Tag Archives: clothing

In search of greener clothes

Clothing has a huge environmental impact. Throwaway fast fashion puts out a lot of carbon and adds a lot to landfill. Plastic fabrics put plastic particles into the environment. Cotton takes a lot of water to produce. Wool can be good, or can have land and animal welfare issues associated with it. Hemp and bamboo fabrics seem to be pretty good, but they’re also much more expensive.

Cheap clothing is made in awful conditions and there’s a huge social justice angle to changing how we buy and use clothing.

In terms of personal impact on the environment, we can make a lot of difference with our clothes choices. Never throw away clothes that could be given away and worn by someone else. Don’t buy clothes with the intention of wearing them once or twice. Try to buy the most durable clothes you can. Buy second hand if you are able to  – not everyone has time, energy or a conventional enough body-shape for this. Keeping fabric in use isn’t hard.

I’ve got into upcycling. The skirt I’m wearing in the photo is made from school shirts. The shirts in question were unusable as shirts – worn at the collars, marked, stained and otherwise damaged. I threw away the ruined fabric and made a skirt from the salvaged material. My knickerbockers were made from a pair of trousers that died.

The shirt I am wearing was salvaged from landfill by an innovative lad who is exploring more responsible approaches to fashion. A lot of stuff is thrown away before it even gets to the shops, but this can be salvaged and used, and in this case, has a steampunk weasel printed on it. (Weasel designed by Tom Brown). When I can point at a store for this, I will.

I have a lot of fun keeping cloth out of landfill. It creates interesting challenges and I end up with unique items of clothing. I have a horror of looking like the sort of person who has bought all their clothes from a supermarket, but I don’t have a huge clothing budget for fancy gear. This approach saves me money, which means when I buy new I have more scope to make more sustainable choices.

The Walking Skirt

Skirts are not inherently impractical. For much of history, men have worn skirts – they may be called robes, or tunics, but they are basically a loose bit of fabric draped over the thighs. Longer, if you happen to be a Viking. However, all too often, modern skirts designed for the female body are inherently impractical. It encourages us to believe that being feminine also means being impractical.

If a skirt is made of delicate fabric, you can’t go through a bramble patch in it. If the fabric is light, it won’t keep you warm for being active outside. If the skirt is tight, it won’t let you move – no climbing stiles or getting on bicycles in that! If the important thing about the skirt is that it looks pretty and you are to look pretty wearing it, you can’t risk accident or dirt. How many girls are told not to do things because keeping the skirt looking nice is deemed to be the most important thing?

When it comes to making skirts for women, clothes designers usually focus on what is attractive – especially what is sexually attractive to the male gaze. This does not result in practical or useful clothing, and there tend not to be pockets.

I find that in cold weather, a skirt over leggings or trousers is the warmest option. I can move the bulk out of the way if I need to. The fabric keeps my thighs warm, but if the skirt is about knee length, it doesn’t get caught on things and the hem doesn’t get muddy. If the skirt is made of a substantial, heavy fabric, it really helps. However, the right fabric and the right weight is hard to find. So I made a walking skirt out of dead hoodies. It is warm, and practical, and allows me to do stuff.

Skirts are not gender identity. Lots of men have, historically, worn skirts. Some still do. If you want to wear a skirt as an expression of femininity, the skirt does not have to be limiting, or useless, or make you vulnerable or fragile. The skirt can be your friend. Clothes have a huge impact on sense of self, and when they limit what we can do, that impact really isn’t helping. Interrogate your wardrobe. Ask who your clothes are really serving. Learn to sew as an act of revolution, and make the clothes that serve you! Or modify the clothes you buy so that they work for you. Put pretty decoration on the practical stuff if you fancy that. Sew on extra pockets. Cut out the patriarchal bullshit hiding in your wardrobe.

Clothes, poverty and identity

Sighted people read each other visually, and that means for most of us, how we look will have a huge impact on who other people think we are. People will judge you if you don’t look clean and smart – neither of which is always easy if you’re dealing with extreme poverty. If you are presenting as poor and you don’t look poor enough to the people judging you, that won’t go well for you, either. Many social groupings expect people to conform to visual standards – you have to look the part if you want to belong.

Like many people, I grew up wearing hand me downs and clothes from charity shops. I did not get to choose how I looked, I had to wear whatever would do the job, and fitted. In my mid teens, I started taking scissors and needle to clothing in the hopes of finding something that felt like ‘me’.  I was seventeen when I bought my first new dress, with my own money. I liked how that felt.

I’ve never had much cash to spend on clothes, and I’ve mostly bought in sales and I still buy second hand, and I do a lot of upcycling. Being able to choose how I’m going to look is something I really value. I feel more in control of my self, my body and my life if I can choose what I really want to wear rather than having to make do with what fits. As a tall and broad person I’ve struggled to find second hand clothes that fit. It is not a happy thing having to wear clothing you despise because that’s all that fits you.

