Thursday, 25 January 2018

Fruit leather, yak jersey and sustainable sequins: the Future Fabrics Expo

How much do you know about the fabrics your clothes are made from? You might favour cool cotton for hot summers or cosy wool for cold winters, durable leather for shoes and bags or slinky silk for evening wear. Clothing made from plant or animal derived materials has been around for thousands of years. The development of man-made fibres in the 20th century changed the sort of clothes we wore and the way we looked after them dramatically; super-stretchy elastane and easy-care polyester reduced the need for ironing and meticulously-fitted clothes. 

As our wardrobes have become high turnover and low maintenance, we’ve also started to become aware of the drawbacks of the materials we took for granted for so long. Cotton requires a lot of water to grow, and people who want to lead a cruelty-free lifestyle are reluctant to use materials that come from the intensive farming or killing of animals. Synthetic fibres are oil-based, essentially plastics, and recent studies have found microfibres from these fabrics in water supplies. The dyes and treatments used on fabrics make even natural fibres much less biodegradable. So what are our options if we want to minimise our environmental impact, feel comfortable and look fabulous? I went to the Future Fabrics Expo in search of some inspiration. 

The expo emphasises the importance of thinking about a circular economy or closed loop manufacturing for textiles to minimise waste, but showcases different interpretations of sustainability. From cooperatives in India and Pakistan growing and weaving organic cotton, to cutting-edge technology producing low-impact synthetic fibres, there was a wide variety of beautiful textiles to marvel at.

For those who prefer natural fibres, there were versatile bamboo fabrics from the Organic Textile Company, and fine jerseys made by the European Confederation of Linen and Hemp, which reinvent notoriously crease-prone linen as an easy-care fabric. British manufacturers Bysshe Partnership are working with hemp-growers in the UK and Romania to produce denims and furnishing fabrics. Plant leathers were shown by Ananas Anam, which produce sturdy and durable Pinatex from pineapple fibre, currently being used by Po-Zu to make gorgeous shoes. Apple leather by Frumat felt like the best quality thin PU (or faux leather), and other by-products of the fruit juice industry, in this case orange peel, had been used to create a luxuriously soft, drapey Orange Fibre fabric. Another surprising luxe fabric was Greenfil, made from castor oil plants.

Peace silk (so-called because the moth larvae are not killed when the cocoons are processed) is usually characterised by a more textured handle than traditional silk, but the gossamer-fine peace silk organza from Offset Warehouse and slinky silk jersey from Seidentraum were beautifully smooth. Wool has fallen out of favour with people worried about the mistreatment of animals, so all the wool products shown at the expo were from companies who maintained high animal welfare standards. Wool’s rich history and longevity, coupled with the adaptability of sheep to land that would be unsuitable for crop farming, means it is becoming a favourite with British manufacturers, as new start-ups showcased their woven wool fabrics alongside heritage suppliers. 

Probably my favourite “surprise” fabric was a fine, soft jersey made from yak hair! As my only contact with yak previously has been in the form of false beards and moustaches for theatre shows, I was amazed that it could be made into such a delicate fabric.

Surprising innovations were also abundant in the synthetic fabrics on show. German manufacturer Lauffenmuhle has been developing Infinito, a synthetic fibre which is biodegradable. All fabrics and finishings are designed to be recyclable, the idea being that consumers will return their garments to the manufacturer when they are no longer wanted. For anyone concerned about the plastics polluting the oceans, I hope you will be somewhat reassured to know that several textile manufacturers are looking to tackle this. Bionic Yarn are making their yarn with plastics recovered from marine and coastal environments, while Fieratex (based in Greece) are using Seaqual, made from marine plastics. Creative Tech have created Sea Wool, made from recycled plastic bottles mixed with post-consumer oyster shells. The addition of post-consumer food waste to synthetic fibres seemed to be a popular one: Singtex adds small quantities of post-consumer coffee grounds to recycled polyester “to bring anti-odour benefits.”

Other manufacturers showcased the versatility of their product; Tencel (a trademarked name for lycocell fibres, made from wood) showed soft chiffons on one stand, and trainers on another, along with a rainbow of samples that draw the eye just as much as their claims of sustainability and suitability for sensitive skin. Hallotex have combined lycocell with textile waste to create Refibra; the sample I saw was a thin, soft jersey, its pale blue colour came from its previous incarnation. 

