Clockwise from above left: Material collection; Nan power; Every colour of the rainbow; Op shop fashion. Photos by Hiromi Yuasa
The slow movements’ gradual transformation of every facet of our lives has (unhurriedly) extended itself to the rabid international fast-fashion industry. While the idea of ‘fashion’ might seem frivolous to those of us who walk the path of permaculture, the way we clad ourselves can have a very alarming environmental impact, and one which we often overlook while we’re busy in the garden, smelling the rosemary.
If you own clothes, then you are almost certainly a participant in the fast-fashion industry. Open your wardrobe. Have a really good look. Who made your clothes, socks and undies? What are they made of? Where did you get them? How long have you owned them? When will you replace them? And where will they go when you’re done with them?
Fashion – though the word might make you cringe – is something we all participate in, one way or another, on a daily basis. Clothes are our wrappers: they tell the world who we are, and carry their very own cultural and personal identity baggage. They can tell us much about class, status, occupation, wellbeing and culture, so it’s no wonder we’ve been coerced, collectively, into the trillion dollar fast-fashion industry, ever striving to perfect the image of ourselves we wish to project to the world.
Conscious eating is so much a part of living permaculture, but conscious dressing – when we think long and hard about earth care and people care in relation to our threads – has only really come to the fore since disasters such as at the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh (where over 1100 people died and 2500 people were injured), and crises in the cotton fields of India ringing bells to warn us that there is trouble in our wardrobes.
Only a few generations ago the story was very different. Locally manufactured clothes and fibres were more the norm. Now it’s extremely difficult to source locally grown and made clothing. Fast fashion – dominated by billion dollar global companies peddling low-cost, low-quality clothing – is the overwhelming source of clothing for consumers around the world. The ‘slow fashion’ movement is a reaction to this modern throwaway textile culture.
Indeed the very nature of the word ’fashion’ stands at odds with everything the slow movement represents; but take note, clothes cannot be in slow fashion, they are slow fashion. It represents conscious dressing, the cultivation of a classic and permanent personal style, and a stronger connection to the origins (and destination) of your clothes. And the good news is: permaculture principles can help us on this journey.
DESIGN FROM PATTERNS TO DETAILS / OBSERVE & INTERACT / USE SMALL AND SLOW SOLUTIONS
Get yourself a notebook (or a spreadsheet if you’re that way inclined), and write down what you wear every single day for a month, a season, a year. The results will give you an insight into what types of clothing you actually value and use.
After my month of sartorial field notes, I was able to halve my already somewhat lean wardrobe. I found that I didn’t wear some of my ’favourite’ items of clothing, even once. Others that I was barely aware I owned I wore more than ten times. Black and blue featured heavily in my list of notes, a useful pointer for future shopping expeditions. As well as making me aware of my self-imposed uniform, this exercise gave me a strong understanding of the difference between the clothes I like to wear, and the clothes I like to think I wear (my own personal identity baggage).
Considering this information against what you do each day will further expand your understanding of your own clothing patterns and needs. For example, I spend two days a week in the garden, another two working from home and the rest of my time chasing a toddler around the neighbourhood. For me, an extensive pyjama wardrobe, sturdy shoes, a comfy jumper collection and dedicated gardening clothes are a must. And yet my wardrobe contained a beautiful collection of dresses I love (but hardly ever wear), and hardly any sturdy garden clothes. I tend to wear whatever while getting grubby in the garden, which is a very good way to race through several pairs of perfectly good jeans, but not really an ideal way to practise slow fashion.
USE AND VALUE RENEWABLE RESOURCES AND SERVICES
Many outdoor-wear fibres are made from non-renewable petrochemicals, known to break down as they are worn and to leave a trail of microplastics that fill our oceans and waterways: hello nylon, polyester and polar fleece. Natural fibres are a lot better, though they do produce methane (and in the case of wool, ammonia) when they break down in landfill, where they very often end up. Cotton – the world’s most popular natural fibre – may well be renewable, but the energy used to farm, process, fashion it into garments and then deliver them to your doorstep is likely not.
Sourcing local fibres is ideal, but limited: in Australia we do grow and process wool pretty well, and that’s about it. According to Cotton Australia we are ‘a relatively minor producer on the world scale but … the world’s second-largest exporter’. Which basically means that we grow our cotton, ship it overseas to be processed and fashioned into garments that are then shipped back home to be sold to consumers.
Short of becoming naturists, what are we to do? Avoiding synthetic clothes is a great start. Truly valuing the cost of our clothes is another: buy quality items; care for them so that they live a long life (mending and careful washing here we come!); and, when their time is up, choose the most sensible path for their retirement – as a rag, tomato tie or compost carbon, the choice is yours.