I’ve talked to other people about this and I know it isn’t just me. There’s an emotional impact in being able to choose how you look when you’ve grown up, or spent much of your life unable to do that. While we’re talking about the impact of fast fashion on the planet, I think we need to talk as well about how the long term experience of poverty can impact on people’s clothes choices – and not in the best way. When you have very little control over your life, cheap, throwaway clothing means you do have control over how you look. Not wearing things until they are ragged means not looking poor. It takes a certain middle class confidence to wear worn and patched clothes – if you’ve got money and don’t need help, you won’t encounter the same problems around this.

To deal with the impact fast fashion has on the planet, we need to identify and deal with the things that make it attractive. My guess is that control is a really important part of this. It’s a rare thing that you can control with very little money, and that might give a person with very little joy in their life an emotional boost. New clothes give people confidence and help them feel better about themselves, and unless those needs are met in other ways, fast fashion will remain attractive.

Limits to second hand sourcing

In a recent blog post about clothing I mentioned buying second hand, and inevitably didn’t say a great many things about the limits of second hand shopping. In the effort to reduce the appalling impact of the fashion industry on the planet, many people are committing to only buying second hand clothes. It’s good if you can – but not everyone can, and that needs talking about.

If you have an average sort of body shape and proportions, then second hand clothing is a lot more realistic. If you are unusual in any way, the chances of walking into a second hand clothes shop and finding an item that will fit you, is not high. If you need a specialist shop to source things that will fit you, second hand shopping is a limited option – you might be able to do a little bit online now and then.

If you have a minimal wardrobe either to save money or as a green choice, then if a key piece of kit becomes un-wearable, you will need to replace it quickly. You might not be able to afford to wait until something turns up. Equally, if you walk or cycle for transport or work outside, there will be key pieces of kit that you can’t manage without and you won’t reliably be able to source second hand. Greener living choices will inform what kind of clothes you need.

Second hand shopping takes time. Not everyone is time rich. Other greener ways of living are also more time intensive – walking for transport, handwashing your clothes, shopping on foot, growing your own veg, cooking everything from scratch… these things all take time. Finding suitable clothes in charity shops takes time. You might not be able to do all of it. Not being able to find the time for some greener activities because of the time it takes to do other green activities is not something to feel awkward about.

Not all new clothing is created equally. If you are supporting artisan creators, fair trade sellers, handmade creativity, local independent shops, locally sourced materials and the like, this is very different from buying cheap, throwaway fashion.

I potter into charity shops often enough to have a good idea what to expect. It’s rare that I see anything I like and that would fit me – I’m fussy about clothes and only buy things I’m confident I will want to wear for years to come. Inevitably, a large percentage of what’s in the shops is that bland, supermarket stuff that does nothing for me. Clothing is an important form of self expression, and for many of us is how we create and express identity. Wearing stuff that doesn’t feel like you, is miserable, and thus not sustainable. It would be good if more people who can afford to bought more of the good quality, handmade, original stuff and then sent that on to the charity shops!

Playing with clothes

Somewhere in my teens I figured out that I could take a scissors and needle to the clothes available to me and make them more to my liking. At seventeen I bought a new – entirely new to me – dress for the first time in my life and it was a memorable moment. I’ve never wanted to be fashionable. I’ve spent most of my life not trying to dress in a way anyone would find sexy. But I do like clothes and I like dressing up.

The fashion industry is wasteful, polluting and planet damaging. I’ve also never really understood why anyone would want mass produced clothes that you leave you looking bland and identical. For me, one of the great joys in upcycling and making from scratch is that most of what I have is unique.

I do buy new things – sometimes because I need clothes that do a specific job and I can’t afford to wait for them to show up second hand. As I walk for transport, I need robust and weather-appropriate attire. When items of clothing die, I do my best to re-invent them, or take what bits are still in good condition and turn them into something else. I have a lot of fun doing this, and it is the principle source of unique clothing in my possession.

In the last week or so, I’ve taken usable fabric from four shirts that where worn out, stained or damaged and could not be worn as they were. I have five items of clothing from these – radically different to what went before. To achieve this, I bought two meters of broidery anglais and half a meter of stiffening fabric – it has a name and I can’t remember it! The principle damage to two shirts was below the armpit, leading to two sleeveless tops, the sleeves from one top being used to replace sleeves on another top, where the cuffs were worn out. The other set of removed sleeves went into making a hat. Salvageable bits of sleeve from the dead-sleeve shirt went into widening the bust on the last shirt (not originally mine). I was, I admit, rather pleased with myself.

