Tag Archives: fashion

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.


Resisting the fashion industry

Fashion is terrible for the planet. Tons of barely worn clothing finds its way into landfill every year. Plastic particles get into our water supplies from clothes washing. The actual clothes tend to be made in grim conditions by underpaid people. What can we do?

The easiest change to make is not to put wearable clothing in the bin. Give it away. We can all do that.

Most of us can improve how we do our laundry – wash at a lower temperature, air dry don’t tumble dry, use a more environmentally friendly detergent, and don’t wash things quite so often.

We can buy fewer clothes of better quality and keep them longer. Tricky for people in poverty who can’t afford the upfront extra cost. 

We can buy and be gifted second hand. This helps, but is not a solution, nor is it viable for everyone. If you aren’t average size, or you have an emergency around a key piece of kit, this doesn’t work. Plus we can’t do it forever, second hand depends on the fashion industry too, it just doesn’t put money into it directly.

I’ve been wrangling with all of this for a while, alongside issues about appearance, and identity. I’m too tall and broad to buy much second hand. I also don’t like the vast majority of clothing out there. I hate the kinds of textiles, prints, patterns and colours that show up in supermarkets. Clothes shops are rarely much better, and all of it involves exploitation. But, most of my clothes are now too big and/or worn out.

I’ve been dabbling in clothes making for a while, using salvaged fabric from otherwise worn out clothes. But I’ve long since used the available material. So I took the plunge and bought a few meters of cotton from my local haberdasher. That won’t put any plastic into the world, and no one has been exploited at the sewing stage. I made a couple of tunics. I’m not brilliant at sewing – I can’t use sewing machines, they stress me too much. I’m making patterns out of clothes I already have, and I’m improvising. I get to use strong, dark colours and plain fabrics – this has always been my preference, but is hard to find in clothes shops. 

I’m not going to be able to do this for everything I need, but I can do it for at least some of my new clothing. I can make things I like, and explore what I actually like and want rather than being limited by what’s for sale. The cost is low compared to buying new clothing, the fabric standard is higher than cheap clothing so it will last. I’m not supporting the fashion industry. I craft as a hobby anyway so I’m using hobby time to do this, and I’ve found it rewarding. As I can’t buy my way out of participating in the grim behaviour of the fashion industry, this seems like my best bet for non-participation.


What if we re-thought fashion?

The fashion industry is one of the most planet harming, carbon intensive, polluting of human activities. Clothes are often made in sweat shops, only to end up in landfill after one or two wears. We throw away tons of clothing. Unlike issues around transport, food and energy consumption, there’s nothing inherent in the fashion industry that either justifies the waste, or makes it technically that difficult to change.

There’s a lot we can do as individuals on this one – buy less, use clothing for longer, give it to charity shops when we’re done with it, upcycle. Simply by rejecting the idea that you might buy an item of clothing, wear it once and throw it away, we could collectively get a lot done on this one.

The fashion industry itself is a bit of a poster-boy for throw away consumerism. It’s hardly an issue for this industry alone, it’s a cultural issue and an issue inherent in capitalism. If we accept that new is always better, and up to date is important, then buying things to almost immediately throw them away might make sense to us. Replace those ideas with durability, inherent worth, and the desire to own things that are inherently satisfying and pleasing, and that whole edifice could crumble.

If we wanted lasting clothing that would serve us well, we’d perhaps pay more for it and that would help move us away from the terrible conditions in which clothing tends to be made. It has to be said that currently the price tag on the clothing is not an indicator of how well the maker was paid. Unless you are buying from a person who made the clothes, the odds are there’s exploitation in the mix.

I want to make more of my own clothing. It’s one way of resisting, and as I can sew, it’s an option I have.  I also very much like having clothing that doesn’t look like what everyone else is wearing! I aspire to being able to afford to buy things from makers, rather than mass produced things, but there’s a significant economic aspect to that, and it’s a bit beyond me at the moment.

We don’t need throwaway fashion. It isn’t life enhancing, and it’s not especially joyful. There’s much more delight to be had in clothing that can be re-worn, and that can be a friend on the journey. Clothing full of associations and memories can be life enriching. Clothing into which time, care and thought has been invested has a lot more to offer us than something bought cheaply and immediately forgotten.