When buying new clothes, it’s important to be mindful of whom you are buying them from. Is your purchase propping up the fast-fashion oligarchy, or are you supporting a local craftsperson who is working to create a better clothing industry alternative? We have a growing number of local designers and makers here in Australia and New Zealand, committing to using sustainable textiles, zero-waste patterns, fair manufacturing practices and non-toxic dyes. It’s an exciting time to get dressed!
Often these clothes cost more than their big brand equivalents, but they will last and be supporting a better fashion future. And their price tag reinforces the true value of clothing: the cost should reflect the effort it took to grow the fibre, design the garment and sweat over its manufacture.
Another useful resource, which is often overlooked, is our grannies! No one knows how to darn better than your nonna, naniji, yiayia or abuela, so take time to pick a mending mastermind’s brain, and inhale as many tricks and techniques while you can. If you don’t have your own personal darning diva to hand, hook yourself up with your local neighbourhood house’s mending circle, or find someone you can trade your skills for in exchange for their mending talent.
PRODUCE NO WASTE
Sometimes one person’s trash is indeed another’s treasure, but very often goods donated to op shops end up as landfill. Donating unwanted clothes to op shops does not necessarily mean you are producing no waste, if they’re just taking a more convoluted route to the bin. Gifting unwanted clothes can shift the burden of your less awesome choices on to other individuals and organisations; so before you chuck it think of your potential donation as a gift. Would anyone actually value this item? Love it? Wear it to death, so that it can be repaired and worn to death again? Don’t beat yourself up about clothes in your life that don’t measure up to these testing questions, but try to think of ways you could use them first before gifting them: as fabric remnants for future garment repairs, by repurposing or repairing them into something new and amazing, or as cleaning or kitchen rags.
Get choosy. How many clothes do you actually need in your wardrobe? Having fewer clothes makes it simpler to get dressed in the morning and face the world, and lessens your chances of a daily existential style crisis. Making great clothing choices – choosing items you truly need for quality, durability and timelessness – will also help you to produce no waste, as you simply won’t be able to part with them until they are rags.
VALUE THE MARGINAL
My nan is a master-mender (ex-tailor, migrant and garment worker), and half the time you wouldn’t even notice that she’s repaired an item. Feel free to go to town upcycling your clothes with whimsical applique owl patches, if this suits your personal style. But for me, repairing clothes close to their original status is my way of valuing a past-its-prime item.
Darning and mending well can take some skill and understanding of textile construction, but it’s something you could pick up in a (cr)afternoon. It also requires a good stash of fabric remnants, and bits and bobs. Creating your own stash can be a rewarding exercise in valuing the marginal, and will help use up some of your unneeded clothes. My nan, with her Maltese pedigree, has a stash to rival any: she’s repaired the bung elastic in a pair of PJs with tape saved from a dead electric blanket; makes the world’s softest hankies out of old flannelette sheets, and aprons out of stained tablecloths; and is generally an expert in valuing even the tiniest things she has in her life, and finding beautiful and creative ways to thwart their path to landfill. She wears an apron when she cooks, overalls in the garden and cares deeply about everything she owns: in short, she values it. Can you learn a thing or two from this? I know I can.
In my few months of conscious dressing I’ve noted that excusing yourself from the global fast-fashion industry is a long term project that requires time, thoughtfulness, the gaining of skills and observation. My advice: take it slow.
DOUBLE DENIM KNEE PATCHES
This is Nan’s tried-and-true technique for the most-sturdy knee patches for jeans this side of the Mediterranean.
You will need:
- jeans with busted knees
- scraps of sturdy denim for the patches, and a soft sturdy fabric to reinforce the inside
- a sewing machine
- pins and thread.
Unpick the outer seam of each leg, from about four centimetres above the top of the tear in the knees to about the same below.
Cut a patch of reinforcement fabric that will fit over the tear, with two centimetres extra on each side.
Cut a square of denim that will fit over the tear, with three centimetres extra on the top and bottom, and one centimetre overlap on each of the sides.
Turn the jeans inside out, and place the reinforcement fabric flat over the area to be repaired, with the tear in the centre. Pin it in place. Using the unpicked seam of your jeans as an opening for your sewing machine to fit through, sew this fabric patch securely in place.
Turn the jeans right side out. Pin the denim patch over the front of the tear, with a one centimetre hem tucked under around each edge. Again, using the unpicked seam of your jeans as an opening for your sewing machine to fit through, sew the denim securely in place. You can run a few decorative lines horizontally across the patch if that floats your boat.
Turn the jeans inside out again, stitch the unpicked seam back together with a line of straight stitching, and finish the edges with zigzag stitch for security.
Turn the jeans right side out, and enjoy wearing them again.