The Land Scaped

A few months back I sat down with Paul to work out if we could get the kitchen garden done before Spring. We figured we could, so I called the landscapers to quote on the structural work. We’ve had these guys in four times before, so they know this place well. When they found out that the concreter kept making dates to do the crossovers for the garage then not turning up, they offered to quote for that as well.

The quote was very reasonable, so we gave up on the concreter and got both jobs done. However, there was a lot of work to do clearing out the kitchen garden. Pots and garden beds to move, the temporary cat run to dismantle and fake turf to remove.

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One of the lingering structural problems we had was that this area still got boggy in winter. I decided that the wettest area may as well become a garden bed, so I got them to bring the rock edge (which I hadn’t finished building) out further from the retaining wall.

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We were going to have toppings in the flat area, but they suggested gravel instead, as it would drain better. When they were done, Paul constructed the new cat run, recycling old tennis court poles. I’ve been helping put the cat mesh on. It’s looking great and the cat now has three of the pine garden beds to poo in.

As this work was being done, we got chatting with the landscapers about our long-term plans. We didn’t yet have a driveway. The original idea was to do a concrete one, but we’d have to wait until the water company puts in sewerage – and at the rate that’s happening, it could be years. The cost of the slab for the garage had eaten into our budget considerably, too.

So we got the landscapers to put in a topping driveway and finish the garden bed at the corner. It gives us something to drive on to access the garage, but part of it will be dug up again when we connect to the sewerage.

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I wanted to plant a tree in the garden bed, to replace one I’d had to cut down, but didn’t want anything that would shade the house. So I bought a weeping cherry.

Turns out there is a lot of water in the ground around under the driveway, so in places it’s quite spongey. The landscapers think that the stormwater pipes might be blocked further down the slope, so when we get a lot of rain they slowly fill up and the water finds it’s way out in front of the house. We’ll probably have to replace the stormwater pipes, but since having trenches dug is expensive it’ll have to wait until the sewerage connection happens.

Lastly, we wound up with this garden bed along the garage as a way to deal with water run off. The front is all gravel, but I had the rest filled with a mix of sand, gravel and potting mix and mulched with stones. It has become the Unexpected Succulent Bed.

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That’s all the major, structural landscaping done now. Hopefully from now on there’ll only be small jobs to do, that we can tackle ourselves – though there’s enough of those on my to-do list already to keep us busy for years!

Braided Spectrum Rag Rug

It’s done and I love it:

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When I got 3/4 of the way through I started putting it out of sight, not wanting to finish it too quickly, but it’s such good de-stressing activity that I’d soon pull it out for some more therapeutic braiding. Finally, when I wanted the satisfaction of finishing something, I wove on to the end.

The Jean Jeany Rag Rug is still going, so I have braiding to turn to when I need a non-thinky project.

Handspun Vest

Aaaaages ago I spun some wool. Getting it ready to weave was not without trials.

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I wove it into what was a bit of a disaster – meant to be a jacket but waaay too stiff. So I sewed the pieces together and called it a rug. The Dud Rug.

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But it was a pretty ugly rug, so I put it away for a while. A year or so ago I got the idea of turning it to a vest, and ran it through a hot wash to full it a bit to lessen the chance of unravelling when cut. Then it was just a matter of finding a vest pattern. I never seemed to remember to look at patterns in fabric stores while was there, and I found nothing on the internet until a few weeks ago.

I bought a pattern, printed it out, taped all the sheets together, cut them out, joined the body and fronts to make one piece and traced a copy off that.

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I cut out the cloth and sewed the pieces together, then put it on the dress model.

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It was enormous. Clearly there was something wrong with the pattern. I suspect it had printed out too big. So I pinched and pinned and chopped it down until it fit the model. Then when I was satisfied that it was the right size, I used brown cotton fabric for lining and bias tape to finish the edges. Some sewing later I had this:

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It fits perfectly and is very cosy. Unfortunately it’s a bit cold now for vests, but Spring will come along soon enough. All in all, I’m very chuffed to have turned a dud into something wearable.

To Donate, or Not to Donate

Vintage and second hand clothing has been very popular for a while now. More and more savvy shoppers have realised that the duds of the past were often better quality and made so that they could be taken in or let out. Retro became trendy. So has refashioning.

The authors of the three books I read visited charities to investigate what happens to donated clothing. Though they were based in Australia, the US and the UK respectively, they reported the same findings. The amount of good quality clothing has diminished as the good stuff has been snatched up or sold on to vintage retailers, and incoming low quality clothing has swamped stores with clothes only fit for landfill.

