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Materials, habits and style

I enjoyed following #SlowFashionOctober on social media. However as October was a busy month, rather than run myself frantic to try to keep up, I decided instead to write a couple of essays this month to explore some “slow wardrobe” thoughts and perspectives that don’t necessarily lend themselves to photos or a short IG visual and to touch on some approaches and shifts that we generally avoid. This the first in that series.

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Like many people I am concerned about the impact of our clothes on the planet. Avoiding the relentless fast fashion machine and making what I already own last is one of the easiest ways to reduce the impact of my garments. I actually enjoy working with a modestly sized wardrobe and am very happy to sew at a slow rate, which means I am just plugging gaps or replacing decidedly shabby garments. However, further lowering the environmental impact of my wardrobe will involve more than just informed choices about which limited items I add. It also means tweaking my behaviour and altering my style.

I know these two suggestions sound like an instant turn-off but please bear with me. I’m not advocating hair shirts or an impossibly austere life!

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For years I’ve avoided synthetics and favoured organic cotton over ‘conventional’ cotton (a misnomer if ever there was one!) but this has only got me so far. Whilst organic cotton is less water and chemical intensive than synthetically fertilised cotton, it will always be a water hungry crop. And although there’s no polyester in my skirts, dresses and tops, I still wear tights (typically made from polyester and elastane) and fitted teeshirt (with a smalll percentage of elastane). This means some of my garments will never decay fully in landfill and they are also adding to micro-plastic pollution in our rivers and seas.

I could say I’m doing my best, based on my current knowledge and skills, which is arguably true. Looking back though, the steps it has taken to get me to this point were not insurmountable, so with further effort I can probably do more to mitigate the impact of my wardrobe further.

After several years of research (of remote things like the ins and outs of production processes and life cycle analyses of fibres but also of practical things like my day-to-day reality and what resources are available to me), I’ve reached a number of conclusions.

  • Based on my geographic and climatic circumstances as well as my physical disposition (I run very cold), a wardrobe consisting primarily of wool and linen layering pieces makes most sense for me.
  • I can phase out fitted jersey tops (reducing them to occasional exceptions only) but this will take time as I either need to knit alternatives and/or develop the skills to sew woven tops that a/ fit and b/ fulfil the same role, i.e. look moderately smart.
  • I would love to reduce the frequency with which I wear tights. The easiest way to do so is to phase trousers into my wardrobe (as these can be worn with socks). Once again, this will take time as I need to improve my fitting skills.
  • To minimise the impact of garments containing polyester and elastane that I can’t fully phase out (bras and a few pairs of tights), I need to audit and tweak my laundry practices.

This process started some time ago and will continue for some time to come… and that’s all right. One of the worst things to do when faced with environmental dilemmas is to be paralysed by fear of not making the ‘right’ or ‘perfect’ choice or overwhelm at the scale of the issue. I firmly believe in starting with something that speaks to us and building on it, step by step.

What does this all this mean for me in practice? Here are just some examples of how I’ve approached changes not just in terms of material choices, but also what this means for my “style” and behaviour or habits.

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My dressmaking skills were virtually non-existent three years ago and now, most of my garments (excluding undies and hosiery) are me-made. I started simply, first with A-line skirts and then adding easy sleeveless dresses, initially sewn in cotton I sourced from companies that buy up left-over fabric from fashion houses. Once I had nailed a pattern, I would make a one in linen. Although I only have a few patterns in my armoury, I know them inside and out and last winter I felt brave enough to cut into woollen fabric for the first time to make a wool skirt. This autumn I hope to add a wool dress.

Ultimately, this material shift is the easiest kind of change: product substitution. Yes, it may take time to research materials but it doesn’t feel like a major sacrifice.

It did take some time and practice to develop the sewing skills and confidence to work with wool, but in light of my circumstances, it feels like an important development and definitely worth it. It will not only allow me to make garments that are warmer, which brings the indirect environmental benefit of being able to turn the heating down. It will also allow me to make garments from fibres grown and/or milled in my region. Importantly, this success is also spurring me on, not just to tackle more challenging sewing projects but also more involved changes.

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When I set my sewing plans for this year, the emphasis was on extending the shapes I can sew and improving fit as I knew I wanted to phase synthetic polymers out of my wardrobe as much as possible. I had relied on fitted teeshirts, wrap dresses and tights for so long, not because I particularly like their aesthetic but because I’ve struggled to find properly fitting Lycra free tops, dresses and trousers. Achieving these myself would mean seriously improving my sewing and fitting skills.

