I am a maker at heart and if there is one thing I know it is that behind every stitch, sketch and blob of ink there is a story of how it got there. The more I make things the more I am certain of it. There are no exceptions. When I wear my handmade clothes I remember making it. I remember where I got the fabric and how it felt after washing it for the first time. I remember the sewing mishaps and any corrections I had to make. I remember how I had to read the instructions three times to figure out the placket. Sometimes I even remember the weather or what I was listening to while I made it. The whole story of its construction is embedded in the fibers as are snippets from every time I wore it. It is rich with story.
But it is not just the handmade. Everything has a story; everything was made by someone somewhere. It was while thinking about these stories, three years ago, that I decided to stopped buying new clothes.
The more I stitched my own buttonholes and zippers and side seams, the more I realized the skills involved in making clothes. I couldn’t help but wonder after the (mostly) women around the world making my clothes. It doesn’t take much digging to find their collective story and it’s a story of the systematic de-valuing of women’s work. I couldn’t stop thinking about how skilled they are and how, in return, they are poorly paid and set to work in dangerous buildings. It just doesn’t sit right. Sewing gives me such deep respect for the stitches that hold my clothes together and an even deeper respect for the talent and hard work of so many women and men around the world who make the clothes we consume at such a rapid pace. Those stories are haunting.
Of course, fast fashion is also a story of massive ecological damage. According to reports from environmental groups, cotton is the most pesticide intensive crop in the world. Polyester, a fast fashion favorite, is an oil-based product that never bio-degrades. Never mind the degree to which discarded clothing fills our landfills. At my nearby Goodwill store, the warehouse-size back room is filled to the ceiling with bags of clothes. A surprising number of items still have tags dangling off of them.
It is impossible to ignore that the story of fast fashion is one of complete disregard for so many things I value…our shared planet and shared humanity.
If you’ve been following this blog for a while you probably know all of this but it was these stories pushed me to challenge myself. I thought that I would avoid buying new clothes for just one year and quietly started The Nothing New Project. In that first year, I either made my clothes or bought them at a thrift store. I also participated in the occasional clothing swap with friends. This one year project turned into two years and as of this month I am thrilled to celebrate three years of buying nothing new. I really can’t imagine it any other way and I’m bubbling with excitement about jumping into year 4. What I haven’t fully explored on the blog are some of the unexpected things that avoiding fast fashion has helped me grapple with. As it turns out, there are deeper stories at the heart of the fashion world and they touch every women wearing clothes. These are the more personal reasons why I stopped buying new clothes, I just didn’t know it at the time.
First, there is nothing that brings on a reckoning with the old body image quite like needing to measure every inch of your body. When I was only sewing the occasional top or breezy dress I didn’t really come face to face with this in the quite the same way as I did when I started making most of my clothes. The truth is, if I measure myself honestly the clothes I make fit better, feel better and are worn more often. But, you know what? Honest measurements of our body parts can be difficult. The drive to assign a smaller number to my hip circumference was strong but quickly squashed by a desire to not waste my time making a skirt that wasn’t going to fit. After wrestling with this a few times, I realized it was easier to embrace my shape. Write down the real number, damn it. It was easier to love my shape. I am healthy and I am strong. I don’t need a thigh gap to prove anything.
Second, the Nothing New Project forced me to think about the role that clothing plays and what I want for myself. Clothing is a form of expression. It expresses sensuality, personality; it is intention and identity. Fast fashion, or any form of fashion for that matter, acts as a kind of roadmap. Rather than digging into what is a timeless look for myself; fashion provides a helpful and clear-cut plan for keeping up with one moment in fashion history. It dictates an entire lifestyle look. It makes it easy. Just pick up the pamphlet of options and follow that. If I’m being honest, I miss this roadmap sometimes. More often than not, however, I love the liberating feeling of charting this terrain for myself.
The inimitable Brene Brown talks in her book Daring Greatly about the difference between fitting in and belonging. Fitting in means becoming who you need to be in order to be accepted while belonging means being accepted for who you are, just as you are. When I read this, it all clicked for me. The world of fast fashion is a roadmap for fitting in. What else can it be? It changes constantly and quickly discards the previous seasons styles as “tired” and “overdone”. It’s the mean girl of material goods. I want to belong to myself and I want my wardrobe to express that. In my three years of informal, non-scientific research on rejecting the world of fast fashion I can see now that what I really reject is the fashion world’s message about fitting in. Instead, I’m slowly hacking my way through the weeds of belonging to myself.
This is not to say that my wardrobe is anything wild or crazy or even noticeably bucking a fashion trend. It is just…more me. And, every year it is a little more me and a little more exploratory. It’s harder and sometimes tiring to bring all of that with me to the closet door but the rewards are joyous.
This, the joy, is the best discovery. I found the joy! I found the stories! My favorite activity at the thrift store is to imagine the backstory for everything on a certain shelf. Seven identical tiny purses…those were definitely bridesmaids items. Fancy, expensive silver bowl…unwanted formality from a mother-in-law. Seriously, try this. It’s so fun. Every item is a short story waiting to happen.
I love the joy of making something I love to wear. I love the joy of finding an unusual but perfectly-me item on a thrift store shelf. The process of discovery and learning is a challenge I relish. The fashion world isn’t concerned with our hearts and minds…not really. It’s playing on our insecurities and doubts about ourselves. Fast fashion thrives on uniformity and conformity because it is all the better for profit. The more I step away from it, the more I see the business of fast fashion as an assault on joy and on my creativity. The joy I find every day in making things myself is a stand against this assault. I’m replacing a profit-motive with something beautiful, unique, slow and meaningful.
The Nothing New Project has completely transformed how I think about what I wear but also what it means to reject fast fashion. Every year seems to bring with it new discoveries and renewed passion.
What is next? I am so excited to have found a few places to help hold me accountable. I have joined the wonderful Ready To Wear Fast hosted by Goodbye Valentino , which means that this year I will only be sewing my own clothes. I was hesitant to take this leap…it means much more careful planning around special events, but I’m excited and ready to rely on my sewing skills alone. Who knows what this process will help me discover.
I also am keeping up with Project Sew It, a year-long garment sewing challenge, hosted by Celina from Petit a Petit and Family. I find that connecting with other garment sewers helps keep me motivated and inspired and I’m really excited to be surrounded by so many amazing sewers.
There really is a movement afoot right now. I’m not alone in seeking out sustainable, slow fashion for myself. I am in the company of incredible people like Sarah Gunn, Meghann Halfmoon, Meg McElwee, Sanae Ishida and Sonya Philip and I’m sure there are tons more. So many amazing women defining their own style, embracing their bodies and living their values.
How does 2018 feel to you, my fellow makers? Time to try a sustainable fashion challenge? I heartily encourage you!