Sunday, October 30, 2016

Negotiating Ethics-- Slow Fashion October Week 4

This month has felt very slow indeed as I have taken more time than ever before to think and write about what I wear, what I make, and why it matters. These posts have not come easily, but through patience and sometimes force of will I have managed to write my way into a kind of understanding of where I stand with my wardrobe-- and I have been getting dressed slowly and thoughtfully, and I feel less hurried to add new things. But still so many more thoughts remain and questions that have no easy answers. Karen's prompt for this week is Known Sources:

Good (especially good and affordable) sources of yarn and fabric with traceable origins. And for the things we buy, favorite sources: from small-batch designer-producers to fashion companies trying to do the right thing in a transparent way.

I have been having a harder time with this topic than any of the others. Maybe it's that fatigue has set in a bit, or maybe it just feels like there is way too much to say when we bring up ethics, about doing the right thing. I have written about failures and guilt, overbuying and under-wearing my clothes, because it feels honest and transparent to me at this moment, and I do want to make better choices, ones that I can feel good about. But I keep stumbling over this notion of "feeling good." My mind has been occupied in particular by this post by Suze, and this one by Simone, as well as this essay with its cheerful title: Being moral means you can never do enough.  Does feeling good-- or less guilty-- about our personal choices mean that we have done "enough"? What if we never can do enough with good intentions-- and enough money to opt out of buying cheap clothes? What then? 

The ability to buy your way out of an ethical dilemma is a privilege that few have. If we're going to talk about transparency and ethics, I think we need to address this. And please understand that I am speaking as someone with the means to spend a bit more on my clothes-- I include myself in my own scrutiny, in fact I'm usually first in line. 

A lot of what I read about Slow Fashion is tinged with nostalgia for the way things were-- before Fast Fashion, before the garment industry relocated to low-income countries without labor or environmental regulations. Clothes cost more and for that reason most people had fewer of them. Having a closet full of nice things was a sign of wealth and privilege-- still is, for that matter-- or else a lifetime of smart shopping, but I suspect that most people made do with what they could afford and made those things last because they had to, not because they were necessarily satisfied with what they had. Now many of us can afford closets that are stuffed full, clothes can be worn or not worn, kept or discarded, based on our preferences rather than need-- and I think that many people are satisfied with this. Before, we were accidentally, or incidentally, ethical in our clothing habits, for the most part-- I would rather not complicate things further by bringing up the realities of garment work and the lax environmental protections of the good old days. Today, the default mode of garment manufacturing and consumption is an unqualified human rights and environmental disaster (see The True Cost or read Overdressed) and making ethical choices is so much harder than being accidentally ethical because we can have what the majority of us wanted all along-- cheap, abundant, stylish (or at least trendy) clothes. It's soothing to imagine an idealized past when getting dressed, when just buying underwear for Heaven's sake didn't feel like such a moral quagmire, but do we really want to trade places with our great-grandmothers who had one dress for everyday and one for Sunday best? Maybe feeling good about our choices is what we sacrifice to have so many of them?

When I wrote my first post on this topic, I thought of Slow Fashion as a way to reconcile my desire to dress well with my ideals and ethics. Now I'm not sure that those things can be reconciled, especially if leading a moral life really is a never-ending journey-- and I think it probably is. Negotiation might be a better way to describe it-- making small sacrifices of desire and promising to do better. That is why I have trouble recommending sources based on transparency and ethics, because "better" choices are inevitably a compromise-- one that not everyone can afford to make, at that. 

I like Everlane, their clothes are simple and easy to wear in a lot of different ways and the price-to-quality ratio is high. They claim to work with factories that have high standards for human rights and they have plans to push this further in their supply chain as they grow and have more clout. I love Dieppa Restrepo shoes for their quality and comfort and the way they effortlessly work with almost everything I wear-- I have one pair that I have worn at least three times a week for almost two years and I hope to make them last a long, long time. They are also pricy and hard to find-- and I can't find much info about their sourcing, other than that the shoes are hand-made in Mexico. I can imagine saving my pennies and buying a few things from Elizabeth Suzann-- I could wear the heck out of these pants or this dress. But I need to make it clear that these are all things I like-- I'm not making any huge sacrifice in choosing them and I don't need a pat on the back. And having a smaller, more functional wardrobe is also not a sacrifice-- it's actually easier and more rewarding, or so I've heard. 