We don’t need fast fashion. There’s really no inherent good in it. The whole process goes with a strategy of selling us dissatisfaction so that we keep spending money on new things. What if your wardrobe was fine and did not need updating? What if it made more sense to replace clothes when they wear out or you change shape, investing in things you can enjoy for years to come? Think how much time, energy and effort that would save people! Think how much more joy we could have by only owning things we really wanted and that we make part of our lives.

I’m enough of an animist to make friends with the things I own. My clothing has been on journeys with me and is full of stories. When it wears out, I salvage what I can and re-use it, meaning every now and then I find an old friend in whatever place they’ve been re-purposed to. That’s a nice feeling. I’ve got fabric that came from my grandmother, clothes that are twenty years old and more. I’ve got parts of my life in my wardrobe, and I like how that feels. There’s meaning in it, and significance, and companionship.


Upcycled Steampunk against waste

There are certainly steampunks who spend a lot of money on new clothes and for whom it works a lot like any other kind of fashion. Often though, that’s not what happens. I think Steampunk clothing has a lot of potential for up-cycling and keeping garments out of landfill. The focus on creativity and individuality gives a framework in which a person can play about, and re-use and re-imagine things.

For many steampunks, vintage clothing is a key part of the mix. This means second hand – however upmarket or un-chic your shopping options are. Second hand is good for the planet. Repurposing clothing, and tinkering with it to make it work is also very much a thing. When you value innovation, clever methods for re-use become appealing.

For example, I’ve recently dealt with worn, shiny patches on a second hand jacket by embroidering over them –

I’m not sure how fashion came to mean trying to look like everyone else. I’m not sure how we’ve decided who to follow as fashionable, and who is just weird. I’m not sure why we’re so collectively persuaded about what’s an acceptable way to dress and what isn’t. I’m also not sure why most of the clothing most people wear seems so dreadfully bland. Supermarkets tell us to express ourselves with their clothing ranges that are about as tedious and un-expressive as clothing can get.

When you’re tinkering with clothes, it becomes unique. When you make your own, amend what you have, re-think and re-jig you can have a varied wardrobe and as much novelty as you want. Our pre-mass production ancestors used to be good at this, changing the trimmings to give a garment a fresh look, cutting down old adult clothes for kids to wear, and all that kind of thing.

There are, apparently, trend setters and trend followers. Perhaps it’s validating to have people copy you – that seems weird to me, but maybe it works for some people. Perhaps there’s some emotional reward for being a bad copy of a celebrity by wearing the look they’ve already moved on from. Certainly, it makes a lot of money for some people. It’s almost like we’ve been persuaded that what we put on our bodies is better decided for us by the people who want to make money out of us.


Instagram Druid

I’ve never been comfortable with how I look. Some of this is simply because I have an overtly feminine body, and an inner life that is much more androgynous. I find the whole topic of gender difficult. Some of it is because I’ve never been thin, and fat shaming goes way back into my history. I grew up conscious of myself as ‘funny looking’. Mirrors make me uneasy, and I don’t photograph well – no doubt not helped by being uncomfortable.

Instagram seems to be all about being glamorous. Women who are not perfectly thin and who present as body positive get trolled and bullied. It’s a problematic space, perpetrating ideas about bodies, beauty and fashion that help none of us and harm the planet. It’s a funny place to show up as a Druid.

There’s the additional issue that I have a massive chip on my shoulder about people who are able to exploit their attractiveness to get stuff done. Contrary to pop-culture norms, in my experience most women don’t do this. But the ones who do really annoy me, and building a brand, a career, an identity and an income stream around how you look on these terms, for me seems to just reinforce patriarchy. It upholds the culture of youth is beautiful, presenting only for the male gaze, and that we aren’t good enough unless we smear ourselves with chemicals and fill landfill sites without our worn-once clothing. It’s toxic.

So I challenged myself to take my uneasy face and body over to this space, and post images like images of me are perfectly acceptable things to post. I’m also posting art, and druidry and up-cycling and cat photos because those are less scary and also part of my agenda. I’m much more interested in what we do than in how we look when doing it. When it comes to how we look, I’m most interested in the bits we each have most control over and how we might have fun and be creative with that. I’m swimming against a massive tide here, but there we go.

