Thursday, 28 September 2017

Putting my money where my mouth is: sustainable swimwear and the benefits of buying ethical clothing

At the start of 2017 I made a pledge to myself; I would stop thoughtlessly buying new clothes, and would replace old clothes either with second-hand purchases or with ethically or sustainably made versions as and when I needed to.
For the most part, this hasn't been hard, because I started off in a privileged position wardrobe-wise: I have a lot of clothes so I have plenty of outfits to choose from, and nothing is going to get worn out from being washed too much any time soon. 
I'm also lucky because I fit into standard size clothes and live near an area that has excellent charity shops, so I can pick up a nice new dress for a few pounds if I do fancy a shopping trip. Working for a company that doesn't have a strict dress code means I'm not restricted to wearing certain clothes at certain times.

I knew there were going to be times this year that buying clothes according to my new rules was going to be harder, and so far the biggest challenge has been swimwear. I wanted to go swimming more often, as well as trying wild swimming, so I wanted a practical costume to replace an old high-street buy that was starting to sag! I'm fussy about swimwear at the best of times, and have struggled to find one-pieces that feel comfortable, so the temptation to relax my rules and just go shopping on the high street was quite strong. I'm glad I persisted and followed my rules though, because I found Davy J swimwear, and bought a fab one-piece and bikini! Placing restrictions on yourself that limit your shopping options might seem counter-intuitive, but stick with me. If you already have a bulging wardrobe and the mindset of "why have one when I could have five", or you're so overwhelmed by choice that you have loads of clothes you never end up wearing, this can be helpful and save you money in the long run. There are so many positives to shopping ethically wherever you can, here are a few I discovered:

Supporting ethical businesses means no one gets exploited. The higher price tag on ethical fashion might seem extortionate compared to high street prices, but in reality it just reflects that everyone involved in the production of the garment is being paid a fair wage. Davy J is a small business manufacturing small amounts of stock, so they won't have the economies of scale that a large high-street chain benefits from. As a bonus, they have developed an amazing swimwear fabric made from recycled fishing nets, so the environment isn't being exploited either! 

Supporting small businesses means great customer service. If you're fed up with arguing with multi-national companies on Twitter or never getting a reply to your complaint, try buying from a small business for a refreshing change! My swimwear came with a personalised note, and swapping something for a different size was no problem at all.

Shopping thoughtfully and paying more can save you money! When the first set of swimwear arrived and I tried it on, it didn't fit perfectly, but if it had been cheap and from a high street shop I might have decided it was good enough, worn it once, not been happy and never worn it again. But because it cost a bit more I had to really think about whether I would want to wear it over and over again, and decided to swap a couple of pieces for different sizes which was definitely the right choice! Having to save up or plan purchases means I don't waste money by impulse-buying things that I don't really need.

Buying from specialised businesses means you benefit from their expertise. Davy J only makes a capsule collection of swimwear in a few different colours, so they know their product really well (If I had followed their sizing advice rather than assuming I knew best, I would have picked the right sizes for me the first time!). Because they specialise in making swimwear for active people, the fabric is strong and durable, and they enclose specific care advice to make sure your purchase lasts as long as possible. This is in contrast to a point that came up at The Laundry Pile panel discussion: many of us accidentally ruin clothes or hasten their demise because the manufacturers have not included specific enough washing instructions on the care labels (or if they have, the instructions are in the form of pictures which nobody understands!)

I know that sustainable shopping might not be possible for some of you for a number of reasons, but if you can, take a look at some alternatives to the high street, you might be pleasantly surprised. I’ve been discovering some great resources that aim to make ethical brands easier to find and shop with, so I’ll be sharing those on the blog over the next few weeks.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

The Laundry Pile: Materials, Meanings and Mundanities of Everyday Life

How much thought do you put into your laundry routine? Do you carefully separate clothes by colours and fabrics, following the instructions on the care labels, or do you just shove everything in the washing machine and hope for the best? Do you hand wash, dry clean, spot clean or forgo cleaning altogether? Professor Kate Fletcher from the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion has put together a book: Opening up the Wardrobe: a methods book exploring the lives of our clothes after purchase, and the book launch was accompanied by a pop-up exhibition and panel discussion.