These questions have me tied in so many knots I can't even figure out what I'm arguing anymore. Sometimes I try to account for every possible point of view on an issue and I lose track of where I stand. Morality and ethics are not easy or comfortable, that's why so few of us actually live up to the standards we claim to have. But that isn't a reason to stop trying-- buying fewer clothes, wearing them longer, choosing handmade, second-hand, and responsible brands, mending and refashioning, even though it might not be enough to save the world. Maybe I just want to acknowledge that it might not be enough, that I'm not sure what "enough" looks like. Maybe I want to make sure that I'm not putting too positive a spin on my choices, because I continue to see this as a negotiation between desire and ethics. I will continue to make compromises because there is a certain baseline of enjoying my clothes and enjoying style that I am not ready to give up. 

Then again, I don't think I have to-- I keep finding, to my surprise, more enjoyment in having less. Maybe someday I will have two dresses and that will be amazing. 

Friday, October 21, 2016

Knitting and unknitting and knitting again-- Slow Fashion October Week 3

It's week three of Slow Fashion October! After getting out my thoughts last week-- about buying too much and choosing more carefully in the future-- I felt relieved and somehow lighter. Getting dressed for work this week I noticed that I really do have enough things-- things I love!-- to wear. This is Karen's prompt for week three:

How do you understand your style, choose projects well, advance your skills, get the right fit, and keep things interesting and long-lasting at the same time. What are your go-to patterns and most successful garments. How do you avoid mindless acquisition of yarn and fabric, or making “too much.” How do you make time and space for making — and why?

First of all, wow. There is a lot to address and I don't think I can possibly cover all of it! These topics have stretched my writing-- and thinking-- abilities so much and I have felt both exhilarated and exhausted trying to keep up. I'm going to confine myself to talking about knitting since it is still my craft drug-of-choice after all these years, for a number of reasons.

I knit because I find pleasure in working with my hands. I crave the action of the needles and yarn, the familiar motions repeated to the point of perfect automaticity of the muscles but also until there is something more than that-- intelligence in my hands. This feels deeply human, somehow. And it is soothing. My brain is always going at warp speed and knitting is one of the few things I've found that slows down my thoughts a bit-- while I have been writing this I have had some knitting at my side for when I need to stop and think, which has been often. Knitting has gotten me through some incredibly difficult times and I keep projects on tap for when I need to escape from the world (or myself) for a few hours. When I have finished a project there is satisfaction in a job well done and then an almost instant sense of bereavement-- the knitting is over! 

Naturally there is tension between the desire-- the need!-- to knit for its own sake and the hazard of making "too much." About five years ago I spent a year knitting hats-- one per week!-- and writing about it. I learned so many new skills and was able to try out a ton of different kinds of yarn while satisfying the urge to always be knitting something. It was a challenge and I'm glad I did it-- I got a little misty-eyed just now looking at my former blog-- it wasn't in any way mindless, but of course I made "too much"! I remember having some misgivings about that while I was knitting. The finished objects were sort of beside the point of the challenge-- many of the hats were unsolicited gifts and the ones I made for myself I have mostly stopped wearing or given away. Before 52 Hats I made very little and it felt like a big, important level-up to make A LOT. My knitting has a much less frenetic pace these days, but I still like to keep a more-or-less continuous flow of it in my life. 

There is also tension between this desire and my desire for a more handmade wardrobe. In case I didn't make it clear in my first and second posts on this topic, I'm what they call finicky about what I wear. Making things for myself is risky-- I have a small pile of handknit sweaters I rarely or never wear. My most successful garments are probably socks! Thinking about slow fashion this month has re-oriented my thinking a bit here-- I realized a long time ago that I will never knit all the sweaters I think I need, but I am further questioning these perceived needs and the assumptions and hidden costs underlying those perceptions. I don't need as many sweaters as I want to knit. I still want to make clothes for myself-- for the challenge, for the thrill and satisfaction of wearing something I made myself, to know exactly where my clothes are coming from-- but I am accepting more and more that this should be a slow process!

