Not so long ago, on a long car journey, I came across an episode of the Freakonomics podcast that blew my tiny little mind. Entitled “How Can This Possibly Be True”, the episode explores a famous economic essay (bear with me) in which a pencil (yes, a pencil) makes the astonishing claim that “not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me.”
The pencil’s argument is that many millions of people contribute to the manufacture of a pencil, as each step and each material in the process requires the skills of millions of people. From loggers to factory workers, road builders to lighthouse keepers, miners to truck drivers, all these people have a hand, however slight, in the pencil coming in to being. But the most amazing part? Not one of those people specifically set out to make a pencil. Producing a pencil, or a toaster, or a nuclear submarine, for a reasonable price, is in fact a miracle of economics. The essay is intended as a libertarian ode to the power of the free market and global supply chains. But to me, obsessed with making things, the notion that no one, not one person, really knows how to make anything from raw components turned my brain inside out.
I like to think that I make the majority of my own clothes from scratch. However, according to the pencil I know nothing. After all, I don’t know the first thing about growing cotton, or breeding sheep. Never mind how to build a loom or create dyes. And as for manufacturing a sewing machine? Seems very unlikely. My contribution to the process is actually minimal. This is the miracle of a free market. But from a fashion perspective it is also a curse. A cursory glance at clothing supply chains reveals a catalogue of environmental issues and unacceptable human costs. This is the focus of Fashion Revolution Week, taking place all this week, a challenge to reconnect with the process of fashion, and to ask who made our clothes.As dressmakers we are often, I think, lulled into a false sense of security by our choices. After all, we make our clothes, and by making our own clothes we we have separated ourselves from sweatshop labour that keeps high street retailers in low-cost shirts.
But don’t forget the pencil. The pencil calls bullshit.
The fabric is an obvious one. After all, how did that roll of printed cotton come into being? Through the combined input of millions of people – farmers, dyers, weavers, truckers, road builders. Now ask yourself how, with all that input, that roll of cotton can possibly cost as little as £3 per metre. I can’t help feeling that someone somewhere is loosing out on that deal. And let’s not even start on how sewing machines, or consumables, or notions, or any other creative paraphernalia come into being.
With all this information charging through my brain, I made a simple choice to engage more. To care about where the materials for my handmade garments came from. For 2016 I have three simple pledges that I want to adhere to in my dressmaking and beyond, a little Sustainable Creative Manifesto if you will.
- Be selective. Research fabric retailers and always ask where there fabric comes from, who made it and from what. Question the price tag, and ask is it too good to be true. Choose beautiful, sustainable fabrics and yarns that will bring longevity to my handmade clothes.
- Buy less, buy well. Sure, sustainable fabrics are often hard to come by and expensive, but finding them is part of the process. Save up for the right fabric, take pride in the process and enjoy the finished garment.
- Make less. Bring sustainability and longevity to handmade clothes, not quantity.
There are many messages to take from the story of the pencil. That free markets are a good idea, that global interconnection makes impossible things happen, even ‘yay capitalism yay’. But for me the key message is to examine, explore and understand. The pencil asks us to witness these systems and be awed. And I am, I really am. I marvel at this invisible, imaginary force with the power to move resources around the world and enable my little creative world. But more than anything, I want to see that force working for the good of everyone involved. And that requires a little skepticism, and a few tough questions.
Up yours pencil.
P.S. I’m slowly amassing a list of fabric retailers that I can reliably go to for sustainable fabrics and materials. I’ll keep adding to this list as I go!
Now in my book sustainable means a range of things, from fair trade fabrics that focus on getting a good deal for farmers and manufactures, to organic fabrics that have better environmental credentials. And many of these decisions come down to personal preference. Take leather for example. I would prefer to work with real leather because it is biodegradable, unlike many alternatives that are made out of plastic. But for some people the animal cost of leather is a price they are unwilling to pay. Both decisions have their costs and benefits, and the importance of those differences is an individual choice.
Cloth House [People focussed]
Sadly the e-commerce shop has now closed, but if you are ever on London this gorgeous Soho fabric specialist should be at the top of your list. They are focussed on getting their sourcing right and ensuring a fair deal for their suppliers. And they only stock leather alternatives if that’s your bag.
Merchant and Mills [UK suppliers]
As well as achingly chic sewing patterns, M&M are a great spot for British wool and Irish linen, produced in the UK. Think delicious Harris tweeds and chunky felted wools. They also have a lovely selection of organic cottons.