Although I trained as (and now work as) a costume maker, I also worked in the wardrobe department of three different theatre shows over a period of several years. Aside from altering or mending the costumes and assisting with quick changes, our main task was laundering or cleaning all the costumes on a regular basis; everything from organising specialist dry cleaning once a week to separating smalls and putting a wash on at the end of every performance. We used a mixture of hi-and low-tech approaches; from top-of-the-range washing machines to a twin tub (very useful for washing Swarovski-embellished tights!) and a washing-up bowl and scrubbing brush (a bar of Vanish soap and good old-fashioned elbow grease is the best remedy for make-up on a shirt collar). After establishing an efficient routine, a laundry shift became something I'd do physically while thinking about something else; listening to the radio or chatting to whoever was working with me. I left theatre wardrobe because I found costume making more interesting, so I was fascinated to find out about the existence of this book, and feel like I might have been a bit dismissive about my former job. With 50 contributors from anthropologists to performance artists, it promises to be a thought-provoking read.

The pop-up exhibition in Lila's Laundrette managed to fit a lot into a small space that also still had to function as a business. Kate Fletcher's 'Local Wisdom' photo series documented much loved but never washed items of clothing (before you recoil in horror, be honest with yourself; you probably own at least one garment that falls into this category, I know I do!) while Jade Whitson-Smith's photo series documents the laundrettes she has seen on her travels. She had also produced a mini-zine about her experience of living without a washing machine for a year, as well as samples of fabric dyed with waste-water from hand washed clothes. Emma Rigby had studied the wear patterns on garments and designed prototypes that would accommodate the movement of our bodies. Performance artist Emma Hoette had brought along a selection of clothes from her wardrobe that she hadn't worn for a year, and re-acquainted herself with them, testing out the range of movement in each garment with a graceful physicality. 

The panel discussion, chaired by Andrew Brooks from Kings College London took the form of a question and answer session, the questions read from slips of paper that had been hidden amongst the washing-line of clothes that hung behind the panel. The questions were great starting points for members of the panel to give their unique perspectives on our laundry routines. As well as Professor Kate Fletcher, we also heard from Dr Alexander Papiez, a Development Chemist at IDEAL Manufacturing, Professor Rosie Cox, from the Department of Geography at Birkbeck, Dr Victoria Kelley, a lecturer in Cultural Studies at Central Saint Martins, and Dr Thomas Roberts, a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Surrey. I'll try to give a summary of what I learned:

Q: how can we change our laundry practices to make it less damaging to the environment? 
Thomas had spent a lot of time talking to individuals and families about the way they do laundry, and realised that we do huge volumes of laundry because we are erring on the side of caution. We don't have conversations about how much laundry we do, or what an 'acceptable' level of cleanliness is, so if we broke down this taboo we could all find ourselves doing less laundry! 
Victoria had compared advice literature for housewives concerning laundry, from the late 19th and early 20th century, with memoirs written around the same time, and often found discrepancies between the two! The commercial pressure to sell more cleaning products was often framed in terms of morality, with cleanliness linked to good moral character. 
Rosie echoed this: it is often the case that we are informed by laundry detergent advertising rather than scientific fact when it comes to washing our clothes, and it is easy for companies to sell more product by making us feel guilty. Laundry practices are different in different communities around the world, so we could learn from those areas where the environmental impact of laundry is lowest.

Q: What environmental impacts are associated with laundry detergent use?
Alexander explained the 'primary' and 'secondary' problems: the manufacture of the cleaning products themselves, and their release into the environment. There is the possibility of depletion of raw materials, contamination of water supplies and the build-up of toxins in the food chain. 
Victoria gave a historical example of the ways environmental and social issues are linked: Sunlight Soap originally used palm oil from West Africa, contributing to colonialism and the exploitation of local people. 

Q: how does gender affect laundry processes?
Kate shared some of her research: women were three times more likely to wash clothes by hand, whereas men were more likely to go to a dry cleaners. A dataset from Unilever also suggested that men were more likely to wash clothes at high temperatures..
Tom also shared some of his findings: in households where laundry was done separately by each person, the washing machine was used more frequently and less efficiently, but in a household where only one person does the laundry, that person is almost always female. 
Victoria added the historical perspective that in the U.K. laundry had traditionally been a woman's task, with female children being expected to help out from a young age. However Rosie pointed out that commercial laundry services were often run by men, and in the case of businesses set up in the U.K. and US in the early 20th century, these were usually men from immigrant communities.