We’ve all heard how charity stores struggle to deal with people ‘donating’ actual rubbish, including soiled nappies and underwear among bags of clothing. Of people using the front of charity stores as a free rubbish skip. Thoughtless stupidity aside, people make a lot of assumptions about what happens to the clothes they give to op shops.

Of what charity shops receive, only a small portion is sold in their shops. The rest goes to rag-suppliers, fibre recyclers, the second hand market in Africa, or landfill.

The clothes that go to Africa are compressed into cubes wrapped in plastic. At their destination buyers have to choose based on only what they can see. African customers have their own clothing preferences (flares are hugely popular, apparently) and the best charity sorters keep this in mind when choosing garments. The unscrupulous use the system to dump unwearable rubbish in Africa, so there’s a risk for the buyers in every cube. One bad cube can put them out of business.

While it’s great that some of this clothing finds a home, the massive influx of cheap cast-offs has meant the local garment-making industry in Africa has been badly affected, and traditional methods of construction are in danger of being lost.

I’m not saying don’t give clothing to charity shops. It’s better that what you donate has a goes to a rag suppliers than landfill if it doesn’t make the cut for resale. But bear in mind when you shop that the low quality fast fashion pieces are probably going to end up in landfill, and if it’s polyester it’ll never break down.

Give the good stuff to charity shops. Wash it first. Iron it, too. And if you replace that button or broken zip, give the shoes a quick polish or clean, and even save shop labels until you wear an item the first time, because if you’ve never worn there’s a better chance of it getting on a rack.

Better still, if it’s in really good nick, consider refashioning, dyeing, repairing, giving or swapping clothes with friends.

Fast & Not So Fabulous

What was new and very fascinating to learn from the books and articles I read was this idea of ‘fast fashion’. It shocked me that I hadn’t noticed the huge shift in how garment retailers operate, though on reflection I had picked up on most of the signs. What I’d noticed was this:

Clothing is the same price, if not cheaper, than it was in the 80s.
Quality is more uneven and more often worse than better.
T-shirt material keeps getting thinner. Sometimes practically see-through.
Shops are having sales more often than not having sales.
Designs don’t stick around for a whole season, so if you go back for something chances are it isn’t available any more.
More clothing is made from polyester.

It turns out brands don’t release new clothes in seasons anymore. Instead they’ve shortened the time between new styles arriving in stores to weeks, even days. All three books pointed to Zara, a Spanish company, for introducing this system. They have basic full or partial garments made up in ‘greige’ somewhere like Bangladesh and air freighted closer to their distribution centre in Europe, so they can be dyed, finished and embellished according to phoned-in observations of on-the-ground trend reporters, and delivered in store in as short a time as possible.

Of course, that means that the foundation garments are essentially the same. What changes is the easy stuff like colour and embellishment. What doesn’t change that much is fabric and more dramatic cut and shape. Clothes are only in stores for a month or so before they’re removed, so it encourages shoppers to drop in regularly. And they do – two to three times more often.

Though it doesn’t seem like it would, this system reduces the amount of stock that doesn’t sell. For a fast rotation of styles to work means the clothes must be incredibly cheap. With or without it, clothing prices have been on a race to the bottom for a few decades now, and that means a generation has grown up thinking unsustainably low prices are normal, and the rest of us have assumed the old ‘high’ prices were due to brands taking a huge profit.

Interestingly, high-end fashion prices have been rising as dramatically as cheap ones have dropped. What has suffered is mid-priced, good quality fashion. Part of the reason for that is that garment manufacturers in developed countries survive by specialising in high-end product, while those in developing countries aren’t interested in the smaller order sizes that mid-priced brand require. This also means that new designers find it very hard to get a foothold in the industry.

And then there’s the fact that most shoppers can’t see the value in the more expensive garment and are confused by the fact that the same garment can cost more in a middle-sized chain simple because of the economies of scale – smaller garment manufacturing orders cost more per piece than big ones. Shoppers have lost the ability to identify quality, let alone value it. Even judging the quality of cloth by thickness is no guarantee, because additives can add a quarter of the thickness to it, only to be removed on the first wash. Most of all, having never made a garment or watched a parent or grandparent make one, young buyers don’t see the work that goes into making clothes or recognise the details that indicate good workmanship.

While fabric production and cutting can be done by machine, the making up of garments still relies on people. Large-scale production favours a system where each worker does one small task, so the training they get is only good for them getting the same king of job. Fancy design requires training or more skilled and expensive workers, so garments are designed with simple construction. This system has put countless skilled tailors out of work, in both the developed and developing world, and led to the dumbing down of fashion styling.

It raises the question: what price do you put on innovation and skill?

That’s the irony in the current way we buy clothes. It’s called ‘fast fashion’ to imply you are keeping up with on the minute trends, but it has made this era’s mainstream clothing more homogeneous and less adventurous.

