Thoughts on sustainable sewing

DIY self drafted wrap skirtNot 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.Patternmaking toolsAs 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Patternmaking self-drafted skirt | Song of the Stitch

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.

What do you think?

  • Thank you for the great article! I enjoyed reading it. I have started to think about the sustainable fabric options myself and the links to suppliers are highliy appreciated 🙂 I love Merchant&Mills.

  • I absolutely enjoyed your article! It is a hard marked to maneuver around, but it is so important that we take it seriously. I also love Merchant & Mills, and I have found a shop here in Denmark that sell their fabrics and other products.
    May I just say that I find both your articles and videos very inspiring. I am trying to make most of my own wardrobe from scratch and your take on home-sewing is much like my own.
    Have a nice day Lizzy! (and sorry for any grammar mistakes :))

    • It can be so hard to keep track. With fabric retailers there is always the risk that while one product line with great eco credentials, another may be more questionable. There are some great brand audit websites out there that can give you an idea of how and where clothes are made! And I love this website – http://www.honestby.com/ – not sure the clothes are my style but they give an amazing breakdown of the production process for each garment. xx

  • One thing I love to do is repurpose fabrics! This really works best when making clothes for little ones (such as making baby pants and shoes out of felted wool sweaters). I also like taking thrifted clothes and putting them back together again. Although it’s not supporting sustainable companies, it is cutting down on waste and avoids adding to the problem of sweat-shop produced fabric and apparel.