The world of textile manufacture is constantly evolving, with new products in development or waiting for scaling opportunities. Vegea are developing fabrics from the by-products of wine-making, and won the H&M Foundation Global change award in. 2017. The Sustainable Sequin Company are prototyping biodegradable sequins, and Fiona Fung, an MA Fashion Futures graduate has been experimenting with 3D printed algae. “We usually use synthetic textiles to replace natural things”, she says, “but what if we replaced synthetics with a more sustainable natural material?”

Thursday, 18 January 2018

5 books that opened my eyes to the importance of ethical and sustainable fashion

The one thing I really underestimated as I started to become a conscious consumer was just how complex the global fashion industry is. It’s easy to feel daunted and powerless in the face of grim statistics about pollution, slave labour and waste, or just plain confused by secretive supply chains and manufacturing processes. Fortunately it’s a topic that has been covered thoroughly and diligently in a variety of books, so I thought I’d compile a list of the books I read last year that have helped me understand the problems with the current fashion industry, and (more importantly) what the solutions could be. This is by no means a comprehensive list; I have plenty more to read in 2018, but these are a great starting point for anyone who wants to take a deeper dive into the fast fashion world.

To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out The World?
Lucy Siegle

This was the first book I read on the subject: it’s not a comfortable read if (like me) you have a wardrobe full of high street clothes, but it is a necessary one. Lucy sheds light on issues you may have heard about, like sweatshop labour, and issues that are probably entirely unfamiliar, like the farming of exotic reptiles for high-end handbags, habitat destruction from the intensive farming of cashmere goats, or the Ukrainian children forced into cotton-picking during their school holidays by the government. Lucy is careful to point out that luxury fashion can be as unethical as cheap, fast fashion, and consumers need to be curious and thoughtful when making purchases. She offers positive solutions to shopping dilemmas: the benefits of buying vintage, or from brands with good ethical credentials, and how to reduce your environmental impact by caring for and recycling your clothes.

Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book Of Fashion
Tansy E Hoskins

Tansy makes a compelling case as to why an outsider should write about the fashion industry, which has been notoriously bad at critiquing itself. As well as writing about the hostile treatment faced by garment workers who try to form unions to advocate for better working conditions, and the pollutants from factories which devastate the natural world (and the health of local people), Tansy also writes about issues that are closer to home. She calls out the industry for outdated racist and sizeist attitudes that centre a very specific (and mostly unattainable) standard of beauty to aspire to, and points to the elephant in the room: global capitalism. Under a system where profit and growth are valued above the wellbeing of people and the environment, she argues, the industry will seek to make consumers feel bad about themselves, while promising to sell them something that will make them feel better. Tansy imagines a radical, utopian future where creativity and imagination can be at the heart of fashion, and nothing is produced to excess. She also offers a practical solution to worker exploitation; standing in solidarity with other people across the globe who have to work hard to make ends meet, and insisting that the super-rich pay their fair share.

Slave To Fashion
Safia Minney

Safia is the founder of ethical brands People Tree and Po-Zu Shoes, and has been working on Fair Trade initiatives to help garment workers for 25 years. The book explores the complexities of modern slavery, illustrating the repercussions of international laws (and the failure to enforce them) through the stories of the people whose livelihoods depend on the garment industry. Seeing their portraits and reading their stories in their own words really brings it home that every garment in your wardrobe is made by a human, not a robot. Safia also interviews lawmakers and local advocates about the challenges they face and the changes they would like to see. The book breaks down lengthy documents into effective infographics, and proposes solutions we can all be a part of through simple actions, as well as suggesting ways in which the industry could radically change for the better. 

Loved Clothes Last
Fashion Revolution Zine
Edited by Sarah Ditty
Creative direction from Heather Knight and Orsola de Castro

If you’re short on time or already have a hefty reading list for 2018, Fashion Revolution’s second zine packs a lot of information into an aesthetically pleasing format that’s available in paper form, or free to download. Loved Clothes Last covers a wide range of topics from large-scale textile recycling to personal stories about favourite clothes, and tips on caring for and extending the life of your clothes. As well as illustrating the huge scale of waste created by the fashion industry through photo stories, the zine also champions new closed-loop textile manufacture through handy infographics, and uplifting suggestions about how the industry could change for the better.

