Category Archives: Viewpoint

Make It Yourself

When I was eleven years old, or somewhere in that preteen time, I realized that by sewing my own clothes I could have more than if we bought them ready made.  My grandmother had always made my clothes, but she was beginning to suffer from arthritis, and so was having to cut back on her own sewing.  The solution was for her to teach me.

Today, people don’t sew in order to save money, unless they are in the custom of buying it all at Bergdorf Goodman.  Clothes have gotten so cheap that in most cases it is cheaper just to buy a garment and be done with it.  But there are plenty of people who sew not because it is cheap, but because they like being able to create their own clothes.   The fit can be better, and you get to choose your own fabrics and colors.

But it is a mistake that by sewing (and knitting…) you are eliminating all social and environmental problems from your wardrobe.  The growing and manufacture of cotton and other textiles is costly in terms of water, dye, and chemical usage.  Slave labor is associated with cotton farms in Asia, and textile factories in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are big polluters.

There is still textile production in the US, though it can be hard to source.  Organic cottons are also available, which at least helps with the problem of pesticides.  If you like wool, made in the USA Pendleton is hard to beat.

If money is not a concern, there are still factories in France and Italy that make stunning silks and woolens.  The UK produces Harris Tweed and other woolens, and the superb Liberty cottons are printed in the UK.  (I could not find where the cloth was actually manufactured, though the cotton is grown in Egypt.)

But the best solution is to try to source fabric secondhand.  Most serious sewers have a fabric stash.  You can see an old photo of mine above.  Most of the pieces I can pick out in the photo were ones I found at my Goodwill Outlet Center.  I have a really hard time leaving behind great fabric, and so I have quite a collection.  To be honest, I could be kept busy for several years sewing up what I already have.  When at the Goodwill bins I also look for garments made of great fabric that I can adapt to something new.  There is also lots of great vintage fabric on ebay and etsy.

As with ready made clothing, you need more than just fabric to make a garment.  There are still thread manufacturers in the US, but most of them produce in bulk for industrial use.  When I bought my new sewing machine (nine years ago!) the consultant advised me to only use a high quality European made thread, like Gütermann, as they are tightly spun and do not produce as much lint.  If you have ever used a cheap thread, you might have noticed how it actually looks furry.

I also buy good vintage thread when I find it.  The sheen of a roll of old Coats & Clark mercerized is hard to beat.  But always do a stress test on any old threads, as if stored in high heat, they can become dry rotted and will be too weak with which to sew.

I love it when I run across the remains of a seamstress’s sewing box at the Goodwill bins.  I always stock up on elastic, snaps, hook and eyes, zippers, and buttons when I find them.  And look at the bottom shelf in my photo to see a bin filled with vintage bias binding and rick-rack.

One thing I would really love to do is learn to knit past a simple knit and purl.  Knitting has become so popular that it has helped sustain many small fiber farms which produce wool from sheep and other animals.  There is an alpaca farm just a few miles from me, and their yarn is in very high demand.  I’m afraid to get anywhere near the front door of a yarn shop, as I know I’d be sucked in.  But it is great that this resource is available to knitters.

Making your own clothing can be one way to  improve your closet, but as with buying ready made clothing, you have to do a little work and research to ensure you are making wise environmental choices.

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Responsible Shopping

When it comes to shopping more responsibly for clothing, there are a few truisms.  First, you generally have to pay more for clothing that pays workers a living wage.  Second, the more responsible a company is, the more information they provide consumers about how they source products.  And finally, smaller companies are doing a better job than the fashion giants at solving the social and environmental problems that clothing production entails.

Fast fashion simply cannot be sustainable.  The cheap prices and fast turnover of styles in the stores encourages over-production.  I’ve looked in a lot of Goodwill bins, and the great majority of clothing to be found in them is cheaply made, fast fashion from Forever 21, Walmart, and Old Navy.  While a high price tag cannot guarantee an ethical garment, an extremely low one almost guarantees that somewhere along the line there have been abuses, usually in the form of  low wages for workers.  I’ve got to wonder how Forever 21 owner Don Chang got to be a billionaire, but the same question can be asked about billionaire Ralph Lauren.  So price of the garment might be a hint as to practices, but it can’t be the only factor.

Many companies are working toward transparency in their supply chain.  I was amazed at the good job several companies I looked at were at telling consumers where their products were made.  Probably the best is Patagonia, who tells not only what country a product is made in, but tells and pictures the factories that provide materials.  The website has information about every supplier to Patagonia.  They also have an innovative repair and recycling program.  Not that you’ll ever need it.  I’m still wearing a pair of Patagonia hiking shorts I bought used about fifteen years ago.

