Sunday, 28 June 2015

A sustainable wardrobe – Part 2, Raw materials: Manufactured fibres

Welcome to Raw Materials 101. This will be the first of two posts on this subject, so strap yourselves in people, we have a lot to cover. If you remember back to Part 1, I'd just done an audit on my wardrobe and was looking at the sheer quantity of stuff I own. Today we're going to look at what it's made from and whether I could be making better choices... I'm sure you can guess the answer there!

Before we get to the inside of my cupboard, I want to talk about the categories of fibres. At the top level there are two – natural fibres and manufactured, or man-made, fibres. Natural fibres are then split into another two groups – protein, or animal fibres, such as wool, alpaca, silk, angora, cashmere, etc, and cellulose, or plant fibres, such as cotton, linen and hemp.

The man-made fibres can also be divided in two. First are the regenerated fibres – these were a natural material at some point. Examples include viscose, lyocell and acetate. And last, there are the synthetic fibres – these are pure chemical constructions derived from sources such as petroleum, coal and gas. Some examples are polyester, nylon, acrylic and lycra. Yep, that acrylic that you're knitting with is made from natural gas and petroleum! Before starting this, I knew that polyester and acrylic were man-made, but I guess I'd never thought about what that really meant...

Now, back to the fibre content of my wardrobe. I did this chart in a pie shape so you get a better idea of percentages.
From here on in, we'll ignore the 'unknowns'. They are clothes so old that I can't read the labels anymore. To break it down, my wardrobe is 74 percent natural fibres/blends, 15 percent regenerated fibres/blends, and 11 percent synthetic or synthetic blend.

A quick word about blends. If you look at a clothing label, it will very often list a blend of fibres. The fibre making up the largest percentage will be listed first, followed by the others in ever decreasing amounts. My pie chart would have been unintelligible if I'd listed every blend, so they are grouped by the predominant fibre. The wool blends in my wardrobe include some that are 70 percent wool/30 percent cashmere, where others are 50 percent wool/50 percent nylon.

While only 11 percent of my wardrobe is synthetic, or synthetic blend, I was interested to go back and check what these items were. Unfortunately there were a couple of recent purchases – the easy way to fix that will be to look at the label before I buy next time – but a number of my going out/event dresses are also polyester – in particular, jersey wrap dresses. It only took a couple of minutes of Googling to find that my preferred style of dress could easily be made from something else.

The big-ticket polyester item in my wardrobe is an all-weather outdoor jacket. This will probably last me a lifetime, but I could have made a much more sustainable purchase by buying from Patagonia. These guys are pretty impressive and are doing a lot to lessen their environmental footprint. One of the good ways to buy polyester is when it's made from recycled water bottles, which is just what Patagonia is doing. Not only that, they take back their clothing that has reached the end of its life to recycle it again. While polyester might be made from a non-renewable resource, it can be recycled endlessly.

Another way synthetic fibres sneak into my wardrobe is through linings (which I didn't take into account in my audit), and the small amount of elastane, polyester or nylon added to nearly every T-shirt, pair of underpants or socks. I can find T-shirts without added synthetics, but even the organic cotton underwear I can find online still contains a small percentage of elastane. Maybe this is one of those least-worst choices I have to make for now.
fabric label fibre blends
Clothing from my wardrobe containing a blend of natural, regenerated and synthetic fibres.
The last thing I'll talk about today is regenerated fibres... These can be made from a surprising number of materials – wood, corn, soybean, milk and even coffee! The issue for me with these fibres is the chemicals needed to create them. Viscose (rayon) – which, bar one item, is the predominant regenerated fibre in my wardrobe – is made from wood pulp (or other cellulose fibres) dissolved in chemicals (sodium hydroxide, then carbon disulfide) until it becomes a liquid form, this is then run through a spinneret (that looks a bit like a shower-head) into a sulfuric acid solution that starts a chemical reaction to form the fibre filaments. The waste by-products aren't that fabulous either.

While it doesn't make an appearance in my wardrobe, I wanted to mention bamboo, as you might not be aware that it's often made using the process just described. It can be made in a similar way to linen, a mechanical process, but it's cheaper and easier to make it as a regenerated fibre. The US and Canada have ruled that bamboo made by regeneration can no longer be labelled as bamboo – in the same way you don't label rayon as wood fibre – but in Australia "there is no national mandatory information standard presently in place for fibre content labelling" according to The Council of Textile & Fashion Industries of Australia website, and much of the bamboo product here is regenerated. So, be extra careful when buying bamboo. While arguably, bamboo is more sustainable than farming trees, the regeneration process is definitely not sustainable, and the properties that are so often spruiked in regards to bamboo eg anti-bacterial, are completely destroyed using that production process.