How To Be A Craftivist: The Art Of Gentle Protest
Sarah Corbett

Although this book isn’t technically about fashion, Sarah describes several of her “gentle protest” campaigns which have involved the fashion industry, as examples of how effective her form of activism can be at building bridges and helping to bring about change. She has sent embroidered messages to members of the board of a popular high street shop to encourage them to pay the living wage, as a way of opening up a dialogue with ordinarily unapproachable people. Sarah “shop-drops” handwritten scrolls into the pockets of garments in fast fashion chain stores, asking the buyer to reflect on whether the garment has been made by a happy worker, or someone who is being exploited.  She has also embroidered “mini protest banners” to make people curious as to what might lie behind the displays of luxury at London Fashion Week. Reading Sarah’s book has made me reflect on how best to approach the injustices I see in the fashion industry, the importance of suggesting solutions rather than just pointing out problems, and being “critical friends rather than aggressive enemies” with people who might view the industry very differently. 

I have more books on my reading list, but if you have any particular recommendations, please let me know in the comments!

Thursday, 11 January 2018

My Fashion Wishlist for 2018: more imagination, less exploitation.

I’m conflicted about fashion at the moment. I’m uninspired by the clothes I see in fast fashion high street chain stores, but I visited six fashion exhibitions last year and I am eagerly awaiting upcoming exhibitions this year. I’m usually a traditionalist when it comes to fabrics, but I won’t stop going on about my comfortable and cool Po-Zu silver sneakers (“they are made from pineapples!” I shriek at anyone foolish enough to mention that they quite like my shoes). “Trends” to me seem to be stuck in a cycle (florals for Spring? How original!) but I’m always excited to follow young designers or ethical fashion start-ups on Instagram, and although I’m sentimental about the clothes I own and have a large wardrobe, I can’t seem to stop foraging in secondhand or charity shops in case I’m missing out on something. I’ve had to stop and think about what I want from the fashion industry, and more importantly, how to make it happen!

Fashion used to be shocking because it challenged stereotypes, subverted gender norms and broke down boundaries, now what’s shocking is the widespread worker exploitation and environmental damage. This is nothing new, the fashion industry was full of horrors in the past: after a Victorian craze for green dresses that were dyed with arsenic, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York in 1911 killed 146 people when factory doors were locked and workers were trapped in the building. This led to the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, and improved legislation for workers’ safety in the US, but we should have left this sort of tragedy in the past: toxic dyes and factory disasters have no place in a forward-looking 21st century industry.

Looking back at the iconic styles of the 20th century, each decade seems to reject what’s gone before; experimenting with new silhouettes and new fabrics, revealing or concealing different parts of the body. Whether fashion was responding to or reacting against changing times, it kept changing with the times, producing iconic looks that we might reference with current trends or seek to recreate with vintage clothing, but which we can’t seem to break away from. If my generation’s impact on fashion is landfill sites overflowing with cheap, ill-fitting and disposable garments rather than the equivalent of a beaded flapper dress or a 60s mini, I’ll be angry and saddened; we’re better than this!

Mainstream fashion is polarised, seeming to consist of either extortionately expensive designer brands, or artificially cheap fast fashion. This leaves the vast majority of customers at a disadvantage; we’re told fashion is meant to make us feel good about ourselves, but does it? When it’s priced laughably far beyond our reach, generically sized so it doesn’t fit anyone properly, or contributing to humanitarian or environmental disaster, there seems to be very little feel-good factor left.

The good news is that there are plenty of independent designers and brands innovating to bring us clothes that are kinder to people and the planet, and I’m going to support them as much as I can this year. Rather than buying safe, “investment” pieces, I’m going to buy clothes that put a smile on my face, that I want to shout about. If I’m really happy with my clothes, I’ll want to wear the ones I own more often and will be less likely to keep looking for something new. Instead of focussing on negative statistics that make people feel hopeless and powerless, I’m going to seek out positive messages to spread about fashion innovators; the people designing the silhouettes, fabrics and manufacturing methods that our descendants will be reading about in fashion history books. 

I’m also going to apply the same high standards to the clothes I make for myself. I love the time I spend at work collaborating on intricate, unique clothes, but often make something simple and straightforward for myself, so I’m challenging myself to make imaginative use of my extensive fabric stash this year.

I bought two small-ish pieces of printed jersey in a charity shop, and was planning to make them into tube skirts, to wear with a black t-shirt or sweater. This wouldn’t have been the most efficient use of the fabric though, and I had some raglan sleeve dress and jacket patterns I had spent some time developing but had only used once. I had to use some scraps of contrast stretch fabrics to have enough for collars and a decent length hem on the dress, but I’ve ended up with two fun, eye-catching garments, and I regret nothing!

