I am excited to announce our short course - a one day introduction to Design for Sustainability: Textiles & Fashion. There are a few places left for the first one, this Friday 4th October! Click here for a place. (£215)
On the day of the Rana Plaza disaster, 3 years ago, I was giving a talk to staff at H&M in Stockholm. I was providing them with Sustainable Design Inspiration, to become more able to change from within, through decision-making by existing staff - in particular the design teams. None of us knew what had happened at the time – I remember the atmosphere as being one of dedicated learning and collective effort towards change.
On April 24th for the last two years I have been wearing my clothes inside out whilst actively campaigning for change, in support of the Fashion Revolution organisation. On the first anniversary I worked with the local primary school, asking pupils to consider who made their uniform. For the second anniversary I addressed an industry audience at the Textile Institute in London, where I talked about how we need to develop empathy and mindfulness, to enable greater collaborative ventures.
But this year, in the run up to the anniversary, I’m disappointed by the overwhelming negativity and criticism of the efforts of the industry. In fact, those that have done the most in the last three years seem to be at the receiving end of countless accusations of inaction. So, rather than preparing myself to turn my clothes inside out and take an audience with me on a journey, I have decided to write about the need for joined-up thinking and positive psychology in the field.
From Lines to Loops
The two campaigns this week – Fashion Revolution and H&M’s Recycling week – are concerned with issues at both ends of the linear lifecycle of fashion. They are about the beginning - the people that make our clothes, and the end - what we should do with the clothes when we no longer want them. If we look at the fashion industry’s potential to be circular, ironically these two activities are remarkably close together; the end joining up with the beginning, creating the closed loop.
The thing is, if you read the press this week, you would think these two camps live on separate planets. They exist in the old paradigm – at opposite ends of the line. I find it frustrating as I am involved with both, and ultimately they want many of the same things. Yet they are simply not looking at the complete circle. They are also at different stages of maturity and are concerned with different scales of industry production. I believe that - like yoga, the body and mind coming together – if we view the industry as a whole being then we may have more potential to transform it.
The Fashion Whole
What is needed, given the track record of the first twenty years of this beings’ life, is a total makeover. It has been a fast living, unhealthy, inconsiderate child-turned-adolescent. Personal transformation may come about through support, strong friendships and relationships, a clean diet and a new regime. The unhealthy person cannot be disregarded; cannot or should not be killed off. With time it can use its shady past to drive and inform its future self. It can become wise, generous, balanced. It’s life story is the lesson it can teach us.
However, if we meet this unpleasant young companion with anger, with vitriol, with criticism, then like any strong-willed teenager, it may well turn away to return to what it knows best. The fun-fueled selfishness, the indulgence and the thrill of the fast. What concerns me is that the verbal ripostes create a greater degree of negativity around an industry that needs to transform – consumers and producers both need to undergo a huge number of life changes. And they need to change more than current circumstances or legislation will dictate. So – we need to inspire this change. How are we going to do that, when the most significant players in the industry are seemingly at odds with each other?
Active, Constructive Responding
Martin Seligman in his book Flourish: a new understanding of happiness and well-being, and how to achieve them, presents the ideas of Shelley Gable, professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Her research has demonstrated that how you celebrate is more predictive of strong relations than how you fight. How we respond either builds or undermines relationships. There are four basic ways of responding, only one of which builds relationships: in active, constructive responding, all positive changes are noted and celebrated verbally, supporting further positive changes to take place.
Those watching this animosity from the sidelines include the next generation of employees in the fashion industry. Of the 5,000 textile designers that leave university in the UK each year, the majority will work in large companies. Some will become entrepreneurs, few will survive the first three years of business. There is a clear need to inspire and guide them to be active and involved in the industry of the future, enabling change for the better.
Fashion at Sea
I am calling for a more circular, connected, holistic approach to the problems of the fashion industry - viewing it as all vital organs of the same global body. Many say the changes being made are not enough, that we are simply ‘sinking the Titanic a little more slowly’. The difference is that in the movie made by circular economy advocates, the Titanic would be raised by Swedish technology, like it did the C17th ship Vasa in 1961, before it hits rock bottom.
My research team and I have been working on the Mistra Future Fashion programme in Sweden since 2011, collaborating closely with scientists and industry partners. In this work we acknowledge and support innovation at the academic and entrepreneurial level, as well as fully accepting that the scale of the problems for large fashion companies is profound. We are working at the coal-face of change, within tight parameters – both financial and infrastructural – and yet we are seeing them make very significant advances. Recycling Week and 100% Circular Lab by H&M, along with the Global Change Award (by the Conscious Foundation), represent a focus on parallel concerns that will in fact ultimately drive the changes needed at production level – on the factory floor.
No Easy Wins
There are no easy wins at either end of the fashion line, and whilst the changes for Fashion Revolution will come about in the main through legislation (driven by some of the large companies, ironically) personal actions and habits are relatively easy to change, especially when we have the luxury of education and choice in the developed world. Look at seat belts in cars and smoking in pubs – personal change is possible and can come quickly, albeit in this case with legislation, along with the realisation that people are dying.
The shift for industry towards sustainability and closing the loop needs total supply chain reinvention – from material, to production and labour, to consumers returning clothes for reprocessing. Pioneers like H&M are not greenwashing – they are aiding the global move towards circularity. Whilst we think there is an enormous amount of fashion waste – the reality is that the flow patterns, the quality of material stock and the lacking technology, are all huge, expensive, logistical challenges to all sectors of scale.
This year, on 24th April, I will be taking part in a brunch with Filippa K, a partner in the Mistra Future Fashion project, giving my time to support a company that is bringing its consumers to meet its makers. Celebrating progress and building relationships, marking the Fashion Revolution with one of the game-changing Swedish brands that is closing the loop. I will remember those that lost their lives three years ago, as I continue to work towards long-term change from within the industry.
- Mistra Future Fashion programme (2011 – 2019), Sweden
- Martin Seligman, Flourish: a new understanding of happiness and well-being, and how to achieve them. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2011
- Auret van Heerden, Fair Labour and the Living Wage, FIT, New York, March 25th 2016
- Vasa Museet, Stockholm
- Filippa K brunch, Stockholm
2016 began with a quiet January at home, thinking about fashion textiles and circles, cycles, loops and spirals. It's all happening with the circular economy right now - and whilst this has been building for an awfully long time, it finally feels as if some real changes are about to take place. It also feels like a lot of different projects are finally coming together...
Towards Global Change
Since last summer I have been on the judging panel for the H&M Conscious Foundation Global Change Awards. Just before I went to India I submitted my final selection of five winners, and was so pleased to see that when I got back 4 out of the 5 right had made it into the final line up! The winners spanned new fibres - made from paper, textile and citrus fruit waste, as well as algae - and microbes that eat polyester enabling new yarn to be created. There was also a concept for an online platform that connected textile waste from industry to potential users. (This was my favourite - it's too easy to forget that we need more systems designed to aid the flow of existing resources, as well as the invention of new materials).
The award ceremony was a two-day extravaganza in Stockholm, with event at KTH and the Town Hall. The stair case that the winners came down is the one that the Nobel Prize winners come down. Watch the film below to see the winners ceremony. They were a great group of entrepreneurs - it was so exciting to see their ideas get this attention and support.
The keynote speaker for the award ceremony was David Roberts, from Singularity University (also a decorated Special Agent). I have great reservations about the massive investment in technology that goes across around the world, when problems seem to be so much about people, politics and broken systems. But his talk was really enlightening - I was thrilled to hear about exponential growth and technologies coming online, especially the projections he showed around solar power. (He succinctly explained the dip we experience early on with new technologies, where after an initial excitement we begin to doubt them). He brings the talk to a conclusion by showing us two animal films from You Tube, which echo his points about human nature. By joining together in collective action we are strong enough to remove danger from our community. (Oh, and, cat's are mean...) I am not how well he relates exponential growth and the power of the bystander - it seems to hang in the air at the end. But watch the talk below and decide for yourself.
Meeting the other judges and Jo Confino (ex Guardian now Huffington Post) was super interesting. I enjoyed the company and conversation of Ellis Rubenstein from NYAS very much. Also Michael Braungart (C2C) and Friederike von Wedel-Parlow (ESMOD), and the great dinner chat whilst seated next to Karl-Johan Persson. I nipped out between the seven vegetarian courses to record this little podcast... with Natalia. (I come in after 23 minutes.)
