsule collection in limited sizes in order to fund a roll-out of a variety of sizes and styles later on. We should also contact bigger brands and ask them to increase workers' wages, or to use sustainable materials. We tend to demand more of smaller brands with accessible customer service when we have spent more (which is absolutely our right as consumers), but blame ourselves for buying cheap clothes that don't fit or are poorly made, and are more likely to give or throw away the offending item rather than complaining. Multinationals need to be made aware of their mistakes too; they are not going to change unless they think customers won't buy their products any more. 

It used to be normal to be demanding when it came to our clothes: if we were having an outfit made by a dressmaker or tailor we would select specific fabric, fastenings and trims, have our measurements taken, come back for fittings, and insist on quality materials and finish. The price we pay for low cost fast fashion isn't just the damage to the environment or the exploitation of workers, it's that, unless we are very lucky and exactly the same size and proportions as a shop's fit model, nothing will ever fit us perfectly. Fast and cheap also has an impact on innovation and vision; it's hard for designers to produce unique and inspiring work that pushes the world of fashion forward when they are being asked for eight collections per year instead of two, with high street brands following suit and cutting down on design details to save time and money.

We can support the brands that help us to look and feel like the best versions of ourselves, and ask the brands that are letting us down to do better. I'll leave you with this quote from author and sustainable living advocate Anne Lappe:

“Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want”

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Upcycling project: Make Do and Mend meets modern technology!

I like wrapping up warm in cosy layers for autumn and winter, but I always end up with cold hands because I'm having to pull my gloves off to use my phone. Some shops do sell smartphone-compatible woolly gloves, but I prefer fitted leather (or faux equivalent) gloves, and I already have about a dozen pairs, so I really don't need any more! (Please don't judge me, some of them were gifts!)

I have a couple of older pairs with worn fingertips, so I decided to darn these with conductive thread, to make them stronger as well as smartphone friendly. I bought a bobbin of conductive thread online, there's enough thread on it for several pairs of gloves. I have a vintage tool for glove darning (to fill out the fingers so I don't accidentally sew them closed), but a chunky pen, or a spoon handle, would work just as well.

The thread needs to come into contact with your fingers as well as the touch-screen of your phone, so I needed to make sure my stitches went all the way through the fabric of the gloves. As well as darning over the hole in the thumb of this pair of gloves, I stitched a patch on the other thumb and both forefingers as well. I spent a couple of minutes swiping through some apps on my phone first, to work out which part of my finger came into contact with the screen to make sure I stitched the right area of the fingertips on the gloves.

To strengthen the worn fingertips and ensure the conductive thread patch would definitely work, these horizontal stitches also run parallel on the inside of the glove.

The vertical stitches catch the longer threads firmly to the glove, creating a dense patch that will make contact with my finger and the phone, and won't unravel or get caught on anything.

It was really satisfying using my phone with gloves on when they were done! I might not have quite enough dexterity to type a text wearing gloves, but I can use the camera, change my music or answer a call.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Ethical Brand Directory Live: showcasing a stylish and sustainable eco-friendly lifestyle

One of my favourite things about the ethical fashion community is finding out the 'origin story' of new brands and businesses; the lightbulb moment or slow realisation that led a person to their understanding of just how broken the current fashion system is, and their decision to do something positive to fix it. 
For Roberta Lee, a stylist and self-confessed "former fast fashion junkie", it was the realisation that brands making beautiful clothes with ethical values and sustainability at their heart were much harder to find than their fast fashion counterparts. Tired of wasting time searching online, she set up the Ethical Brand Directory, a site that showcases stylish ethical brands and the people behind them.   
The Ethical Brand Directory Live event was an opportunity to hear from ethically-minded entrepreneurs who don't want to compromise on style or sustainability, and to hear words of wisdom for anyone who wants to be a more ethical consumer.

Roberta Lee chatted with Bel Jacobs, a fashion journalist who now focuses on ethical fashion and sustainability.Bel emphasised the importance of buying from ethical brands if we want to see them succeed, and how worthwhile it is to keep increasing our knowledge of the subject, as it inevitably leads to us making positive changes in other aspects of our lives as we become more environmentally- and ethically-minded consumers. 