The conventional wisdom when modifying patterns for fit is to measure existing garments to inform us of the tweaks we need. However, as I’ve not had such garments for years, I have been working blind so it’s taken multiple toiles of different patterns to hone in on which styles I like, can make in natural fibres and can tweak to work for my body’s proportions. Chipping away at toiles sounds a bit thankless, and at times it is, but putting on a garment with sleeves that actually fit in the right places is a revelation, to say nothing of wearing a pair of trousers that has the correct crotch length and curve!

In my effort to phase the incidental synthetics out of my wardrobe, I’ve had to look at different styles, ones that don’t rely on added stretch, like bodices fitted with darts and 1940s style trousers, but that has not been a bad thing fo my overall look. And as I have been picking patterns that work as tops, tunics and dresses, like the Francine Top by Merchant & Mills, any groundwork I’m laying to get the fit of these new styles right, will pay double dividend.

The slight shift in style will ripple on over the coming years. I’ll obviously not swap out my fitted teeshirts until they are worn out but steadily they will be will be replaced by shapely tops made from woven fabric. With this in mind, when picking knitting patterns in the future, I need to work with less negative ease. I can’t see myself embracing the oversized styles that seem to be all the rage currently but a little more ease in sweaters and cardigans will be helpful.

A me-made wool skirt and sweater with more ease – part of my evolving less impactful wardrobe

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The final type of change is probably the most challenging one: behaviour change. And laundry, a turgid topic at the best of time, is hardly an appealing issue with which to address it. However, laundry practices definitely come into play when considering the environmental impacts of our garments, as clothing companies like to remind us.

For example, much of the environmental “benefits” of linen over cotton could be wiped out if I washed a skirt or dress after each wear and certainly if I ironed it after each wash.

I am not for one moment advocating unhygienic practices but depending on climate and season, not every garment needs to be washed after a day’s wear. Bar spillages or baby/animal drool, airing garments at the end of the day can be enough to refresh them for another wear. And as for ironing linen… I do so only very occasionally. Instead I rely on hanging up linen garments in the shower room to dry, where the steam from the shower helps the creases to drop out or at the very least soften them. Behaviour change or a logistical habit that saves me a lot of work and a fare amount of water and energy?

The shower has generally come in handy with other eco-conscious laundry tweaks too!

In recent years concerns have been raised about micro-plastic pollution in our waterways and seas, including tiny plastic fibres shed from synthetic garments during wash cycles. Scientists are starting to quantify the scale of the problem but there has only been limited research to date into the actual mechanics of what happens to poly fibres in our washing machines.

The scope of the studies has varied so it’s too early to draw any firm conclusions but researchers agree on two things. Micro fibre shedding increases the shorter the polymer filaments are and the higher the agitation during the cycle is. There is nothing we users can do about the length of fibres but there are ways to reduce the amount of agitation.

Front loading washing machines produce less agitation than top loaders, so when a washing machine dies, it’s worth replacing it with a front loader if circumstances allow. There is also less agitation the fuller the drum is. Filling a drum entirely is generally advisable as it means less water and electricity usage in the round. However, as somebody with very few synthetics/delicate garments, I struggle to achieve a full load.

There is however another low tech way to reduce agitation: hand washing.

This term typically produces groans of workload and time constraints and I understand it, I really do. That said, I’ve washed certain items by hand for most of my life (although I did declassify opaque tights as delicates in my 30s when I was working brutal hours), so much so that I now view it as a habit rather than a chore. I have my mother to thank for this. When mum bought me and later my sister our first bras and tights, they can with a lesson in how to hand wash delicates and full delegation of responsibility for these items. I’ve been hand washing delicates ever since, even if my methods have evolved somewhat over the years to reflect changing realities.

Whilst I still wash knitwear in the sink (I treat gently cleaning wool in warm water as a form of heat therapy for my hands), I’ve taken to washing bras and once again opaque tights in the shower. When I wash my hair, while waiting for the shampoo and conditioner to soak in, I wash and rinse my synthetic delicates whilst standing under the shower. And on days when my hands are particularly painful, I follow the tip a good friend shared and use my feet to pound my tights instead of my hands. The amount of agitation my hands, or feet, can produce is enough to get garments clean but considerably less than an 800+ rpm wash cycle.