Ray Stitch [Organic cotton]
Just an eye-watering array of organic cottons, from fine cotton poplin to lovely soft jersey. Always my first calling point if I’m looking for a cotton fabric.
John Arbon Textiles [UK grown and spun]
If I could buy everything from this Devon-based woollen mill I would. I purchased my first ever UK grown and spun yarn from John Arbon, and the quality is stunning. Also their handmade alpaca bedsocks are completely divine.
Wool and the Gang [Transparency]
One of my favourite knitting brands, what I love about WATG is their handmade, slow fashion ethos and commitment to sourcing yarn sustainably. The brand is probably best known for the insanely chunky ‘Crazy Sexy Wool’, but their ‘Jersey Be Good’ yarn also has a great back story, made entirely of recycled selvedge offcuts from garment factories.
When I was about ten I planted one row of radishes and one row of lettuces in a corner of my parents’ garden. Slugs destroyed the lettuces in that single-minded way that slugs do, but the radishes flourished and even managed to taste quite respectable.
Those radishes were playing on my mind over the weekend as I shouldered my fork and trowel to start some spring planting. Up until this point, I wouldn’t call myself a gardener, save for the carnivorous plants I tended lovingly on my London windowsill. But our new garden in Surrey comes with a garden. A rather beautiful garden, lovingly laid out and planted. Over the past few months we’ve watched in awe as the borders spring to life, first green foliage, then white snowdrops, yellow daffodils, golden primroses, bluebells, delicate forget-me-nots and best of all, big scarlet tulips all blooming from the soil.Now, when faced with a garden that has been so well-loved, beautiful dark earth wrangled into tidy geometric raised beds, I felt the latent stirrings of something green-fingered in my soul. As part of The Maker’s Year I’ve been trying to pay extra attention to these cravings, to explore those little niggles and see where they lead. Whether that be furniture restoration, woodworking, painting, or indeed seed potatoes. I’m rather proud of my seed potatoes.
Potatoes are relatively easy: place your seed potatoes on a tray in a well-lit frost-safe place and leave them to sprout. Once the sprouts are good and big, create a trench a couple of inches deep and pop them inside, spaced about twenty centimetres apart. Cover them over completely, mark the row, and move on to the next one. I say easy, but maybe we should come back to that as and when I actually harvest any actual potatoes.
With help from my Dad, I set our greenhouse to work as a nursery for broad bean seedlings. We filled small pots with compost, soaked the compost completely and placed a single magic bean inside each. I covered the pots with cling film to keep the moisture in, and then left them to sprout. And sprout they did! Just check out these beanstalks.
Just stunning. Broad beans may not be my favourite food, but dammit I am going to find some decent recipes for them if I get a crop from these babies. I gently wiggled the root mass and compost free from the pot and placed each one in a ‘drill hole’ (yeah, I’ve got the technical garden lingo down) with a fresh handful of compost, and tucked them in.
Of course, the acid test for my green fingers will be whether my potatoes and my beans grow, flourish and produce. But in the mean time I have plans. Shallot and leek-shaped plans. Because the creative brain niggles are demanding more planting, and I for one am going to keep chasing this scheme to see where it ends up. Who knows, there might even be radishes.
I used to describe myself as an accidental Londoner. I must admit, I don’t really understand the appeal of cities. In my introvert brain all the amenities and culture in the world cannot make up for that many people. Or the tube. I grew up surrounded by woods, fields and open sky; in that environment I feel like the best version of myself. Our new home in Surrey isn’t in the deep heart of the countryside, but it’s pretty close. Close enough to breathe deeply and easily and energetically, without risking the disapproval of fellow commuters.
As part of the makers year I’ve been trying to take my camera out and about with me more, particularly when the low winter sunshine is this beautiful. I love my trusty Nikon DSLR, but often I tend to use it as little more than a tool for creating blog posts, rather than a different way to see the world. I’d love to be a more technical photographer; I know what I like in a photograph, and sort of how to create it, but I couldn’t tell you why one photograph is actually better or worse than another. But now that my beloved outdoors is more or less on the doorstep, I want to take my time to enjoy it, explore and learn.