I went to a screening of the documentary River Blue this week, and although the film contains some pretty dire statistics about the state of the planet’s rivers as a result of pollution from the fashion industry, that isn’t the only message. The film also follows designers who are revolutionising denim production and finishing with new environmentally friendly techniques, and interviews the original designers of the finishing processes, who are completely supportive of these new ideas. Rethinking received wisdom and trying out bold new ideas is what fashion design has always been about, and the film has inspired me to explore new innovations and work them into my wardrobe, so check back for some futuristic fashion posts coming up soon.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

New Year, New Project: The Wardrobe Diary

Happy New Year! A huge thank-you to everyone who has read, liked and commented on my blog posts in 2017, it’s been so encouraging to find out that I am making a positive impact. I’m going to continue writing about ethical and sustainable fashion, featuring my upcycling and refashioning projects (and maybe a few fabric-stash-busting new makes as well) and reviewing any interesting panels, talks or exhibitions I go to, but I’m also starting a new project which I might feature here occasionally: The Wardrobe Diary.

I’ve been discovering new ethical brands, switching to second-hand shopping where possible and dreaming up ways I can get more wear out of my clothes, as well as reading about other people’s efforts to make their clothing choices as sustainable as possible. One option is to carefully curate a capsule wardrobe, ensuring every piece is well-made, adaptable and something you’d love to wear again and again. I admire the self-discipline and organisation of this approach, but I just don’t think this is for me.

I enjoyed taking part in Labour Behind the Label's Six Items Challenge last year, choosing five dresses and one cardigan to wear for six weeks. I liked having more of a reason to wear accessories, and having to be more adaptable rather than panicking about finding the “perfect” outfit. I did miss my extensive wardrobe of other clothes though; I love being able to match my clothes to my mood, the weather, or what I’m doing that day. 

I’ve been making considered choices about the new items I add to my wardrobe, and I’d like to think that I’m making a good effort to wear the vast majority of my clothes wherever possible, but in reality am I still playing favourites; wearing the same small selection of things over and over again while other items languish, unloved and unworn? I also like to think that having plenty of clothes means I do less washing, but is that actually true?

As I discovered at The Laundry Pile panel discussion, the way we wash our clothes has a big environmental impact. It can seem that for every careful choice we make about the fabrics we wear, how our clothes are manufactured, how we look after them and what happens to them after we no longer want them, there is a negative impact being made somewhere else. It can seem exhausting and overwhelming, but every small thing we can do to reduce the harmful impact of the fashion industry is important. Unfortunately, my wardrobe choices will probably still have some unwanted impact on the environment, but I want to minimise that as much as possible. And, to be as effective as possible at minimising my environmental impact, I want to really understand it.

The only way I can keep tabs on what I’m actually wearing, how often I’m washing it, and how frequently I add new clothes to my wardrobe or discard old ones is to keep a comprehensive list. I saw some cute log books for recording travels, walks and other adventures on Twitter, and a couple of people remarked how fun it would be to have one for outfits, so I thought I’d create my own! 

Each day I am making notes on my outfit, here is a (probably incomplete) list of the questions I’ve given myself to think about:
  • What am I wearing?
  • What shops/brands are my clothes from?
  • What fabrics are they made from?
  • Where were the clothes made?
  • Did I buy them new, or secondhand?
  • How long have I owned them? 
  • Where am I wearing them?
  • How has the weather/location influenced my clothing choices?
  • What will need a wash at the end of the day? 

At the end of each week, I’ll do a little round-up of what I’ve worn the most and how much washing I’ve done, and at the end of the month I’ll do a more comprehensive overview, looking at the ratio of new clothes to vintage/secondhand items, and I’ll also make a note of any new clothes I buy, as well as any clothes I am planning to get rid of. 

I purchased 17 new-to-me items of clothing in 2017; 11 from sustainable or ethical brands, 3 from charity shops and 3 from vintage shops. I gave away a lot of unwanted clothes at clothes swaps, but picked up 4 items for myself. I also added two pieces of clothing to my wardrobe that I had made from scratch (with materials I already owned), and introduced 10 unworn items back into circulation after refashioning or altering them.

This seems like a high turnover of clothing, so I’ll be interested to see if keeping my wardrobe diary encourages me to wear a wider selection of outfits (maybe to avoid having to make shameful monthly reports?!) or helps me to understand if I’m overestimating my need for certain items. If I discover any fascinating insights I’ll share them here, otherwise it’s a good excuse to take a load of selfies and share outfit photos on Instagram, and to rediscover which clothes I really love. The wonderful thing about having a big wardrobe is being able to wear exciting and imaginative outfits, and I want my clothing choices to stand out for the right reasons.