Moral Fibre

When I counted the contents of my wardrobe, I took note of what everything was made of. This is what I found:

59% cotton
22% polyester, nylon or acrylic
15% wool, alpaca or camel
3% cashmere
2% rayon, viscose or bamboo
1% leather or silk

Having an interest in textiles for a long time, I already know most of the issues with different fibres, and that there are none that don’t come with baggage. The above proportions are the product of many year’s accumulation and culling – older clothes that stood the test of time mixed with newer clothes. Fibre-wise it’s a good representation of my current approach to shopping.

So what would I change?

The greatest percentage of fibre in my wardrobe is cotton. It’s my fibre of preference because I have no allergy to it. I always knew there were issues with cotton growing like water-consumption, but I didn’t know how bad it was. The cotton growing industry is rife with water, pesticide, and pollution problems, GM scams and worker abuses. Producing cotton uses more energy than any other fibre, including polyester.

Many of these problems are dealt with or lessened in the production of organic cotton. Usually – though not always – when a brand goes organic they’re cleaning up other aspects of production too. Since I’m a cotton-preferring buyer, I’ll make a big difference by shopping for organic cotton whenever possible.

I’ve already blogged about my shock at how much polyester had crept into my wardrobe, and my determination to not buy any more. While the way polyester fibre is produced, with the fibre being extruded in the colour required, means the potentially polluting and water wasting dye process can be eliminated, many brands are now having basic garments made in the standard ‘greige’, shipped closer to home, then dyed and embellished as required so they can respond faster to trend shifts and meet those “new designs twice a week” aims. Polyester also produces toxic gasses during production, and, of course, uses oil reserves. It takes hundreds of years to decompose. Adding to that, learning that when there’s a house fire these days it turns into an inferno within a few minutes thanks to so much inside being made of petrochemicals has made me even more wary of polyester and it’s kin.

So polyester is out. What to buy instead will depend on the garment. I was disappointed to learn that while Bamboo is a great crop because you just chop off what you need and it grows more, the process of making the fibre is the same as rayon and viscose (which use wood pulp): water-hungry, polluting and toxin producing – and that’s before the dyeing. In the book Overdressed Tencel and Modal were said to be okay, because they’re made in a ‘closed loop’ where the chemicals and water are retained and reused. The trouble with all these ‘cellulosic’ fibres is that it’s hard to remember which are good or bad. To be sure, I’ll buy them through ethical brands.

I have no silk, linen or hemp garments in my wardrobe, but I do have hemp bed linen – a big investment that is paying off as they’ve done exactly as was promise: become softer in time and yet are wearing really well, are warm in winter and cool in summer. None of the books I read touched on the ethics or sustainability of linen, but hemp gets a thumbs up and silk is fine if you’re not a vegan. I’ll be keeping all three in mind as options for fancier clothes.

Merino keeps coming up as a relatively benign fibre, though there are environmental issues with fleece preparation and dyeing if either aren’t done properly. The most famous issue is mulesing, which isn’t fun for the sheep, but necessary to prevent flystrike. Other, less savage methods to combat flystrike are being developed and adopted, however, so if I was going to buy more woollies I might look for producers that are using them in order to support the effort.

Some of the garments in my wardrobe come with particularly gnarly issues:

Jeans
If the cotton growing issues weren’t enough, jeans production is loaded with environmental and worker conditions issues. Whole river systems have turned the wrong kind of blue from dyeing, and the methods used to create wear effects gobble up water and energy, in particular sandblasting, which clogs up the lungs of workers with silica. I’ve always thought pre-distressed jeans were a bit wanky and look for the darkest, un-treated pair I can find, so now I have another justification for doing so. Or maybe wear some other kind of pants.

Cashmere cardigans
I had no idea that bargain cashmere was a thing, but it turns out it is in the UK – where I bought two of my cardigans. However, it has led to overgrazing in Mongolia, destroying what is a unique and very fragile ecosystem. Ironically, this has also led to a degradation of the quality of cashmere. The micron count of cashmere is now so bad you may as well buy merino.

