Work in progress

Here is a zero-waste singlet I designed the other day with my new years resolution in mind. I aimed to focus the detail on the back and keep the front more “normal”. The pattern is a modification of an earlier design.

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New Year’s resolution

About 6 years ago i pretty much stopped buying new clothes. Well almost – i bought the odd merino thermal to protect me from Wellingtons damp and cold winters – and i bought 2 pairs of jeans, a couple of dresses suitable for ‘maternity me’ and… hmm some underwear and 2 pairs of shoes. Apart from those, everything i have worn for about 6 years is either something that i already owned, something i (rarely) made from fabric i already had (quite the stash), or a hand-me-down from friends. This wasn’t the result of a conscious decision to change my behavior – i really just found it increasingly difficult to go through with the action of buying clothes. I would go shopping with the intention of buying something i genuinely needed but come back empty handed. The moment of exchanging money for goods became loaded with meaning – such as “I am exchanging money to pay for something i am able but unwilling to do myself, and the persom who did labor over this garment was paid far far less than I would be happy to accept for the same job. So I regularly peruse the magical interweb drooling over beautiful garments i LOVE but couldn’t justify buying because of ethical or financial reasons. And the garments i found that fit both budget and ethics were.. um… not my thing. I have a job that requires me to be at least semi-respectably dressed. So I think i need to do something aside from treading fashionable water…

I will mend. Conspicuously.

I own clothing with so many holes etc that it is getting a bit silly. The two Merino thermals i mentioned earlier have holes in the elbows so large that i often accidentally put my forearms through there instead of where they are supposed to go… I tell myself that these garments are never seen so it doesn’t matter – they still keep me warm. Maybe my students think I’m going for a hobo-chic kind of look? I haven’t mended much yet even though I know how. I’ve fixed hems and resewn buttons (though some buttons are held on with a sneaky safety pin), but i haven’t attempted to repair worn through elbows etc. So that will be step one.

I will wear my own designs. Zero-waste ones.

It probably seems strange but i don’t wear my designs – primarily because the pieces ive made to perfection and completion seem to have become for display purposes only – my husband tells me off when i wear them, and i take them off before i leave the house. They just hang in my wardrobe taunting me. The Wolf / Sheep one is going to be in an exhibition in a couple of months so i shouldn’t wear that (as much as i want to)… But what use are my ideas if I don’t (or someone else) wear them? So I’m going to make one new design per fortnight for myself until i’ve filled the rather large gaps in my wardrobe. Things i will wear all the time. A sort of field testing of the work I do. So. I will wear my own designs.

So pretty simple to start with really. I can’t help fearing that perhaps i’m only doing this to fit some sort of expectation of acceptable fashionable dress – that my clothes and wardrobe as they are are totally sufficient and all that is occurring is that I’m getting sucked back into the fashion consumption void… Hmm

First mending project below. This WORLD (NZ) Jacket has been part of my ‘uniform’ for many years now. Super holey elbows. Wish me luck.

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Wolf / Sheep

Wolf / Sheep
Wolf / Sheep

Within the fashion industry the resources and energy invested to manufacture cloth and clothing is extraordinary, from the use of non-renewable resources to produce synthetic fibres to the 8000 litres of water used to produce only 1 kilogram of cotton fibre (Fletcher, 2008). And yet today, at a time when clothing has never been so cheap, cloth has become a readily disposable commodity with little value. Indicative of this is the fact that on average 15 – 20% of cloth needed to produce a garment is unused and the useless remnants are destined for the incinerator, landfill or occasionally as mattress filler (Abernathy et al. 1999; Cooklin, 1997; Feyerabend, 2004). China, one of the world’s largest exporters of textiles and clothing produced 31.8 billion metres of fabric in January to July 2008 alone (Tingting, 2008). You could reasonably estimate that 5 billion metres of that fabric were wasted. This astonishing wastefulness is caused by the entrenched traditions of the fashion industry, which separate the stages of garment design and production into hierarchies where the designers often work isolated from production and the accountant is God. It is a system that fails to acknowledge that textiles are a finished product with energy invested into their design and manufacture, relies on the conviction that we can take from and dump on our planet infinitely, and which seems blind to the reality that the fashion world (and the human world) is part of a natural world.