I'm always impressed by the positive and supportive atmosphere the ethical fashion community has created on social media, so I was really pleased to hear Bel talking in terms of respect and compassion for everyone, including ourselves. While she was fashion editor at the Metro, she promoted trends that she now considers unethical, and she described the guilt she felt when she first learned more about ethical fashion. Roberta agreed that we need to make more thoughtful choices once we know more, but throwing away all our high-street purchases doesn't help as that only adds to the problem of clothes going to landfill. 

Bel spoke about the need to reach out beyond the sphere of people who are already enthusiastic about ethical and sustainable fashion, wondering "how can I have more dialogues without freaking people out?" She had managed to get a discussion going about fur at a mainstream fashion event, which felt like progress, but had noticed how defensive people could get if directly confronted about their unethical fashion practices. She thinks gentle conversation is the way forward; we are all on a journey towards becoming more ethically-minded consumers, and we are all at different points on that journey, discovering more as we go along. Bel described the ”epiphanies” she had experienced that had led her to change her diet and lifestyle alongside her fashion habits.

When Roberta asked "how can we have a meaty discussion (without the meat)?", Bel was full of useful suggestions; she emphasised the power of social media in getting a positive message out to more people, and letting products speak for themselves. Beautiful design will appeal to customers in a way that scare tactics won't: too many dire warnings about the environment, and people will feel overwhelmed and won't do anything. She also spoke about the importance of collaboration over competition, especially with other women who are setting up other ethical businesses. At first Bel felt disheartened when she saw that someone else had set up a similar online ethical magazine to the one she was working on, but realised she could see the differences in their ventures as well as the similarities, meaning there was potential for wider audience reach and collaboration.  
Roberta reminded the audience that comparison can be a confidence killer, to remember our purpose and see the success of others as an opportunity.

Bel was honest about the distance that ethical fashion brands have to go to compete with high street chains; she and Roberta discussed the necessity of being able to make a profit as an ethical brand. Even though the current fashion system isn't working and has led to great environmental destruction, the founders of ethical businesses still need to make a living so that they can continue to have an impact and disseminate their message. Bel also emphasised our power as consumers, advising us to ask established brands to make the changes we want to see, and encouraged us to complain more!

We heard from two ethical business owners: first up was Julie Kervadec, the co-founder of AmaElla lingerie, an underwear and nightwear brand that launched their first capsule collection of organic cotton clothing with a crowdfunding campaign.
Julie listed the top three selling points of her brand: the fabrics are responsibly sourced and earth-conscious, they are free from toxic dyes and chemicals, and the brand is focussed on long lasting quality. Her business idea was inspired by the lack of good quality, beautiful organic cotton lingerie available. She and her business partner were both frustrated with their corporate careers and wanted a more meaningful life. She had worked as a buyer for fast fashion brands and had experienced bad practice, so she wanted to set a higher standard with AmaElla. 

Julie discussed the pitfalls of starting up a new small business with Roberta: the need to be resilient because everything that could go wrong, will go wrong! She described the challenges of finding factories to work with when she wasn't an established brand and wanted smaller minimum orders than high street shops, and the technicalities of textile manufacturing that can lead to product development taking longer and costing more money. 
Ethical and sustainable business practices are at the heart of AmaElla for Julie: she has visited the factories she uses for manufacturing, and has checked every aspect of the supply chain, so she knows that every piece of trim on her products has been sustainably sourced. She operates a paperless office, and even cycles to work! She uses official organic cotton certifications for her products, and keeps consumers informed by detailing the company's story in their website. She is hopeful for the future of fashion, and described her dream of an industry where far more products are made to order (similar to the pre-order model of a crowdfunded collection) so fewer materials are wasted, and less unwanted clothing ends up in landfill.

We also heard from Charlie Ross, the founder of Offset Warehouse, who was shocked to learn the realities of the fashion industry while watching a documentary as part of her fashion degree. She wanted the fabrics she used and the clothes she made to be beautiful, but she knew that couldn't come at the expense of people or the environment. On top of her regular studies, she began to research the textile industry, to find out how and where she could source fabrics that had been manufactured without exploiting anyone. At the end of her degree she put her research online, and was amazed by the response it got; she was inundated with requests for help with buying ethical fabrics. Often these would-be customers wanted fashion forward fabrics in smaller amounts, so realising how much her expertise was needed, she set up Offset Warehouse. Roberta emphasised how important good fabrics are when it comes to making desirable clothes, but it is often the area of fashion that we think about the least. Charlie agreed; as well as sourcing ethical fabrics that don’t compromise on beauty, she is also obsessed with new fibres and the technology behind them. Surprisingly, H&M is the biggest buyer of reconstituted polyester and organic cotton (although it’s still only a small percentage of their total output), and zip manufacturer YKK is using reconstituted plastic in its products. In order to ‘close the loop’ of production and stop waste going to landfill, new fabrics are being developed using coffee grounds, banana fibre, reconstituted microfibres (from the washing of polyester) and even hagfish slime: the secretions of a deep sea creature that has elastic properties! 