And there are lot of ways I slow down my knitting-- intentionally or unintentionally! The result is the same: I get to extend my enjoyment of the process, and I force myself to think more carefully about the finished object and its place in my life. Frogging is probably the primary way I slow myself down-- I think I unknit at least as much as I knit. Silly as it sounds, it was once a great revelation to me that if I didn't like the way a project was going or how it had turned out, I could just unravel it and start over. This completely changed my approach to knitting-- I started experimenting more and I make discoveries all the time because I'm not so afraid of making a mistake. If I have any qualms about ripping back, I remind myself that I will be gaining knitting rather than losing it! And I extend the time between yarn purchases by recycling:

Another way I slow down is by starting with fiber-- spinning and plying calm me just as much as knitting, and making my own yarn not only adds steps to the making process but also adds more transparency of known origins. As soon as I finish writing, I am going to sign up for a fleece preparation workshop-- and then I'm probably going to work on this:

Finally, documenting and analyzing my projects here slows down my knitting a lot. I sometimes have to force myself to stop and take pictures at crucial moments, or to write about my progress, because I just want to keep knitting, particularly if I am watching something good on Netflix! But I never regret these pauses-- I love to be able to look back and time travel a bit through my knitting history, and writing is another craft worthy of a chunk of my free time. And the possibility of a connection with other knitters and makers keeps me coming back to keeping this blog, even after a three year hiatus, even though I know I write mostly into a great void. Reflection and community are a vital part of the movement toward sustainable fashion, sustainable crafting, resilience in general, and I'm so grateful to Karen for providing a forum to talk about these big, meaty topics! Now to dive in to this week's discussion...

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

A sweater update-- and something gorgeous!

I am so very excited to have a sweater back on my knitting needles*-- it feels like everything is right with the world and I can do no wrong! I finished my planned yoke increases last week and decided to do a fit/gauge check:

The yoke depth is good, and I'm very happy with how the increases and neckline look... but I am missing about an inch of my chest circumference! My gauge swatch tells me I should have 15sts/4" and I have 16sts/4"-- but of course the swatch is blocked because I am a good little knitter. I thought about measuring the swatches unblocked just as I was tossing them into a sinkful of water. And my next thought, as they were sinking into their bath, was, "What could go wrong?" Apparently something did. After a pause and a ponder I decided what I needed was more swatches-- big ones, two of 'em, one knitted flat and one in the round, because I am a good little knitter and I don't like surprises:

This represents about an evening's worth of uncomplicated knitting-- really I don't understand why I sometimes see swatching as such a chore, why I am in such a hurry to get it over with, when it is in fact MORE KNITTING. This time I measured before and after blocking and found the missing information I need to continue-- the fabric definitely grows with blocking! So I am back on track but with fresh uncertainty because I won't be able to get an accurate sense of the fit until the sweater is blocked. We'll see if I can handle that.

While I was waiting for my swatches to dry a funny thing happened-- I remembered I that I have a spinning wheel and some singles hanging around, waiting patiently for me to finish plying them. Spinning and plying take me to the same mental space that simple knitting does, so it was an excellent substitute for the sweater I was longing for. And now I have a little something gorgeous to play with-- take a look:

This is my second skein since learning to spin on the wheel earlier this year. The base is Polworth, dyed by Casey at PortFiber. I liked the boldness of the contrasting colors and I'm happy that is preserved in the finished yarn. I can't stop looking at it, squeezing it, opening up the skein, draping it over things:

The fibers have passed through my hands twice already, now they will again on their way to becoming... something! I'm not sure yet. Starting with fiber draws out the pleasure of making, the imagining and planning does too-- and the swatching, for that matter. As long as I'm not in too much of a hurry to enjoy it.

*I wrote about starting this one-- and my handmade wardrobe ambitions-- here

Sunday, October 16, 2016

(Not So) Long Worn-- Slow Fashion October Week Two

It's week two of Slow Fashion October and I am feeling pleasantly overwhelmed by the excellent, deep, rich, thought-provoking conversation I have been following. It has been such a welcome respite from brink-of-doom election anxiety. Also it's lovely to know that a group of adults--on the internet!-- can have a sane, thoughtful, civil conversation about a complex and challenging topic. Well done all around! This week's prompt is Long Worn:

How can we make the most of the clothes already on the planet — from taking care of and mending and wearing things longer, to thrifting, swapping, heirlooms, hand-me-downs, alterations and refashioning.

