Wednesday, 29 March 2017

"I'm saving it for best" - the hierarchy within our wardrobes and how to dismantle it

A couple of weeks ago I went to a birthday do for two friends, with the following dress code:

  1. Clothes, mostly, damn decency laws
  2. Your own clothes? (tbf this is optional)
  3. Clothes you like wearing, want an excuse to wear, bought and haven't worn yet, or want an excuse to buy. 

Given permission to put their glad rags on without worrying about looking overdressed, everyone looked fabulous and some people even brought a change of outfit for partway through the evening! I was limited by my Six Items Challenge restrictions but managed to find a fancy necklace I hadn't had an excuse to wear for a while.

While some of us enjoy an opportunity to dress up, everyone enjoys an opportunity to wear something that will make them feel great without the fear of falling foul of a dress code. Being required to wear a specific type of clothing for certain occasions, we often end up with a strange hierarchy of clothes in our wardrobes, where the clothes we feel obliged to buy 'for best' might be expensive but rarely worn, or our ideal outfit might be considered inappropriate for everyday wear.

Most of us will wear the same small selection of things over and over again; our trusty jeans and jumpers, comfy leggings and jersey t shirts, easy-to-accessorise dresses. As these pieces get old and worn, they might be relegated from smart work-wear to casual weekend wear, then to household chores or gardening, and finally to painting/DIY, and after this they will languish at the bottom of our wardrobes, crusty with grime and dust, because we are reluctant to put them in the washing machine with any other clothes. Meanwhile, the outfits we felt compelled to buy for formal occasions hang about, rarely worn, reminding us that most of the time we just don't get the opportunity to be very fancy.

Having the ideal wardrobe for you, where everything gets worn but not worn out too fast, isn't going to be achieved by throwing everything out and starting again, but by slowly weeding out the things that aren't working for you and finding excuses to wear the things you really like more often.

I wouldn't endorse buying something for the sake of it, but I can't argue with buying something you love and can't wait to wear. So many of our shopping 'habits' are based around grudgingly buying things we are obliged to own to comply with a dress code, hastily replacing basics with whatever is easiest and quickest to purchase, or desperately searching for a new version of a well-worn and beloved garment when trends have changed. Buying something we can imagine being our best selves in should be the rule when we're clothes shopping, not the exception!

Whatever your version of 'for best' is, it might not be possible to wear it every day, but you'd probably be able to wear it more often. The key is your personal comfort: if you enjoy wearing your best clothes, there's no reason you should conform to an 'off duty' dress code as well as the one you might have to follow for work. Your friends won't judge you for looking more 'you', so liberate your rarely worn clothes and see how much more wear you can get from the contents of your wardrobe.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Six Items Challenge Week 3: A broken washing machine, my last pair of tights and endless accessories

I'm halfway through my Six Items Challenge now, and it's definitely making me think about how I use my (usually ample!) wardrobe; how much stuff is too much, and how having lots of clothes can make life both easier and more complicated.

Last Friday, my partner took a load of washing out of the machine, and with it came two of the three plastic 'blades' that help to tumble the garments around in the drum. I had no ideas these could come off; in my three years of doing multiple loads of laundry every day as a theatre wardrobe assistant I had never seen this happen! Fortunately for me, my partner is very practical, so ordered the parts and fixed the machine when they arrived on Tuesday after watching an online tutorial. Over the weekend, I hand-washed my six items in the bathroom sink and gradually depleted my stock of knickers, tights and socks.

I work full time and have a long commute, so I’ve found that having a large wardrobe makes life easier in some respects. It reduces the number of washes I have to put on in order to have a sensible outfit to wear; I can afford to wait a few extra days before putting a wash on to ensure I have a full load and  I'm not wasting water. Since my clothes get worn less frequently, they wear out slowly and I don't need to replace things very often.

I wouldn't deliberately amass the amount of clothes I have now if I had to start again from scratch, but it has meant that I haven't had to buy anything new for months, and that I can put some careful thought into if and how I replace items as they wear out; I won't have to panic-buy the first pair of leggings I see or risk having cold legs, I'll be able to choose a good quality, ethically made product.

In the meantime, while I'm only allowed six items, I'm really enjoying experimenting with my accessories, as well as making more of an effort with my hair and make-up. I’ll confess to often forgoing non-essential styling in favour of an extra few minutes in bed on a weekday, but when I only have a few different items to wear I feel like I have to get a bit more creative. This is no bad thing - since I own a huge number or accessories that don’t often see the light of day, and I enjoy doing a bit of personal grooming, it’s been a good excuse to organise my morning routine to be a bit more efficient.

Although I am still continuing with my usual habit of sorting out an outfit the night before on work days, only having a limited selection means I don’t experience the worry of not having the ‘perfect’ outfit for a specific occasion; I simply choose the one that seems the most appropriate (according to style or practicality) and accessorise accordingly! I think I made a pretty sensible selection of items overall; I haven’t come across a situation yet where I didn’t have anything suitable to wear, although I have a feeling I’ll be wearing anything but a black cardigan once the challenge ends!

