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The small matter of support

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Sartorially February and March have been pretty low-key thanks to a bout of influenza and a sick cat. I did order a couple of items to restock basics. One was an emergency like-for-like replacement because after nearly a year of valiant service my pale bra gave up the ghost.

A sustainable bra: a chimera?

I resorted to ‘Marks & Sparks’ because, as Nic of Little House in Town hinted, normal curvy women struggle to find ethical, let alone eco-friendly bras. Extensive research last year led me to conclude that there are only two options for a vaguely “green” bra: organic cotton sports-style bras that look about as attractive as a hammock or daintier ones that would struggle to support a 1920s gaminesque bosom.

Frustrated and curious I have been spurred into action. If most women in the UK wear a C-cup or more, why are designers with an eye for sustainability not exploring alternatives? Is there something about a bra that does not lend itself to more ecologically sound solutions? To find out I signed up for a bra-making course. I wanted to understand how a supportive bra is made; how design and fibres combine to produce an engineering solution because, let’s be honest, that is what a bra is.

Carbon-free or carbon-light?

Armed with an understanding of the constituent parts of a bra, the source of the support and the material options available, I have been experimenting to make a bra with better environmental credentials. This process has confirmed what I already knew: there is no such thing as carbon-free(*) bra. As the all-important support comes from the wings and band under the cups, elastic is unavoidable.

Polymer-based products (like polyamide and elastane) are not bad per se. In some respects their energy and water credentials are better than those of cotton(**) but there are plenty of other reasons why I avoid unnecessary poly-content in my wardrobe (and household in general).

The first is linked to peak oil. There is significant evidence(§) that we are reaching or have passed peak oil production and the era of cheap oil is coming to an end. It does not really matter when exactly we hit the peak, the key point is that oil is a precious resource. I therefore prefer to limit my consumption of oil-derived products to essentials, and preferably durable ones. The second reason for avoiding synthetic fibres is linked to their end of life. Polyester, polyamide, elastane… are not like cotton or wool. Once worn out, you cannot toss them on the compost heap to be broken down by worms. They take millennia to decompose. Finally, there is the issue of perspiration. Synthetic fibres do not allow the skin to breathe the way natural ones do so poly-based garments generally need more frequent washing. And every laundry cycle adds to a garment’s carbon and water footprint.

A greener bra: feasible?

But back to the bra… Although elastic is unavoidable for the wings and band, and to a lesser extent the straps, there are ways to reduce the environmental impact of a bra, as my micro efforts have revealed.

My first home-made bras involved quite a bit of scavenging, or perhaps salvage sounds more attractive. As there is not that much material in a bra, I used off-cuts of fabric from other projects or cotton recovered from nightwear I have grown out of, cutting efficiently to eke out the scraps. If this approach works for an average sewer at home, imagine how it could be upscaled in an industry where fabric waste is common place and cutting skills are more developed than mine!

My salvage efforts did not stop at fabric. Although I bought some quality elastic, I recycled wires, strap sliders and eyes from worn-out bras. I even managed to recover the hook and eye fastening and some straps from a fiendishly uncomfortable bra I have hardly ever worn.

Bra collage

My 60/40 bra: more salvaged than new materials

This magpie approach means my first ‘green’ bras may not win any prizes for their seductive power but they are surprisingly comfortable and thanks to decent elastic, incredibly supportive and, of course, lighter on ‘virgin materials’.

A kinder bra?

Stitching my own support has also been informative about the time, skill and effort that goes into a bra. For an amateur like me the process was enjoyable but how different the experience is for machinists churning out bras for many high street brands. I may derive satisfaction from making a bra from scratch but many clothing industry workers face long hours stitching the same couple of seams in uncomfortable working conditions for minimal pay. Ever cheaper prices, a shift from two seasons to six-weekly cycles and a lack of supply chain transparency are a breeding ground for jobs that offer little satisfaction and rarely a living wage.

So what is a girl to do if she is after an ethically produced bra (or top, skirt…)? There are alas no short cuts! Being stubborn, I dig for information on brands, production processes, certification bodies; I review data collected by campaigning organisations like Labour behind the Label(§§) and I doggedly email companies with specific questions about their sourcing policy… in the hope that retailers will realise that there is a demand for ethical garments.

