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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.