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There are many ways to reduce our environmental impacts, whether those of our wardrobe or other areas of our life. Trimming our consumption is an important step. Product substitution can help further but at some point we come up against more tricky issues that we prefer to avoid and rarely discuss: the prospect of modifying our behaviour or foregoing something we associate with our (life)style. However, if we approach these less popular changes with kindly moderation, curious inquisitiveness, an enthusiasm to learn and a general sense of fun, they can produce eye-opening moments and a way forward that may actually suits us better… not to mention a fair amount of amusement and mirth, sometimes in a subversively eccentric way.

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The first photo is of me wearing a linen Francine top. It’s the first shirt I’ve ever worn that has sleeves that are wide enough in the upper arms and wrists and long enough in the forearms and hands. Whilst the fit is still not quite “perfect”, it’s been eye-opening to realise what comfortable sleeves feel like and how they change the fit of a garment as well as my posture.

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12 comments
  • blithespirit November 1, 2018, 2:33 pm

    I am looking forward to reading these essays Meg – you are providing a lot of food for thought. I used to handwash far more of my clothes, certainly all my bras and hosiery, when I lived in Canada, even in the winter as we never had the “damp” cold that I get in the UK. As I always tell people, the difference is that when in Canada, I would shower in the morning, hang my towel up and when I got home at night, it would always be dry – even though I never had the heat on during the day and it would typically be -10 outside. However in the summer, I try to hang all my clothes on the outside line, which I never had in my flat in Toronto. I do agree about the frequency of washing – garments really can be worn more times than most people give them credit for but I think it’s also to do with how much people make use of perfumes or various toiletries/make-up that can go stale on your clothing. My main goal for next year is to start that process that you’ve inspired in me – to just dive in with the sewing machine and try and make some neutral tops and dresses that will show off my knitwear and can be adjusted for fit.

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    • Mrs M November 5, 2018, 11:08 pm

      Yes, damp weather can certainly impact on how attractive hand washing or rather air drying is. And I take the point about the effect of abundant toiletries and scent on clothes. When I wore perfume (years ago) I only ever applied it to my skin as I remember my mum lecturing the teenager in me about how perfume spoilt clothes. I suppose I don’t think about the impact of toiletries as I use so few. Glad to hear you’re going to give sewing a try… Do yell if you have any queries. There are no daft ones!

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  • Jennifer November 1, 2018, 9:59 pm

    Thank you for this thought-provoking post, these topics are close to my heart. Through convoluted circumstance, I have been hand washing all my dirty laundry for six weeks now and yes, I am talking sheets and towels included. It isn’t necessary that I do this, I just need to arrange for my washing machine to be moved to my new house. But I am single now and my entire wash only takes me a couple of hours every Saturday, it’s not huge. I think it wouldn’t be easy in a cold climate but drying weather is rarely a problem here. Plus, forcing myself to take the time to slow down is useful for me as relaxing is not something that comes easily.
    In other ways I have been lazy however and I feel ashamed at my “a little bit is better than nothing ” attitude. I really need to look at leggings and natural fabrics with a bit of polyester and/or elastane and eliminate them from my wardrobe when they wear out.

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    • Mrs M November 5, 2018, 11:37 pm

      Thank you for sharing your experiences of hand washing. And good luck with settling into the new home! I think the hand washing challenges fall into different categories that play out differently depending on circumstances. Air drying can be a challenge in a damp country. As another person commented, it’s less so in a cold dry climate, but in the damp cold of the UK it can be tricky. The thing that really helps there is to be able to get as much of the rinsing water out as possible. An old fashioned mangle or a 60s/70s spin dryer can really help there. I have the latter, a centrifugal spinner that sounds as if it is about to take off and drives off most of the moisture in 2-3 minute. That slashing the air drying time. Obviously I don’t pour the waste water from this spinner down the drain as that would defeat the whole object. I use it to water plant… All part of the no waste/closed loop thinking I try to adopt.

