Slow Thinking Part 1: Blurred Boundaries

During a paper I gave at In the Loop 4, I mentioned a blurring of boundaries: when does a garment start, and when does it end? Musings about Taking time, Woolly Comrade Felicity ‘Felix’ Ford’s Slow Wardrobe project, and having conversations with other friends who make clothes to last, have culminated into my own thoughts about a Slow Wardrobe.

Brioche Sweater and grafitti

My Brioche Sweater: a recently completed garment. Or is it?

Since I started repairing with purpose, I’m slowly but surely drifting away from the idea that once the last loose end has been woven in, a garment is finished. Over time, clothes start to develop signs of wear, of having been washed, of having been used. Inevitably, an edge starts to fray, a seat wears thin, or a hole appears, and the time comes I’ll be getting out my darning needle. By making my mends visible, I continue adding to the garment. A beautiful mend can be worn as a badge of honour, and in my view, augments and alters the garment repaired.

Flanelette Plaid shirt darning by tomofholland

Darning the threadbare yoke seam of a flannelette shirt

A shift of focus from trying to keep things looking new and perfect to favouring the old and imperfect, means I’ve stopped looking at repair as a chore, but as a creative challenge in its own right. Instead of fixing something that is broken, which implies the item was finished, I now continue working on something that wasn’t complete yet. This idea is perhaps easier to embrace where it concerns clothes I made myself, but I now extend it to the clothes I buy. I frequently purchase secondhand clothes, and they already show signs of wear, and the time to repair something usually comes along sooner.

Tom spinning a yarn

Spinning a yarn

Conversely, making my own clothes has made me question at what point a garment starts. When you buy something, you could be led to believe that your garment’s life starts when you’ve handed over your cash. But this, of course, isn’t true. Somebody somewhere has laid out cloth, cut it up, seamed it, pressed it. Most likely different people were involved in different stages and many things are now mechanised.

When making your own clothes, you get to choose the fabric or yarn, the pattern, the buttons, and put it all together into a garment. You could argue that the item starts its life when you clapped your eyes on that beautiful tweed, or when you dreamt up that Christmas jumper and you started looking for the right yarn. Now that I also spin, even if as yet I haven’t spun enough of one yarn to make a whole jumper, my boundary has shifted even further back: it is possible to make a garment-specific fibre, so really, its life starts there. In fact, we can take it back right to the beginning: wool, linen, silk, and cotton are all fibres that theoretically I could grow or farm myself.

Roger from Diamond Fibre Mill

Roger from Diamond Fibre Mill spinning a yarn or two

So even if I’m not personally involved in all the process steps from farming to harvesting to processing of fibres, and subsequently turning the resulting cloth or yarn into a garment, I’m aware that all these steps are part of the story. If you want to get an understanding of some of the issues around the fashion industry, then there’s no better way than trying to make something yourself. When you wash your raw fleece, you’ll notice how much water you use. When you spin a yarn, you understand how difficult it can be to get something just right. When you sew a shirt, you get a feel for how complicated sewing can be. Try and imagine any of these processes on an industrial scale, and soon all sorts of questions pop up: how can we grow/farm fibres in huge quantities? What happens with waste water from processing fibres and dyeing it? What happens to by-products and waste from the spinning process? How can somebody sew 50 shirts a day? How are prices of clothing set on the High Street?

These are just a few questions, and answering them is difficult, and fixing things that appear to be a problem is also very complicated. So what can I do about it myself? Talking to people such as Sarah Corbett from the Craftivist Collective, or reading John-Paul Flintoff’s book Sew Your Own, made me realise that there will be things I personally cannot influence, but there are other things I can do something about. I can run workshops, I can volunteer, I can decide what goes into my wardrobe, and I can share my experiences in this blog.

A follow-up post is in the making, in which I want to share with you my thoughts about my Slow Wardrobe: what does it mean to me? Sewing and knitting my own clothes, making things that last, repairing things, and thinking about long-term style, not short-term fashion.

