You may remember that a year ago I decided to stop buying clothes for the duration of 2008. My decision to do this was sparked by a couple of things. I had been reading a bit about darning and mending and wanted to think about what repairing and caring for one’s clothes meant. Also, since I heard this very-well researched series of documentaries on the BBC world service, I had been increasingly bothered by textile waste — the sheer amounts of it, as well as the complicated politics of its disposal. I then had a moment of utter revulsion after seeing Florence and Fred’s Affordable Elegance advertisements, in which the disposability of the 20 quid dresses they had designed for Tesco’s was “cleverly” celebrated.
(textile waste now makes up 30% of rubbish destined for UK landfill sites)
The year is up, and here’s my summary of the project: During 2008 I have fashioned or refashioned for myself 7 tops, 5 skirts, 4 dresses, 3 sweaters, 3 pairs of socks, 2 shrugs, 2 cardigans, 2 hats, 1 shawl, 1 coat, 1 maud, 1 tank top, 1 jacket, 1 pair of gloves, and 1 scarf. Additionally, I have repaired and re-repaired the sleeves of sweaters, the seats of pants, the hems of coats, the heels of socks, the tops of mittens, and the feet of stockings. I made lots of things from patterns and kits and in doing so, have participated, in a vicarious sort of a way, in the design process of some really talented people. I also designed several items of clothing for myself from scratch, and have encountered my own limits and shortcomings along the way. This year of stitching and knitting and learning has been both enjoyable and thought provoking. It has certainly changed the way I think about the making, consumption and meaning of worn textiles.
(clothing myself in 2008)
Despite the apparently prohibitive terms I set myself (“you will not buy clothes”) this project was never about denial. As you may have gathered, I am someone who loves clothes. I mean, I really love clothes. The things I wear are a source of tremendous pleasure for me, and I regard dressing up in them (however foolishly) as a sort of creative act. So I was not about to deny myself that pleasure or that creativity, but rather wanted to think about focusing it a little differently. One other thing that the project was not was generically anti-consumerist. For I am undeniably a consumer. I exchange money for stuff. I do not regard The Commodity as the root of all evil and in fact I think that commerce — of ideas and words as well as things — is generally a very necessary good. So I did not deny myself the pleasure of clothes, nor did I cease to be a consumer. I bought notions and fabric and quite a lot of yarn. I continued to cut pictures out of magazines, read about fashion history, and dream about the qualities of fabric, and the possibilities of different outfits, just as I had done before. Raw materials, ideas and images continued to be rich sources of inspiration and enjoyment to me. And I had many, many clothes already. To be frank, I had no need of any more. But if there was something that I wanted, as opposed to needed, I would have to think about how to make it, about where the stuff to make it was coming from, and then about how to sew or knit it up for myself. So, in fact, the only thing that I stopped doing this year was spending a lot of time in shops, and buying a lot of clothes in them. And I can honestly say that I’ve not missed this in the slightest.
(handsome Romney. Diamonds Farm. Horam, East Sussex)
What I started rather than stopped doing over the course of the year is much more interesting (well, it is to me at least). Of course, I made things, and I thought about what I was doing when I was making them. But additionally, I also visited farms, crofts, mills and other businesses where fibre is spun, dyed, and woven into cloth. I have learnt how fabric is produced from animal or plant to finished garment, how and where it is sold, to whom, and why. My love of finished textiles has developed into an interest in the process of their production, and the history of those processes. I’ve started thinking in a new way about the importance of textiles to different local economies; about the provenance of materials; about how Britain’s regional fabric is a very literal thing; and about the ways in which different national, local and global histories are all woven up in, and told through, textiles. I’ve also met and learnt from lots of wonderful people who live and work with fibre and fabric. Through this, I have also started to regard the value of textiles very differently indeed.
Clothes are not cheap. Time and care and labour are all expended in the rearing of a British sheep, but the three pence the farmer receives for the fleece makes it hardly worth the shearing. At the other end of the production-consumption chain, 2 million tonnes of largely man-made textile waste is discarded in Britain every year. The quality of this stuff is so low that charity shops cannot re-sell it, and laudable schemes like Oxfam’s wastesaver find it difficult to re-use or recycle. Our cheaply bought and easily discarded textiles swell mountains of domestic landfill, or are exported in containers for other countries to deal with. In the Czech Republic, for example, the outbuildings of former collective farms are now filled, floor to ceiling, with Western Europe’s abandoned clothing. Meanwhile, in Sri Lanka, adults and children suffer the indignity and poverty brought by brutal employment practices that we should more accurately term indenture or slavery. And all to make a mountain of transitory crap that is daily bought and thrown away.
(Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) exchanges his bed linen for his bike in the Bicycle Thieves)
Now, I am not making any great claims for myself here. I know that my 2008 make-your-own project was an exploratory luxury. While I could go on about how I have learnt new things about production, process, and materiality, I also know that fundamentally, this is the politics of luxury: of someone who has enough disposable income to spend on yarn and fabric, and enough leisure time to make things and (crucially) to enjoy making them. People do not have the time or money for such luxuries, and they certainly still need cheap textiles. But we also need textiles of durable, lasting quality. We aren’t pawning our good bedlinen (as in the Bicycle Thieves), we are chucking it out and buying another flimsy ten-pound duvet cover whose seams were sewn up by an impoverished ten-year-old on the Indian subcontinent. A recent consumer survey for Asda has apparently shown that supermarket shoppers now value durability as much as price where clothing is concerned. Asda is now changing its “George” ranges to reflect this shift in priorities. Wouldn’t it be nice if they added a guarantee of fair, non-exploitative labour into this mix?
I want to conclude with some inconclusive remarks about mending and representing mending. I’ve been doing a lot of darning this year, and have become very interested in the care and repair of clothes, as well as in the way that mended and re-made textiles are such rich repositories of personal and cultural memory. A lot of really good British artists are interested in this as well. I particularly admire, for example, Kirsty Hall, Celia Pym and Tabitha Moses, who all use the processes of mending or repair to explore the evocative and ritual nature of textiles. The work of these artists is rich with thought and meaning. But their practice is now one of the only ways, it seems to me, that contemporary audiences can look at made and mended things as public objects upon which to think and reflect. And sometimes, I am a little troubled by how the only way to approach the acts of women and men that were once quotidian and exceptionally ordinary is through extraordinary forms of representation, such as those that art affords. While the work of the three artists I mentioned is without exception, truly brilliant, there are certainly many other art practitioners whose work does little more than decontextualise familiar household textiles and the practices associated with them to very little end. I am naming no names, because this is something I am still thinking about . . . but I am wondering . . . could there be another way? Or if this is just a matter of there being Bad and Good textile art, as with any other form of art or practice. Anyway, there’s something to mull over further. (Any thoughts on this issue appreciated).
Scrap of linen check (1759) used to identify foundling number 13169. (London Metropolitan Archives)
Making and mending my own clothes will continue in 2009, as will the thinking about the making. But I might just have to buy myself the odd pair of pants, and also hope to have a bit more time for some other truly luxuriant crafty things that I enjoy and have not done much of in 2008 — in particular, embroidery. I also have a new and exciting year-long project for 2009. More on this — and on my lovely trip to Islay — anon.