Can't finish this report without highlighting the overall winners - by public vote - our Trash 2 Cash collaborators, VTT! Congratulations to them for putting their ideas out there to multiple funders and really pushing their material innovations.
Fast Talking, Hybrid Style
Before all the excitement with the awards kicked off I gave a short 8-minute pitch at Mode Hybrid, Hybrid Talks. Hosted by Mistra Future Fashion, Misum, and Stockholm School of Economics, these micro talks focus on the collaborative potential of 'science fiction, to science fact to science fabulous'! (To quote the dynamic founder of Hybrid, Annika Shelley!)
You can listen to my Hybrid talk by clicking play below. (It's a bit rushed at the end... I didn't go fast enough, ironically!)
As Hybrid drinks came to an end I did this TV interview below. Fashionomics 2 was a conversation around sustainability hosted by Ulf Skarin, Creative Director at the Veckans Affärer and Elin Frendberg, CEO of the Swedish Fashion Council with Eduardo Escobedo, Founder of the RESP – an organisation that brings together luxury brands and sustainability, and Annika Shelly, Founder of Hybrid Talks.
Stockholm Shirts: Making Change
When not TALKING, I am happy to be quietly thinking, making and writing. Whilst I love to talk (I think you realise that after the above!) the pleasure of silently making is essential to thinking clearly. Without making things, and writing ideas down, the whole process just isn't complete. Whilst I used to rely on making alone to research ideas, I am now fully signed up to the rich experience of being an academic who uses many forms of exploration. It's not just making, writing and presenting/talking. It's also exhibition curation and film/animation script writing. When these approaches all work together, I find myself more able to deal with the complexity of sustainability, and hold on to the pleasure of creativity, whilst also finding ways to build communities and audiences.
For this Stockholm trip, I took a day to work into some second hand H&M shirts I had collected from Sweden. I used an old lace dress I found in Anxi Clothing Market in Shanghai in 2013, to create a heat photogram image on the polyester shirts. The mix of Chinese clothing and H&M product enabled me to think more about the disconnect between fashion textile designers and consumers and the industrial manufacturing processes inherent in speedy clothing lines. I am not unaware of H&M production being amongst the fastest in the world - I have questioned them about this myself. They believe in working in emerging economies to contribute to growth there with their business, and to do that in the best ways possible. They argue if they weren't producing there, things would be much worse for the local economies and lifestyles.
The Stockholm Shirts are about continuing to think about how big business can use textile design approaches to create sustainable social innovation production models.
Circular Transitions Conference
Finally, for this first post of 2016, I want to flag up our our Mistra Future Fashion Circular Transitions conference in November 2016, at Tate Britain. It has been years in the planning, so we are excited to have the chance to get the world's design researchers together for two days to fully explore fashion textile design and the emerging circular economy. Abstracts are due in to us by 25th March 2016, so get your ideas together and come and join us for what promises to be a really valuable experience for a wide range of stakeholders - you, the trustees of the future of design and circular fashion textiles...
The year of #nonewclothes2015 came to a rapid conclusion in a whirlwind of work/pleasure activities and a frenetic December spent with great colleagues, family and friends. With such a busy social schedule, how would I get on utilising my existing wardrobe and avoiding buying new stuff to suit the occasion? When the spotlight is fully on during the social season of Christmas and New Year, how would I manage to spruce myself up from event to event? Of course, being too busy to spend time hanging out shopping continued to be a rule of thumb.
Upcycling the Italian Way
At the end of November 2015 I packed my bags for a three day trip to Florence and Prato in Italy, for workshop #2 of the EU Trash-2-Cash project. The most interesting part of this trip was the museum tour, which highlighted the way in which Italian industry had been recycling for centuries - in particular woven woollen cloth in the Prato district - and during the war, when new fibres like cellulosics from corn starch and crab shells were invented (like the first forms of Ingeo and Chitin/Chitosan respectively). I had always thought these were invented by the industry to try to be less environmentally impactful, but it was in fact economic need that drove this innovation, in an attempt to keep Italian industry healthy during the war when the supply of other fibres were limited due to trade/transport restrictions.
I was very happy to dust off some old winter-wear favourites for this trip - albeit with buttons freshly replaced and moth holes darned. This coat always elicits a comment or two and I am very glad I found it at a studio sample sale for Ginka by Neisha Crosland, back in the days when she briefly did a fashion range along with the classic interiors collections. (It also came with a printed velvet weekend bag - making a totally matching look which pleases my virgo rising tendencies...)
The only place I shopped whilst in Italy was in pursuit of lovely lotions from Farmacia Santa Maria Novella - a place I always go when in Florence. Frankly, the poshest Boots you will ever go into! (I first visited in 1998 with Nicky Lawler, then on my first trip with husband-to-be Paul in 2003. It has been totally renovated since then, and is well worth a visit if you are ever in Florence.)
Fast Slow Textiles
In the Autumn term I also dreamed up a project for the MA Textile Design students at Chelsea. The second phase of the Mistra project is all about design for cyclability, and in particular understanding more about product speeds. At TED we always try to build student projects into the funded research projects, believing that they are very good 'emerging researchers' and of course constitute an excellent user group. Being involved in a live research project is interesting for them, and the projects often create new insights that they build on right through to their final show. You can see the project content and outcomes on the blog they built here, and read a review from project leader Kay Politowicz here.
Overall, what we learnt more about was the contradictions within the common belief held by many that slow is better than fast. Our relationship to a product is complex, and often 'fast fashion' textiles give as much satisfaction, pleasure and usefulness as 'slow', or high-end goods. Fast can also be a powerful connecting force for people - empowering, even - especially where income brackets are concerned.
Labour issues in production are of course the controversial touch points around these speeds, but many industry insiders often tell me that there is very little difference between fast brands and slow brands in the factories. Of course this is something we are going to find out for ourselves over the next few years, but as a starting point it's useful to question what so many of us believe to be true. We will continue to look at this question through a lens of design, rather than labour issues, but as we move towards some innovative ideas we will be thinking about new manufacturing models and will try to design for future sustainable paradigms.
Early Christmas and then Kerala
Christmas began early in the Earley household, as the tree was up by 29th November and family celebrations began in earnest on the 6th December. We had booked a trip to India over Christmas, so began eating turkey far too soon! Going away is a good way to avoid all the mayhem and social pressures that would follow as 24/25th December arrived. It was very easy for me to wear my old party favourites and not go to the shops this month!
We packed super-light for India as we were moving around quite a bit. We knew that clothes would be the least of our concerns, or interests. We were going on an adventure with the kids, and it was the culture and nature that we wanted to focus on.
India was full of colour, smells, amazing people and foods beyond our imaginations. We loved seeing for ourselves the ingenuity and innovation, creativity and craftsmanship. After Fort Kochi, and then an Alleppey houseboat stay, we went in an 'eco' resort for Christmas, where we picked organic vegetables from the garden and cooked fresh five-course meals. We washed in our outdoor bathroom using locally made bark soap. We stayed all day in the hot sun and shade - defending ourselves from the huge black rooks out to steal food - and watched eagles dive into the sea at sunset, catching their fish suppers. It was a trip from heaven and we all want to go back to India as soon as we can!
New Year, New Jeans
Home by New Years Eve, and back to London to spend the last few days of my pledge of #nonewclothes2015 doing the laundry from our trip. So I made it to 2016 folks. But... only to 2nd January 2016!
The fact is, I have been desperate for a new pair of jeans, and so I waited to 2016. I then took my gift vouchers and off I went to M&S. I went for the new cut that lifts the bum (it does, it really does), made from 'responsible cotton'.
Are you disappointed in me? Will I get trolled on social media, for my weakness? Maybe. The truth is, I really wanted some NEW jeans. I have second hand dungarees and hand me down boyfriend jeans. I have size 10's and 12's now too tight to breathe in. I needed some size 14's, and something flattering. I loved the fact that they were new, and mine.
There, I said it. So what now?
On Fast and Fasting
My year of #nonewclothes2015 was well worth the effort - of restraining myself, of mending, of reaching out and borrowing. Most of all, for learning more about myself and my habits and desires, and how to dress and provide for my family. As Professor of Sustainable Textile and Fashion Design, I know a fair bit about textile and clothing, but I am a consumer and a human being as well. Like all of us, I enjoy certain pleasures in life, and whilst there are a great many I think twice about now I know more about provenance and chemicals, for example, I also know that time, convenience and aesthetics are all important factors to making broad progress. My experiment was to make sure I firmly understood what options are out there, and what factors limit our choices.