Contrast that with what seems to be the industry standard of only revealing that a product is “imported.”

Another website that gives detailed sourcing information is Zady.  Zady is not so much a brand as it is an online store that sells multiple brands, though there are some Zady branded articles.  I’ve never bought from Zady, but I do have the site bookmarked to consider if any clothing need arises.

Probably the most ambitious company at the present in regards to sustainability is Eileen Fisher.  They have put into action a plan to correct the weaknesses in their supply chain, and they have the plan tied to a timeline.  For each item for sale on the website, there is information about how that garment is eco-friendly.

One thing that these three companies above have in common is size.  They aren’t tiny companies, but they are not the huge corporations that are so often tied to garment production and sales.  One of the most telling stories to come out of the Rana Plaza tragedy was that many of the companies that did business with the factories in Rana Plaza did not know their goods were being made there until the labels were found in the destroyed building.  The system of contracting and sub-contracting has become so huge and involved that the management of many big companies can’t tell who makes their clothes because even they do not know.

So it’s refreshing when mid-sized companies make it their business to know with whom they are working and are not ashamed to publicize their partners on their website.  Last week, after thousands of people began tweeting and instagramming companies asking who made their clothes, many companies began showing workers from all over the world.  What I noticed was that so many of these companies were small.  Topshop was too busy showing off photos of the new Beyonce line to comply, though Forever 21 did post a photo of a plant for Earth Day.  When H&M posted a cute message about their recycling program, they were quickly accused of “green-washing”.

There are lots of smaller companies who are beginning to show the inner workings of their industrial process, and I see that as a great sign.  A video on the Fresh Produce site takes the viewer through several of the manufacturers that work with them here in the US.  Okabashi shoes are made in the USA and their products are 100% recyclable, something you can do by returning the wornout sandals to the factory. These sandals are great for the beach, by the way. And in the UK, Peopletree also gives information on sustainability issues for each garment.

So, there are ways to buy new clothes in a responsible manner, but you do have to make a commitment to investigate companies and their practices.  And that is what the internet is for.

 

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Working Toward a Better Closet

This is a view into my closet.  Hanging here are 87 articles of clothing, about 65% of the clothes I own, the others now being in storage for the warm months.  I did a quick survey and I found:

  • 48 items were bought new
  • 20 items were bought used
  • 8 items were made by me from new materials
  • 11 items were made by me from used materials
  • 33 of the bought new items were made in the USA, Canada, or Europe
  • 21 of the ready made items were changed by me (hemming, repairs, button changes)
  • 8 of the bought new items were bought within the past year
  • 20 of the bought new items are over five years old

By looking at it this way, you get quite a bit of information about my buying habits.  To be honest, I was a bit surprised that over 50% of these items were bought new, as I consider myself to be a diligent thrift shopper and seamstress.  Taking a close look at the newer bought items, I realized that much of what I’ve bought in the past three years happened on trips to New York.  Somehow I can excuse myself for buying souvenirs of the big city.

Several of the new items have been bought this spring, as at 61 I’ve decided that my days of wearing shorts outside my immediate neighborhood or at the beach are over.  I’ve found that shorts with attached skirt (skort?  I hate that word) are a cool and comfortable substitute, and when I found a design I like that is made in the USA, I stocked up.

My closet is not perfect, and I can see what I can do in acquiring new items to make it more to my liking.  I want to make more of my own clothes, using fabrics that I already own.  I want to investigate brands that are making an effort to be more responsible in their practices.  And I want to be satisfied with what I already have, adding new pieces only as they are needed.

But while I can see a lot in my closet, there is much that I can’t see.  I’m good at choosing clothing that I feel is made in safe factories that pay a fair wage, but what about the fabric?  Most of my warm weather closet consists of cotton, which is notoriously bad for the environment.  Much cotton is grown in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan where the crop is picked by forced labor, much of it children.  Very few companies go so far as to tell consumers where their cotton is sourced.

So what is a consumer to do?  How can we do our best to ensure that as little harm as possible is done in the creation of our clothing and other textiles?  Over the next few days I’ll be looking at ways I’m going to make my closet  better.

Shop Secondhand

Probably the most obvious strategy is to buy less new and more secondhand and vintage.  By doing so you are not producing any new waste.  Shopping in vintage or consignment stores supports  local businesses.  And shopping in thrift stores supports charities.  Some people think that the thrift stores no longer produce treasures, but some of my favorite garments were thrifted:  a 1970s Bonnie Cashin coat, a stack full of vintage cashmere sweaters, a plaid Pendleton coat, and my favorite jeans.