I needed some additional wardrobe items for one of the jobs I’m doing. I’ve saved myself a lot of money by working over items that were free. I look a touch eccentric, and I like that, and I’ve put far less in the bin than I would otherwise have done. The clothes I have created aren’t exactly smart, but they will do.

One of the great things about taking a scissors to an unusable item of clothing, is that the pressure is off. As it stands, the item is only fit for the bin or recycling. If you get it wrong, you can still do that. If you get it right, and can get a few extra wears even, you’ve won. It’s safe enough to play and experiment. I do sometimes buy extras to lift an upcycled item, but I only do that when I’m sure it’s going to work. It’s not necessary, often, so aside from the cost of the thread and needles, there’s very little outlay. You can get a lot of upcycling out of a reel of thread. You can get a lot of fun out of the remaking – so it can double as a low cost hobby and way to amuse yourself.

If you can’t sew – it’s not that hard and youtube has tons of tutorials. Your otherwise ruined and unwearable clothes are great to practice on as you build skills.

Frankenstein Clothing

I hate throwing anything away – not if there’s any possible use it can be put to. Where I can, clothing that no longer works for me gets sent to charity shops. However, worn out, damaged, stained items have no re-sale value. So, finding re-uses for dead clothing is an ongoing issue, answered by rag rugs, rag baskets, and the like – these are traditional solutions to squeezing the last bit of mileage out of fabric.

I got in to Frankenstein clothing in my teens. I can sort-of sew – I don’t like sewing machines. But, my ability to think in 3D is lousy. Clothes making from scratch requires things I don’t have – flat space where you can cut cloth without being compromised by a cat would be useful, and I’ve not had that in a very long time. Working on the floor in the living room isn’t viable – I’ve tried. There aren’t patterns for the kinds of clothes I really, really want, and new bought fabric can be pricey.

What I’ve done for much of my life is to either pick up cheap second hand clothes, or up-cycle my own dead clothes to create something new, and weird, of my own imagining. Frankenstein clothes are often made of the dead remnants of other items – hence my name for it. It’s cheaper than making from scratch, I feel safer about mistakes if what I was using was on the way out anyway. I’ve got the shape of the existing garment to help me.

Over the weekend I did over a pair of trousers. I’ve lost a fair amount of weight, so they didn’t fit very well, and the cat had pulled threads on one thigh. I took off the old waistband and made a new one, shortening the waist. I turned the garment inside out – hiding the cat damage, and cut the seams and re-sewed them to enable the reversal. Then, with assistance, I took the legs off just below the knees. I’ve elasticated the new hem, and added broiderie angalise (black).

What this gives me is something evocative of the Victorian knickerbockers. An echo of the kind of garment women swimming and cycling in an era where it wasn’t acceptable to uncover, tended to wear. This is a look I can use for steampunk escapades, but it’s also a garment I will wear for other activities. I don’t have the space to keep a steampunk wardrobe, it all has to be wearable in the rest of my life. I’ve always liked trousers that stop below the knee, and I’ve no qualms about going out in attire other people will find weird, ridiculous or bemusing.

Every piece of clothing I can Frankenstein into a second life reduces my need to buy and consume. I keep usable things out of landfill, I get to play, and I get to wear outrageous things of my own imagining despite not having the technical skills to make my own clothes from scratch.

What do you look like?

Ever since the first human, back in the mists of ancient history, wrapped a bit of dead animal, or a fig leaf of whatever it was around a damp or cold part of their anatomy, we’ve been wearing clothes. And I would bet you that somewhere after the first fig leaf, someone else looked upon it and thought ‘well, I see the utility here, but I want a bigger leaf!’

Body adornment is universal, although ideas of what is beautiful are not. Alongside what we wrap around our bodies, we modify our flesh with tattoos, scarification, stretching, cutting off. We hide some parts and reveal others. All of this is culturally constructed, with a heady balancing act of fitting in and standing out going on at the same time. We want to be noticed, but we don’t want to be so different that we are ‘other’, often.

One of the many reflections to come out of a weekend of Steampunkery is about how dreadfully banal modern attire is. I don’t always see it, because I’m used to seeing it. When you’ve had a weekend of extravagant hats, amazing dresses, fabulous waistcoats and the such, the average bod in the street looks very dull indeed.

Why is 21st century mainstream attire so incredibly bland, for the greater part?

Some, if not all of it, comes down to mass production. It is cheap and quick to mass produce clothing that is identical and near identical, and to have everyone wearing that. The more individual an item is, the more time, effort and therefore money has to go into it. Most people at a Steampunk weekend will either have lavished hours on their attire, or will have paid appropriately for someone else having lavished hours upon it. This isn’t cheap.