The outlook…

Producing ‘greener’ and kinder bras undoubtedly involves challenges but technically and logistically these are no different to those for other clothing items. I suspect the real reason designers do not include bras in their sustainable offerings is linked to economics. Whilst it may be cost-effective to make four to six sizes of a dress or sweater, producing 20 to 30 bra sizes (to accommodate different back and cup sizes) is probably not financially viable until retailers can be confident that there is a demand for more sustainable bras. That day may come but in the meantime, I plan to improve my bra-making skills so I can source more of my support chez moi. And who knows, I may even succeed in making salvage alluring…

***

Coupon update

clothing-couponI spent three coupons spent on a bra and another 0.5 coupon on the power net (i.e. the material for the wings) for two home-made bras. Five coupons went towards an organic cotton teeshirt to replace one that has been patched more times than is decent and that has now been relegated to a ‘muck shirt’ for the garden/allotment.

I also used up a skein of yarn that I had in stock to knit myself a hat. (I know, knitting a hat at the end of March is madness but it has been Baltic in these parts and, as my mum told me repeatedly, a lot of body heat is lost through the head!

Total coupon spend to date: 10.5

Qualifications and links
* Here carbon-free refers to the type of material used in a bra, not the energy required to source, produce and transport the garment.
** This document contains a handy overview of the energy, water and land intensity of common natural and man-made fibres.
§ For more information on peak oil, check out this primer.
§§ Check out this report to see what efforts UK high street brands are making to address poverty wages for workers in the clothing industry.
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8 comments
  • theInelegantHorseRider April 4, 2013, 2:03 pm

    This is fascinating, I have always wondered what the answer is to sustainable bras (I have a similar issue with existing ethical offers regarding my figure). I love the idea of making your own bras but given that I can barely hem trousers and sew on buttons I might wait a while! Great blog.

    Reply
  • jesse.anne.o April 4, 2013, 10:55 pm

    I think your project came out really well; I would never know it was “hand made” (I know most factory stuff is “hand made” too so you know what I mean). I do wish there were better answers out there in this area. I have bra-shopping on my list and have run into similar issues – everything “eco” online is not a supportive piece!

    Reply
    • Meg and Gosia April 5, 2013, 9:37 am

      Thanks, Jesse Anne. You could try sewing one yourself – unpick a comfortable bra you have that has reached the end of its life to create the pattern – or find a local seamstress and commission a bespoke one, specifying what fabrics are acceptable or even taking your own fabric, wires, sliders… along. Giving (possible repeat) work to a local dressmaker is a way of investing in the personal, local economy rather than a long corporate supply chain. In my book that is rather cool. I know there is a lady in Canada who specialises in sewing vintage style underwear but I cannot for the life of me remember her name. Worth a Google search… Good luck.

      Reply
  • Franca April 6, 2013, 6:21 pm

    You are amazing, you know that! it would never have even occurred to me that you could make a bra yourself! I actually hadn’t ever considered the environmental impact of bras, maybe because I buy bras about once a decade.

    Reply
    • Meg and Gosia April 6, 2013, 6:44 pm

      Thanks, Franca, but it is purely driven by necessity. By the way, where do you buy your bras if they last a decade? The last one I had that lasted any length of time (7 years) was bought pre 2000. Purchases since lose their support after about a year, if I am lucky. Admittedly they experience real wear and tear but still I suspect it is due to ‘in-built obsolescence…

      Reply
  • uglyelissa April 7, 2013, 5:09 am

    Darn, I left a comment the other day but I don’t think it published. Anyway, great effort! Great post, too. I have been unsuccessfully searching for bras that I can guarantee are sweatshop-free so am wearing some pretty misshapen old things at the moment. I posted about it on my blog previously if you’re interested (http://ethicalexertions.blogspot.com.au/2012/12/socks-and-jocks.html).

    I’m really enjoying following your blog (and the others that are doing the Wartime Wardrobe Challenge).

    Reply
    • Meg and Gosia April 7, 2013, 6:39 am

      Thanks for your comment, Elissa, and the link to your blog. I think we need to keep making noise about how we want ethical and sustainable bras (eg by emailing companies to enquire about their products) else we shall never see ethical and sustainable bras in shops.

      I have heard great things about Icebreaker’s merino underwear and am holding back coupons so I can get a thermal vest next winter – I struggle with the cold and can’t face another one like the one that is very slowly receding.

      Reply

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