Little wonder, then, that vintage and charity shopping has become so popular. Though that is facing it’s own problems… but I think that’ll have to be another post.

Rezippered

Waaay back in my 20s when I sewed a LOT and make my own patterns, I made this skirt:

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For me it’s one of those garments that has survived time and fashion. I love it. Even when long, gored denim skirts aren’t trendy I wear it. I just don’t care if it’s cool or not. It’s not that it was one of the few garments I made at the time that worked, either. It’s so comfortable and, worn with or without tights, suited to all seasons of the year.

But its days are numbered. A few years ago when I had a bit of weight on I replaced the waistband so I could still wear it, and the fix wasn’t the most attractive. The fabric is getting really thin and lank and very faded. The 50-50 a-line skirt was made of the leftover denim, so you can see how much colour it has lost.

Knowing that it’s on its last legs, I’ve intended to make another. I still have the pattern. But when I spotted a gored denim skirt at Savers, well-made of a sturdier denim but too big for me, I hit upon an alternative plan: refashion it into a near-idential skirt. My intention was to remove the button closure at the front, open up the front seam, hem it and put metal buttons all down the front.

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However, it resisted me on one front. When I’d unpicked the front seam I noted that the label wasn’t at what I thought was the back, but what I thought was the side. Which was supposed to be the back. Turns out the closure was supposed to be on the left side! Which would have been unflatteringly ugly – not that the bulky button fly looked good at the front, either.

So I decided to go along with this. I replaced the button fly with a zipper, which allowed me to cinch in the waist a little, tapering the side seam back to the original width. No more bulky side-fly. (That sounds so wrong.)

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The denim is very stretchy, so the zip is a bit wavy, but not so wonky that I can be bothered sewing it again.

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Overall, I’m really happy with the result. I won’t be throwing away my favourite old denim skirt until it truly dies, but this replacement is good enough to wear out of the house and destined to be a wardrobe staple.

Finished Unfinished Cardy

And now for a break from ethical fashion posts…

Remember this cardigan?

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Late last year I bought it in pieces from an op shop and put it together. It was a bit boxy, so I set it aside with tweaking in mind. I considered many different way to close the fronts: buttons, toggles, a zipper, making my own press-stud tape, and even sewing them together to make it a jumper. To make it more shapely I contemplated cutting threads and using a crochet hook to add sections of ribbing to the waist, or gathering it within leather tabs at the side. Nothing quite took my fancy.

Putting it on the dress model again yesterday, I found myself eyeing the purl groove along the front edges. Could I continue the groove over the shoulder and down the back by laddering and then hooking the stitches from the inside? That would pull it in a little, though not a lot. I’d have to unstitch the shoulders, though.

It would be easier than all the other solutions, so I got to work while watching X-Files last night. It all came together:

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Next I tried sewing the fronts together, but all it did was turn the rolled edge into a double-wide flat panel, which I didn’t like. So I put it back on the dress form and found myself crossing over the fronts. It made it even more shapely, so I pinned it in place and this afternoon I made some loops and sewed on some toggles, and a press-stud to hold the overlapped part on the inside in place:

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I’m pleased with how it turned out – and it certainly is more flattering this way. And it’s one less project in the refashion pile.

Wardrobe Confessions

The three books on ethical fashion I’ve read:

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In To Die For, Lucy Siegle goes through her wardrobe in order to calculate how much clothing she has compared to the average woman, and how much clothing of different fibre types.

After a bit of digging one Saturday recently, my back was at that point of needed me to do something that wasn’t strenuous or involved sitting down too much either. So I took inspiration from Lucy and counted everything in my wardrobe.

Afterwards I tallied up the numbers. I have about 556 items of clothing (this includes counting every pair of stockings or underpants – and all those socks) 32 paris of shoes (including gumboots and thongs) and 16 bags (not including the accumulation of totes). I didn’t bother counting the scarf, glove and hat collection since I make those, so I have kept many favourites. 5% of my clothes are vintage or second hand, 15% are handmade, 7% have been refashioned.

Lucy told of how most women have garments in their wardrobe that they’d never worn. I’d thought ‘no way is that true for me’. I was convinced I knew every item of clothing intimately. Um… yeah. Ate a few slices of humble pie, first with the shower-proof jacket I got at a Snowgum sale, then the dress I haven’t found an occasion to wear it at yet, but the worse was the pair of pull-on jeans I can’t even remember buying.

I was expecting my big weakness for socks would stand out, but 120 pairs? Really? And only 39 of them are handknitted by me. And I culled them before moving a year and a half ago.