I am continuing into 2016 with a #fashionfast2016 pledge. I now believe that in a similar way to food-fasting for one day a week being good for ones health, regular fasting from consuming clothes is a great way to appreciate what we have, and what we need. It's easy for us to fall into 'fast food' habits, and our health can suffer as a result. By refraining from making purchases and finding lower impact alternatives like borrowing or customising second hand clothes, we can develop habits that might ultimately support a greater range of alternatives to be on offer.
Throughout my busy year I have been dreaming of an airport service which allows you to select online clothes from the country you are about to visit, and have them waiting for you at Arrivals. You can then travel without luggage, and experience local fashion during your trip. My colleague Kay had this kind of idea years ago and it stayed with me. As the creativity of the service design sector increases, I keep thinking about it. In Paris, at EAD11 in March this year I heard a paper presented by a young researcher who had explored the idea for his MA work. In the H&M Global Change Award entries I was searching for a similar venture, but to no avail. So, anyone want to talk about it?
So there I was, thinking about how well my year of #nonewclothes2015 had gone, when BAM! I came off my bike at full speed and promptly came back down to earth with a crash.
I had slid on some tidal mud by the Thames, on a low-lying road on Chiswick Mall. The bike went sideways, I went shooting forward and landed on my knees. One minute I was flying along on my way back from Chelsea, the next I was sitting up in the road holding my knees and silently screaming. My Stella McCartney Adidas leggings only looked very slightly scuffed and a tiny bit of blood was seeping through the fabric by my right knee. Not visibly injured, a passing motorist stopped momentarily but went quickly on as I forcefully told her I was FINE.
In shock I dragged myself and the bike to the side of the road, onto the pavement, where feeling faint I lay down on the cold concrete with my legs up high against the wall (to stem the flow of blood, I thought). I must have made a strange sight there, as I phoned the school, asking them to tell Paul to leave the parents evening and come and collect me. Then a lovely cleaner from a near by house stopped and stayed with me as I waited for him, and then Cliona came running by - a GP friend from the school out for her run - saved by two cleaners!
When I got back home and took off the very robust rubber coated thick lycra leggings I realized I maybe needed to go to A&E for some stitches. Three hours later I was stitched up - 4 navy thread stitches, and about 8 butterfly stitches - jabbed for tetanus and sent home with painkillers. So began my two weeks on the sofa.
It all went quite well at first. I could still 'type and Skype' as I told my team in an email from Chelsea & Westminster Hospital and therefore work could still get done (and EU deadlines could still be met). College paid for taxi's to and from work so that I, on crutches, could make a few important meetings. (That's you, LN.) With regular doses of Ibuprofen and Codeine it was really OK. The kids rallied and Paul was my rock as usual. Half term came and went and I went 'mending in Wiltshire' - to recuperate and also to sew. I took that big box of stitching and darning with me - mum helped me revive garment after garment, which was very satisfying.
And then. A few weeks later, 4 to be exact, I felt... so awful. I hadn't exercised for a month - no yoga, no cycling, no walking. I had instead eaten well, and drank well. I was… fatter. My hair needed cutting, my legs needed waxing. My skin was grey. I was grey. My comfy loungewear was… too slouchy. I felt grubby. I felt I had aged by ten years in a month. I had an overwhelming urge to DO SOMETHING about it.
What could I do?
Friends, I went shopping to feel better. There. I admit it.
Off the crutches, I dropped the kids to football and tennis one Saturday morning and then found myself in Space NK. I bought expensive skincare products. I booked in to Toni and Guy and got a wash, cut and blow dry. I went to the spa and had a pedicure, wax and massage. I bought a yoga top from Sweaty Betty. I looked in second hand shops - but, you know, for the first time ever, I really didn't want anything OLD - I needed to be NEW.
In the space of a weekend I spent rather a lot of money. (I actually took unopened skincare products back to Space NK - sorry guys, that night cream cannot be worth £100, what was I thinking?) I consumed in an attempt to feel better. And, whilst slightly appalled by the drop in my bank account, I DID feel better. Much better.
Why am I recounting all of this to you on my blog? Because I experienced for the first time since my #nonewclothes2015 year began the overwhelming desire to Buy Myself Better. I have been working hard on Making Myself Better, but up until now I hadn't really had such strong emotional needs. Of course they seemed like physical needs too - but essentially I know now that this was an emotional response to a situation which I addressed through consumption.
According to The Mail, shopping really does make us happy. But I have never beleived a word they have printed, so I am not going to start now. There is plenty of advice on the web about how to avoid shopping to 'fill the void', so maybe if I had stopped myself in time I could have just gone for the haircut and spa trip and saved my money on the yoga top and beauty products.
But now I also need to buy myself knee pads. And elbow pads for Paul. Because guess what… he fell off his bike last week and has fractured his elbow. He was on his way to his press night at the National Theatre when a car pulled out right in front of him. He went over the handlebars, to hospital and then he went on stage and did the show, of course. And then again the night after. He hasn't bought anything to make himself feel better - yet. But I am keeping an eye on him. Is it different for men, do you think? How do they make themselves feel better?
It must be nearly time for a summary of this year's #nonewclothes2015 challenge - as yesterday I saw an advert for Christmas! The year has indeed flown by, with very little real fashion temptation, I have to say. Maybe it's because I have been so conscious of exploring this behaviour change - or so consciously exploring it, should I say. (I am already of thinking about extending the challenge into next year and upping the stakes a little somehow.)
I have bought a few second hand garments (dungarees, dress, shirt, jacket), swimwear (bikini / wetsuit), some accessories (a necklace, a modal scarf and some Jesus sandals from Clarks). They were purchased during the last nine months after some considerable thought and anguish, but have all been very well used and appreciated already. I have not bought any new clothes, but of course, second hand is now new to me, so even those purchases seem luxurious. (Maybe next year, visiting Mary's Living and Giving shops will be banned too. *Gulp*. Might have to think a bit more about that pledge…)
The year has been so fruitful from both a research and a personal perspective. I have learned more about the feelings that surround buying clothes - the need, the desire, the excitement of the new and the pleasure of pampering and rewarding oneself. It has been a fascinating process to recognise these feelings and take hold of them, mentally address them, and meet the impulses with an action other than a purchase involving virgin resources. Here are some of my insights to date:
- Great pleasures and treasures are to be found in well sorted second hand stores and eclectic vintage shops and markets, especially in cities other than ones own, where styles and traditions may offer something unique and unexpected
- Making days out for kids which include second hand shopping for their own clothes can be great fun, educational, and economically savvy
- Mending and updating can keep worn items going for longer and the 'chore' factor of this is sometimes ameliorated if you can do it with a friend, or for a friend. If you can develop a personal mending culture based on 'giftivism', generosity, and co-creation, this out-of-fashion practice could find a new place in our lives
- Creating a styling wall in the bedroom to arrange wardrobe 'finds' to inspire 'new' outfits has also been a cheap and quick way to stay feeling stylish; creating unexpected combinations of colours, patterns and accessories that are hard to anticipate when the items are on the hangers or in the drawers
- Look, touch, but don't buy - indulge in the visual pleasures of fashion magazine and stores, but go to get inspired, not spend. This will feed your fashion flow and help you keep creating looks in alternative ways. If you fall in love with something, then being prepared to wait months for it will reveal your true feelings and desires - helping you work out what is a wardrobe whim, or a wardrobe winner
- Receiving gifts for birthdays, anniversaries, and christmas never felt so good. Partners, friends and relatives now know what to get you, and receiving a brand new garment or accessory which is beautifully tagged and wrapped feels so special. The new new, as opposed to the old new, should be for special occasions!
In many ways the physical garments are easier to track and trace than the shifts in thinking, in attitude, in habit. Below, with a little help from my Mistra friends, I attempt to reflect on the transition from 'having' clothes, to 'borrowing' them, and finally to simply 'being' dressed. In Clara Vuletich's forthcoming PhD thesis you will be able to read about preparing for the shift from sustainability to social equity. She recognizes the need for designers to 'get ready', to prepare themselves to work in very different ways. Inspired by the likes of Ezio Manzini, Kate Fletcher, John Ehrenfeld and Iain McGilchrist, she wants to be a textile designer who makes textiles AND takes part in the systemic change process. She wants to know how this transitional ambition will actually work; how textile designers can become change agents, and asks these questions from both a professional and personal perspective. She challenges both herself and her design approach. She asks herself which side of her brain is leading the decision making - her left or her right side? How can her research provide guidelines and tools for textile designers who want to transition an industry from an attitude of 'having', to 'being'?