If you are going to buy secondhand, it helps if you have basic sewing skills.  I’m always amazed at the number of great things I see in the Goodwill bins that are there simply because a button is missing or the hem is out.  Making basic repairs can greatly extend the life of a garment and prevent waste.  It’s also helpful if you can do a bit of altering.  I’m short, so I usually have to shorten pants, and even shirt sleeves.  I recently found a french-made Breton stripe shirt of hefty cotton, but it was two sizes too big and had wear at the neck.  Cutting it down to my size eliminated the damage, and was a quick and easy fix.

Shopping secondhand takes time and dedication.  One can’t just run down to the local thrift store to buy a size medium polo shirt in light green as one might do on a trip to Target.  But with time and a bit of luck, secondhand clothing can become a big part of your closet.

Next:  Some clothing companies that have got it right, and some others that are working on their social responsibility game.

 

 

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Currently Reading – The Cotton Mills of South Carolina, 1907

Over the past several years I’ve read quite a few well-researched books about the conditions in Southern textile mills in the twentieth century, but nothing really compares to a good old book written during the period of study.  It gives you a feel for the attitudes of the period, at least through the writer’s eyes.  As such, this book gives only the thoughts of August Kohn, but it helps to know a bit about the author, and the times in which he lived.  We need to also realize that the situation in textile mills was constantly changing, so what was true in 1907, was no longer true in 1918.

Kohn was the son of immigrants; his father was German and his mother was Austrian.  He was born in South Carolina a few years after the Civil War, in which his father had fought for the Confederacy.  His father was a banker, and August Kohn had the advantages that can only be bought – a private school education and a university degree from South Carolina College, now the University of South Carolina.  He went to work as a newspaper reporter, for the Charleston News and Courier, and became the head of the paper’s Columbia bureau.  He left the paper in 1906 to go into real estate, but he continued to write special articles for it.  This book is made up of a series of articles he wrote about the textile business in South Carolina.

The readers of the Charleston paper were far removed from textile production, which was clustered in the piedmont region.  Originally, this was due to the location of the water fall line, but even after steam power was developed, the mills still were located in the area northwest of Charleston.  This area was sparsely settled, and it was due to the cotton mills that the cities of Greenville and Spartanburg were developed.  Recruiters for the mills traveled through the countryside of the western Carolinas, promising good jobs that were easier than life on an Appalachian farm.

Many of the Southern mills existed because many Northern mills moved south in order to escape the growing labor movement.  People in the South would work for less money than Northern workers, and the mills were closer to the supply of the raw material – cotton.

In 1907 there were few child labor laws, but there was a growing movement calling for reform.  In the Southern textile mills, children were often forced into the mill by economic necessity.  The parents simply did not make enough money for the family to survive.  And the mill owners used child labor because they did not have to pay them the wages of an adult.

Of course, this meant that built into the system was the fact that many mill children had little chance of getting an education.  There were no mandatory education laws in South Carolina at the time, and even if there had been, there were many loopholes in the child labor law that allowed children as young as ten to legally work in the mills.

So, how does Kohn’s book fit in with the issue?  Much of the book is simply a justification of the actions of mill owners and operators. He knew there were many problems within the mill system, but he tended to put the blame on the mill workers themselves and on outside interests.

Many of those who have undertaken to present the conditions that exist here have been unfair, chiefly because they have not gotton facts but have used the distorted data of sensationalists.

His overall view was that the people who worked in the cotton mills were much better off than they had been on the farm.  Working in the cotton mill had actually improved the character of the former Appalachian farmer.

Descended from the early English, Scotch and Germans, they have been sleeping, as it were, while the procession of progress has been passing by.  Serious, independent, as all hill and mountain people are; sensitive, because of that independent spirit; for the most part sober, they are a people of untold possibilities, now that they are beginning to arouse themselves from the drowsiness of generations and to grapple earnestly with the duties of this active, work-a-day world.

As for the lack of jobs open to black people in the mills, he gave a very simple reason.

Experiment has been made on several occasions, notable in Charleston and in Columbia, with colored help, but it has proven a failure, largely because of the lack of ambition on the part on the part of the colored people as a race to accumulate money, and because of the disposition of the people to work two or three days in the week and rest for the remainder of that period.

In writing about the health of mill workers, Kohn acknowledged that many workers suffered ill health.

There are still to-day a great many… pallid people in the cotton mills.  I want to write in GREAT BIG LETTERS that the pallor found among cotton mill operatives is not due to the fact that they work in cotton mills.  

He goes on to say that the workers brought the pallor with them, in the form of hookworms.  There were, no doubt, many cases of hookworms in the mill population, but I found it odd that nothing was said of the dangerous dust and cotton lint that was ever-present in a cotton mill, and which caused breathing problems and even death in many of the workers.