The most sustainable of the regenerated fibres is lyocell. You may know it better by its trade name Tencel. Remember those jeans you had in the 90s? Turns out they're reasonably sustainable. Lyocell is made from farmed trees with a non-toxic solvent that can be 99 percent recycled during the production process, making it an almost closed-loop system. There are some issues with the chemicals used in the next stage of production ie turning them into garments, but we'll look at that in Part 4 – Fibre to fabric.

I guess the thing with all these new fibres coming onto the market is to do a little research before you purchase. I know it takes time, but the internet makes the research process a whole lot easier and faster than it used to be. Just make sure you're taking your information from a credible source.

Next month I'll look at the biggest fibre change that's going to have to happen in my wardrobe to make it sustainable – the removal of conventional cotton. I'll also give you some resources for choosing more sustainable yarns and fabrics for your crafts, along with more clothing links.
acrylic fibre
Some rare acrylic in my stash – thankfully, as a whole, the stash is largely natural fibre.
In the meantime check out the Pinterest pages I'm building for this series – I'll be adding to them every month – A Sustainable Wardrobe, Sustainable Textile Supplies and Sustainable Fashion movement, which will provide links to stories, news articles and campaigns.

Today's resources

Waterproof jacket from Patagonia or Nau.

Underwear from Pact or Bhumi – Target in Australia also stock organic cotton underpants.

Organic cotton T-shirts (and other things) from Rawganique, and in Australia – Etiko and The Organic T-Shirt. There are a ton of other suppliers out there for organic cotton tees, but I've kept to the plain T-shirts, as I don't really do clothes with stuff written on it.

Replacement jersey wrap dresses could be found at:
  • Australian brand Audrey Blue, who are Fair Trade and Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified.
  • Australian brand Smitten Merino.
  • Conscious Clothing, based in Michigan US and dedicated to using the most eco-friendly and sustainable fabrics, dyes, inks, and products available.
  • Or I could buy organic cotton jersey from Alabama Chanin and make it myself!

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Talking, seeing, reading, thinking

This week I've been catching up with friends in Sydney which has involved large amounts of coffee and talking. I didn't even plan it this way, but there were an awful lot of textile things going on in Sydney while I was there. First was 'Flash in the Dark' the 2015 winter collection from the textile makers of Craft NSW. There is some amazing and inspiring work in this collection, including that from Meredith Woolnough, but it's difficult to find amongst the sheer amount of stuff on display. Every time I visit, I keep hoping that Craft NSW might have taken a leaf out of its more progressive, southern cousin's book, but it hasn't happened yet...
Winter at the Warey
Next, I visited the Craft and Quilt Fair. I guess all the quilting fabrics are released by American companies, so they concentrate on the big Quilt Con events that happen each year over there. This leaves very little that is new or different emerging at the craft shows in Australia. Maybe we should be using these events to celebrate Australia's contribution? I saw very little in the way of this – where was Gardenvale by Jen Kingwell, and her new book Quilt Lovely, or Emma Jean Jansen's most recent range? They are both based in Victoria so maybe they wait for those shows? Anyway, I left feeling like I'd just visited a large shop, rather than seeing anything inspirational that was going to spark creativity.

There was one exception to this – the NSW Embroiderers' Guild installation 'Stitched Circles'. This pic is via the guild's Facebook page, and if you click on it, you'll be sent over there to see each of the circles in all their glory. What an amazing effort. Mary Brown gave all the guild members a brief and a colour palette to work with, but the variety of textile art that has resulted is astonishing.
My last crafty visit was to Winter at the Warey – check out that hashtag on Instagram. These markets are the brainchild of Cath from Prints Charming and Caroline from Allitera, who throw open their shared studio in Annandale to a bunch of independent designer/makers selling their wares in a bi-annual market.
There I met Genevive Edmonds from 5 Stitches who creates fabric stitched cards, and printmaker Fiona Roderick. I have to confess I was attracted to her work on behalf of my bird-obsessed niece, but I love her use of colour and line.

I also had a stickybeak at the work of Michelle from You Are Brave – sadly she wasn't manning the stall when I was there, and the blueprint ceramic series from Lesley Hunt of Huntseek Design. Of course I also had to pick up a few things from Prints Charming... I feel some embroidery coming on!
Follow Cath or Caroline online to see when the next market will be – in about six month's time. Well worth a visit and perfect timing for the Christmas shopping.

And have I done any work myself? The short answer is 'no'. But I've been doing a lot of reading along with the talking, which has led to a lot of thinking about the rest of this year and beyond, the direction I want to go and the work I want to do.

I've been reading 'Art Inc' by Lisa Congdon and 'This Changes Everything' by Naomi Klein. Lisa’s book is about all the ways you can make a living from your art. It’s a great resource for anyone starting out, or a bit stuck for new avenues to explore. It covers all aspects of running an arts-based business and includes a ton of case studies which always help me to see how I could do the same. Lisa also has a great Instagram feed if you're interested.