Getting to grips with our new pace of life has been exhilarating. Chris is learning woodwork; I’m preparing to grow seed potatoes (and am the proud owner of a border fork, oh yes). My Dad telephoned me the other day to ask if he could pop over for tea at the weekend, something that would have been impossible in London. There is no shortage of picturesque villages and beautiful solitary walks to be explored. And if I want to I can curl up in the study window in the early morning before the world is awake, work on my knitting and watch the sun come up over the garden with nothing but birdsong, and the occasional passing train, to disturb my row counting. Towards the end of last year I more or less forgot how important it was to make that kind of time for myself, resulting in a pretty spectacular crashing burnout. I’m not talking about making the most of my spare time, although I had very little of that, but about allowing myself time to stop and breathe. For this year I’m making a conscious effort to give myself room to enjoy just existing.
This weekend I have nothing more strenuous planned then reading Pompom Quarterly from cover to cover, rustling up a Papercut Patterns Rise turtleneck top (or two) and maybe taking my new car out for a spin. In fact, that is probably the main reason that my Dad wants to come by! You didn’t know I was a petrolhead did you? I say new, my baby is a 25 year old classic, and I am completely in love with it. Friends on instagram will have already had a sneak peek! There’s something so very joyful about driving a classic car; everything from the noise of the engine, the wheeze of the turbo, to the turn of the steering wheel makes me grin from ear to ear.
How do you find and make time for yourself?
I made a slightly shameful discovery this weekend.
For a few spare hours I sat on the floor of our study and lovingly sorted my stash of fabrics and yarns into a new home. Fabrics were carefully rolled and sorted into dress lengths and leftovers, and yarn was wound and sorted. Inevitably I found a few WIPs in there; projects that, for whatever reason, never really took off. Nothing so very bad in that. But here’s the shameful part: among my WIPS are three half finished hand knit sweaters. Three. I was aware of two of them, but the third I had completely forgotten about. Add that to the sweater I’m currently working on, and another sweater that is technically finished, but I’m planning to rip it back and make it better, and you have five WIP sweaters. FIVE. I need to make a plan for these sweaters. Now I know the extent of my shame I can’t sit by and ignore that quiet, persistent knocking from inside the stash trunk.
Undone sweater, Jen Geigley in Spud and Chloe Outer (Rhino)
First, I want to get the Jen Geigley Undone sweater off the needles. I’ve been sprinting through this pattern, helped enormously by the deliciously chunky yarn. Of all the sweaters I’ve ever made (or started, ehem), I feel particularly excited about this one, from the style to the colour to the fit. I wriggled into it the other night to test the fit, a tricky exercise given that one of the sleeves is still on a stitch holder, but the shape and fit of the body seems pretty perfect.
Wool and the Gang Superbowl and Wes sweaters, Sugar Baby Alpaca (Snow White) and Crazy Sexy Wool (Ivory White)
These two (one and a half) sweaters are pretty delicious because the yarns are so nice, but both have fitting issues, being too short in the body and arms. So realistically I will need to find time to rip them both back and do a little redesign to get the fit right.
Wool and the Gang Julia sweater and Freja dress, Shiny Happy Cotton (Pink Lemonade and White Noise)
Finally, two cotton worsted weight sweaters. Working on these sweaters taught me two things: 1) that I’m not a big fan of cotton yarns for knitting, and 2) I REALLY hate moss stitch. All that flipping back and forth between knit and purl is fine for a couple of inches of cuff ribbing, but for an entire sweater body? Not on your frigging nelly. So both of these sweaters are destined to be completely dismantled. But all is not lost, despite my less-than-fuzzy feelings towards cotton worsted, this does work up into a beautiful silky fabric that drapes better than a fainting damsel. I’m seeing some kind of blanket or shawl; I certainly have enough yarn for something sizeable!
To compound my shame, I may have ordered yarn and a pattern for yet another sweater… Send help, I clearly have a sweater commitment problem!
So there you have it, my crafting shame laid bare. What skeletons are hiding in your stash?
I can be a terribly impatient crafter. For all my love of the garment-creation process, the magic of taking a design from my head and giving it shape in cloth or yarn, I also love playing dress-up. Sometimes a small part of me just wants to have new clothes to play with, and that little voice gets louder and grumpier the longer a project stays incomplete. If I’m not careful that little voice can hijack the process and cause catastrophic crafting failure in the final stages.