Ugh, this is such a tough topic for me-- I definitely do not wear my clothes as much or for as long as I should and I feel ashamed. It's like I have a split personality when it comes to clothing. There are things that I love wearing that get a ton of use, and I take very good care of them. It feels good-- in the sense of virtue, yes, but also pleasure-- to treasure things, use them well, and make them last. But then there's the other side-- the perpetual shopper, always dissatisfied with what I have and anticipating the next purchase. This has gotten much better since I Kon-Mari-ed my closet-- keeping only the things I love-- but my shopper side is still beating my care-taker side far too often. When I set out to write my post for this week, I thought I would have some good stories to share about my most-cherished clothes, things I have mended and kept for years. But when I started mentally, and then physically, pulling them out of my closet I couldn't help noticing how many barely-worn things I have accumulated since I did my big clean-out. I have even been secretly promising myself another closet clean-out, looking forward to it, in fact. This feels like failure on so many levels. I feel bad looking at this pile:

That contains a lot of mistakes, wishful thinking, purchases made out of insecurity or anxiety, cheap things that overrode my normal inhibitions, items bought in multiples or on sale. It's hard evidence that despite my best intentions I am susceptible to every sales and marketing tactic-- as well as my own muddled thinking. Here's some examples of things that didn't work out:

  • J. Crew Chelsea boots-- I bought the black pair because I liked the idea of Chelsea boots and I felt it was an urgent enough need that I settled for these ones, even though they are an awkward height, not very comfortable, and the quality of the leather is not great for the price I paid. And even though I wore them grudgingly and secretly planned to replace them with a better pair, I then got the idea that if I had a second pair in a different color it would add "versatility" to my wardrobe. So I bought the brown ones-- on sale-- I think I have worn them twice. 
  • Light blue and dusty rose tops-- these colors keep sneaking into my closet because I have the idea that I should like them and that they are "flattering". I mostly prefer to wear darker colors and neutrals but I worry that maybe I don't look my "best" in them, probably because of some Color Me Beautiful-esque nonsense about we could all be so pretty if we just stopped wearing what we actually like. I can't believe I fall for that shit. I would like to have more color in my wardrobe because I love color, but I clearly do not love these colors. 
  • Racerback tops-- three of them. These are straight-up unwearable because I don't own a racerback bra. After all these years of having them, my breasts still sometimes make me feel as awkward as they did when I first grew them and I tend to wish them away even though they are in many ways quite nice. I go through spells of buying tops that don't work with my normal bras and it is always, always a mistake.
  • Not pictured: multiple Everlane t-shirts that don't fit well-- I have a few other Everlane items that I love, but these I bought because I was excited about the company. Everlane has a decent social responsibility record and I think that made me overly optimistic in my initial purchases-- they also do a lot to create urgency and FOMO around their products and I need to be more mindful of that.
  • Navy blue wool shift dress from TOAST. TOAST packages its (admittedly lovely, high-quality, and responsibly sourced) clothes in an attractive cloud of fantasy marketing that I find so hard to resist-- this dress would be just the thing for an eccentric art teacher or architect living in the wild Welsh countryside. Not my life but I sure wish it were. I bought it on sale (surprise!), the sleeves do unflattering things to my arms and I just don't have anywhere plausible to wear it. 
Clearly there is not a lot to be proud of here, but I also think it's important to let go of the guilt and negative feelings in order to move forward. I am becoming aware that there is this cycle of transgression (overbuying) and repentance ("editing") and it is perpetuated by guilt. My goal is to get better at choosing things that I will wear for a long time and there is so much to learn from my mistakes-- if I am willing to own them and analyze them. I recently wrote about my handknit sweater failures and it helped me see where I was going wrong and to make a game plan for future sweater knitting. So far these are some plans I have for future buying-- or not buying, actually:
  1. Be true to myself and the life I have now. That means letting go of fantasy clothes and ideas of what I should like.
  2. Be more mindful of marketing tactics and other factors that lower my shopping inhibitions-- namely sales, discounts, and low prices, but also special collections and limited editions (Uniqlo designer collaborations, I'm looking at you!). I plan to unsubscribe from a bunch of email lists. 
  3. Make a plan for filling my wardrobe gaps, one that reflects my needs and style. I think this is really the key and a big reason I've never had a fully functional wardrobe-- I've always just bought things that called to me whether or not they fit in with what I already had. 
  4. Try to limit my sources to second-hand, handmade, and companies that have a track record of social responsibility. Not only does this align with my conscience, but with the overwhelming number of choices out there it is good to have some principle by which to narrow them down and prevent overbuying.
  5. Identify and deal with feelings like boredom, anxiety, and insecurity in more productive ways-- mindfulness again! 