Akhil Sivanandan, the founder of Green Story, joined the live event from Canada, and gave a presentation on how businesses can increase sales by emphasising their green credentials in a way that draws the consumer in and makes them feel connected. Echoing Bel Jacobs’ point about the unhelpful nature of too many statistics, he outlined the reasons customers might not make a purchase based on the company’s ethics or sustainability: a lack of understanding about the specifics of a vague claim of ‘sustainability’, a lack of understanding about the impact their purchases might make, and the price of the product being sold. Although most consumers have good intentions about buying ethical or sustainable products, most of the time that doesn’t translate to actual purchases. 

Akhil advises his clients to calculate the environmental impact of the raw materials and utilities they use, and compare this to a less sustainable business model. These studies are unlikely to be of interest to consumers in their raw data form, so by converting this into units of measurement a customer will understand it’s possible to draw them in and get them thinking about the impact their purchase will make. This makes perfect sense to me: “1 ton of C02” is a fairly meaningless measurement to me, but by reframing it as “20 cars off the road for a year”, I would feel that my purchase was going to have a positive effect on the world. Centering the environmental impact of a sustainable business is also key to success in terms of sales; emphasising ethical credentials in social media or marketing will draw more attention. 

Although I’m not running an ethical business myself I found the presentation really interesting, and made me think about what drives my online purchases; according to Akhil, the average consumer only looks at each product for 7 seconds! I really liked the idea of interactive visuals illustrating the impact a customer’s purchases will make; it’s easy to feel powerless as a consumer and this can lead to inaction, so hopefully this positive message will leave consumers feeling more empowered.

The final speaker was Vicky Smith, the founder of Earth Changers, who spoke to us about ethical tourism, appropriately enough it was World Tourism Day! Vicky pointed out the parallels between the worlds of fast fashion and package holidays; both are global industries that employ huge numbers of people, and both are responsible for pollution and the exploitation of workers. She set up Earth Changers to research and promote positive impact tourism, after working in the travel industry for 20 years, and realising that holiday-makers were almost completely detached from their environment while on a package holiday. Working on community development projects gave Vicky a good understanding of how conservation tourism could support local environments, but sadly what should be a force for good usually isn’t. She wrote her thesis on the online volunteer tourism industry, and exposed the exploitative practices of a number of companies, and their negative impacts on the communities they claimed to be helping. Vicky emphasised the importance of thorough research when it comes to ‘voluntourism’: there are great grassroots organisations to volunteer with, but it’s not always easy for consumers to know which ones to trust.

Earth Changers is growing slowly and organically; Vicky’s definition of ethical is that every decision in the supply chain should be made with environmental and social impact in mind. This is logistically complicated, and a lot of people don’t want to think about these complex problems while they are on holiday! However, it is worth thinking about: almost 10% of the world’s GDP comes from tourism, 1 in 10 jobs worldwide are in the tourism industry and it is a huge growth area. 2017 is the international year of sustainable tourism, but making sustainable holiday choices isn’t as simple as choosing not to take a long-haul flight. Tourism is an important source of income for many countries, and people aren’t going to stop going on holiday, so Vicky gave us her top tips for sustainable travel: Book a local hotel directly, take public transport and frequent local businesses!