Nearly all of us exist within a state of 'having' now, yet the culture of acquiring and owning manufactured clothes is still relatively young. My maternal grandmother is still alive, Cecily Harris, and her childhood and early adulthood self was dressed in homemade clothes. I can clearly remember - I now have - her hand made dresses. As children, keeping house and part time work began to make her busier and busier, she bought more of the conveniently located clothing from nearby Marlborough or Swindon. Not as cheap as it is today, the time saving lure of ready to wear clothing would have been impossible to resist, even if the pleasure of making still existed for her. Ironically, her part time job for a while was making all the tiny clothes for string and ventriloquist puppets at Pelham Puppets. No wonder making her own would seem like a bridge too far come the weekend!
My maternal great grandmother - who died when I was 20 - was called Vera Hodges and lived in a tiny thatched cottage in a nearby Wiltshire village. She had been a maid at the 'big house' in the village, and met my great grandad there; he was one of the young gardeners. When I was very small I stayed with them a few times when my parents needed to go somewhere (I don't remember where.) They had an enormous garden, no lawn, just planted to the high heavens with fruit and vegetables. Abundantly self sufficient in food, their existence felt even to me in the early seventies to be alien - I knew it was something we were not, as a family. There was no 'newness' in the cottage, every piece of furniture old and worn, but really clean and well maintained. The smells of course are so strong when we are young. How strange these old cottages smelt! Apples in store, the vinegar of pickling vegetables, baking pastry, boiling meat… damp wool, brown paper, coal fires, mixed with fresh cut flowers. So much activity being done by hand. Non stop work, just to maintain their retired lives, let alone go out to work and raise children too. How must that have been? And to be making and repairing their clothes too?
In the 25 years since Granny Hodges died we have brought into our homes so many new things to help us with these daily travails. We can shop easily for food and clothes, our houses are heated, our machines wash our things. Companies will deliver pretty much anything right to our doors now - Amazon, Ocado, John Lewis, M&S. (The online distribution logistics industry is booming - Anyvan.com will get anything to you, from anywhere, to wherever you are). I wish time travel were possible - I want to see Vera's face as her weekly shop, some shoes, books and freshly cut flowers arrives at her cottage door. I am pretty sure she wouldn't like it.
We embrace these developments because we are so busy at work, travelling for pleasure, socialising in sophisticated scenarios, or fervently booking experiences and making memories for our children. This tendency to looking for life and meeting our emotional needs outside of our immediate environs is largely where the global, environmental impacts are coming from. We now expect to travel widely during our lifetime. We expect to wear and carry the latest styles. We expect to eat food from any continent in any season of the year. We don't expect to have to make things from scratch; even the simplest recipe, self assemble product or DIY task can seem perplexing and stressful to some.
I think it's probably obvious by now, but I am in search of the right balance - some midway point between satisfying self sufficiencies and time-saving conveniences, that enable me to 'be present' with my family whilst also working full time. I love my work too much to give it up, but if I did, I would most certainly spend more time in the garden, and cooking, and sewing. But it will never be, certainly not after reading Naomi Klein's latest book, 'This Changes Everything'. I realise I need to work (not just for the income) but so that I am very involved in the change I want to see.
Over the last 5 weeks I have been to Sweden 4 times. This is not something I am particular happy about, for many reasons, but with most of the TED research funding coming out of Stockholm right now, and my co-investigator away on maternity leave, I guess it's inevitable. Two big projects launched during September, as well as the H&M Global Innovation Award (for which I am a judge). I want to give you an overview of these 3 projects, and talk about the idea of 'borrowing' fashion rather than 'having' it.
The projects and competitions I am involved in are all looking at how we can close the loop on textiles in the fashion industry. In other words - borrow materials from an eternal cycle of natural and man made resources. Never has the Cradle-to-Cradle philosophy been so widely explored by industry and academia in this field. It does feel like a time for change. But the question plaguing me is, (after reading Naomi Klein), is this enough? How far will this 'borrowing' resource efficiency approach get us? What about the really seismic shifts that we need to transition from having to being? For whilst the technical exploration of the potential for the circular economy is without doubt research time well spent, it is the under-explored human aspects of cyclablity that really intrigue me.
Wencke, a fantastic Mistra Future Fashion researcher from Copenhagen Business School (CBS) found that there was a higher sense of personal wellbeing amongst the early-adopters of sustainable fashion. Her team interviewed 25 international bloggers in the field, and quizzed them about their fashion and lifestyle habits. They all reported that their resistance to just 'having it all' and instead striving towards 'being oneself' made them feel, well, well. Likewise, my year of not buying new clothes has made me feel… better. And this has already signposted more ways to pursue this sense of wellbeing and how it might continue to grow, for me, and my family.
'Borrowing' Materials for Migrants
Another significant thing that happened during the last few weeks was that I decided to act on my feelings of upset at seeing the plight of the refugees in Turkey. After a Facebook exchange with friends and colleagues, I decided to collect goods for CalAid, for redistribution to the camps in and around Calais in France. They urgently needed wet weather gear and tents, so that was the main focus, but they also needed toiletries and a range of other necessities. I filled my car three times over with donated goods from parents at the school and from colleague at Chelsea.
Borrowing material goods from the linear trajectory of manufacture, retail, and disposal, and redistributing through ground-up activism, can make a real difference to ameliorating the most urgent human discomfort. Donating used goods to a specific cause - consumers acting with more commitment and intention - makes the lifecycle of fashion more thoughtful and personal than dropping off at a charity shop. (Sorry charity shops). I needed to do this act, to show I cared, at a time when I was too far away, too removed, to act in many other ways. (I did also set up a monthly donation to a refugee fund.)
Borrowing materials are a mid way point between 'having' and 'being'.
In my year so far I have found that the most important - essential - human elements of the experiment have been:
- Being Warm
- Being Myself
- Being Accepted
- Being Present
I want to see more work going on that support the consumer in this transition. I want to see more investment in the sharing economy - leading to more profound behaviour change. I think my year of not buying new clothes has given me more insight around the authenticity of being the change you want to see.
So, watch this space. (And thanks for reading.)
It's been a long summer break, and I have so much to tell you about. I have been composing blog posts in my head, but have avoided the keyboard as much as I could. Now I am 'back', I will begin with the over-riding theme of my holiday season - mending and wellbeing.
By mid July, everyone working in education will recognise the feeling of feeling a wee bit 'broken'. The academic year ends then and for a lot of us, it's not a moment too soon. Meeting the demands of so many people - students, colleagues, degree show audiences, managers, funders - is completely exhausting and many are beginning to find it too much to be really fulfilling anymore. (For me, it is the constant communication that drains me. By July I need some peace, some quiet. Not talking for a while. Yet with the academic break comes the school holidays… Need I say more?) I certainly need many more strategies for keeping well, and finding that elusive 'work/life' balance.
Last year I was ill for a while and found myself at home more than I had been for years. One way to make myself 'better' during this long period of downtime and isolation was to do a mend a day. Family and work life is so busy, it seems that things break and then wait to be mended. Before you know it, you are surrounded by things with handles hanging off, holes in them, etc. I have an eye for spotting such domestic imperfections (!) but no time to sit and mend. So, last spring I began to fix things, one by one. The house began to look better. I began to feel better.
I was also doing other things to get better, and one of those things was daily meditation. For me, the connection between mending and meditation is so clear: concentrating on the action of the hands; focusing on the skillful positioning, repositioning; the use of the tool… It takes the mind away from thinking thoughts, and uses it to perform a skilled task. Afterwards, there is a palpable serotonin release as the eye is pleased by the result (hopefully, not always), and the brain thanks you for the rest from thinking. You have saved money. You have saved an object from landfill.
Anyway, back to this summer, and a year after my illness. I always try to line up a trip or workshop for the TED and TFRC researchers and students for this time of year. It's a good idea to ring fence both the time and money to spend a little creative time together, at the end of the year, and before we all go our separate ways for a few weeks. In the past we have: discussed 'slow craft' on a canal barge; taken Eurostar to Paris for a curator's tour of an exhibition; taken the train to Cambridge to visit a Bio Chemistry lab; and had two fun-filled days seeing exhibitions and workshopping with social & fibre science colleagues from across Europe.
