This week in Slow Fashion October (I like the idea of it being slow fashion every month) the theme is Known. On the Fringe Association blog, Karen shared her favorite traceable resources for yarn.
Today I'd like to share some of my favorite resources for buying fabric and clothing in a more knowing way.
While sewing your own clothing is a radical act in a number of ways (and should not be discounted!) there are many avenues to explore that can help to make you a more mindful maker, including being more selective about what fabric you use, what it's made of, and where it comes from.
Fabric stores provide wide arrays of textile beauty but, except in rare cases, our understanding of where and how the fabric produced is limited to two pieces of information: Country of Origin and Brand Name.
Country of Origin is not the be-all end-all factor in determining if a fabric is 'ethical' or not. Just like not all fabric made in China is produced under poor conditions, not all fabric made in the USA or Europe is 100% reliable either. Sure, there are laws governing working conditions, but in some cases these are sidestepped or disregarded. For example, those working may be undocumented immigrants who risk wage withholding, losing their job, or deportation if they speak up about conditions.
Brand Name also gives you something to work with. Do some research about the company to see if they are up front about their supply chain. Visit the company's website or get in touch with their customer service representatives. If they share information about their factory, that's a good sign and a great starting place. Most of us can't take a trip to China to visit a factory, but most of us can make a phone call or send an email to the person who did.
These same factors apply to clothing as well, but we'll look into that a bit later.
Here's a short list of some fabric retailers who take care to provide more information on the origin and/or production of their fabric:
Created as a resource for independent fashion designers, Le Souk is a marketplace of sustainable and/or fair trade fabric yardage. They have a wide range of high quality fabric and while their target customer is a designer looking to produce a small line, many of their fabrics can also be purchased by the yard.
An evolving line of organic fabrics, including quilting cotton and high quality interlock knits featuring designer prints.
A variety of designer prints on a wide range of fabric bases including voile, knits, flannel, corduroy, and even barkcloth. They work closely with their mills and use only organic cotton and environmentally friendly inks/dyes.
A supplier of undyed fabric and yarn for those of you wanting to be part of producing your own fabric. Started by a hippie in Berkley in the 1960's, Dharma stocks fabric, yarn, dyes, paints, and more. They are open and transparent about their purchasing (even when they don't know where something comes from).
This online shops carries many certified organic fabrics, including fabrics by Harmony Art, Cloud 9 and Near Sea Naturals.
They carry 'peace silk' fabric, a cruelty free silk, among other products like yarn and natural dyes.
Not everyone wants/needs to wear peace silk party dresses or cotton voile blouses. Sometimes you need a fleece hiking vest or a homemade snuggy. Millyardage sells bolt ends of fleece and performance fabric from the Polartec factory in Lawrence, MA. Polartec is transparent about their manufacturing processes and uses recycled PET plastic in many of its products.
Based in the UK, they offer a wide array of organic fabrics, hand loomed cottons, and prints by local artists.
Cotton and wool sweater knits by the yard, including sustainable California colorgrown cotton.
Need felt? Wool or otherwise? These felts are manufactured in the US under one roof since 1905.
Thrift Stores / Textile recycling facilities
I often pop into thrift and vintage stores to find secondhand textiles to use in sewing. Sometimes, others will drop off their whole fabric stash. Look for vintage table linens, bedspreads, curtains, and more. Or look for clothing items that use a lot of fabric, like gathered maxi skirts, to unpick, press, and use just like fabric. Look in your area for textile recycling shops or places that cater to teachers and artists, as these can be a great resource for fabric and notions. (the East Bay Depot and Our Social Fabric come to mind)
There are many fabric companies who may have these kinds of practices in place and simply don't mention it on their website. Have a favorite fabric company? Call or email to see where their fabric is produced and if they have visited the factory! Ask about their dye and finishing processes too! These are just a handful of companies and sites that I am familiar with and I am sure there are plenty of others.
Not all of us can make 100% of our clothing 100% of the time. Perhaps our you're building your sewing skills, don't have enough free time, or simply would rather purchase than make certain things.
