Tag Archives: upcycling

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.


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.


Embroidery and Upcycling

Carrying on with the craft theme, here are some images from the embroidery I’ve been working on. As you can see in the image below, I’m using the kind of hoop that is traditional in British embroidery. I can’t manage the denim without it, and the layers of fabric would make a sashiko needle impossible to manage, I think. So, nothing authentic about any of this, but, I’ve been really inspired by what I’ve learned about sashiko and boro.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Form follows need as the embroidery reinforces seams and helps me deal with the otherwise rough and vulnerable edges of the denim. Working with such a heavy fabric, folding the edges of each piece to make a hem isn’t feasible, but means the patchwork pieces are otherwise likely to unravel. I’ve learned by experiment how best to secure seams and edges of cloth.


Craft, culture and boro

Back in the winter, Pinterest lured me in with images of boro. At the time I had no real idea of what I was seeing only that I found it very attractive. If you get in there with a search engine, the internet will give you a lot of images of mostly denim patchwork, visible mending techniques and embroidery. As an enthusiastic needlecrafter and upcycler, this all had instant appeal. I dug in.

I like to have some idea of where things come from and what their significance is. Partly because I delight in such knowledge and partly because accidental cultural appropriation is not my idea of fun.  Here’s a brief synopsis of what I found out when I dug in. Boro means rags, and it is a tradition from Northern Japan, inspired by poverty and necessity, that takes what little fabric is available and keeps it in sound, wearable, protective condition. It fell out of favour after the second world war because of the poverty associations, but is having something of a renaissance. Of course traditionally it wasn’t done with denim but currently that seems to be the fabric of preference. There is also an embroidery tradition that goes with it, called sashiko.

We really need these kinds of traditions right now – we need the inspiration and to reclaim cultures of re-use. To take our throwaway culture towards something more sustainable we need to start valuing re-use, repairing, upcycling, and keeping whatever is usable in use. This of course is what poor people have always done, of necessity, and that’s part of the problem. While we see these techniques as being about poverty and insufficiency, many people will be actively put off them. Who wants to look poor? Who wants to do what poor people do? Affluence means discarding things whenever you like.  It means never looking shabby, or ragged, or even mended. We equate smartness with newness and wealth.

It will take a bit of a shift to see the value in what is old and repaired. But, there is a great deal of beauty and innovation in these traditions. Off the peg clothing is bland stuff that seldom lasts long. It means looking like everyone else and having limited scope for self expression. The upcycler on the other hand gets to play and make over, and has adventures in clothing unavailable to other people. There are plenty of things to find attractive here.

Over the coming few days I’m going to be writing a bit about my adventures with boro, so, watch this space. To be clear, I am not making boro – I’m using the wrong materials and the wrong tools. It’s not my cultural heritage, and my grasp of it at this point is fairly superficial. However, there’s a lot I’m excited about and inspired by, and there’s a world of difference between being inspired by something, and misrepresenting it by claiming to be doing it.


A Little Light Viewing

Here’s a charming thing – the creature in this video is a Spoonwalker from Hopeless Maine. The graphic novel project is full of strange flora and fauna. A very nice chap had a go at getting a spoonwalker moving, and this is the consequence…

 

And this one is a clothes upcycling video sharing some of my projects. I make a video most months for Patreon, and they get to see what I’ve done before anyone else does – available at all levels of support. The Patreon support helps me with the video making because i feel like I can justify the time.

 

My Patreon is over here – there is a levels for people interested in the Druidry, and one for the fiction https://www.patreon.com/NimueB


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.


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.


Totoro doorstop

A broken coffee pot, a bunch of fabric that might otherwise have gone to landfill. I bought the wool. And lo, a bunch of useless stuff becomes a Totoro doorstopper! This is my second go – the first one (visible in the background of the first few pictures) was built around the remains of a dead wind up torch. Tom did the facial features.


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.