This year, because of my pledge to buy no new clothes, the idea of mending had been very much on my mind. Bridget Harvey's PhD research has been feeding my interest in trying to understand and articulate the relationship between mending our clothes, and 'wellbeing'. I gave Bridget some funds to organise a TFRC Mending Workshop with Tom of Holland, and so we found ourselves, one sunny afternoon, being taught darning by a lovely young man - an expert knitter-turned-mending entrepreneur.
The day after the workshop, Bridget and I ran a stall at the CCW event, Transacting Values hosted by the Graduate School's Critical Practice group. Critical Practice is a group of artists, designers, curators and researchers based at Chelsea College of Arts. They created a pop-up market made up of over 60 'stall holders' who had been invited to creatively explore and produce alternative economies of value. Bridget and I wanted to explore an idea she had had about mending for others.
When I started this blog I had been talking to her about the fact that I found sitting down to mend my own stuff difficult, but that I was always able to find the time to organise events for other people. She suggested we tried swopping a holey garment with each other, and carried out a mend as a 'gift'. We hadn't managed to test this out by the end of the academic year, so we used the market to test it out in public. Here, our mending idea was performed for others as ‘giftivism’, a way to build or reinforce a social bond. We sat with people and mended whatever they had brought along, and talked, and 'met' each other through the act of mending. You can read more about the market here.
This was pretty much the last public event at college for me for the year, and by the end of July I was finally able to escape and go on holiday. We packed up the car and headed off to Ireland for a couple of weeks. We are lucky enough to have friends and family there who let us stay in their houses by the sea. Although we have been many times before, this time I packed something that I had never travelled on holiday with before - a mending kit and a whole collection of socks to be darned.
Folks, I can recommend darning with a view. On holiday in Ireland, and later in Sweden, the combination of mending and vitamin sea was just the tonic I needed. Days filled with fixing, body boarding, walking and talking with old friends. That time to reconnect with oneself, with those we love. Somehow mending just works well in this situation too. Try it. Let me know whether it works for you.
No new clothes 2015? Easy peasy. Although I did buy a wetsuit. (Have you ever swum in the Baltic sea?!)
Earlier this year I was invited to speak and give a workshop at Sass Brown's Summer School, at FIT, New York, and managed to take out the Textile Toolbox show too. FIT hosted a two week showcase of the work, which was a great final outcome for the Mistra Future Fashion research.
Set up was very quick thanks to uber-efficient TED assistant Miriam Ribul and FIT administrator Elke, and so I got Friday afternoon to Monday morning to see some sights and explore. I hadn't been to NYC since September 2012, and I was keen to find the green shoots of alternative business and lifestyle models that it's becoming famous for, particularly outside of Manhattan.
A chance to show, speak and workshop in NYC was a great opportunity, but all this flying around the globe is difficult to reconcile with my conscience. It tends to make my #nonewclothes2015 pledge feel a bit small. But, by being there, I am also having an impact on many companies and decision makers. I can only hope that what I inspire them to do afterwards will help offset my footprint. In Sweden I have helped companies redesign products and make Higgs Index savings of up to 41% - on a large volume product this could be quite considerable, so maybe at the FIT Summer School some of the brands will score well too when they go back and put their plans into action.
The following week I took the train up to Nottingham, to take part in the PLATE conference. FIT Dean Sass Brown was there too, presenting her excellent paper about future sustainable luxury and artisnal craft in a global context. So we got to catch up after the busy Summer School the week before and make some new plans over late night noodles. We were tempted to take up the invite to go to a karaoke night with the staff at Wagamama's, but sensibly declined to attempt to recover from the jet lag instead.
I was at PLATE presenting Mistra work that Kate Goldsworthy and I had conducted around designing for short and long life cyclable textiles.
The accompanying exhibition at PLATE was a real treat and had some great items in it - including the books below and the ultimate in transforming clothes by ex-engineer Annalisa Simmonella. It made me think about how one of her dresses would have been so very very useful on my work recent trips - transforming with delicate buttons from short to long sleeve, and from full skirt to mini skirt… and many other configurations besides. I could have reduced my packing considerably, and had fun working out what was appropriate from event to event. She could really help me out during this year of #nonewclothes2015...
After a quiet New Year on the travel front, I have been zooming around a lot this Spring - mostly for work but a half term holiday too. So, continuing with my year of buying nothing new, I have been hunting through wardrobes for colours and cuts to help with my international 'presentations'. West London charity shops have been invaluable. I have had a few fab finds that brightened up my packing and set me on the road with something 'new' to wear for each occasion, and have shared them with you below, along with a brief synopsis of the trips.
I lucked out and found a gorgeous silk Rob Ryan scarf in Cancer Research in Chiswick just before my trip to Paris. In red, white and blue it made me feel very Anglais and gave me a bit of a sparkle for the paper I was giving at EAD11 - at the conference I was talking about the new skills we should provide designers with as we strive for a better industry. I didn't include developing an eagle eye in charity shops, but maybe I will add that in to the paper after my experience this spring.
I flew in for three days to set up the Textile Toolbox pop-up show, and give workshops to Danish businesses with DAFI and their Fabric Source team, at KEA. I used TED's The TEN to help the small businesses take a garment and redesign it in stages to improve its overall environmental performance. In workshops in Sweden we have managed to improve at product by between 3% - 41% using the Higg Index to score it before and after the redesign process.
I also hosted a workshop for KEA fashion and textile staff, where we discussed the Textile Toolbox work, and The TEN, and how it can be used in their own specific context. It was a really enjoyable session - it's not always easy working with other academics in this context - but the opportunity to work with a team and support their own ambition is a valuable one. It was particularly nice to meet Kristin face-to-face, one of the Textile Toolbox bloggers we brought on board in 2012 to collaborate on the Mistra project.
Back in London I dashed into the MA Fashion exhibition at CSM, Nude, where I found some ingenious fabric reuse concepts. When I studied on the course there was no mention of sustainability (1992-94), and I had a battle to get my ideas across, but my collection using old knitwear to airbrush and print with onto new fabric was appreciated by the end of the course ;)
It was the first time the MA course had held a public exhibition of the catwalk work. Alistair had done an incredible design job in the gallery. I hope they do an exhibition every year - it will become a must see - and I hope the interest in 'greening' the industry continues to flourish here on this outstanding and highly influential course.
Next up a lightening trip out to Gothenburg and the Swedish School of Fashion and Textiles in Borås to give a keynote at an event hosted by SP, the lead organization in the Mistra project, who research new wood technologies. I took the pop up show along for the day, and we also had a chance to catwalk some of the outfits during my talk, which was really exciting and gave us some great ideas for another project...
Paper was the focus of the event which was titled 'The Forest on the Catwalk'. Naturally Kay and Kate's paper jacket was an appropriate centre piece (ASAP, 2014).
My favourite Top 100 shirt got another wearing for the keynote talk. It's a very ancient M&S polyester shirt that I bought in 2002 from an Oxfam shop in Cornwall, which I over printed with plant cuttings from the Eden Project. It is set to last forever - not a sign of wear after so many years, its a sobering thought when you experience first hand just how durable this material is - lasting 200 years we need to make sure polyester garments have more than one life.
Back in London I took the kids out on a few trips to make up for my neglect... We saw the South American art and the Hermes show at the Saatchi, and also climbed Monument, after a quick shop for holiday clothes in Fara kids. It was a good opportunity to talk about 'new' and luxurious; and 'old' and inexpensive. They got to understand that people and skills are needed for both kinds of products, and that materials and techniques often vary for these fast and slow commodities.
Finally, a half term break in Crete. Bliss! In packing and sorting through clothes they have grown out of, I made a list of what they needed now they are an inch bigger all around. There is no end of second hand stuff out there for the kids - I almost can't believe people ever buy new... In style terms they are getting more choosey now, but it's still so easy to find great stuff in mint condition. That goes for me too. Martha is wearing my Biba jacket here - a great find from Mary's L&G again. Tru is wearing a fab tropical fish shirt which my mum found in the charity shop Dorothy House in Melksham where she volunteers every Tuesday. Of course, Mum is a great source of clothes for the kids - she often gets first pick of the new stock - and after eleven years of volunteering she is also a firm convert to 'not buying new' as often as possible.