Cheap is a consideration if you are in a state of abject poverty (been there, had the t-shirts). However, we’ve been sold the idea that low cost, banal predictability is actually a good thing. We should want the cheap and the samey any time we can get it, such that if you go into a more expensive clothes retailer, you can still get the cheap and banal aesthetic. We don’t value difference or quality, and I wonder if we are the first period of human history where that’s been the case in terms of how we normally dress and adorn ourselves.

I enjoy difference. I enjoy variety, and the interest that comes when things are made with love and imagination. It’s as true of a lunch as it is of a dress. Of course that’s neither easy nor convenient, and we’ve also been sold the idea that easy and convenient are measures of ‘good’. Increasingly, I am questioning how we got here, and what it’s for, and how to do differently.

Kit and caboodle

Last week I saw a walking group on the towpath. Every last one of them had serious, outdoor gear, I would estimate several hundred pounds worth per person, including walking boots suitable for mountains, and dinky little rucksacks. All of it shiny looking, and clearly new on from the shop. They walked a few miles over flat terrain on a nice day – a walk that needed only a passable pair of trainers and enough clothing not to get yourself arrested.
But it’s not just the walkers who are succumbing to the lure of ‘the right gear’. You can’t go jogging or cycling round here without specific stretchy, got zips in it, figure hugging gear. For a short run, I’m not convinced you need anything more than the basics. It’s like the walker – if you’re hiking all day through the fells in tricky conditions, or running a marathon, then you do need the right kit. Regular commenter here, Autumn, does serious cycling and I’m sure she has appropriate gear. I’m waiting to see what she says about this blog… There are times when you need the absolutely right shoes, the all conditions sleeping bag, the first aid kit, and whatnot. For a Sunday afternoon local jaunt in whatever form, mostly you don’t. Today I have seen canal fishermen decked out like they were on an Icelandic trawler.
There are reasons for clothes that have nothing to do with practicality. There are people who have been sold kit who do not understand that it is a needless expense. What’s more worrying is the possibility of people who feel they cannot walk, jog, cycle or anything else for lack of the right clothes. If you believe you have to have all the gear, you might never risk it without, and subsequently miss out on a lot.
The other big aspect of clothing is tribal. The clan of fishermen look like fishermen even when they aren’t waving their rods about. People who want to be recognised as hardcore cyclists or joggers only need ‘the look’ not the activity. The right kind of trousers tell the world that you ride horses, and so on. If all that matters to a person is surfaces and impressions, having the right gear is the main thing. Who cares if you never actually walk anywhere?
There are plenty of people who will happily sell you pagan gear – robes, tabards, cloaks, snazzy dresses, arcane looking jewellery, wands, bags, cauldrons, brooms, big poncy shirts, re-enactment style gear, and so on. You can spend a lot of money looking the part.
Now, maybe there are people who aren’t sure if you can be a ‘proper’ pagan without all the gear. Can you do a ritual without wearing a robe? Can you talk to the gods without the right shoes on? Do you need a bigger pentacle? It can feel that if you aren’t gorgeous, slinky and clinking with metal wear, you can’t really be a pagan at all. This is (to use the proper technical term) total bollocks. What you wear only matters if it makes a difference inside your head. Be creative, or dramatic, or practical in your clothes, as suits your nature, but beyond that, there is no requirement.
There are, no doubt about it, people who are more interested in that slinky surface than in spirituality. If they’re happy, fair enough I suppose, but clothes do not make someone a witch, a druid, a priestess, or, more importantly, any source of wisdom. The man with biggest pentacle is not necessarily the one with the best ideas. Sometimes, the people most keen to get their kit on are the ones who most crave attention, rather than the ones its most interesting to talk to. There are always exceptions, in both directions. If someone dresses in a way they find resonant and meaningful, that tends to be identifiably different from the showy. One of the giveaways is if it looks like the sales tag might still be in there.
So, what gear do you need to head out of the door as a druid? My recommendations are as follows.
1) A really good pair of shoes. Walking boots are good if you’re getting closer to nature, or something that you can comfortably go a few miles in, or stand around for a few hours in, doing ritual. Painful feet and sprained ankles do not make for good spiritual experiences.
2) Dress the rest of you primarily for the weather and anticipated terrain. If it is feasible to ornament yourself and you like doing that, add the ornaments afterwards, making comfort a priority. Lugging a ton of metal up a hill is unlikely to improve your experience.
3) Carry extras – a raincoat, a jumper, whatever makes sense. Also carry water and snacks. These double nicely as offerings when the need arises, and mean that if you want to stay out longer, you can.

You probably now look like a typical walker, maybe with a few extra feathers. On the plus side, you will not draw any unwanted attention and can go about your ritual in peace. Those who see you may assume you are having a picnic with friends. Of course, if you ache to have cameras pointed at you, this will fail to deliver.
Also, I have no idea what a caboodle is, but you probably don’t need one of those either!