Through a complicated series of events, laws, cultural shifts, and industrial development, 'fast fashion' has become the norm. It's incredibly easy and inexpensive to buy clothing whenever you want it. Many stores even make it their goal to try to sell you as much clothing as often as possible by creating intense demand, speeding up the cycle of 'seasons' and taking advantage of the latest trends. Unfortunately, the problems inherent in the making of these garments are not visible to the consumer. Often, the low cost of a garment means that somebody in the supply chain is getting short changed, cheated, or exploited. The cotton, for example, may have been farmed using chemical pesticides that harm farmers, or even picked by slave labor. Not to mention the problem that arises when you're finished with your clothing and want to get rid of it. Unfortunately, a more expensive designer garment does not always equal a better or more ethically made garment.
To avoid supporting 'fast fashion', there are many fantastic places to find more thoughtfully produced clothing for when you don't want to or can't sew it yourself. Here are a few of my favorite clothing companies dedicated to transparency and/or working with skilled craftspeople/communities:
Purveyors of high quality basic staples like t-shirts and sweaters at very accessible prices. Committed to transparency. Last year on the fast fashion holiday known as 'Black Friday', 100% of their proceeds went to funding on site recreation facilities for one of their factories.
Made in San Fransisco, best known for 'bike to work' apparel. They create all sorts of clothes that blend fun with functionality. They often crowdsource and fund designs. A clothing company with a healthy dose of humor thrown into the mix.
Beautiful and hardy workwear (specifically a fantastic pair of jeans) designed by the garden supervisor at the Isabella Stuart Gardner museum in Boston. These jeans are built to last from quality denim and made in the USA.
This is a fantastic, woman-owned company based in Ethiopia and the only fair trade certified shoe company. Established as a way to employ a whole community & pay a living wage, provide them benefits, and preserve cultural traditions.
Basic staples like jeans, button down shirts, and shift dresses. Made from handwoven fabric and sewn by skilled craftsmen, each piece is unique and completely traceable.
A great source for organic cotton socks, tights, underwear, and shirts! It's a plus that they are certified fair trade and work with factories operating on renewable energy. Their stuff is often sold at Whole Foods market, so it's easy to find and check out in person.
An online boutique dedicated to offering a wide range of clothing and accessories to the conscious consumer.
There are dozens of other cool clothing companies out there, including many I like that I didn't include on this list. As is the case with fabric purchases, when in doubt, ask! Do some research about the clothing company and get in touch with them to learn about their manufacturing. Look for designers and boutiques local to your area and see what they're up to.
Don't forget: there's also buying secondhand or trading with friends, which I am a huge proponent of!
I'll end on one final note about sourcing your fabric & clothing more thoughtfully: It can be expensive. While there are many fantastic designers creating sustainable, traceable clothing, the price often reflects a more realistic valuation of the materials and time required to create it. These clothes are usually much more expensive than what is available at the mall.
I wouldn't be able to afford the clothing I make, were I not making it. Additionally, while my own making satisfies a lot of my sartorial desires, there are things I can't make and amazing pieces made by designers I want to support.
Since we're so used to cheap and readily available marketplace (this commercial /concept comes to mind), we spend our money accordingly. The idea of 'saving up' for something seems lost in a culture that emphasizes instant solutions and relies on invisible money. I think this is a big stumbling block for many who would love to purchase more ethically but can't afford it.
However, if we break it down, the idea of investing in a clothing item makes more sense. The average American spends about $1600 per year (about $130 per month) on clothing. Whether you spend that much or not, many people don't realize it because they buy many inexpensive items rather than a handful of more expensive, longer lasting ones. Buying four $30 sweaters a year doesn't sound unreasonable, right? It costs the same as buying one $120 sweater (or the yarn to make it) once a year. And do you really need four sweaters?
Perhaps planning and saving for future purchases can both make the expensive things feel more affordable and help cultivate a slower and more considered approach to buying in general. This is something I've tried to get better at, especially since it's so easy to buy the quicker, cheaper version. Get a big cookie jar, put in $5, $10, $20, or whatever you can spare per month, and sit back and watch your artisan fair trade footwear fund grow. (A thought for all you developers out there: Somebody should make an app that helps you save up for all kinds of purchases- from cars or house down-payments to a cool pair of shoes!)
Do you have a favorite source for sustainable/organic/fair trade fabric or clothing? Do you save for or invest in clothing, or just pick up cheap things up when you need them? Please share!