Leather jackets
“The World Bank identifies leather as among the three most polluting industries on the planet” (Wardrobe Refashion, by Claire Press). Tanning produces toxic vapours. Most is chromium tanned. That’s the poison of issue in the film Erin Brockovich. Fifty million litres of it end up in the Ganges every day. And the idea that that leather is a by-product of the meat industry is just that, a nice idea. All but one of my leather coats is second hand. You can get vegetable dyed leather, or products from factories that capture and recycle water and chemicals, so I’m ever tempted to buy leather in future I’ll make sure I buy second hand or from ethical brands.

Fur and skins
There’s no real fur in my wardrobe… as far as I know. My fur-like shrug is supposed to be fake. However, since real fur is cheaper than fake fur thanks to the growth of farmed fur, sometimes garment manufacturers lie about the source. Often the animal isn’t what the label says either, especially if it was produced in a country where cat and dog fur is already produced in the millions. In some places they practise live skinning to avoid cutting the pelt, and you don’t want to know what they do to snakes. If this isn’t enough to put you off, the processing of fur is as polluting as leather.

Well, while counting the item in my wardrobe seemed bit over the top, I did discover a lot about my clothes. I know what to look for when I want to replace something. Not just seeking out ethical brands, but checking out organic cotton, linen, hemp and silk. Avoiding distressed jeans, seeking out alternatives to jeans. Buying merino (preferably non-mulsed) instead of cashmere. Avoiding polyester and leather. Continuing to be repelled by fur.

Most of all, I’ll try even harder to not buy much at all, because so much of the evils of garment production stems from fast fashion – cheap, disposable clothing sold for ridiculously low prices, pretending to be trendy but really just the same old thing embellished and recoloured in order that stores appear to have ‘new’ styles in their stores every few days.

That issue will have a whole post of its own.

50-50 A-line Skirt

Aaages ago I went to a craft market a friend had a stall at, and bought a skirt that I really, really loved. It was a basic a-line shape, with a slightly higher front and lower back, denim at the back and Japanese print cotton at the front. I love it so much I tried to find the seller again, but there was no sign of her or her brand name on the internet.

So last year I traced a pattern from it, determined to make another myself. When I had a look in my tub of fabric I discovered I had just enough denim for the back, and had about the right amount of a patterned cotton of the same weight for the front. I bundled everything together in a zip-lock bag ready for when I got the time to do a bit of sewing.

Well, you know how with most things if you wait for the right time it never happens, so you have to just make the time? I did that last weekend. This is the result:

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I’m delighted with how it turned out. It’s a wee bit bigger than the original, but I was being generous with seam allowance because it’s easier to make a garment smaller than larger. And being frankly realistic, I’m currently on the lean and non-bloated side, but that won’t always be the case.

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.

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.

Plastic Not Fantastic

Recently I packed away my summer clothes and brought out the knitwear. Looking through the jumpers, cardigans, jackets and vests, I felt a mix of fondness and weariness. There’s a lot I love in there, but I found myself wishing I could pack it back away for a little longer.

I don’t think it has anything to do with dreading the cold months. I like winter. I’m just a little (dare I say it) bored with wearing the same old thing. Not just the knits, but the skivvies that allow me to wear wool without setting off my allergy to it.

Since I’m not constantly adding hand knits to my wardrobe through knitting any more I have to look for other ways to freshen things up a bit. Because I can’t wear wool against my skin I wear fleecy jackets over short-sleeved shirts on cooler summer days, but overall I prefer natural fibres. I have three cotton jackets, but they’re the same design in three different colours so if you didn’t register a change of colour you’d think I was wearing the same garment. Another kind of cotton jacket sounded like a good addition to my wardrobe.

I figured if I was going shopping I may as well tackle another item of clothing I needed. Too much feasting over the Easter weekend meant I wasn’t comfortable in my jeans and pants. I’d wear skirts instead, but because my cat occasionally swipes my ankles, I have to wear them with leggings instead of tights during cold weather. I have two pairs of leggings, and they’re starting to look a bit tired. Still, leggings shouldn’t be hard to find, right?

So I went shopping. And was aghast. I couldn’t find simple black cotton leggings. They were all made of polyester. And the jackets and knitwear – all acrylic. Even the long-sleeved t-shirts and polo-necks had high levels of plastic content. When did this happen?