There are things I have missed this spring - new shoes in particular. I still haven't found any footwear on my trips around the charity shops. I think this is a tricky area and needs some research to see what is possible. I also wanted new swimwear for the holiday and again, I wasn't prepared to go second hand for it. But on the whole, this year of not buying new is not hard. And it means I am saving up money to spend on having fun with the family. There is definitely something profoundly important in this kind of pledge, #nonewclothes2015
I have just recovered from the intense but totally amazing Cultures of Resilience project (lead by Professors Ezio Manzini and Jeremy Till), which held an 'exchange' event at the London College of Communication (LCC), between 23rd - 27th March 2015.
Following on from the Fashion Revolution movement, Who Made My Uniform? that I delivered in April 2014; and the subsequent essay written by myself and Bridget Harvey - 'Elastic Learning Tools' for the CoR book, I decided that time in the gallery space would be best spent further testing the idea of tools for children for the creation of resilient textiles.
The adage 'never work with children or animals' is so not true. OK, it was messy, but I believe we should really focus more on working with children and sustainability. (I can't speak from experience about working with animals… but I watched Blue Peter in the 70's so maybe it's true!?)
Using a skateboard to overprint a school shirt (previously over-dyed in the washing machine) created great excitement amongst the kids. From M&S, new and white; to used, dirty and ripped; then made green and over printed in this manner - the journey in visual and physical terms has a magical effect on the kids and their view of their everyday uniform.
Using fingers to make marks is not only pleasurable in a sensory way, but the dramatic nature of the mark which is transferred to the up cycled garment adds to its aesthetic appeal. In other words - the kids loved that their clothes were printed with the evidence of their play and pleasure.
This gallery based project aimed to test the ideas for a 'Design Researchers in Residence' week that I would like to run at the school in July. It's my way of taking the Fashion Revolution movement forward - with the next generation of consumers who will need to be more 'resource' and self aware.
Next week is the two year anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse which killed over 1,100 workers. April 24th 2013 brought into sharp focus the conditions under which our cheap clothes are made. Whilst the industry CAN be a force for good, providing employment and growth for emerging economies, the high street appetite for fast fashion puts pressure on producers to cut corners. The corners are wages, and health and safety precautions, to name but two. Of course there are many more impacts - both human and environmental.
On the day it happened I was giving a keynote talk at the H&M headquarters in Stockholm. I was there to deliver 'Sustainable Design Inspiration' to 350 buying office staff; part of an initiative to educate designers to make the best decisions possible within the remit of their departmental role. We reworked some best selling garments - changing materials and finishes largely - and the team I worked with had no problem understanding how to lower the garments' impact. What became apparent by the end of the project however, was that the distance between the Swedish-based buying office and the Asia-based production office was greater than air miles alone. Any scaleable change in terms of both environmental and social impacts from the company would come from the decisions made by the production office team - and their remit is to get the designs made up for as little as possible.
The Fashion Revolution (FRD) movement was set up in response to the Rana Plaza atrocity, and when I was approached to support it and join the advisory group, I jumped at the chance. Having a way to influence production office staff is important for driving through innovations made by designers, scientists and researchers, at the product level. I felt the movement could ultimately influence the sector, and the act of unifying a network of like-minded experts was a valuable first step to having influence. I know nearly all the members of the advisory group - but this was the first project that brings us together to fight a common cause.
In March 2014 I was off work with anaemia and exhaustion, and being on the campaign trail was going to be tricky. So from the sofa I hatched a plan to make my mark somewhere else. Somewhere closer to home… The sofa is where I sew. What I usually sew there is school name tags into school uniforms, and mend sleeves and other ripped and chewed details. I sew labels in to uniform far more often than I really should - as the kids lose clothes and I have to replace them. It's been bothering me a lot lately. Not that I begrudge the sewing - I find it meditative. It's more that my own offspring couldn't seem to grasp that clothing needs to be looked after. From the sofa I can see into my daughter's bedroom. From the door to the front room I can see into my son's room. Both floors are piled up with clothes. Tried on, worn briefly, discarded… left to mum to pick up, put away, move to the laundry basket. Aged 8 and 6 it's definitely approaching the time when they can get more house trained...
My son loves trainers. He's a football fan and player, and the influence of the Arsenal team and their colorful attire - and what is donned by his group of friends at school and on his team at the local sports centre - is significant to him. He got the trainers he wanted for Christmas - bright orange. They looked amazing with his lime green away kit. Yet within days he starting asking for another pair, in a different colour. I took the opportunity to explain to him again about why 'stuff' is special. The materials, dyes, labour, shipping… all comes at a cost, and not just to the bank of mum and dad. At 8, he knows all this already. We talk about 'stuff' all the time. But he just can't make the leap to applying this knowledge to his insatiable desire to be part of the team - to look the part.
At his school the lost property area is a mess of unlabelled and unloved green, white and navy cotton and polyester. I decided to start here with my research, and look at the way in which primary school children relate to their uniform - their everyday clothes. The deputy head at St Mary's Catholic Primary School in Chiswick and I hatched a plan to run a 'Who Made My Uniform' project, in response to the FRD provocation 'Who Made My Clothes?' Beginning with a carefully prepared school assembly on the actual day, the project consisted of a week-long residency by myself with the help of another mum, and a series of class projects run by the teachers.
The photo story below documents the project. Over the summer term we asked:
- Where was my uniform made?
- Who made my uniform?
- What is it made from?
- How can I make my own clothes?
How can I make my own clothes? Using single domestic tools I showed the students how to overprint a polyester shirt. Each pupil printed a square shape, and a patchworker print design emerged organically.
The shirts were later sold to parents at a fund raising auction.
Martha and I decided to go to the climate change march in central London on an unseasonally gloriously warm and sunny March 7th, (the irony was not lost on me). I wanted to make a stand with the other thousands of people - to be there and present - and take Martha along so that she could begin to properly understand what mummy and daddy mean when we ask her to turn off the lights to save energy...
It was a great experience for us both. A peaceful march, with interesting and diverse people from all over the country; the world in fact. I had the chance to talk through a lot of ideas and explain many things to Martha. I sensed that in this context and these surroundings it really went in. She chose the fracking placard because I told her that they were planning to frack near her uncle Matt's house in Surrey. I chose the 'Systems Change Not Climate Change' one because for me it resonated with my passion for service design to transform the fashion industry. We couldn't resist also carrying 'What part of "irreversible and catastrophic" do you NOT understand?'
I was really chuffed when Martha wanted to carry the placards home and have them in her room. She now explains to all her friends what they stand for, and they in their 6 year old way discuss the world...
Find out more about Our Voices here.
You can watch the film from the demonstration below.
The month of March has been all about colour for me. As my pledge to not buy new clothes continues I have realised that what has been testing me the most this month is the appeal of 'newness'. Spring has sprung and I find myself leaping around like a newborn (size 14) lamb. Green shoots everywhere. Joyous blossoms blooming! I have been digging deep into the back of the wardrobe to find some colour to don; albeit with a thermal vest underneath. I know that if I was anywhere near a high street this month a window with bright colourful clothes would tug at my very stylish soul… So it's a good job I have been busy at home and at work.
I have fed my colour-lust with getting the flat painted, thanks to Henrik my Polish friend. A highly opinionated and chatty 58 year-old who has vetted all my paint choices, and taught me the language at the same time. ("Yes, I like. No. No like. Say 'thank you' Professor - dziękuję!")
I can't tell you the simple joy of walking in the front door and seeing bright spring greens and yellows (and some lilac-grey tones for good measure). I thought I had maybe gone too far (egged on by Henrik) with the acid yellow / green in the bathroom, but it has slowly grown on me (and my other half).
I adore the combination of dark grey metallic mosaic tiles, and the Sanderson print blind, with tiny hints of dark red. The 1980's bathroom will last another few years now. The huge blossom branches from the pruned plum tree in the garden add a very dynamic dimension, (Henrik approved with "you have artist soul, Professor"...)
I am feeling thoroughly inspired by the decorating to revamp items in my wardrobe. I have been having fun trawling through second hand shops recently - but the sense of 'new' is still something that thrills me. I had a birthday in mid March, so have a new cashmere cardigan in the wardrobe now. I love the fact that a gift of a garment means that I have yet another 'tool' to express myself through clothes; but also that this particular one was new, pristine and wrapped in tissue. We have such a long way to go with understanding the complex range of pleasures experienced through buying or receiving new clothes - and the second hand trade in particular could in invest more in meeting the consumer's needs around the sensory experience of charity shopping.