If I can help anyone else be more comfortable in their own skin, that’s a win. If I can help anyone else be more confidently expressive, and less ashamed, and more at ease – excellent. I’m a middle aged Druid with a soft middle, most of my clothes are old and tatty, I don’t wear makeup normally, I’m not going to glamorous locations in my best dresses. I’m scruffy, and low carbon, and increasingly unapologetic. I’m not glamorous, but there is a certain magic in the no-glamour I have going on. What’s best about that is that anyone with a body can do the same thing – be magically yourself, and give no fucks.

Instagram account here – https://www.instagram.com/nimuebrown/


How being smart harms the planet

The fashion industry has been under some scrutiny of late for the environmental harm it does. A lot of clothing gets worn once and sent to landfill, and the notion of fashion is held to blame. However, there’s also the issue of looking smart, and what we now imagine that to mean.

Smart clothes are new clothes. There are no marks, no worn bits, no faded bits and no repairs on smart clothes. My son’s school is big on the idea of ‘smart’ and clear that a visible mend isn’t good enough. This wasn’t always the way of things and for much of the past, clean and neatly mended was smart enough for most of us.

New clothes speak of money. New clothes announce that you do not need to make do and mend, you can afford to throw away and replace. To look smart is to look affluent. However, the planet can’t afford us to keep going with this idea of richness.

It helps that I don’t do the kind of work where people will expect me to look ‘smart’. Authors are renowned for working in their pyjamas. We’re allowed to look a bit eccentric at events. It’s not unusual to find people at Transition meetings with old paint on their clothes, upcycled gear, things mended, and repurposed. I recall a fabulous hat made out of a child’s jumper… Equally in steampunk gatherings, remaking has kudos to it. I can go into those places wearing a skirt made out of offcuts from worn out shirts, and any judgement I get will tend towards the affirmative.

When we focus on smart, we also tend to focus on what we can buy readymade, which in turn means conformity, fitting in, having what everyone else has. Readymade means unoriginal, bland, lacking personal expression – and these might be good ways to push back against the smartness that harms the planet. If we prized innovation and originality more, then we’d be more up for upcycling and re-purposing because it would be all about showing off personal skill and cunning.

The current notion of smart, is modern. Our Viking and Saxon ancestors, I gather, took great care of their kit and meticulously patched damaged clothes to keep them going. When your culture says that your smartness is measured by how deftly you can make repairs, then that’s how you focus yourself. When your culture says ‘smart’ is a poor quality garment you throw away after a couple of wears, that’s apparently what we do.

Conventionally smart clothes are boring, unsustainable, and involve little or no personal creativity. Keeping usable fabric out of landfill leads to much more fun, innovation, skill, delight and scope to be unique.


Unfashionably Green

Fashion depends on the idea that we throw things away as soon as they are out of fashion and replace them with newer, trendier things. It particularly applies to clothes and accessories, but the logic of it permeates our lives – how our homes look, what’s in our kitchens, our gardens, and all the rest of it. If you can buy something, then you can buy it newer and more fashionable.

Pre-industrial revolution, fashion was mostly the concern of the wealthy. Most of us made do with what we could cobble together and kept it going for as long as it would last. Mass production introduced the idea of fashion to the population as a whole. Mass media exposes us to images of what the wealthy are doing and wearing and seeds in the rest of us the desire to have what they have, live as they live. This is part of the mechanism that helps keep the poor driving the economy, helps keep us in debt and always running to keep up.

Imagine how different the world would be if we didn’t celebrate consumerism in this way. What if the media routinely critiqued the unsustainable excesses of the rich? Would we be so keen to emulate them if they weren’t celebrated so much? Fashion doesn’t reliably give us beautiful things, or for that matter useful things. What would happen if we sought beauty and utility rather than a sense of being on trend? What would happen if we were more interested in durability and sustainable sourcing? Everything would change.

I think some of what we have at the moment is the cultural backlash that came after the rationing and the aftermath of the Second World War. A cultural desire for easy good things and not having to make do and mend. Perhaps understandable, but not liveable with.