As well as finding the speakers interesting and inspirational, I also really appreciated the message of respectful advocacy for the causes we believe in, and letting beautiful and useful products speak for themselves! Online resources like the Ethical Business Directory are so helpful when it actually comes to finding these fab new businesses, so in keeping with my promise to put my money where my mouth is, this will be my first stop when I need to replace any of my old clothes.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Putting my money where my mouth is: sustainable swimwear and the benefits of buying ethical clothing

At the start of 2017 I made a pledge to myself; I would stop thoughtlessly buying new clothes, and would replace old clothes either with second-hand purchases or with ethically or sustainably made versions as and when I needed to.
For the most part, this hasn't been hard, because I started off in a privileged position wardrobe-wise: I have a lot of clothes so I have plenty of outfits to choose from, and nothing is going to get worn out from being washed too much any time soon. 
I'm also lucky because I fit into standard size clothes and live near an area that has excellent charity shops, so I can pick up a nice new dress for a few pounds if I do fancy a shopping trip. Working for a company that doesn't have a strict dress code means I'm not restricted to wearing certain clothes at certain times.

I knew there were going to be times this year that buying clothes according to my new rules was going to be harder, and so far the biggest challenge has been swimwear. I wanted to go swimming more often, as well as trying wild swimming, so I wanted a practical costume to replace an old high-street buy that was starting to sag! I'm fussy about swimwear at the best of times, and have struggled to find one-pieces that feel comfortable, so the temptation to relax my rules and just go shopping on the high street was quite strong. I'm glad I persisted and followed my rules though, because I found Davy J swimwear, and bought a fab one-piece and bikini! Placing restrictions on yourself that limit your shopping options might seem counter-intuitive, but stick with me. If you already have a bulging wardrobe and the mindset of "why have one when I could have five", or you're so overwhelmed by choice that you have loads of clothes you never end up wearing, this can be helpful and save you money in the long run. There are so many positives to shopping ethically wherever you can, here are a few I discovered:

Supporting ethical businesses means no one gets exploited. The higher price tag on ethical fashion might seem extortionate compared to high street prices, but in reality it just reflects that everyone involved in the production of the garment is being paid a fair wage. Davy J is a small business manufacturing small amounts of stock, so they won't have the economies of scale that a large high-street chain benefits from. As a bonus, they have developed an amazing swimwear fabric made from recycled fishing nets, so the environment isn't being exploited either! 

Supporting small businesses means great customer service. If you're fed up with arguing with multi-national companies on Twitter or never getting a reply to your complaint, try buying from a small business for a refreshing change! My swimwear came with a personalised note, and swapping something for a different size was no problem at all.

Shopping thoughtfully and paying more can save you money! When the first set of swimwear arrived and I tried it on, it didn't fit perfectly, but if it had been cheap and from a high street shop I might have decided it was good enough, worn it once, not been happy and never worn it again. But because it cost a bit more I had to really think about whether I would want to wear it over and over again, and decided to swap a couple of pieces for different sizes which was definitely the right choice! Having to save up or plan purchases means I don't waste money by impulse-buying things that I don't really need.

Buying from specialised businesses means you benefit from their expertise. Davy J only makes a capsule collection of swimwear in a few different colours, so they know their product really well (If I had followed their sizing advice rather than assuming I knew best, I would have picked the right sizes for me the first time!). Because they specialise in making swimwear for active people, the fabric is strong and durable, and they enclose specific care advice to make sure your purchase lasts as long as possible. This is in contrast to a point that came up at The Laundry Pile panel discussion: many of us accidentally ruin clothes or hasten their demise because the manufacturers have not included specific enough washing instructions on the care labels (or if they have, the instructions are in the form of pictures which nobody understands!)

I know that sustainable shopping might not be possible for some of you for a number of reasons, but if you can, take a look at some alternatives to the high street, you might be pleasantly surprised. I’ve been discovering some great resources that aim to make ethical brands easier to find and shop with, so I’ll be sharing those on the blog over the next few weeks.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

The Laundry Pile: Materials, Meanings and Mundanities of Everyday Life

How much thought do you put into your laundry routine? Do you carefully separate clothes by colours and fabrics, following the instructions on the care labels, or do you just shove everything in the washing machine and hope for the best? Do you hand wash, dry clean, spot clean or forgo cleaning altogether? Professor Kate Fletcher from the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion has put together a book: Opening up the Wardrobe: a methods book exploring the lives of our clothes after purchase, and the book launch was accompanied by a pop-up exhibition and panel discussion.

