Four Years of Slow Fashion: My Fast-Fashion Fast, Make Thrift Mend
I can't believe I'm entering the fourth year of my fast fashion fast, Make Thrift Mend. If you'd asked me if this was possible on August 1, 2013 when I started my first yearlong fast I would have told you, "No way". I started my fast tentatively. Hesitantly. Passionate about committing to sustainable fashion and gaining insight into my shopping habits but, truth be told, I was also worried I'd feel off-trend and that I'd miss those trips to the sales racks of my favorite boutiques or the impulse shopping of a really good deal on a really cute dress. It sounds shallow, I know, but it's true. I love fashion and I feared that a fashion fast would mean I'd be deprived of fashion. And who wants that?
But I don't miss those impulse buys. I don't feel deprived of fashion. I feel relieved to better understand my own definition of what's fashionable without following the season's quickening trends. I feel more connected to my wardrobe and to sustainable fashion now than ever before. I feel more mindful of my fashion choices, more insight to my favorite clothes, and more knowledgeable about making, mending, and caring for my garments.
I've built a select list of beloved ethical fashion brands that are on my wardrobe wish list for those special new purchases...when I actually need something new or when I find something that I will certainly wear 100 times and want to invest in ethically made. Otherwise, I buy very little new and still primarily shop secondhand or make simple garments myself though I'm buying less and less these days. Focusing on what I really want to wear meant stepping aside from trends and wearing my beloved garments over and over again.
But it's been a journey. A journey of researching, sewing, mending, teaching, reading, and getting really intimate with my shopping habits and my fashion habits too. Why did I start this fast? Why did I abstain from buying any new clothing for 365 days? Well, it was a handful of events that boiled up to one moment when I launched my fast. But I actually think that handful of moments was a few decades of work. I think we find our way by doing. I think we have to trust our journeys even when they don't make perfect sense. Maybe mostly then. So what's my story? Why did slow fashion become the sole focus of my art studio practice in 2013? Well that might be a novel. But let's just start with 2013 and the series of events that spring.
Three years ago on August 1, 2013 I started my fashion fast, Make Thrift Mend. I started this fast four months after the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed in April 2013 in Bangladesh resulting in nearly 1,200 deaths or what's now known as the largest garment factory disaster of all time. That's right, of all time. On the heels of this disaster I listened to Elizabeth Cline's informative and inspiring interview on NPR about her book, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, and I read Natalie Chanin's blog posts about slow design and her intelligent and mindful call for slow design in fashion. Something clicked. Something shifted. I decided to make a change.
I wanted to focus on reclaiming my wardrobe from the fast fashion trendmill. That's right, trendmill. I wanted to take a break from consuming new clothing altogether. I felt exhausted by fashion trends. I wanted to know what it felt like to take a break. I wanted to be part of the solution for a more ethical and more environmentally-friendly wardrobe and I knew I just had to dive in. All at once. I decided to use my training in the arts to create a social practice project that would allow me to engage with sustainability, build self-sufficiency, improve my sewing skills, and engage my community. In short, I decided to start right where I was with what I already had and give myself a year to abstain from new clothing.
I wanted to make clothes again. I wanted to mend. And I wanted to stave off factory fashion in a big way. Somehow this moment in my creative life allowed my varied experiences to come together into one single project. But my journey didn't seem so straight-forward when I was living it and Make Thrift Mend was more intuitive and even impulsive than carefully calculated. Looking back I could have been more strategic but the strategy followed. At that moment it was all heart: Something has to change now. But our history aids us in creating our future and I have no doubt that all my years prior to my fast prepared me for the work I'm doing now.
The intersection of art and sustainability is what interests me the most. This isn't a new interest but a continued interest that started right around declaring myself a vegetarian at age seventeen. Sure, I declared myself many things at age seventeen but somehow being a writer, a vegetarian, and an environmentalist are the things that stuck. Thankfully, the taste in music and the haircuts did not. But that's another story. I was an environmental studies major in college but, mind you, this was 20 years ago before my college had a proper environmental studies program. This is the result of a sustained movement: 20 years and suddenly most colleges have environmental studies departments but in the mid 90s this was still activist territory.
I keep this in mind as we're on the front lines of sustainable fashion today. Change is possible. We just have to keep our hearts open and keep our minds focused and know that every effort makes a difference but systemic change takes sustained work. So instead of choosing an existing major I had to create my major as what was known as an independent study-- petitioning to the college that the major should exist and that I could take classes across disciplines to gather enough credits in my area of focus to warrant a college degree. In short, I had to convince the faculty an alternative approach was valid. As a side note, I made dresses for a local boutique for extra money while I was an undergrad student but never thought to combine my two interests: Art and sustainability felt separate.