In recent weeks I’ve seen some media acknowledgement of how grossly wasteful the fashion industry itself is. We throw away an obscene amount of clothing each year. It doesn’t help that cheap mass produced fashion isn’t made to last – it wears out and falls apart at depressing speed. Being in a position to compare the longevity of modern clothes with older clothes, I notice a vast difference. Items I’ve had twenty years and more endure while things bought recently fall apart. As someone inclined to make do and mend, I find modern fabrics are very hard to keep going.

Fashion is a story we have told ourselves about what’s desirable. We could have other stories. We could value originality more than keeping up with the crowd. We could value use and durability more than this year’s must have look. We could buy things that are better able to last and not be afraid to keep wearing them for years afterwards. We could be more creative.

One of the things I’ve noticed while pondering this blog is how bland most people look. Supermarket clothes, in fading fabrics and banal styles certainly have a ‘timeless’ quality in that they always look boring and always will. I see my nearest supermarket suggesting we freshen up our wardrobes for Christmas, while offering the same bland sort of shit, plus ridiculous jumpers. I think we’ve got to the point that what we’re being told is the new look isn’t even that, it is as old and tired as anything we bought last year. If what the people around me are wearing is anything to go buy, fashion is an idea that has already past its sell by date anyway.


On Being a Scruffy Urchin

Why would you take pride in being a scruffy urchin? I was asked this after the Women of the Tribe post went out. Why indeed? Pride in appearance is something we understand collectively in certain ways – we should be clean, neat, tidy, ideally dressed in new looking clothe or at least clothes in a good state of repair. Elegance and beauty are things we are to aspire to. We should be fashionable, visually appealing. To clam ‘scruffy urchin’ as a thing of pride is so at odds with that as to not make much sense to some people.

It all comes down to *why* I’m a scruffy urchin, and that’s all about the relationship between my clothes and my lifestyle choices, and my politics and beliefs. Walking is my primary mode of transport, so I wear clothes I can walk in, and most usually what I have on my feet is a pair of sturdy walking boots. When I can, I go barefoot, and nothing says ‘urchin’ like bare feet.

To enable the walking I most usually wear leggings or jogging bottoms, although often I have a skirt, dress or tunic over the top. Given the English climate and the walking, there’s often a smear of mud around the ankles. I’d have to change my clothes several times a day to avoid that, with my lifestyle. I tend to wear waterproof coats, and may need waterproof trousers. It’s not an elegant look, but it does what I need it to.

A lot of what I wear looks a little bit old and shabby – because it is! Today’s tunic is twenty years old and I’ve re-sewn it twice in that time. My lacy cardigan thing is 11 years old, bought not long after my child was born. Many of my clothes are this old, and therefore totally unfashionable. I buy second hand, as well. Much of what I own was never in fashion. I hate the way fashion drives us to throw away perfectly good clothing; that seems wasteful to me. I also have choices to make about how I spend my money, I can’t have everything. Why buy new clothes when the old clothes will do the job?

My skin and hair look a certain way because I try to minimise my use of chemicals, and I walk everywhere (you may be noticing a theme) so my hair is seldom perfectly sleek and tidy. It isn’t styled, I don’t go to a hairdresser (money and chemicals again) so I never ever look like I just stepped out of a salon. My hands are a bit rough because I hand wash clothes, hand sew all sorts of things and have callouses from stringed instruments.

Most of the time I wear very little ornamentation – occasionally when going out I’ll throw on a bit of costume jewellery, and I sometimes put pretty bits of cloth in my hair, but mostly I don’t do jewellery. This is a habit that came because I had ten years where my social life revolved around being a musician. Rings are an irritation for me when playing, and all other things can bang unhelpfully or catch on the instruments or their straps. It’s not worth the hassle. I tend to carry a rucksack, not a handbag because I often need to carry stuff, because I don’t have a car to fall back to.

How I look is part of how I live and is therefore an expression of who I am. I’m colourful, eccentric, playful in my clothing, but also intrinsically shabby, repaired, worn around the edges, windswept, mud spattered. A scruffy urchin and not ashamed of it at all.