Well, I dismissed it as bad luck – I just chose the wrong stores. However, when I went to Ishka a few days later, thinking their aesthetic is usually more ‘natural’, I found lots of 100% polyester fabric masquerading as cotton. Ugh!

A friend put me onto a shop that sells cotton leggings, so I mail-ordered four pairs. When it came to the knitwear and jackets, however, I decided to go second-hand and found a casual corduroy jacket and long cotton cardigan at a charity shop, the latter which I dyed. Problem solved.

However, I do wonder if I’m seeing a worrying trend. On a science program last year researches showed how when modern houses catch fire, the fires burn hotter and spread several times faster than they used to, because most house contents are now, essentially, petroleum products.

And in another program, researchers found that most of the plastic ingested by fish in Australian waterways was fibres from clothing.

Personally, I don’t mind polyester for evening wear and travel clothes. Otherwise, my wardrobe is mainly cotton based. I find polyester unpleasant to wear, even when it doesn’t give me a rash.

But I’m disturbed to see how much poly has crept into my daily wear. I’m not going to toss any of it out, but I am going to be more careful about what I’m buying from now on. I feel more justified in buying and refashioning vintage and second-hand clothing, too.

And I have a stronger urge to change my daily ‘look’ to incorporate much more hand woven and hand sewn clothing. My Saori garment design book is looking very interesting right now.

Cheesecloth Top

This top began life like this:

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At the time I was hand sewing clothing, as I hadn’t got over the aversion to sewing I’d had since my mid 20s. I never wore the top. Earlier this year I made a few adjustments to make this:

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Better, but a little plain. I needed something simple to do while watching tv. Inspired by Rebecca Ringquist’s book and kantha embroidery, I stitched lines of running stitch, using up lots of leftover floss.

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Simple. Fun. Flattering. Only problem is, now I need another easy project to do while watching tv.

Handspun, Handwoven, Handsewn

The olive yarn in this has had quite a journey. I bought it at the Handweavers and Spinners Guild in Christchurch in 2009. In 2013 I used the Bond Sweater Machine to make this:

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Which I didn’t like that much and was eventually frogged. Late last year I wove it on the rigid heddle into lengths of fabric. There was no ultimate plan for them, I just wanted to get it out of the stash and have something easy to weave. I got three strips out of it: two the width of the loom, one a little more than half the width.

Using the book Simple Woven Garments as inspiration, I pinned and unpinned and repinned on the dress model. The two wider pieces were perfect sewn together to make a sleeves-front-back tube. By adding a pleat to the back neckline I got a cowl at the front, which I liked so much I decided that whatever else I did had to build on this. I just had to attaching the narrow strip somehow. My first attempt had it flat at the front…

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… and a pleat at the back to make a peplum. But there wasn’t enough fabric to make it peplum-y enough, and it sat too high.

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Next I moved the darts on the back to the shoulders and pinned the strip flat so I could crossed over the ends at the front. (I don’t have a pic, unfortunately.) While this looked better, but it hid half the fringe, and I like the fringe, so I kept experimenting.

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I tried folding the ends out to form fringed pouch pockets at the front.

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Pockets! Cute! However, with the fronts pinned together I couldn’t get it off the dress model. I rummaged through my sewing box and found a short black open-ende zip. Perfect!

So after a bit of sewing while watching tv and some zip insertion, I have this:

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I may trim the fringe a little more, if it’s annoying at that length. And I may decide in future to cut up the centre front to make it a jacket. For now, however, it’s packed away with the rest of my winter clothing. Far too hot for this right now!

Say Cheese

My recent itch to sew led to me popping around to a friends place for some spontaneous stitching recently. I woke up in a grumpy mood that day, but thanks to having some company with which to create and chat by the end I was in a much better state of mind. I even got some sewing-with-cat time:

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However, I wasn’t exactly sewing at my best. I took four possible projects and thought I’d start on an easy one – a men’s shirt into shorts refashion. But when realised I wasn’t going to get enough fabric so I put it aside and started on another – a cheesecloth tunic top.