So with a stack of paperwork and some persuasive argument the college agreed that my interests warranted an academic major in Environmental Studies. Working interdisciplinary across departments felt natural to me. It made sense. It gave me more options. It allowed me to work with professors with varied expertise and it allowed me to tailor my degree to my own suiting. While I felt comfortable looking at sustainability from various points of view I still didn't consider adding art to my cirriculum. I took art classes but they were separate from my major. I hope that college students might now have the option to assess sustainability from the stance of the art department but that might still be a decade away too. I didn't realize this would become a theme in my work and in my studio too: That an interdisciplinary approach would allow me to feel more comfortable straddling disciplines or interests than a singular or conventional approach. I try to maintain this position in my sustainable fashion work too.
I think we have to stay open to diverse solutions to ever achieve maximum impact. I also think we have to consider various cultures, economics, geographies, aesthetics, and lifestyles when considering sustainable fashion. What works for one individual or family might not work for another. The solutions are as varied as the humans living them so we have to resist our soap boxes and ultimatums. There are SO many ways to a more sustainable future. Embracing different voices and different points of view strengthens our movement and allows it to solve the question of ethical fashion for a larger group of people.
Back to my story. So I finished my degree and went directly into working for nonprofit theaters, galleries, and community arts organizations and never looked back. At the time I thought I had a made a switch from sustainability to the arts. I was in my early 20s and thought that sustainability was my personal passion but the arts would be my formal career. I insisted on office recycling and shopped at farmer's markets and tried my best to grow vegetables and herbs on the front steps of my urban apartments until I finally had a tiny yard for veggie beds. I didn't realize I was just gaining experience in another industry so I could ultimately combine the two: Sustainability and the arts.
Fast forward a decade later and I entered a Masters of Fine Arts program focusing on creative writing or more specifically on poetry and book arts. Using recycled fabric to print Gertrude Stein poems with a letterpress printer and turning the fabric prints into handmade dresses seemed natural. I didn't think of this as sustainable design. I didn't think of this as a precursor to my interest in slow fashion. I didn't know anything about the term "slow textiles". I just thought I was making the work I needed to make.
I was working on my master's thesis when my book arts professor pulled me aside and asked me about my work with textiles. She questioned the training I'd received from my mother and my mother's community of crafters. She asked about the dresses I made and sold in that local boutique for extra cash when I was in undergraduate school a decade prior. She pushed me to talk about my sewing skills. My measuring skills. My tendency to create patterns and make my own clothing. She questioned my mother's crafting tendencies. My exposure to women's traditional textiles and to a rural community of crafters that raised me alongside their handwork and their "hobbies".
After several conversations she convinced me to consider my informal training in textiles as part of my formal training as an artist. This was a huge shift for me in considering education. She pushed me to consider my work in bookbinding and letterpress printing and paper sculpture as part of a larger lexicon in fiber arts that included my handmade dresses and community made quilts.
She validated my informal education of textile arts learned through watching my mother and my grandmother and my mother's closest friends. She validated this training in what was typically women's traditional craft work. She thought it as interesting, if not more interesting, than my undergraduate degree. She also shifted my thinking about textile arts: Informal training is just as important as formal training and there isn't just one "right" way to learn about our materials.
Fast-forward another five years of working full time in nonprofit galleries as a program director and events manager and somehow figuring out how to oversee 120 artists at once; working steadily as a textile artist and writer by night; and then add my marriage, the birth of my first son, and signing my first book contract and right about then is when I started Make Thrift Mend.
It wasn't necessarily the perfect timing. I had a 21-month-old baby and a new book contract and small busy apartment in a busy fashionable city. But this was the moment that it needed to happen. I just needed something to change in my relationship to fashion. I knew too much to ignore the effects of shopping at big box fashion retailers. And I wanted to go deeper with my relationship to fashion.
All my training and experience came to one singular focus. I'm not sure it was an epiphany as it was just something that was compelled forward by utter passion. My undergraduate degree in environmental studies and my interdisciplinary approach to college; my graduate work in writing and fiber arts; and fifteen years of organizing programs and overseeing arts projects while exhibiting and publishing my own work; combined with my personal experience with making garments and witnessing the power of craft communities all came together: Sustainable fashion. The light bulb went off. Why didn't I think of this sooner? Because I wasn't thinking. I was feeling. I was doing. I was making my way along a life. And sometimes we just have to trust our process and begin.