But my favourite birthday gift by far was this one from the lovely TED research assistant and uber-cool designer Miriam Ribul. With this I can cut my own makeover stencils to carry out leopard print customisation sessions!
I can't believe it's been a whole month since I last wrote a blog. Life flies by - between kids, school, my work, his work, cleaning and cooking, etc. - suddenly four weeks have gone and I have been a little 'off grid'; emersed in a world of making, thinking, and writing...
In late February I took the kids to see their great grandparents - Ces (83) and Reg (84) - on their ramshackle homestead in Wiltshire, just outside Marlborough on the edge of the (Bluebell) West Woods. Granny Ces is the font of all making and mending, as far as I am concerned! My childhood was full of wonder and awe about the things I did with her. She was only 43 when I was 6 - not dissimilar ages to my daughter and I. I spent a great deal of time on the farm, with her and the four dogs, the wild rabbits and deer, and every other kind of wildlife. (It was a chicken, and subsequently a pig farm, so I won't romanticize too much about the animals, as I still clearly remember the inside of the slaughter house.)
Ces made and mended things. Many things. All things. Food, of course. Everything from scratch. My cupboards are still well stocked with the marmalade I get on every visit. Clothes. I was a hand knitted clad child - as are my kids now thanks to Ces and my mum, Mo. Everything grew in abundance; the kind of healthy flourishing my green hands aspire to. All things were mended and repaired, in all manner of ways. I have often wanted to document this, but it is not the thing to do (as she mends things because she needs to - not necessarily because she thinks it should be so. Modern gadgets amaze and please her hugely - she is a combination cooker kinda woman, not an Aga kinda lady).
It seemed to me that she radiated love - she still does. I know now that she is of another world; another generation, where self sufficiency was everything. I still visit today with a sense of awe. A part of me wants to be just like her; crafting in a world where everything can grow, be made, be part of the natural world around her. The space and the sky there is endless. She seems to exist between the neon world of Sky tv (she loves it, especially the football, and Liverpool) and the land of rabbits and her homemade aviary (enormous). She shoots rats with an air rifle from an upstairs bedroom window to keep her precious birds safe. I definitely want to be like her!
I know that my love of making things with my hands comes from Ces; my dad (a builder); and my mum (a 70's homemaker).
My research career has evolved through a nomadic approach of following my nose and cutting a path through wild terrain that instinctively draws me in.
I use my hands; but not to make in the practical, real sense that my roots gave me. I make to provoke, to reflect, to think, and to express.
Having children is enormously pleasing in so many ways - and challenging in many, many more ways - but one of the greatest pleasures for me has been the incredible luxury of time spent making and growing things together.
For spring half term we met up with my parents in a hotel by a big beach. Days spent on a sandy shore populated only with local fishermen - heaven. Equally heavenly was the hotel's art room, open all hours. The children could go and draw, paint, cook, sculpt and even disco dance, whenever they needed more than the hotel room or lounge could offer. We spent a blissful week digging, stretching, walking, collecting shells and sculpting animals.
The chance to reconnect with nature and family gives us the opportunity to reflect on the things that make us happy - the things that enable us to flourish. Going back to London, school and work we try to hold on to this sense and keep it to the fore.
We did not need to buy any new clothes for the trips this month.
We all felt we had everything we needed.
What a lovely, thoughtful week, with time spent seeing interesting things and talking about them afterwards with inspiring people – such simple pleasures, and so much better than shopping my friends! I spent this week thinking about mending – well, it’s one tiny step closer to actually attacking the huge pile of clothes in the corner of my front room. Isn’t it?
On Tuesday I attended a talk at Camberwell by London Metropolitan's Professor Daniel Charney, (he of Fixperts fame). Brave Fixed World positioned mending as a key driver for social and cultural change. Mending, he says, is a form of resistance. He argues that we should as designers look for systemic mending approaches: help one, help many. He asked us to think as makers, as designers, about ‘What is worth making? What is it we are fixing? Which side will you be on?’
It was great to also be reminded of the V&A’s Power of Making exhibition; and the ‘make space’ in the museum, with the Tinker Table by El Ultimo Grito. Listening to Daniel’s talk before we viewed the exhibition The Department of Repair put us into the mindset of repair as a physical, political and social act. It was very interesting to hear him talk about the mindset of fixers, and the maker types or tribes he has identified and mapped. The activist menders of the 70’s were different to today's menders mainly because of the technology they now utilise. It takes us to a future landscape where places for fixing can be around every corner, with designers and makers giving ‘access, engagement, experience, and confidence’ to all members of the community.
Blackpool in a profile is hard to resist, don't you think? My favorite pieces brought into the space by Bridget and her fellow curators were: the mended bike wheels by SeaBass Cycles (really - was it a repair or was it like, NEW?!); the plate fixed by boiling it in milk for an hour (Bridget Harvey); the film of the ship being taken apart, over two years (Tim Mitchell). Not to mention the darned jumper by Tom van Deijnen (tomofholland); the work-in-progress upholstered chair (Second Sitters) and the crazy broken records (Yuri Suzuki). Too many good things - see it for yourself before 20th February 2015.
After the Department of Repair I popped in to see The Expanded Designer at Wilson Road, another private view, this time of work exploring the future role of the graphic/communication designer. Some great publications were produced there by student teams; but the real bonus of the evening was bumping into the delicious Orsola de Castro (she of From Somewhere fame). I only ever see her at big events - London, Hong Kong, Glasgow. She is a jet-setting upcycler extraordinaire; an inspirational maker-mender if ever I met one! (Now, I wonder if I could tempt her over to W4 for some lunch and commandeer her to help with that large pile of mending in the corner of my front room…)
So it’s all very well saying ‘don’t buy new’, but what do we buy when we really do need something new to wear? A month in, and it’s been easy. I haven’t even been tempted. Keeping busy is key! This week my colleague Kate Goldsworthy and I gave a Textile Toolbox workshop at Central Saint Martins, for the MA Material Futures first years.
If we do manage to become more conscientious consumers, we will still need new frocks every now and then. Where will we go to get one? I believe we can’t make everything ourselves, or clothe ourselves entirely from second hand finds (although I know a few great folk who do). A sustainable industry will have a broad range of improved offers: products, systems and services will redefine business as usual.
Textile and fashion designers will play a pivotal role in this new landscape – working with scientists, policy makers, marketeers and communities. It has been my mission throughout my career as a design researcher and educator to consider what new knowledge and skills designers of the future will need. More recently this has evolved into thinking about tools, toolkits and methods for creating change.
The Textile Toolbox project is part of the Mistra Future Fashion consortium research, based in Sweden (2011 – 2015). My team and I used TED’s The TEN to develop strategic design approaches for designers to adopt to tackle a number of key challenges. The exhibition work we showcased last year showed a number of new fashion textile concepts by my team that illustrated the use of interconnected strategies. We are going to be touring the pop up over the next few years, enabling designers and consumers to interact with the work and even make fashion for themselves. Here are a few morsels that highlight new industry food for thought:
- Bridget’s A Jumper to Lend, A Jumper to Mend was created by the artist in response to the question of how garments will need to be different as we shift towards a lending / borrowing economy. How should we design for Fashion Libraries?
- In the Fast ReFashion series I help consumers make upcycled fashion for themselves, by offering them instructions and kits through online platforms.
- For the ASAP research, Kay and Sandy have worked with material scientists to create a paper-like fabric for genuinely fast fashion.
- Kate Goldsworthy’s Seamsdress research extends her use of the laser welder to cut, embellish and seam a monomaterial garment in one vertical process, thus creating fashion that is low in chemical use and made for future recyclability.
- Miriam’s DeNAture work will help us identify fibre types in the future using UV light, again working towards making a closed loop fashion industry more viable.
- Finally, Mel and Kathy’s Smorgasboard work gives the consumer a design game to play to create their own unique print designs with ease, moving us all closer to democratic fashion action.
In the meantime I have a large hole in my yoga leggings – one which has been repaired about ten time already. The fabric has worn so thin it can’t hold stitches any more. I am approaching a moment where a new pair might be necessary. Now, where can I rent a monomaterial, laser welded, print-designed-by-me, created for future mending and refashioning pair of yoga pants..?