A quick google bring up estimate of the average number of shoes a woman in owns is 27 in the US and 21 in the UK. I have 30. Including slippers, thongs and gumboots. I can blame plantar faciitis for some of that. I bought 7 pairs of new shoes in the last two years, which is more than usual for me, in order to have pairs that cushion my feet properly. However, I culled waaaay more that between moving house and getting rid of pairs I couldn’t fit cushioning insoles into.

Having gone through my shoes, I decided to polish the leather ones. This meant I examined them closely and found two that need repairing – one old and one recently bought pair. Two other pairs looked fine until I turned them over. They were so old that the plastic soles were crumbling. That made me realise something about my wardrobe.

The contents aren’t a result of a shopping addiction, but a slow accumulation over many years and a determination to wear most things until they fall apart. When I cull, I rarely throw things out. They’re refashioned, sent to the op shop if they’re good enough, and at the worst, turned into rags (which may end up in a rag rug). Looking through everything reminded me of what I have (including those forgotten jeans) and of the story behinds some pieces. It was actually really nice to reconnect with everything.

I’ll save the stats on the ratio of different fibres, and their ethical and environmental impact, for the next post.

Scratching Beneath the (Textile) Surface

A few weeks ago I went shopping for leggings and some knitwear, and was shocked to find I couldn’t get anything that wasn’t mostly polyester. Then I noticed more people mentioning buying ultra cheap products online from China. Then I happened upon a show on iView about ethical textiles and, though it did not surprise me to find out about terrible working conditions of garment makers, I was excited to learn about the efforts going into tackling them. So I posted about it on Facebook. A friend commented that she’d just listened to a radio interview with a woman who’d written a book on the subject. I looked up the show, found a podcast, listened to it and was so impressed I immediately bought the book.

The book is called Wardrobe Crisis: How We Went From Sunday Best to Fast Fashion by Clare Press. It was funny and tragic, shocking and inspiring, and I tore through it in a couple of days. Then I bought a book mentioned in it, To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? by Lucy Siegle, and absorbed that in a few days, too.

I found it utterly fascinating, from how the fashion industry works now to learning about all the stages, post design, in the creation of a garment. While much of what I learned I already knew, since as a knitter I had made it my business to know all the ethical and environmental issues to do with fibre, but there were plenty of things I hadn’t known on the garment-making side. There’s a lot to be horrified by and yet I came away feeling far more hopeful than I expected.

Why? Because it seems like the garment industry is being taken, sometimes kicking and screaming, in the direction the food industry has gone, with greater awareness and value placed in environmental, social and health consequences of the way it runs. And I can see that the same interest and energy that drives the decluttering and clean living movements could be directed toward people buying, and therefore encouraging the making of, more ethical fashion.

I asked my friends on Facebook if they’ve ever bought really, really cheap stuff and what their reasoning was in order to gauge the sorts of reactions people have for and against ethical shopping. It’s been interesting to see how they regard it. This article investigates people’s attitudes toward ethical products. I was intrigued to see that the people who choose to ignore ethical issues tend to regard anyone who tries to shop ethically negatively – and I’m reminded again of the food movement, and how despite mockery of ‘organic’ products an appreciation for sustainable food practises has grown.

I dove into all this wanting specific questions answered. Why are some clothes now so ridiculously cheap? Is it better to buy direct from China, cutting out the middlemen, or worse? What are the ethical fashion brands and do they make anything that isn’t expensive and dead boring? Why is current ‘fast fashion’ full of dull, unflattering polyester jersey that falls to pieces after a few washes? How should I approach shopping in order to make a difference, even a tiny one?

Most of these questions were answered, and for a few it was easy to extrapolate an answer. But they’ll take more than a few blog post to cover, so watch this space.

Jean Jeany Rug

Back when I was on Pinterest I collected pins to tutorials on hand braiding strips of rag into floor rugs. The techniques used didn’t appeal, however, as they involved sewing, glue or making a wooden framework. I was sure there had to be a way to do it without sewing machine, glue, looms, needles – really, anything more than just the rags and my hands.

I now use Google Images to browse crafty ideas, and recently it led me to a YouTube vid on braiding rag rugs. The method wasn’t quite what I was after, as it still required using needles, but I could see that they were unnecessary. There was a bit of sewing at the start and end, but I could see a way around that, too. The teacher insisted that you could only do it with stretch fabric, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me trying it with the leftover strips of denim from my woven floor rugs.

So a few months ago I gave it a try. And it was so easy! And very, very addictive. This is how much I’ve done so far:

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It’s only the size of a small doormat so far. It’s slow work, but really satisfying. Good for when I want a creative but undemanding task, or something to do while listening to podcasts.