I knew I didn’t have much fabric. It was a choice between a short top with long sleeves or a longer top with short sleeves. I went for the latter:

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However, I realised too late that the front was also supposed to be cut on the fold. I had to sew a strip down the middle. And in retrospect, I think I should have eliminated the sleeves altogether. And made it a size smaller, as it has turned out rather wide.

But I’m not too fussed, as I mainly wanted to a) use up the material, b) try out Little Jen, my mini sewing machine, c) just sew.

I want to embellish it, and I’m thinking of using some of my inkle. Trouble is, I can’t decide between three of the tapes.

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Any preferences?

No matter which I choose, I’ll have to weave some more, as I want to put it around the sleeve cuffs as well.

Old Timers

In some felt baskets in the craft room I keep ‘lingerers’ – materials that never became what they were meant to, unfinished projects and items too good to throw away that I’ve not had an idea how to repurpose yet. From time to time I rifle through, consider again what I could make with them, then put them back again if no inspiration strikes.

When I was rifling through them recently I picked out a ball of icord I made ages ago on the EmbellishKnit.

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I’d started crocheting it with my giant wooden hook at some point, and I liked the result and thought it would make a great hat, but I didn’t have enough for one. This time I had the idea to make a headband instead:

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I’m happy with how it turned out. It did hurt my hands a little to crochet it, though, so it’s just as well it was a small project.

A top made of two squares of cheesecloth also caught my eye. I made it back when I hadn’t got over my dislike of sewing with a machine, so it was all hand sewed. There are no pics of the original. It was a bit of a dud, and I don’t think it even made it onto this blog. A bit more hand stitching turned it into a boat neck top. I’m planning to embroider all over the front. Not sure what yet. An idea will come eventually.

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Next I picked out this houndstooth wool fabric I made in 2012.

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I’d never blogged about the finished piece because the I’d intended to sew it into something. But I do like it as a scarf. Later wove a small rectangle of log cabin out of the same yarn, which I was going to make into a clutch, but this time I hit upon the idea of adding pockets to the scarf.

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There’s something very gratifying about finding a use for odd bits and pieces too good to throw away, or an old failed project. There’s a hoarder in me that gets to say ‘I told you it was worth keeping’. Fortunately I also gain satisfaction from the occasional cull, or I really would be drowning in craft materials!

Pattern Recognition

Since I bought the little Jenome (Lil’ Jen?) I’ve had the itch to sew, not helped by thinking a lot about what to embroider. So I went looking in my box of fabric and refashioning project baskets for inspiration.

Early last year I went through my fabric stash and culled it, mostly removing offcuts of fabric from past projects. Out of what I kept, if I had an idea for what it could become, I put a post-it note on it. So I now looked at the post-it notes and selected two projects that appealed: a white cheesecloth tunic that I’ll embroider, and straight grey denim skirt.

I also did a bit of a ‘mix and match’ with some of the smaller pieces of fabric, and hit on the idea of replicating a skirt I have, which is denim at the back and a cotton print at the front.

After that I went through my refashioning baskets. Plenty of projects waiting there, but I was most attracted to a sarong-into-shorts project and, in complete contrast, some thick pieces of woven, felted wool that I might be able to sew into a vest.

But for all but the shorts, which I have made before , I didn’t have any suitable patterns. The half-denim, half-print skirt is very simple, so I’ll just trace a pattern from it. I wasn’t game to try to invent the vest, straight denim skirt and tunic pattern. Fortunately, a while back I bookmarked a few that I liked and found a pattern for a tunic. I couldn’t find any classic straight denim skirt patterns, but I found a vest one that I could adapt for the woven fabric.

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So I bought and downloaded the tunic and vest patterns, then spent most of a morning printing, taping together and cutting them out. The tunic is going to need some careful cutting, as I don’t have a lot of fabric. This is it with the back and front shortened and full length sleeves. I’m thinking now that I’d rather have short sleeves and a longer body.

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Of course, then I had to dig through my sewing notions. I found everything but a skirt zipper and some bias binding. The first I got in my local habby store, and the second I found today, when I went to grab some calico from the stash and found a great big coil of calico binding, the copious leftovers from a quilt I made a few years back.

So with four projects ready to go, I may just need to put aside a whole weekend for sewing. Or two.