Before I really began to invest time and effort in my handmade wardrobe, I was a serious clothes hound. Primark was just taking off when I was a student, and we embraced fast fashion wholly and completely, with a lot of encouragement from those Gok Wan programmes on Channel 4. I loved clothes, I loved getting dressed in the morning, I loved the play and the theatre and the art of fashion, and I absolutely loved having a full closet. Moving to London and getting involved with fashion blogging introduced me to the joy of clothes from charity shops and vintage stores, but even though I bought less fast fashion and more second hand, the consumption was still pretty rampant. I never spent more money than I had (and to this day I am still deeply suspicious of credit cards), but more or less what I had went straight into my wardrobe.
In 2013 when Chris and I got engaged. We didn’t have extravagant wedding plans, in fact we attempted to make as much of our wedding for ourselves as we could. (To this day neither of us can use a paper guillotine without terrifying flashbacks). But we did have very ambitious, escape-and-see-the-world type honeymoon plans, and from the beginning I knew I wanted to save as much money as I possibly could. And the first expense to go was my clothes. I slammed on the spending brakes so hard I’m surprised I didn’t get (very stylish) whiplash.Around that time I was starting to really explore the concept of a handmade wardrobe. I’d been making and customising clothes in a haphazard way for many years, but in 2013 I started to explore the online sewing community, I discovered a succession of inspiring independent pattern designers, and found an incredible new energy in the idea of combining my passion for clothes with my passion for process. Within the space of a month I transformed from high-street-or-die fashion blogger to creative whirlwind. I took my poor fashion blog through a complete personality shake-up before finally admitting defeat, shutting up shop and channelling my new-found energy into Song of the Stitch.
Those early days were, ironically, like the beginning of a new love affair. The obsession, the passion, the excitement. I made a lot of clothes in 2014. A very lot. Essentially I replaced my previous shopping habit with a sewing habit. Nothing was more beautiful or exhilarating than the potential of a new piece of fabric or skein of yarn.
In 2015, Chris and I realised our dream to travel the world. For three blissful months we were completely free to wonder across continents at will. I shopped for fabric on three of them. I also became an honorary auntie. And Chris and I took the plunge to uproot our city life and relocate to semi-rural Surrey. Oh, and I changed jobs. Making a garment became a painfully slow process, a few snatched moments here and there to put in a sleeve or turn up a hem. Sewing wasn’t a route to instant fashion gratification any more, and I was left feeling grumpy and resentful of my time-consuming pastime.Life is starting to settle down now, the upheaval of the past few months slowly dissipating to be replaced by sparkly optimism about the future. I blame the new house. This place will be a labour of so much love, and so much time. Creating our dream home here will take years, hard work, and a lot of creativity. I think of it like an archaeological dig; every weekend we chip away a little more earth to reveal our true home underneath. And through it I have fallen back in love with the basic process of creativity. I don’t know what our home will look like when it’s ‘finished’, but every brush stroke feels like a triumph. Somewhere amidst painting rooms and putting up shelves I started to feel that little creative fizzle again, that little nagging pull to sit down and make a garment and revel in the process of creation.
My first garment of 2016 is almost complete. Without revealing too many spoilers (I’m taking photographs for a blog post today), there was a lot of process involved in this project, and it’s still not quite complete. For the first time I have really revelled in each simple step, from drafting the pattern to making a toile (say what, I never do that!) to making the first stitch.
For all this zen chat about process, I’m still an impatient crafter. I probably always will be. My love of clothing drives my passion for sewing, and so I will always have a little part of my brain that is so done with all this sewing crap and just wants to play dressing up. But maybe, just maybe, I can encourage that little voice to calm down, be a little more mindful, and a bit more engaged in the process. I think 2016 will be the year of slow fashion on Song of the Stitch, the year of considered decisions about my making, and the building of a beautiful, staple wardrobe that is as much joy to wear as it was to create.As part of that I will be taking part in The Makers Year, a challenge from Kate over at A Playful Day, to reflect daily on what keeps me creative. Whether it be writing a long post for this blog, firing up the sewing machine, or just sitting in front of the telly with a sketchpad and some sharpies. You can keep up with my progress on instagram (where I am @songofthestitch), and browse through a lot of inspiring thoughts and images using the hashtag #themakersyear on both instagram and twitter.
Kicking off in grand style, I’ve just written my first 1000-word blog post! If you’re still here, you’re a super gem and get all the cookies. Have you set yourself any creative challenges for this year?