Overall, it’s been rather like travelling; as long as you have some imagination and enough clean underwear, you can make an occasion-appropriate outfit from even the most limited resources!

If you want to support the good work done by Labour Behind the Label to help garment workers around the world, you can sponsor me here.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

"Keep on going forwards" - why solidarity is essential to our personal activism

I’d hesitated about writing this post, let alone actually posting it, because it felt very personal (maybe too personal), but after reading several honest and thoughtful blog posts by friends, albeit on different topics, I have decided to be brave and post this.
It’s probably no secret to some of my close friends that I’ve felt no small amount of hopelessness at the state of the world recently, and also anger at the short-term-ism and selfishness that leads to people and resources being exploited to benefit the very wealthy, rather than being cared for to improve the world for the generations who will come after us.

Last Saturday, because I rather liked the idea of dragging International Women's Day out into a long weekend, I was thrilled to get a ticket from a friend to see Grace Petrie and her 'Coven' perform in a community run pub in London.
The gig left me feeling very emotional, not just because of the beautiful folk music performed by Grace, Lady Maisery and O'Hooley and Tiddow, but because the songs themselves carried a powerful message of hope. These talented musicians gently suggested that barriers to equality and fairness are not insurmountable, just obstacles we can all chip away at in our own way until they fall.

Some of the 'traditional' songs of solidarity and protest sung by the Coven were written over a century ago, but they seemed incredibly, worryingly relevant. I reflected on how we seem to have lost track of the concept of solidarity in a world that seems to require more and more from us, and gives us less and less in return. In these times it's easy to feel that we barely have the resources or time to improve our own circumstances, let alone the lives of others, but it's under these circumstances that we need to support, and be supported by, our friends and communities more than ever.
We need to seize on the things we have in common and use them as a way to build each other up, rather than using our differences as a way to push each other back down. When you start looking for common ground, it's easy to find, and when you listen to the concerns of others (while taking on board and learning from constructive criticism), you can start to provide the support they need.
For all the incredible innovations of the last century, we are still an incredibly unequal society, and I don't simply mean globally. The problem is right here in the UK, with London as a  microcosm of a wider problem.

I often feel overwhelmed by the challenges the world is facing at the moment, and sometimes it's hard to imagine how my attempts to generate less waste, or to make sustainable or ethical fashion choices, could possibly make an impact. But when I look around, I realise it's not just me. I can swap tips about mending clothes with work friends, or enthuse about my ethically sourced bamboo leggings, and no one rolls their eyes or thinks I'm odd. My mum and her pilates teacher were relieved to discover that darning walking-boot socks wasn't something that was unique to them (I have no idea how they got on to this topic) and as well as being involved in virtually every local ‘green’ venture, my dad was a poster-boy for re-usable water bottles on the community notice board by the village supermarket!

We are constantly being told to 'get outside our bubble' (one of my least favourite phrases of 2016!) but I think there is a more productive way to do this than arguing with strangers on the Internet. The support of our peers and communities can give us the courage to raise our voices and reach out to people beyond our immediate sphere of influence. People who might initially think that conscious or ethical consumption is virtue signalling, or boring, weird or just a waste of time, could change their minds when they see alternatives to the lifestyle we've all been sold presented in a practical and positive way.
Although we might not always agree on specifics, or see some campaigns for change as more 'lightweight' than others, it's important to remember that we have so much more in common, and can achieve much more when we work together and support one another.
So this post is really a ‘thank-you’ - to all my friends who read my blog and say nice things to me about it, to the supportive and positive community of eco-bloggers I’ve met on Twitter, and to musicians who take the time to remind their audience that they will always believe there is more good than bad in the world.

The Six Items Challenge, Week Two

Here's my update of what I wore for my second week taking part in Labour Behind the Label's Six Items Challenge (a few days late!)

I had to alter the sleeves on the cream silk dress as they were very tight and made it difficult to move my arms (it had clearly been designed for looking pretty at a party, not for working in!) but apart from that, I'm happy with all my items and they are turning out to be quite versatile. I'm going to be getting more creative with accessories as the weeks go on, so watch this space!

If you want to help Labour Behind the Label improve rights and working conditions for garment workers you can sponsor me here.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Making the most of your clothes: my top tips for care and repair

There's a definite perception that spending more on clothes means they will last longer, and that anything bought from a high street store will fall apart after a couple of wears and washes. But that's not always true; often a big mark-up in price means you are just paying more for the label, as many factories overseas make clothes for many different retail chains. While the low cost of budget fashion is partly achieved by forcing garment workers to make up clothes extremely quickly, so the finishes may not be especially durable, there are a few quick fixes which will enable you to get the most out of your high street clothes:

  • Loose Threads: Hems are often finished with a 'blind hemmer' machine that creates a chain-stitch on the wrong side of the garment, using only one thread. This will unravel if you pull the wrong end- great for fast unpicking, not so great if you want your hem to stay where it is! If you do notice a loose thread, either thread a needle onto it and knot it off, or if it's too short, take a needle and new thread, and stitch a couple of the loops of the 'blind hem' back to the fabric so it doesn't unravel further.