Q: how are lifestyles and life stages reflected in individual and collective laundry practices? 
Kate shared her personal experience of having to do much more washing after she had children, and also reflected on her Nan's habit of changing into 'at home' clothes after she had been out to reduce the amount of washing she had to do. 
Rosie also suggested that people who don't do their laundry themselves generate more washing, as they don't have to take into consideration the time and effort it would take to do the laundry

Q: What research processes can we adopt to improve the way laundry is done?
Emma Rigby spoke about her research doing 'laundry probes'; giving people a garment and asking them to document and reflect on how they took care of it.
Kate mentioned a scientific version of the 'sniff test' to see if clothes need to be washed or not; research indicated that synthetic fibres hold on to the smell of sweat, whereas wool fibres are unlikely to smell at all. She suggested a radical re-thinking of the fabrics we consider 'suitable' for certain types of activity.
Alex also suggested that feedback from people on the shop-floor of commercial laundries would be really valuable, as it could help manufacturers to create better cleaning products.

Q: What's in the laundry pile? 
The discussion once again focussed on the unsuitability of synthetic fabrics for sportswear, with Kate making an impassioned plea for more wool clothing! Victoria described the traditional methods of laundering 'underwear' (petticoats, chemises and shirts made from cotton), while outer garments made from wool would be brushed and cleaned but not washed.

The audience Q&A brought up some interesting topics, and we learned about Brazilian laundry etiquette, the Norwegian way to wash our woollens, and how changes to daily dress codes would be a way to reduce the amount of laundry we do in the long term. We were also reminded of the importance of doing a 'service wash' with our domestic washing machines (running the machine on the highest setting with only white vinegar or soda crystals in the drawer every 50 washes, to ensure the machine is running efficiently).

The panel ended on a lovely note from Victoria: laundry practices have originally been relationships of care between us and our clothes, or us and other people; perhaps we could extend that relationship of care to be between us, our clothes, other people and the environment.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Zero waste pattern cutting project: a jacket I can make in a day!

Inspired by #zerowasteweek on Twitter last week, and the fold-your-own Balenciaga jacket pattern at the V&A Balenciaga exhibition, I decided to try to use up some of my fabric stash in the most efficient way possible, by making my very own zero-waste jacket!

I had bought this blue brushed cotton drill years ago, for a project I'd long since forgotten about or abandoned, and it wasn't until my Mum asked me if I had some blue fabric she could use to mount an embroidery project that I even remembered that it existed! After she had cut out what she wanted, I had a large piece (46 by 60 inches) and a long thin piece (approx 40 inches by 20). I measured the paper pattern from the V&A and scaled it up, so it would actually fit me, then drew directly onto the fabric rather than making a paper or calico pattern as I usually would. 

The paper pattern has two vertical fold lines, which form the centre of side-seam darts, giving the coat its 'cocoon' shape. It also has two horizontal darts, creating shoulder shaping, horizontal 'cut' lines which form the sleeve shaping, and a T-shaped 'cut' line which creates the neck opening. I machined the darts first, then cut along the lines and folded the fabric back on itself to create the sleeves.

I tried on the basic coat shape (and photographed it on my dressmaking mannequin) and was pleased with the result; this style really needs to be made from a fabric that will hold its shape for the full effect, and I'd probably cut it slightly larger if I was going to make it again so it would drape around me, but I definitely had the base for a decent jacket.

I had wanted to use this fabric to make a jacket that would be useful for autumn or spring, so I decided to add an extra piece on the sleeves to make them full length, and an extra piece around the centre front and neck edges that would form a shawl collar and an overlap to allow for fastenings on the front of the coat. Oh, and pockets, of course!

Ok, so the coat wasn't completely zero-waste; after straightening up roughly cut edges and working around the awkward shape of the fabric I had to begin with, I've produced this pile of off-cuts, and I'm left with a 25 by 10 inch piece of fabric. The offcuts are less than I would end up with if I had been making something with a lot of curved seams, and I'm going to hang on to the larger piece to use for the cushion covers I want to make for my flat! 