I plan to find good homes for all the items in that pile-- some will go to friends, others to a consignment shop. There is another, smaller pile of things I don't wear, but that I hope to give a second chance to through refashioning:

Thinking about Slow Fashion and making has started me imagining breezy summer tops-- wardrobe gap!-- made from a couple of other tops and a skirt, and alterations to a pair of jeans and a skirt that will make them wearable again. Maybe by next October I will be able to report back on my progress-- now I can't wait to dive back in to the conversation!

Friday, October 7, 2016

A joyful path-- Slow Fashion October week 1

This month I'm going to try-- deep breath!-- to post on the weekly Slow Fashion October topics from Fringe Association. This subject is so rich and interesting and seemingly inexhaustible! It takes me a bit out of my comfort zone as a writer and blogger-- I love to delve into big ideas but I don't always trust in my ability to write about them coherently, which is why I usually stick pretty close to my current projects for fodder. I think it will be good for me to take some time to reflect on what I wear, and what I make, and, most of all, why. This is the first week's prompt:

Who are you, and what does slow fashion mean to you. What got you started thinking about it — people, books, films, etc. Are your concerns environmental, humanitarian, financial? Most important: How does your thinking factor into your life and closet. Also, any special plans or projects for Slotober, and what are you hoping to get out of it?

About me: I have always-- I mean always-- had strong feelings about what I want to wear. Ask my mom, who had to launder the same rainbow-appliqu├ęd t-shirt and brown corduroy skirt every night during my preschool days because I refused to wear anything else. To this day, I feel something akin to an allergic reaction combined with a minor spiritual crisis when I have on something that isn't right for me. At the same time I have a deep streak of ethical frugality in my character that abhors waste, cruelty, mindlessness in all forms. My closet has always been something of a battleground between these two forces-- the aesthetic (and visceral) desire to dress well and the moral imperative for my life choices to align with my conscience. I see slow fashion-- making my own clothes, specifically-- as a way to reconcile and unite them. 

Like so many other people who consider themselves part of this movement, the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster had a huge, permanent effect on my clothing choices. Slow fashion for me is definitely about a different set of choices-- buying secondhand and traceable clothes, handmade, creative reuse and mending-- where ethics and sustainability come first. But it is also part of a bigger conversation I have been having with myself for a long, long time-- what do I really need to be happy? It's not only about what stuff and how much of it, but all the other things that go or don't go into a happy life. These questions are woven through so many of my readings and thoughts on so many different topics, including fashion and making-- the conversation pings off into a thousand directions but at the heart it is about finding a righteous and joyful path through our very complicated world. To that end, the book that has probably helped me the most in recent years is The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up-- reading that book and then choosing what things to keep entirely based on what makes me happy had a profound positive effect in almost all areas of my life, my closet included. Since I tidied my clothes I find that I am much closer to the smaller, better quality, more thoughtful wardrobe that I pursued for so long, through so many cycles of buying and "editing"-- I have added less to my closet and gotten more use and enjoyment out of it. 

I know now that cleaning out my closet was just the first step. I know that no one wants my old clothes-- and that the world's charity shops and landfills are now even more awash with discarded items thanks to Marie Kondo's book and method. I don't have an answer for this-- textile waste is a huge problem and I would like to stop contributing to it. But I think KonMari works as a catalyst to behavior change-- ultimately to more mindful consumer behavior-- because it focuses on joy, on respecting and treasuring the things you love, and I don't think the movement for more ethical and sustainable clothing can survive without joy. For me this is the heart of simplicity and slow fashion-- knowing what you love and need for a happy life and cheerfully leaving the rest alone. I am definitely not all the way there yet-- but I feel that I have found the path. 

I don't have any specific slow fashion projects for the month-- I want to join in the conversation and the community, to get ideas and inspiration. The onset of fall and winter weather is typically a time of wardrobe distress for me, one that in the past has triggered a flurry of clothing purchases. I think this year it will be very blissful to instead focus on appreciating what I already have!