Although I trained as (and now work as) a costume maker, I also worked in the wardrobe department of three different theatre shows over a period of several years. Aside from altering or mending the costumes and assisting with quick changes, our main task was laundering or cleaning all the costumes on a regular basis; everything from organising specialist dry cleaning once a week to separating smalls and putting a wash on at the end of every performance. We used a mixture of hi-and low-tech approaches; from top-of-the-range washing machines to a twin tub (very useful for washing Swarovski-embellished tights!) and a washing-up bowl and scrubbing brush (a bar of Vanish soap and good old-fashioned elbow grease is the best remedy for make-up on a shirt collar). After establishing an efficient routine, a laundry shift became something I'd do physically while thinking about something else; listening to the radio or chatting to whoever was working with me. I left theatre wardrobe because I found costume making more interesting, so I was fascinated to find out about the existence of this book, and feel like I might have been a bit dismissive about my former job. With 50 contributors from anthropologists to performance artists, it promises to be a thought-provoking read.

The pop-up exhibition in Lila's Laundrette managed to fit a lot into a small space that also still had to function as a business. Kate Fletcher's 'Local Wisdom' photo series documented much loved but never washed items of clothing (before you recoil in horror, be honest with yourself; you probably own at least one garment that falls into this category, I know I do!) while Jade Whitson-Smith's photo series documents the laundrettes she has seen on her travels. She had also produced a mini-zine about her experience of living without a washing machine for a year, as well as samples of fabric dyed with waste-water from hand washed clothes. Emma Rigby had studied the wear patterns on garments and designed prototypes that would accommodate the movement of our bodies. Performance artist Emma Hoette had brought along a selection of clothes from her wardrobe that she hadn't worn for a year, and re-acquainted herself with them, testing out the range of movement in each garment with a graceful physicality. 

The panel discussion, chaired by Andrew Brooks from Kings College London took the form of a question and answer session, the questions read from slips of paper that had been hidden amongst the washing-line of clothes that hung behind the panel. The questions were great starting points for members of the panel to give their unique perspectives on our laundry routines. As well as Professor Kate Fletcher, we also heard from Dr Alexander Papiez, a Development Chemist at IDEAL Manufacturing, Professor Rosie Cox, from the Department of Geography at Birkbeck, Dr Victoria Kelley, a lecturer in Cultural Studies at Central Saint Martins, and Dr Thomas Roberts, a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Surrey. I'll try to give a summary of what I learned:

Q: how can we change our laundry practices to make it less damaging to the environment? 
Thomas had spent a lot of time talking to individuals and families about the way they do laundry, and realised that we do huge volumes of laundry because we are erring on the side of caution. We don't have conversations about how much laundry we do, or what an 'acceptable' level of cleanliness is, so if we broke down this taboo we could all find ourselves doing less laundry! 
Victoria had compared advice literature for housewives concerning laundry, from the late 19th and early 20th century, with memoirs written around the same time, and often found discrepancies between the two! The commercial pressure to sell more cleaning products was often framed in terms of morality, with cleanliness linked to good moral character. 
Rosie echoed this: it is often the case that we are informed by laundry detergent advertising rather than scientific fact when it comes to washing our clothes, and it is easy for companies to sell more product by making us feel guilty. Laundry practices are different in different communities around the world, so we could learn from those areas where the environmental impact of laundry is lowest.

Q: What environmental impacts are associated with laundry detergent use?
Alexander explained the 'primary' and 'secondary' problems: the manufacture of the cleaning products themselves, and their release into the environment. There is the possibility of depletion of raw materials, contamination of water supplies and the build-up of toxins in the food chain. 
Victoria gave a historical example of the ways environmental and social issues are linked: Sunlight Soap originally used palm oil from West Africa, contributing to colonialism and the exploitation of local people. 

Q: how does gender affect laundry processes?
Kate shared some of her research: women were three times more likely to wash clothes by hand, whereas men were more likely to go to a dry cleaners. A dataset from Unilever also suggested that men were more likely to wash clothes at high temperatures..
Tom also shared some of his findings: in households where laundry was done separately by each person, the washing machine was used more frequently and less efficiently, but in a household where only one person does the laundry, that person is almost always female. 
Victoria added the historical perspective that in the U.K. laundry had traditionally been a woman's task, with female children being expected to help out from a young age. However Rosie pointed out that commercial laundry services were often run by men, and in the case of businesses set up in the U.K. and US in the early 20th century, these were usually men from immigrant communities.