  • Buttons: they are also sometimes sewn on by machine, and the backstitch at the end of the sewing process could come loose. Again, don't pull on a loose thread unless you have a purse or pocket to keep the button in once it falls off! 
  • Remember that pot of spare buttons your mum used to keep? Now's the time to start your own; keep any spare buttons from a garment in a safe place! If a button does fall off and you don't have any identical replacements, take one from the bottom if it's a garment you wear tucked in, or from the top, and swap that button for something decorative so it looks like a feature. Alternatively, swap all the buttons for some you've chosen to give your garment a more unique look. 

  • Washing: if your lifestyle/washing facilities allow, try washing your clothes at a lower temperature and air-drying rather than putting them in a tumble dryer. If your clothes just need freshening up rather than some serious dirt removal, a quick-wash or hand-wash cycle should be sufficient. If you have clothes with metal trims, chunky zips or if you wear underwired bras, tie these items up in a pillowcase before you wash them, so the metalwork doesn't damage more delicate items. 
  • Ironing: If you're the sort of person who loves ironing, then you do you, but it's possible to eliminate quite a bit of ironing by giving your clothes a good shake while they are still wet (turn the right way out, grab by the hem and 'snap' like a waiter with a fancy tablecloth!) then hanging them to dry. 

  • Shoes: take your shoes to a cobbler if you notice signs of wear and tear on the heels; not only is this important for your posture but it will keep your shoes looking, erm, well-heeled! When the cost of a pair of shoes is less than the cost of having them mended this can seem pointless, but we shouldn't view our clothes as disposable items, and if your favourite pair of shoes is both comfortable and stylish, why would you want to replace them when you could give them a new lease of life? Don't forget to use a polish or waterproofing treatment to make sure your shoes can deal with the changeable spring weather! 

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

The Six Items Challenge: Week 1

Here's a little round-up of what I've been wearing for the Labour behind the Label Six Items Challenge! I have five dresses and one cardigan to last me until Easter, and already I've found it's made me think about actually making an effort to wear the accessories I own (which usually languish in my wardrobe or jewellery box as I sacrifice accessorising time for a few extra minutes of sleep in the morning). I also feel like I want to stand out from the crowd a bit more, now that I've told people about the challenge and they are asking me questions about my outfits, it's made me want to make more of a statement with the clothes I have chosen.

You can sponsor me here or get involved with Labour Behind the Label's mission to fight for better pay and working conditions for the people who make our clothes by signing their petitions if you're short on cash but want to support a good cause.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Sewing is a modern and radical act, not just an old-fashioned hobby

Sewing was one of my first hobbies; as soon as I could hold a colouring pencil without poking myself in the eye my grandmothers were buying me children's tapestry kits, showing me basic embroidery stitches and encouraging me to make simple toys like sock puppets. I loved art and textiles at school, and I have been sewing full-time for fifteen years (I can hardly believe it myself!) 

So it sometimes takes me a moment to remember that not everyone has had the chance to learn such a fun and useful skill, and that at first glance it can seem like it's not for everyone. 

Sewing, even in the context of fashion and clothing manufacture, is rarely mentioned in any discussion of the garments themselves. When it is, it is in the context of something extraordinary; the hours (usually running into days or weeks) it took for a team of seamstresses to make a couture gown or show-stopping film costume. Even in the world of home sewing, the number of 'must have' gadgets on offer in a specialist sewing shop can seem overwhelming, and sewing (or dressmaking in particular) can look like a hobby that is only suitable for people with time, money and physical space to spare.

Yes, it does take time (and patience!) to get really good at sewing, but that's part of the joy of it for me. There is always something new to learn; a new technique or fabric to work with, new challenges to master.

A basic sewing kit needn't cost a lot or take up a lot of space- my must-haves are surprisingly similar to the contents of my grandmothers' sewing baskets.

Just because the fundamentals of home sewing have stayed the same for so long doesn't mean it is a tool of oppression, or a regressive hobby that has no relevance to modern life. Sewing and embroidery have been used as methods of both self-care and protest by people of all genders for decades; ideas that have been revived by activists like the Craftivist Collective for a 21st century audience. 

The world's problems (and our 24/7 access to endless documentation and discourse about them) can seem overwhelming. There is no way that we can, by ourselves, fix all the things we worry about. But, by sewing, we can fix something. It may only be a tiny thing; a button on a cardigan or shirt, a hole in a favourite jacket or pair of trousers. We don't have to return our garments to their original state, we can help them evolve, making them unique to us, a way to showcase our skills and personal style. We can keep our clothes out of landfill for that little bit longer, and push back against a system that is desperate for us to buy more and more stuff, even when our bank balances and the environment can no longer take the strain. 

And of course, the beauty of sewing is that you can always unpick it and start again! If only that was possible for more things in life. By seeing sewing as a creative process rather than just a way to get from 'broken' to 'fixed', we can enjoy the act of sewing and allow ourselves the room to make mistakes as we learn. So be brave! and tackle something in your 'I can't wear this in its current state' pile today. You'll feel better for it, trust me!