Naomi Klein’s book answers the question why, when we know what climate change is doing to our planet, and the majority of us agree that we’re causing it, we seem incapable, after thirty years of talking about it, to do anything to stop it? At the heart of her thesis is the argument that doing something about climate change threatens the very consumerist, economic-growth-at-all-costs, capitalist system we now take for granted as the only way of doing things.

It’s a powerful, if dense, read and is really bringing together a lot of the things I’ve been thinking and writing about lately – slowing down, minimalism, experientialism, and the shocking damage being done to people and our planet by the textile industry.

You can see why I might be paralysed about where to go from here. The paradox that the very act of creating is adding to the pile of stuff that nobody needs.

Is it possible for me to make a living out of teaching and writing about my craft, or can I feel comfortable creating quality pieces that take time and use the greenest materials available then release patterns that allow others to do the same?

Stay tuned while I figure my way through this one...

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Weaving of a different kind

I've had this sari silk for a long time – Mum bought it for me years ago – so this year since I'm all about India, with my trip planned for October, I wanted to find an opportunity to use it.
I've also been learning how to use a table loom for the last few months – following on from my experience with a backstrap loom last year . So here were the beginnings of my latest project – a woven scarf. I wanted to use the colours of the sari silk (which is looking mostly green and red above, but believe me, contains a multitude of different hues) balanced with something more neutral. The sari silk was to be the highlight rather than the focus.
I decided on a navy cotton for my warp, along with threads of the sari silk, and for my weft I wanted to create a checked effect, with blocks of colour broken up by smaller sections of plain navy contrasted with the sari silk. I left myself some room on the warp for testing, and these were the colours I eventually settled on for the weft.
And so to the weaving... The scarf was to be nearly two metres long, all in a plain weave, and it took me a couple of days. I'm still pretty new to this weaving business, so the selvedge varies in width a bit, and it was quite surprising how differently that hot pink felt to weaving the other colours as it's a different type of cotton. Overall though, it was turning out just how I'd hoped.
I cut the scarf off the loom – a bit of a scary business – on Wednesday, tied all the ends, gave it a wash and a press, and here you have it. It was quite stiff and crinkly when it first came off the loom, but it softened a lot with the first wash, so over time I expect it will feel very different.
It also has a nice sheen to it that doesn't come up very well in the photos, but the weft cottons are all mercerised so have that nice lustre to them.
Given the colours in my wardrobe, I expect it this will get quite a lot of wear!

Sunday, 31 May 2015

A sustainable wardrobe – Part 1, Something has to change

At the beginning of this year, after two recent house moves, I was very conscious of the amount of stuff I own, including clothes, which had increased as I introduced extra to deal with the cooler Melbourne weather. I also took a look at the clothes that had been piling up in need of mending and decided to finally do something about it. I began my monthly instagram project #midmonthmending, partly because I had the time, but also because I didn't want to waste money on clothes unnecessarily while I'm not working.

What really pushed me over the edge in regards to my wardrobe though, was studying sustainability this semester as it relates to the textile industry. Prior to this, I would have said I was pretty sustainability-savvy. I've spent the last ten years working for, what was, in part, an environmental consultancy and had previously started a Masters in Environmental Management for goodness sake, yet I was totally unprepared for how shockingly bad the textile and fashion industries are in every aspect of the product lifecycle and in every facet of sustainability – environmental, social and financial.

So, this is the first in my monthly series on building a sustainable wardrobe, which will go through the fashion lifecycle from raw materials, through processing, garment construction, garment care and end-of-life. I'm hoping though, that instead of leaving you thoroughly depressed, I'll also give you ideas for your own wardrobe and examples of places that are doing the right thing.

In preparation I've spent the last couple of months doing a wardrobe audit. I needed to understand exactly what I was dealing with. How bad are my fashion choices? What are my clothes made from? Who made them? Some of the things I found were roughly what I expected, other things were a bit shocking, so here goes...

This is a breakdown of my wardrobe, not including underwear or shoes, but including pyjamas and gym gear.

167 items. This was the first thing that shocked me – it's too much. I'm not sure what I think would be enough, but I think this is too much. 'Enough' will need to be something I work out in the coming months.

As I sorted through clothes, documenting quantities, where they were made, what they were made from and how long I'd owned them, I decided that I'm going to see how long I can go without buying any more. I have roughly 50 outfits in my wardrobe – 50! In 1929 the average middle class woman owned about nine outfits, she would have spent approximately 15 per cent of her income purchasing these items, and would never have considered throwing them out. These days Americans spend something like four per cent of their income on clothing (Overdressed – EL Cline). Although I can't find a lot of data for Australia, I'm sure the situation here is the same. According to the movie 'The True Cost', we buy 400 per cent more clothes than we did 20 years ago, yet as you can see, as a percentage of our household expenditure it's costing less. How is this even possible?