Q: how are lifestyles and life stages reflected in individual and collective laundry practices? 
Kate shared her personal experience of having to do much more washing after she had children, and also reflected on her Nan's habit of changing into 'at home' clothes after she had been out to reduce the amount of washing she had to do. 
Rosie also suggested that people who don't do their laundry themselves generate more washing, as they don't have to take into consideration the time and effort it would take to do the laundry

Q: What research processes can we adopt to improve the way laundry is done?
Emma Rigby spoke about her research doing 'laundry probes'; giving people a garment and asking them to document and reflect on how they took care of it.
Kate mentioned a scientific version of the 'sniff test' to see if clothes need to be washed or not; research indicated that synthetic fibres hold on to the smell of sweat, whereas wool fibres are unlikely to smell at all. She suggested a radical re-thinking of the fabrics we consider 'suitable' for certain types of activity.
Alex also suggested that feedback from people on the shop-floor of commercial laundries would be really valuable, as it could help manufacturers to create better cleaning products.

Q: What's in the laundry pile? 
The discussion once again focussed on the unsuitability of synthetic fabrics for sportswear, with Kate making an impassioned plea for more wool clothing! Victoria described the traditional methods of laundering 'underwear' (petticoats, chemises and shirts made from cotton), while outer garments made from wool would be brushed and cleaned but not washed.

The audience Q&A brought up some interesting topics, and we learned about Brazilian laundry etiquette, the Norwegian way to wash our woollens, and how changes to daily dress codes would be a way to reduce the amount of laundry we do in the long term. We were also reminded of the importance of doing a 'service wash' with our domestic washing machines (running the machine on the highest setting with only white vinegar or soda crystals in the drawer every 50 washes, to ensure the machine is running efficiently).

The panel ended on a lovely note from Victoria: laundry practices have originally been relationships of care between us and our clothes, or us and other people; perhaps we could extend that relationship of care to be between us, our clothes, other people and the environment.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Zero waste pattern cutting project: a jacket I can make in a day!

Inspired by #zerowasteweek on Twitter last week, and the fold-your-own Balenciaga jacket pattern at the V&A Balenciaga exhibition, I decided to try to use up some of my fabric stash in the most efficient way possible, by making my very own zero-waste jacket!

I had bought this blue brushed cotton drill years ago, for a project I'd long since forgotten about or abandoned, and it wasn't until my Mum asked me if I had some blue fabric she could use to mount an embroidery project that I even remembered that it existed! After she had cut out what she wanted, I had a large piece (46 by 60 inches) and a long thin piece (approx 40 inches by 20). I measured the paper pattern from the V&A and scaled it up, so it would actually fit me, then drew directly onto the fabric rather than making a paper or calico pattern as I usually would. 

The paper pattern has two vertical fold lines, which form the centre of side-seam darts, giving the coat its 'cocoon' shape. It also has two horizontal darts, creating shoulder shaping, horizontal 'cut' lines which form the sleeve shaping, and a T-shaped 'cut' line which creates the neck opening. I machined the darts first, then cut along the lines and folded the fabric back on itself to create the sleeves.

I tried on the basic coat shape (and photographed it on my dressmaking mannequin) and was pleased with the result; this style really needs to be made from a fabric that will hold its shape for the full effect, and I'd probably cut it slightly larger if I was going to make it again so it would drape around me, but I definitely had the base for a decent jacket.

I had wanted to use this fabric to make a jacket that would be useful for autumn or spring, so I decided to add an extra piece on the sleeves to make them full length, and an extra piece around the centre front and neck edges that would form a shawl collar and an overlap to allow for fastenings on the front of the coat. Oh, and pockets, of course!

Ok, so the coat wasn't completely zero-waste; after straightening up roughly cut edges and working around the awkward shape of the fabric I had to begin with, I've produced this pile of off-cuts, and I'm left with a 25 by 10 inch piece of fabric. The offcuts are less than I would end up with if I had been making something with a lot of curved seams, and I'm going to hang on to the larger piece to use for the cushion covers I want to make for my flat! 

The coat was incredibly quick to make; I spent about 5 hours on it from start to finish. Drawing straight onto the fabric is very different from the way I normally work, but it felt freeing to be creative on the fly rather than carefully following a plan or pattern, and trying to use up as much fabric as possible didn't feel restrictive (it encouraged me to make extra large pockets!). This sort of zero-waste dressmaking would be great for anyone who struggles with shop-bought patterns, and it doesn't require any knowledge of special techniques or use of anything other than a basic sewing machine and a needle and thread.