      Reply
  • nobutterfly November 1, 2018, 10:08 pm

    What I like about this post is how you emphasize that even small steps can go a long way… I try to be conscious of where I buy my fabric and yarn, look at the content, I prefer a combo of bamboo and wool to a polyester – woool blend and so on. i look at the labels. I have a rather large wardrobe, most of the new items are handmade but I wish I had more of your patience to learn about fitting. I’ve embraced the comfy look, especially now my weight is fluctuating a lot. I guess the biggest challenge is to work with what I’ve got, it’s no use hoarding fabric, even if it’s organic, or yarn. There will always be more…

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    • Mrs M November 5, 2018, 11:10 pm

      I know what you mean about fluctuating size. I go up and down depending on pain/drugs and then there are the delights of the perimenopause… I am trying to find patterns that are shapely but not too constricting 😉 And yes, I’m slowly letting go of the “this fabric is too good for the beginner me to cut into it”. It’s a painfully slow process but I’m getting better at using the good fabrics in my fabric chest.

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  • Anne Howe(angorasthreads( November 2, 2018, 12:16 pm

    According to Arne & Carlos woollen jumpers get put outside and get refreshed by air cleaning. Worth a try? I too prefer stretchy clothing as my size fluctuates but I aim to use and cherish what I have and choose wisely. Have changed my laundry and cleaning products. Planted a sap on aria plant to use as they do in Peru. Pretty pink flowers and food for bees too

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    • Mrs M November 5, 2018, 11:12 pm

      Yes, I am a big fan of just hanging clothes by an open window or outside in dry weather. And yes, saponaria is an excellent source of gentle soap. It takes a while for the roots to get established/before you can start to harvest some of the root. You can use the leaves but there is more ‘soap’ in the roots and the leaves produce a scary green liquid that I wouldn’t use on whites…

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  • Bec Plumbe November 4, 2018, 1:48 am

    I’ve also been trying to reduce the plastics in my wardrobe for the last few years. My logistics are probably somewhat different to yours as I live in Australia, but as we are a wool-producing country, I’m currently counting wool as a pretty good choice for me. I wonder – have you considered lightweight merino as a substitute for some of your stretchy clothes like fitted tees, tights and underwear? I’ve been trying out merino bras and undies and have been pretty pleased with the results so far. Merino bras in my size (16/18 DD) don’t come with zero plastic, as the chest band still has elastic, but they’re a big improvement on what I had before. Same goes for undies. I wear 100% merino leggings (again, admittedly with an elastic waist) a lot in Winter. As they have a bit of knee bagging, they might not work in a very formal workplace, but I find a bit of adjusting can keep it reasonably under control. And you can get some pretty good fitted (though not skintight) tee shirts. If it’s OK to mention specific brands, I’ve done well with Merino Country. They’re an Australian company, so in environmental terms you might want to look elsewhere, but perhaps their site could serve as inspiration.

    If you have thoughts about how merino fabrics measure up to cotton, linen etc in environmental terms, I’d be very interested to hear!

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    • Mrs M November 5, 2018, 11:17 pm

      I am glad to hear I am not the only person to extend my reduce plastics mantra to my wardrobe. For me it was a natural extension.

      I’ve heard merino makes super baselayers/underwear. Alas, there are more brands that use merino for this in Australia and New Zealand than there are here. There is one company I know of in the UK, it produces sporty/casual clothes for surfers but they don’t use 100% merino alas. It’s a merino/tencel blend and rather than being soft, this blend feels like barbed wire to me. I would happily buy merino leggings to use instead of tights if I could find a brand in Europe that a/ offered them and b/ did them in a full range of sizes, even for more curvy ladies. One of the issues I generally have with brands that label themselves as ‘sustainable’, is that they often top out at a medium size, which feels quite short sighted.

      Reply
  • jen November 4, 2018, 7:50 am

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the handmade wardrobe. I embraced the baggy clothing style when I started making my own trousers 30 years ago. In a drapey fabric with homemade cotton-interlock leggings underneathe, you can take on any damp-cold-stormy-canadian-winter. Without the leggings, they’re breezy and nice in summer. The trick to wearing them is to tunic-top or crop-top. If you get the length of the top right, the baggy elastic waist trousers look amazing because drape like a dress or skirt. (my opinion, obviously.) The trick to fitting them is trying on test versions of loose elastic waist pant patterns, and making pajamas out of the test versions which don’t suit your figure. Go for it. I love wearing size 100 and having no constriction of the tum. :>) To me the freedom of movement is worth far more than the beauty of my personal human form (in my late 50s!)

    Reply
    • Mrs M November 5, 2018, 11:29 pm

      Thank you for sharing your experience of a style that work with your figure, skills, tastes and fabric preferences. It’s interesting to hear how others approach the interaction between material, form, style and personal preference!

      Reply

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