The coat was incredibly quick to make; I spent about 5 hours on it from start to finish. Drawing straight onto the fabric is very different from the way I normally work, but it felt freeing to be creative on the fly rather than carefully following a plan or pattern, and trying to use up as much fabric as possible didn't feel restrictive (it encouraged me to make extra large pockets!). This sort of zero-waste dressmaking would be great for anyone who struggles with shop-bought patterns, and it doesn't require any knowledge of special techniques or use of anything other than a basic sewing machine and a needle and thread.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Autumn approaches: how to prepare your wardrobe for the changing seasons

I love the crisp cold of a sunny autumn morning, the red-gold of the leaves before they fall from the trees, but I don't love not really knowing what to wear, or being informed that the best time to buy a winter coat was in August, when I was sweltering on the tube in a cotton frock. Most of us dress for the season we're in, regardless of when the high street would like us to buy certain clothes, but with a bit of preparation we can make the most of our wardrobes no matter what sort of weather might mark the changing of the seasons. 

Care for your favourite winter coat instead of buying a new one: Unless you are incredibly organised, your winter coat is probably where you left it on the first warm morning of spring. If it doesn't look its best, there are plenty of ways to spruce it up without having to go to the expense of buying a new one, or even having to make a trip to the dry cleaners. 
If you wore it into spring and got hot and sweaty (let's face it, sometimes it's impossible to struggle out of a coat on a packed rush-hour train), try gently sponging the underarms of the lining with a damp (not wet!) cloth, then leaving it to dry inside out. This is a much more effective method of freshening up the lining than dry cleaning, which can 'set' the smell of sweat. 
Baby wipes can work wonders on traces of make-up left on a high collar (test on an inconspicuous part of the coat first if it's a pale colour), and a good brush with a clothes brush, or a steam (with a garment steamer if you can get your hands on one, a steam iron if you can't), can lift and revive the flattened pile on a wool coat. 

If you have a wax jacket, wax it now! Regular waxing will prolong the life of your coat and keep it waterproof, and you can also use the wax on shoes to make them more water-resistant. 

Dressing for commuting on the London Underground at this time of year is particularly frustrating; it's chilly when you leave your house first thing in the morning, but the trains still seem to be stuck in a midsummer heatwave, especially at rush hour. I'm saving my winter coats for the colder months when I'll really feel the benefit, and wearing my summer coat with a cosy scarf that's easier to remove and carry when I get too warm.

Even if you’re not a shoe person, show your footwear some love:  As well as waterproofing with wax or polish, keep your favourite boots or winter shoes going by taking them to the cobblers to be re-heeled or re-soled. You will save money in the long run if you invest in good quality shoes and look after them; you'll be helping the environment by not contributing to the amount of fashion industry waste going to landfill, and you will be doing your feet a favour!

Layer up! Now is a good time to check your cosy knitwear; hopefully your sweaters and cardigans haven't fallen prey to moths over the summer! It's not the end of the world if they have; you can darn moth holes, either invisibly (with darning wool which can be bought from haberdashery shops in a range of colours) or visibly, to add a unique feature to your clothes. Keep the moths at bay by washing everything in the drawer, then adding some lavender sachets or cedar cubes when you put your clothes back. I'm hoping that the bugs I've darned onto a moth-damaged cardi will ward off the other creepy-crawlies!

If you're not ready to say goodbye to your favourite summery clothes just yet, keep them going into autumn by layering; with a camisole under a lightweight blouse, a t-shirt under a strappy dress, and tights or leggings under skirts. If you are trying to streamline your wardrobe, think about what garments work well for you over the widest range of seasons and weather conditions; they are the ones you want to base your wardrobe around.

 Don't underestimate wardrobe 'basics': these will vary depending on your personal style, your lifestyle and whether you have to follow certain dress codes for work. I used to buy cheap leggings and jersey tops, but realised this was a false economy; as I often wear these as a 'base layer' for an outfit they will be washed every time I wear them (saving vintage or delicate dresses from needing to be washed too often) so they need to be good quality. I still have a reasonable selection of high-street jersey basics, but since some of my leggings are looking worryingly see-through and a couple of tops are now baggy with twisted seams, I'm going to try to replace them with sustainably or ethically made versions. I can already recommend Thought's bamboo leggings and tights, and I'm planning to try People Tree's jersey basics and Rapanui's very reasonably priced T-shirts!

Checking through your wardrobe now will also help you identify anything that you think you’ll really need as we head into winter, so you’ll be able to plan purchases and spend wisely rather than having to panic-buy something you’re not so keen on.