Suddenly, everything I do is connected in some way to our fashion consumption habits. It was a busy week at work – very little time to think about purchasing fashion – but lots of time to think about the way things currently work in the industry. I was scheduled to run a weeklong master class for MA textile students at Cheslea, with a project called Elastic Learning Tools, part of Professor Ezio Manzini’s new project at UAL, Cultures of Resilience (CoR). I will tell you all about the MA master class in a later blog post, but for now I want to tell you about Ezio…
Anyone who has been interested in sustainable design over the last 20 years will know Ezio’s work. It’s a huge privilege to have him at UAL for two years. He basically proposes that design should be viewed inside out – that we are here as designers to make social progress, rather than ‘stuff’; that designers of the future should use their skills to enable others to make change for themselves and to be more resilient. (His new book, Design, When Everybody Designs, is out in March). At UAL he has the rather grueling task of running a cross college, cross discipline project, cajoling busy professors and readers to find the time to engage in his project. If I know my colleagues – and I think after 20 years here I do – he has a tough time even getting his emails answered let alone getting everyone together to make the project happen. But this week a few of us met on Tuesday at Chelsea to consider the idea of Resistance + Resilience, and to see a range of researchers present their own particular ideas around the theme.
I hate giving a talk after David Cross, and this time was no exception; he kicked off the event with a brilliantly insightful 8-minute diatribe about the total misuse of the term sustainability. Sometime later, with the clock ticking, I presented the work from the Mistra Project, and argued that although we knew a great deal about how to make a company design and produce products that would be less impactful to the environment - improved by up to 41%, in our most recent studies at TED - the large companies cannot implement the changes in their supply chain to carry out these improvements. The idea of resistance for me was about us as designers and consumers finding the smaller niche brands to support that would be able to bring about change more quickly.
The work we made in the Textile Toolbox exhibition last year begins to signal ideas for how consumers can make fashion for themselves; for entrepreneurial fashion libraries to offer stylish loan items; for communities of micro businesses to link up to tackle waste and create new products for high end furnishing companies; and for fast fashion to be recyclable, being made from paper-like fabrics. New models for how we create, buy, use and dispose of fashion can flourish in the entrepreneurial sector and enable us to more quickly steer our consumption habits away from the sluggish big brands who are so obliged to the shareholders…
That same day I had been invited to take part in a BBC1 roundtable discussion with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, to explore the idea of waste (a new three-parter coming soon); looking specifically in the UK’s fashion sector, asking where the greatest impacts are coming from and what the biggest challenges will be as we look ahead. As I was already double booked at Chelsea I couldn’t make it along in the end, but I heard from my good colleagues Roxy at The Right Project, and Lynn at Zero Waste Scotland that the Beeb want names. They want to expose the brands that are still dumping slashed unsold sale goods on the street. It’s a practice that seems, frankly, ridiculous. Wouldn’t the brand be better off being known for donating unsold sale goods to a charitable organization that works with social development?
Many of my purchases from the last few years have been to do with the fact that my body shape has been changing so much. I have had two children in the last 8 years, and have passed the physical/metabolic landmark age of 40. Things slow down, and the fat doesn't burn like it used to! My wardrobe was full of clothes I could no longer comfortably fit into, and of course this wasn't helping my sense of self. It felt great this week to finally fill bags with the size 8's, 10's, and some 12's. It took a little time to question and understand the range of emotional attachments the clothes held, but I found that when I took some time to consider each article, I could let go more easily. So, time to pass things on to another user…
What we need to move forward with a more sustainable lifestyle are new systems and habits, as well as new mindsets. Last year I wrote about how to shop green, prolong life and resist buying new for kids, by maintaining a ‘five bag system’ (City Kids magazine). So this week I used this system to have a total wardrobe shakedown.
1. Best Friend Bag. The quality clothes were the ones that I found hardest to part with (because they cost a lot, or are such classic, well-designed pieces). This week I decided to create a Martha Bag. This was anything high quality and maybe very 'fashion' that I will look ridiculous in when it comes back around in the years ahead, even if I can fit back into a 12 by then. These things went into a vacuum-sealed bag into the cellar, for my daughter Martha to 'inherit'. Also, expensive, beautiful shoes that are too high to cope with now - a few pairs of the best Nicky Lawler and Olivia Morris shoes have gone into the Martha Bag. Lucky girl.
2. Schwopping Bag. I haven’t been to a schwop event in years. It’s definitely something to explore again later this year. For this bag I put aside a few things for my slimmer colleagues and friends at work, especially the younger staff or interns who I know find London rents such a challenge. They pay me back with their dedication to work, cups of tea, and good cheer. They might also be more able to pull off the stranger, sample sale pieces I acquired during my Brick Lane days…
3. School Fair Bag. It was a super convenient coincidence that the local primary school had sent a few 'Phil the Bag's home in the kids' satchels last Friday. As a result the whole family had a wardrobe shakedown this week. The kids grow so quickly I find I have to do their wardrobes each half term or holiday – around every six weeks. It’s a bit laborious to be honest, but knowing that it is raising funds for the school helps.
4. Charity Bag. Anything left that I can't pull over my hips went into this bag. (And those things that I could pull up, but can't fasten the button. And those things that I can fasten, but it hurts when I sit down...) I am so over wearing uncomfortable things. I know I am sounding deeply unglamorous right now – but I do think many of us have clothes that when we wear them make us feel a bit… not quite right. I haven’t got time for them anymore.
5. Mending Bag. A sizeable bag, and it lives in the front room, near the sofa. I swear I am going to work my way through it. No, I really will. I love sewing. I get such pleasure from mending. I will do it. Those clothes will be given a new lease of life. Next week. Or maybe after I have done my tax return. Soon…
So my year of buying nothing new has begun. Announcing it on Facebook, Linked In and Twitter was my way of publicly committing to the project. (I know like many I have more willpower when I am not working alone). It was surprisingly reassuring to get such a positive response. Some friends want to join me, which is brilliant. A few are already on this road and welcomed me along. Many said it was 'brave', and wished me a lot of luck, as if the temptation to run into Whistles might be too much for me. (It might well be - but let's see. I do hope not). Overall, it felt exciting to finally commit to something I have been thinking about for such a long time.
I want to make clear why I have decided to commit to this simple promise. In general I would say that I am not a bad shopper. I work in fashion and textiles, so what I wear holds huge meaning and pleasure for me. I have never been someone who buys cheap, fast fashion. I just can't take the poor quality fabrics, and the experience in somewhere like Primark leaves me cold. When I was an impoverished teenager, then in my student days, and in my twenties I was an ardent second-hand shopper. Now, at 44, I need a little luxury and quality too, and so my weakness is buying beautiful things that give me a ‘high’.
I tend to look for things that make me feel good about facing challenging social or work situations. For example, last year I bought a lovely navy satin quilted coat from Ghost to give a keynote talk in Hong Kong. I didn't need a new coat. I needed a confidence boost. So I think for me, my year of not buying new has got more to do with working on finding other ways to feel good - to be my best self - and to use the resources and materials I have at hand to express that, rather than purchasing in order to define it.
I am also interested in the idea of time. How little we think we have of it – working full time and a mum is most certainly a challenge – but it's what we do with the little we have that I want to spend this year considering. I find sewing and mending relaxing, but I do so little of it these days as my workload has seeped into my evening routine. However, on Sunday mornings once a month I go through my wardrobe and see what I have for the weeks ahead – anticipating the changes in weather or key diary events. This is time well spent, and as I do it listening to Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, it’s one of the nicest hours of my ‘me time’ each month. I want to extend these sessions and see how creative they can become. I am creating a styling wall in the bedroom to give me some proper space to demonstrate to myself the range of looks I have to hand at any given time.
In terms of shopping and purchasing habits, I will not be buying new goods, but I will continue with my interest in the second hand trade. I am lucky to have an Oxfam Boutique, a Mary’s Living and Giving and a brilliant Cancer Research shop in Chiswick, London W4. I am already a regular customer, but this year I am going to scrutinize more closely what I buy, and donate. This market has changed so much in recent years, but what else needs to change to get more people enthusiastic about reusing existing products?
I am sure more questions will emerge week by week, but for now I need to dive in the wardrobe to get dressed for work. (Oh what to wear… what to wear… what to wear…?)