DH and I got to have a day together, just doing fun things on Friday, and headed to Oroville for the California State Old-Time Fiddle Championships. We arrived just as things were getting set up, and were informed that the contestants wouldn't begin playing until the mid-afternoon, so we trundled about doing a few errands and checking on the local thrift stores. As we left one with some great finds, DH said "We should get all our clothes from thrift stores", to which I replied "Well, it seems like that has been pretty much what we've done the past few years". Truth be told, I managed to escape from poverty between the two major recessions and buy some of my clothing new at retail outlets, but for most of my adult life, living that part of the "American dream" has been beyond my means; when I first discovered thrift stores in my teens, I could buy something for less than the cost of the fabric I would need to sew it, and developed an individual style around that fact.
Clothing is often on my mind, in part because I love fashion and costume, and in part because I am usually always working on one piece of clothing or another, mainly as a knitter. Which makes my earlier statement a bit inaccurate... I do make a portion of my own clothing annually.
Another reason why I am pondering the concept of how we are clothed is that I have been following the progress of the Fibershed Project, as the year winds to a close. Rebecca Burgess put together a team of fiber artists (and fiber geeks like me) to help her wear only clothing sourced within 150 miles from her Marin County home for one entire year, including the plants used to color her clothing. There were two primary reasons she embarked upon such a journey, first, that the textile industry is the number one polluter of fresh water on the planet, both for growing and processing, and second, that the carbon footprint (amount of carbon spent to get something fully produced and into our hands) for our clothing, much of which comes from China these days, is just huge. She states that the carbon emitted for the production of a t-shirt is up to 40 times the weight of the shirt itself!
I decided to take a harder look at what we need to wear in our daily lives... much of the work clothing DH needs is either provided by his job (seasonal USFS ranger; uniform shirts and pants provided by the agency), however he routinely needs to purchase shoes, t-shirts and undergarments. He has a large collection of Pendleton shirts for fancier occasions, some of which were gifts and some sourced used by his loving wife. He has invested in element-proofing outerwear appropriate to our mountain life, and doesn't need to replace those items frequently. He is far less style-conscious than I am so only occasionally needs a 'special' outfit purchased new. He would really love it if I knitted more socks for him! He has been very successful in recycling other peoples' clothing, and the carbon footprint of doing so is probably relatively low, as we include such searches into trips for other, more pressing purposes.
In my case, I tend to wear jeans and tops, and have made enough shawls and scarves to last a long while. I realized when I also surveyed my fiber stash as a part of this general 'accounting' that I have enough yarn stashed for at least a dozen more lace projects, have a shawl for myself on the needles, and committed to a Mystery Shawl KAL next month... and really for my amusement rather than to clothe myself! I have given away several of the lace pieces I have knitted in the past several years, and have a half-dozen or more to rotate already. Maybe I will take a break once the KAL is done! I also have enough hats and mitts for my basic needs, and better finish those crocheted mittens, or knit up a pair, since we continue to get snow!
What I really need - probably nothing immediately! I do replace socks and underwear somewhat frequently, and could use a nice skirt that would serve me year-round. Maybe a camisole or two, so that I have summer tops that serve under winter garments. I will probably be able to outfit myself for the coming summer season fairly well through keeping someone else's discards going another year.
I started thinking about re-tooling my knitting. What if I tried to make what I needed more than what I wanted? Some of my regular readers know that I took an interest in knitted millinery, signing up for an online class that I am halfway through. I will have made myself three hats by the end of spring: one to match my wedding officiant outfit, one for casual shade with summer clothing, and one to use as a garden hat. This seems excessive, especially considering how many people in the world might be lucky to have even one shade hat! However all three are for distinctly separate purposes, and I have worn out the summer hats I had. Looking at the materials I picked, only one of the hats will be crafted from local materials... using a cone of Sally Fox's color-grown cotton. Although developed less than 100 miles from me, I think most of her product is grown and milled in Texas. Another uses 2nd Time Cotton, which I purchased a few years back while working at my LYS. Though milled from recycled (pre-used, leftover waste from t-shirt production) materials, I am sure that yarn wasn't milled within 150 miles from here! The third yarn is a bamboo/cotton blend from Southwest Trading Company, and while bamboo is a lovely renewable resource, I am aware that cotton is one of the most pesticide-heavy crops grown! If you are following my logic here, you will see that even if I make something myself, there's a good chance that my desires are only adding to the burden placed on the planet when we clothe ourselves.
I did some research prior to writing this post, looking into what alternatives I had, should I consider making some of the clothing I will need in the coming year. I already have yarn stashed that will allow me to enhance my sock drawer, so there's no need at present to purchase anything, but I was happy to see that Yolo Wool Mill, located about 100 miles away, could either mill up yarn for me with wool I got from a local sheep flock, or sell me with some for socks. I could then dye it using my own plants or those I wildcrafted. Of course, some of you could spin your own, however, I am really only an intermediate-level spinner, so will probably turn to the mill and support their continued presence in our region.
According to the research Rebecca Burgess did for the Fibershed year, there no longer is a cotton mill in my region. I could still locate US-milled cotton, grown organically and without chemical dyes, in order to make a summer camisole or two, however if I want true 'bras' or underwire-able camisoles, such as the patterns in Knitting Lingerie Style, I would want a cotton/elastic yarn such as Elann's Esprit. Elann states on their website that this yarn comes from Brazil, and judging from the colors shown, it is not available undyed.
You might be shaking your head and wondering why I would even consider making undies! After all, you can now find organic cotton items to purchase at places like this. The problem is that product diversity in the organic market just is not the same, especially with prices being higher, than what it is at your local Walmart, or a specialty lingerie store. If I want a lower-impact item, I might just have to make it myself. If I want an item that is also 'regional', I will have to start raising my voice in support of a re-localizing of production! I got pretty worn out searching the 'net the other night, and really only found a handful of organic yarns that were produced in my own country, let alone my own state. There's a lot of work to be done here!
I did discover EcoButterfly, a wonderful purveyor of organic, fair-trade cotton yarns for those summer items worn close to my skin. For those thinking of sewing up some t-shirts or other clothing, they also carry a line of fabrics from Pachuko in Peru. Seamstresses might also want to check out Hemp Traders, a large online seller of several kinds of organic fabrics; the offerings I looked at didn't list country/state of origin, though I did fall in love with this beautiful fabric for a skirt. Once again... lots of carbon used to get these products into our hands, though less impact in their growth and processing. You probably have noticed that I haven't even considered footwear! That will have to be the subject of a whole lot more research and a future post.
All of this searching led me back to the place I started from... that conversation with DH after leaving a thrift store. The clothing we purchased was not originally made to my standards regarding avoiding sweat shops, sourcing regionally, wearing organic materials, etc. However, those items were being kept out of the waste stream, given more life for the resources that had already been expended in their creation, and still had plenty of wear left in them. Their purchase did not make much of a dent in our budget, nor did it require the large expenditure of time that knitting one sweater would involve. Was it better to simply keep on wearing second-hand clothing, with maybe the exception of intimates and shoes?
What I have learned at this point is that 'local' clothing is much more difficult to come by than local food. Those of us in the fiber arts have been busy creating, but also need to step back and look at the sources of our supplies and what impacts those sources create. Are we supporting producers who are ethical? Are we getting our own clothing needs met in ways that match our conscience? Perhaps the best alternative for that skirt would be to simply keep on searching until I locate a choice piece of second-hand material to sew up one!
I am hoping that my readers will weigh in on how they feel about this subject, which is really close to my heart as I embark upon my dye garden expansion to a 'commercial' level this season. Talk to me in the comments!