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Clothes rationing: reflections

Three years ago I set myself the challenge of living on wartime clothes rationing for a year. As the twelve months were a relative breeze, in January 2014 I decided to extend the experiment for a further two years to see what would happen when wear and tear really started to pinch. So how did I do in my final year and what’s the overall verdict?

Final reckoning

By early October I had 16 coupons left, which I had allocated to a pair of smart black or brown trousers, knits and tights. By late November it was clear that I would not find trousers that would meet my requirements (quality cut, natural fibres, colour and style that suit). I did however spot a pair of classic brogues (tan coloured, made in Europe and with repairable leather soles) so decided to spend five coupons on a good staple for my wardrobe. My own knitwear, including a cardigan, socks and a luscious dressy shawl brought the tally to 12.5 coupons. And then, an emergency pair of stockings – well two actually as they were only sold in multipacks – took me to 16.5 coupons, slightly over my annual allowance.

Homemade socks

I’ve slowly expanded & added colour to my sock drawer in the last three years

A wonderful gift of two skeins of yarn allowed me to make a cowl that doubles up as a wrap coupon-free, and scavenging fabric from an old dress yielded a sleeveless tee shirt. As I was testing the pattern, it was particularly gratifying not to waste virgin materials (or coupons) on the trial run!

Overall picture

The annual tally looks like this:

Year 1: 66.5 coupons
Year 2: 65.5 coupons
Year 3: 66.5 coupons

so very respectable.

Obviously the experience was only an approximation of the wartime rationing system due to the physical availability of resources in the UK and the different nature and quality of materials and cuts, as well as differences in which garments exist(ed) then and now. E.g. opaque tights are less prone to laddering than silk stockings and I’m delighted that I never had to wear a girdle! However, the wartime rationing model was very useful as a framework in which to explore the environmental implication of clothes and adopt moderation due to resource constraint.

Lasting impressions  

My three years of stretching my existing wardrobe through good maintenance, repair and re-making as well as managing on a strict ration has resulted in so many insights and impressions. It’s hard to distil these down to easy sound bites but here’s my attempt.

  • I’m still convinced that sustainable fashion is an oxymoron. Fashion is inherently unsustainable as modes and trends thrive on obsolescence. That said, looking stylish, elegant, classy, quirky, chic, distinct… on limited new resources is entirely possible.
Homemade shawl

Weathered copper or a luxurious treat despite rationing

  • The most sustainable option need not be one that markets itself with an environmental or ethical label. A well-cut skirt or pair of trousers made from a quality, natural, locally sourced fabric in a style that will appeal year in year out is more sustainable than a new item from an eco label that barely survives a season.
  • It is extremely hard to find quality these days. That comment won’t endear me to apparel companies but I have been increasingly disappointed about the quality of most garments I tried on. I have even noticed a decline in quality in the three years of this experiment! My takeaway is that often the best way to achieve better quality is to make the item myself. That is saying something because although I am an experienced knitter, my seamstress skills are still pretty basic!
  • Dressmaking is being re-discovered. When I first started with this challenge most sewing information on the internet was written by seasoned dressmakers. This year, however, I’ve read more and more posts by relative sewing newbies trying their hand at making their own garments and being amazed by what is achievable. Some are driven by ethical and environmental reasons (e.g. The Inelegant Horserider, the ever-inquisitive Jackie); some are motivated by zero waste/zero plastic considerations (e.g. Westy Writes); some are knitters who turn to sewing to see if they can achieve a similar quality and provenance with their woven clothes. Not only is it encouraging that so many people are discovering the possibility of clothes making, it also means new friendships and alliances are being forged, which is a joy to experience and see.
The Inelegant Horse Rider, a sewing newbie, sporting her homemade skirt.

The Inelegant Horse Rrider, a sewing newbie, sporting her homemade skirt*

  • This experiment has involved meeting many of my needs and most of my wants by making. In the process I’ve become aware that making defines much of my identity. I derive great pleasure from making, whether it is making clothes, cooking from scratch, creating a garden, fashioning my own tools and utensils, making music with other student musicians… The saying may be “Clothes maketh the man” but making definitely maketh this woman!
  • The final observation, and I never thought I would say this: I have reluctantly embraced ironing. I still don’t iron all garments but maintaining clothes is a big part of the success of a sustainable wardrobe. Pressing not only helps emphasise the shape of a garment or re-shape knitwear, the systematic process also gives me an opportunity to scrutinise clothes for wear and tear, spot what repairs are imminent, understand how my clothes were made and identify what fabric I might reuse when they reach the end of their life.

Next steps?

So, now we’re into 2016 will I go on a shopping frenzy? Hardly. I need to do some restocking as my last pair of trousers has given up the ghost and my staple black skirt and winter coat are pretty threadbare. Although I will probably buy a new coat, I’m planning my dressmaking projects to meet my other wardrobe restocking needs and a few knitting projects to continue to keep me warm, and indulge my more frivolous tastes in the process. I may not be counting coupons* this year but the lessons from my three-year experiment will definitely live on!


* Photo used with the kind permission of The Inelegant Horse Rider

* As coupon thinking has become second nature, I suspect the mind set will informally guide me in the coming year. In light of my maker tendencies I may even use Jackie’s modified approach to clothes rationing as my informal guide going forward.

  • Jackie Manni January 6, 2016, 12:36 pm

    Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes – even right down to the ironing (I’m still not as good at it as my grandmother who was known for her ironing — her nephew used to even bring his lab coats to her for ironing as he was so proud to be a pharmacist – first college grad of the family (1950s) and he wanted to look crisp and professional — but I try).

    I’m excited to see what you sew, as this is something I’m working toward too. The day I am wearing a sewn dress with a knitted cardigan is going to be a proud day!!!!

    • Meg and Gosia January 6, 2016, 1:18 pm

      I think the lycra and nylon content in clothes means it’s been easy to avoid ironing but with making my own knitwear and now dabbling with dress making, the synthetic content tumbles but good construction and proper maintenance, including ironing, deliver a much more finished look. I would actually say that I am take greater pride in looking well-present because of having fewer clothes… and that’s a sentiment that my mum and your grandmother would definitely recognise 😉

  • nobutterfly January 6, 2016, 8:34 pm

    I love reading your experience. I only appreciate ironing to look more closely at my clothes as well. I have the impression we already had a much bigger hype of sewing in Belgium, so maybe you can find some inspiration in our “blogland”, but mostly for children. But maybe Recykleren might inspire you. Your projects reminds me of the wearability project of Eleonore from Deer&Doe, she calculates how much the projects has cost in relation to how much wears she gets out of it. She often uses her own patterns, but they are amongst my favorites and available in English.

    • Meg and Gosia January 8, 2016, 10:13 am

      I can believe that Belgium has been in touch with sewing for longer. I remember when I lived there haberdashery had a presence on many high streets (Veritas) and that sewing was a compulsory subject at school for much longer than it was in the UK. I remember the years of Handwerk at primary and secondary and the dragons that sought the subject…


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