I never imagined I'd spend the next three years teaching mending workshops, studying slow fashion theory, or conducting natural dye experiments from foraged weeds and wildflowers. I never imagined that mending would be my way to a more sustainable wardrobe or that I'd have the privilege of teaching hundreds of students how to mend their clothing and how to think more critically about their wardrobes and make their relationship to fashion more meaningful. I never imagined I'd be so energized by this work that somehow four years doesn't seem like nearly enough. Forty years doesn't seem like enough if I'm being totally honest. So let's hope I've got another forty to give to this movement. Yes, please.
As I continue with this work in slow textiles and slow fashion I am astounded by the community of artists, designers, makers, authors, teachers, and activists that I have found. I'm amazed at their formal and informal training in the arts, design, sustainability, systems, crafting, sewing, making, and their incredible ability to rethink their shopping habits and enhance their mending skills.
As I round the third year of my Make Thrift Mend project the parameters of my fast will shift yet again. Because each August I take a moment to reflect on the prior year's activities and how I can deepen my own relationship to sustainable fashion in the year to come. This isn't just an exercise for me now it's a lifestyle. And it's a passion. And it's role in the center of my studio work is more insistent than ever.
In the first year I didn't buy any new clothing but instead focused on making simple garments, buying secondhand, and mending. I also quickly focused on only buying biodegradable fabrics like cotton, linen, wool, and silk. In the second year I opened the parameters to include purchasing new garments if they were locally or handmade. In the third year I broadened the fast to include select newly purchased clothing from ethical brands. And in the fourth year of the fast I'm considering how best to move forward. I think focusing on how best to source ethical materials for handmade garments is my next focus.
How to sustainably source new fabric (organic cotton, ethical linen, secondhand silk, etc) for my art projects, classes, and the construction of new handmade garments. When you live in rural America without a handful of indie fabric shops at arm's length this is an even bigger challenge-- but I'm going to start researching my options now. I'm going to turn my attention to this challenge for the next 12 months. This doesn't mean I'll do it perfectly, of course, but that I'll be as sustainable as possible.
I'm in no hurry to rush back to fast fashion and the sales racks at trendy shops. Instead, I feel more compelled to forge ahead into more complicated territory and further deepen my commitment to slow fashion and slow textiles. I wouldn't be surprised if I convince my husband that alpaca are in our distant future! Well, maybe after my babies are school aged I'll be ready for a fiber farm. Right now I'm just gearing up for a barn cat or a few chickens. I digress.
As I begin this fourth year of my fast I'd also like to focus on the community engagement goals of my original Make Thrift Mend project. To achieve this I'll keep offering classes, engaging in community events, working to strengthen my (new) local textile community but I'd also like to use the powers of the Internet to highlight a handful of artists, designers, and makers who inspire me to delve deeper in my work. To this end I recently added a "muses" section to my newsletter to highlight the work of artists, authors, designers, and other inspiring folks forging the way in sustainability, art, lifestyle, and/or fashion. Coming from 15 years of work in nonprofit galleries and theaters there's a part of me that insists on linking to the greater community around me and so I'm hoping to continue fostering this mindset in my own studio work.
I think the role of social practice--or working outside of traditional gallery structures to consider social issues and/or participate in community engagement--suits my project perfectly. It allows me to continue my studio practice as an artist but it allows me to teach, organize, and write about my work all under the umbrella of a fine arts vocabulary. And sometimes we have to reach back when reaching forward. I had no idea that my undergraduate degree in environmental studies and my practical work in arts galleries and theaters would come together to create the biggest project of my creative career: sustainable fashion and my fashion fast. Sometimes we just have to trust our process and keep following our instincts and just commit to start right where we are. I believe life gives us numerous opportunities to realign. To recalculate. To redirect. To re-position. It's just our job to listen.
This umbrella of social practice also allows me to care less and less about the terminology of the work--that dreadful old debate between art, craft, and activism--and to simply keep pushing myself forward. Keep pushing outside of my comfort zones to increase my self-sufficiency and improve my technical skill while sharing my knowledge and techniques with a larger community. But I also think there's a correlation between textile artists and sustainable fashion leaders and I'm very interested in examining this connection. To that end, my next post will be a feature on one of my favorite contemporary fiber artists and her incredible thoughtfulness in considering her materials and the various forms of her work.
Thank you for sharing this journey with me, I'm incredibly honored to share this work with you. And humbled by the stories and questions and concerns you've shared with me online, at workshops, and over tea. This project wouldn't be what it is without you. That's right, you. So thank you for participating in this community and today, simply for reading this post and considering my journey to slow fashion. Start where you are, I promise you have what it takes to make your relationship to fashion more meaningful and more mindful and probably quite a bit more fun.