As a child I could see a panther living in the trees lining the road we drove down every day, leaping from tree top to branch, stealthily following our car, but never making that fateful leap. I saw that wolves with yellows eyes lived in the rugged bush on our farm. There was a monster that lived in the lake, ready to pull under any child foolish enough to wander near its dark waters. This mythical natural world was all around me, menacing, and yet somehow also a warning – protective. I was not separate from nature, I was nature and on any given day I could be prey, protector or predator. In the urbanized western world we have come to view Natural as Other – it is easier for us to consume nature if we are not natural ourselves. By viewing ourselves in this way we avoid acknowledging our vulnerability as part of the fragile natural world. The environmental philosopher Val Plumwood in Being Prey (cited in Rothenberg & Ulvaeus. 1999) wrote

“in the human supremacist culture of the West there is a strong effort to deny that we humans are also animals positioned in the food chain”,

she argues that it is this concept of human identity which distances us from our natural world and places humans as “external manipulators and masters”. This illusion of other-ness enables us to exploit at our peril the world we rely on to survive but every facet of our existence relies at some point on the natural world because we are natural.

Wolf/Sheep is a fashion product developed through a zero-waste design process, where all parts that are removed for fit or aesthetics are reincorporated back into the garment. Surplus is resource, not to be used for another product at some time in the future but as a resource for it’s own creation. Designed around the form of the wolf/sheep head and constrained by the dimensions of the textile, while requiring the goal of fashionable dress; nature, industry and design each play their own part to make the whole. Thematically Wolf/Sheep seeks to explore the precariousness of our self-titled position as masters of nature. In it I explore the shallow deception and denial that revolves around the design, production and consumption of clothing. Wolf /Sheep borrows the allegory of folklore to become a watchful and predatory guardian that deceives both viewer and wearer. We seem to have a choice to make on wearing the garment to become either wolf or sheep, but the position of clothing on our bodies as a communicator and protector of the fragile self throws our understanding of the wolf / sheep dichotomy into disarray and the reality is we become both.

Precarious Design for a Precarious World

I love fashion! It is beautiful, frightening, exhilarating, confronting, elegant, communicative, intelligent, frivolous and thought provoking. However I also know that fashion is the cause of massive environmental and social injustices. When the concept of “sustainable fashion” was first touted, it was considered an oxymoron – and to me it still is. As how can an industry be considered sustainable when its primary concern is the propagation of the Next New Thing at the expense of perfectly functional existing products? Despite consumer desire for change – as shown in the worldwide awareness of sustainability and growing demand for sustainable products – the majority of the fashion industry are responding with what can be considered ‘Less Bad’ solutions – and less bad just isn’t good enough. ‘Less bad’ in the fashion world has predominantly meant using organic and recycled fibre within the current inherently wasteful clothing production and consumption model. At either extremes of the fashion system waste occurs with shocking familiarity. It is standard for garment producers to expect to waste approximately 15% of the cloth needed to produce an adult sized garment, resulting in a loss of profits for the manufacturer and landfill waste. It is also not unusual for a garment to have travelled vast distances to get from cotton field to consumer. The globalisation of the fashion industry has in some cases lead to the raw material of textiles being grown in New Zealand, woven into fabric in Italy, designed in America and manufactured in China – generating vast quantities of carbon dioxide while divorcing the consumer from the production of the clothes they wear every day. At the consumer end of the fashion industry the rapid and insatiable desire for new fashion products that drives the fashion cycle and contributes 30kg of textile waste per person in the UK every year is growing so swiftly so as to be granted the term ‘Fast Fashion’, where new styles take mere weeks from design to consumer and “affluenza” drives consumers to buy everything, now! – I wonder if we are we in the midst of a rampant clothing ‘epidemic’.

For me the conflict is triadic – I am sitting on the very pointy apex of a three sided pyramid made up of sustainable designer, educator and fashion lover, and it is getting very difficult to keep my balance. The primary contributor to my unease is the knowledge of what I should be doing and its conflict with what I am doing and encouraging. Leon Festinger – a psychologist from the ’50s – described this emotional state as Cognitive Dissonance and argued that when personal beliefs and actions do not align, one or the other will change so as to remove the source of discomfort, usually by justifying the actions rather than changing the behaviour. I have been doing a little of both and it is through this precarious balancing act I have discovered a new ease with unease – I realised that uncertainty can be a great innovator and that as long as you have a destination in mind, you don’t really need to know how you are going to get there.

Precarious Design version 1
Precarious Design v. 1 - First Son 2005