20 Replies to “Slow Thinking Part 1: Blurred Boundaries”

  1. Zeer creatieve manier om een overhemd te repareren.
    Ik heb ook kleren die me niet meer passen en waar ik erg aan gehecht ben. Ik heb ze altijd bewaard en speel met hoe ze zo te veranderen dat ik ze weer kan dragen.
    Dit blog is een van de weinige die ik lees. Ik geniet ervan tussen al het vreselijke wereld nieuws.

    Marjan

  2. Lovely post. I buy a mixture of new and second-hand. And i knit a few clothes. When I buy new, I am always thankful to the person who made the garment. When I buy second-hand I tend to think about the life the garment might have lived before I saw it. As for winter hats, scarves and mittens, I only wear my own. I admit I do not think much about the people who cleaned, carded, dyed and spun the wool for me when I buy it. Now I shall.

  3. The “Fibershed” project in California (and, I think, similar projects in other places) have been contemplating these questions as well, and they have been working on smale scale sustainability of what we wear, trying to do ALL of a garment’s process within a 150 mile radius, AND in sustainable ways. So right down to growing the fibers and dyestuffs, raising the animals, processing the fibers, designing the garments, spinning, weaving, knitting, sewing etc. One of the founders of the project, Rebecca Burgess, has a short video explaining about it, and showing her the actual wardrobe she used for one year (and items which she is continuing to use), detailing the sourcing/process of each of the items. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rEJmXmTFpMg
    Another really great author that really delves into the whole economy/process of knitting lifelong garments from the ground up is Sylvia Olsen, who married into the Coast Salish Native North American tribe as a very young woman. The Cowichan sweaters that they created are so durable that the people in her region often need to make accommodations for their beloved creations in their Wills, lest the surviving family fight over them! Her book, “Working With Wool”, which goes over the tribe’s evolution from rug weaving with the fur fibers of dogs that they raised on a special island (so that they wouldn’t interbreed with other dogs and thus lose the qualities of their fur), then switching to sheep and knitting sweaters once English/Scottish settlers arrived in B.C., and how they continue knitting the sweaters in this day and age when a zillion (much cheaper) knockoffs abound is beautifully summarized in this documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hTKmvFxhyng

    1. My late husband’s Canadian aunt had a Cowichan sweater knitted for him almost sixty years ago, which he wore constantly. It still looks as good as new. It was certainly made to last.

  4. Hear, hear! The progression from (very) dirty fleece to completing a (baby) jumper brings immeasurable satisfaction.

  5. A lovely thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Tom. There is something hugely satisfying about restoring a favourite piece though I had not given any thought to the concept of “continuing work on something that was not complete yet”. I like that.

  6. What a great post, Tom! And I love the idea of thinking where about your clothes’ lives really truly begin! 🙂 (And so jealous that Brighton has a repair cafe to boot!)

  7. Well written thoughts on this subject. Today clothing is so often disposable. Not that long ago buying or making clothing was a thoughtful purchase planned to last. Clothing itself was a valuable asset and passed from person to person. Evidence of this shows up constantly in old wills. As an obsessed knitter, sewer, embroiderer, repairer, I’m so glad to finally see these skills, especially repair skills finally returning to the clothing equation.

  8. What a timely post. I have a shirt hanging in my closet that I sewed a year ago after a long hiatus from sewing. It is full of issues, fit across the bust, mistakes in following directions. I can wear it if I disguise these issues and no one but me knows the difference. But it rankles me. I keep thinking I should take it apart and do something with it. But then I think of all the other projects I have on the go and my blood pressure goes up a bit. After reading your post I think I’m going to pull the shirt out and reconsider how to repair my mistakes. Thanks Tom!

  9. much more politically put, it strikes me that there is enormous privilege in wearing a darned french street sweeper smock, as much as i would love to. (they’re very expensive new and do not come in my size.)

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