I can actually pinpoint the year my clothing purchases increased. It was 2007 and I'd received a promotion at work. We were also moving our offices from a funky, arty neighbourhood, to the CBD of Sydney. I couldn't get away with wearing jeans to work anymore. This wasn't just in my head, but rather actual conversations with my boss. He wanted me to start wearing a suit to work. For anyone that knows me, that was never going to happen, but I did have to make quite a number of additions to my wardrobe to make it more suitable.

Anyway, I'm not going to beat myself up over what's been done. I do tend to buy quality over quantity and there is an item of clothing in my wardrobe that's 30 years old and I still wear it! I'm also of a generation that remembers buying one special outfit each season, and clothes that came with extra material to take down a hem. And thankfully I'm past the age that the worst of fast fashion is aimed at. If you want to take a look at the rate at which some of the millennials are consuming, type 'clothing haul' into the YouTube search engine for a bit of an eye-opener!

So, that's my clothes accounted for. Where to from here? Well, next month I'll look at the fibres we use to make our clothes, the ones that make up my wardrobe and what choices I'll make from here on in.

If you want to find out a bit more about sustainability (or extreme lack thereof) in the fashion industry, please watch 'The True Cost'. It was released just this week. I saw it on Friday night and it makes powerful, if depressing viewing. I'm not sure how wide its release will be in cinemas, but you can download it from iTunes for just over $10 AUD.

Or for shorter viewing, you can watch Last Week Tonight's John Oliver on fast fashion here. Language warning for that one!

If you're wanting some inspiration about your own 'stuff', grab a copy of James Wallman's 'Stuffocation – Living More with Less' (it's probably in your local library). James is all about the shift from consumption to experiences. 

The Minimalists are also worth looking at. They really are about getting rid of your stuff in an effort to make you happier, and not in a 'decluttering each year so you've got room for more stuff' kind of way.

And lastly, Bea Johnson of 'Zero Waste Home', who was recently featured on Radio National, writes a blog and has an Instagram feed. Bea's wardrobe consists of just 47 items! This includes underwear, shoes and accessories. I'm not sure I'll be aiming for that low, but it will be interesting to see where I end up!

Sunday, 17 May 2015

If a job's worth doing, it's worth doing well

My sister Amy and I had an argument last weekend. I was telling my sister-in-law about my week and how I'd stayed up very late on Wednesday night to finish a project – the one you see here in fact. As I also hadn't finished knitting Mum her Mother's Day present (and it was Mother's Day) Amy commented that I was always leaving things until the last minute.
Right then, visions of my first undergraduate years flashed before my eyes. I'd ignored assignments until the last possible moment. I gave them little thought, did the bare minimum of work and was often up late to finish them because I had done nothing since the moment the assignment had been handed out. The effort I put into projects now, whether they're for work, classes or love, could not be more different, so I strongly disagreed with Amy.

These days I think about projects for hours on end. I research, collect inspiration, start months in advance, put huge amounts of time and effort in, and can become, quite literally, obsessed.
I've thought about it a lot this week, and while the end result in terms of project output is vastly different, the toll on my health and wellbeing is exactly the same, in fact, it's probably worse.

My last year of high school and first year or so of university were the anomalies – I think I was burnt out. Normally I'm very driven, and a bit of a perfectionist. That tendency has been exacerbated in my career, but most particularly in my last job, where the mottos were "say yes, and worry about how to do it later" and "bite off more than you can chew and then chew like buggery" – pardon the expression.
It wasn't uncommon for a client to ring up at the end of the day saying he hadn't had time to look at our report but still needed 20 bound, high-resolution, printed copies for an 8am meeting the next day. We'd hang around the office until he'd send through 40-odd pages of corrections at 9pm and away we'd go. We were expected to do the impossible. I think I now expect that of myself.
I'm not really sure how to change this. I understand perfection is the enemy of the good, but I still think, thanks to my grandmothers, that if a job's worth doing it's worth doing well. Maybe being realistic about what I'm taking on would be a start... And also leaving myself some wriggle room for opportunities that come out of the blue, as they always do.

I swore when I left my job last year that I would never fill out timesheets again, so while I recorded hours for a full bodice of embroidery on a Mexican blouse out of interest, I'm really loathe to track how many hours my textile projects take. I want to be able to experiment, change my mind if something's not working, and even put a project away for a while if I need to think about it some more.
Still, these swatches you see here, were the last (bar one) in a conga line of deadlines and commitments that had me locked away from the world, exhausted and living in a pigsty (no time for cleaning). Something does have to change...

Any ideas?