As for child labor, he was at his most defensive.  The mill owners did not want child labor, but they were not able to fight it due to parents wanting their kids to work, and the state legislature not passing sufficient laws.  In some respects, Kohn is right.  In 1907 there was no legal system in South Carolina to record births, and so families often lied about a child’s age in order to put it in a mill.  The factory superintendent would just take the parent’s or even the child’s word for it.

Kohn insisted that the work was not hard, and that it was what the children wanted.

I want to say here in a great many instances the children themselves want to go into the cotton mill.  They seem to like the idea of working and of earning their own livelihood.

Today we can easily see the fallacies in Kohn’s writing, and are shocked that people could have been treated in such a manner.  But one thing I’ve learned from reading so much about the textile and clothing industry is that the abuses have never stopped, they’ve just been moved off-shore.  We now have child labor laws and minimum wages in the US, so the manufacturers leave the US and go to where people are more desperate for work and where there are few protections for workers.  It’s really very similar to what happened in the US in the early twentieth century.  Many historians will argue that the first “off-shoring” happened when factories were moved from Pennsylvania to South Carolina.

Today is the third anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh in which over 1100 people were killed.  It is being commemorated as Fashion Revolution Week, with thousands of people on social media asking, “Who made my clothes?”  In doing so, people are placing the responsibility of ensuring safe working conditions where it should be – with company officials.  I’ve found it interesting which companies have responded to people asking the question of them, and which ones chose to ignore it.

Next week I’ll be writing more about what we can do to make companies accountable for the deplorable working conditions in many of the factories around the world.  I’ll also share ideas about making your own closet more socially responsible.

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In Thrifting, as in Real Life, Sometimes You Win and Sometimes You Lose

While perusing the goods at my fancy shopping place (aka the Goodwill Outlet Center), I’m always on the lookout for vintage table linens.  I keep some for myself, but others I pass along to people I know can use them.  While making a quick pass through the bins last week I spotted the tablecloth above.  At first it looked to be mid 20th century, but something about it looked a little too much like a modern interpretation of a vintage design.

I pulled the cloth out anyway, just to make sure I was not making a mistake.  The first thing I noticed was how thin the fabric was.  Vintage printed cotton and linen tablecloths are usually very hefty in weight.

Then I looked at the hem.  The almost half inch turn under and the very wide stitching had me convinced that this was not vintage.  But then I noticed the real proof.

Oh, well.  I knew it was too good to be true.

The popularity of retro and vintage design has really made it hard to tell what is new and what is old unless you educate yourself as to the differences.  Several weeks ago I posted a photo on Instagram of a display of new hankies that were designed to look old.  After a few washings I’m sure these new hankies will look even older.  And reissues of Vera Neumann designs are identical to those she produced in the 1950s through 1970s.  The difference is in the fabric and the finishing.

When I spotted these Vera napkins at the same fancy shopping spot, I knew they were the real vintage deal.  The linen fabric was soft but sturdy, and the edges were beautifully finished in cotton thread.  It really took the sting out of being fooled by Martha.

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The State of Vintage Shopping

Above you can see the sad remains of what was once a thriving vintage and antiques market.  Held on the first weekend of every month, there was a time when this entire space would have been jammed full of dealers in old stuff.  I’ve been going to the Metrolina market for around fifteen years, and over that time I’ve watched it shrink and shrink and shrink.  This week the word was out that the owners are retiring and selling the property.

The reality of the show I attended yesterday is not quite as pitiful as my photo would lead one to believe.  To the right are two large buildings that contain vendors.  The scene inside them was livelier, but still there were plenty of empty spaces for absent vendors.  To the left are a row of smaller buildings which are occupied by little shops that open only when the show is in progress.  These people are now scrambling to find new spaces for their shops before Metrolina closes in June.

I could go on for hours, reminiscing about all the wonderful things I’ve found here over the years.  But I’ll not, mainly because my keyboard couldn’t take the tears.  Just know that a sizable amount of my collection was purchased in this empty lot.

It’s not all bad news, however. One thing that I’ve found to be true about myself is that I find the same amount of stuff to buy regardless of the size of a market.  A lot of this has to do with the fact that knowing there is less ground to cover lets me take the time to give everything a closer look.  I love old photographs, but if time is tight I’ll pass by a stack  because looking through them takes so much time.  Yesterday I took the time to sort through some I found and was rewarded with a wonderful Victorian woman on a bicycle and a fully documented shot of a 1923 beach with bather.

And there is a section of dealers that I always seem to leave for last because I just never find much there.  Yesterday I had the time to pass through that area and found another 1930s chenille beach cape.  Because there was extra time, I stopped at a favorite restaurant for a pimento cheese burger and a craft brew, and then did a walk-through of a nearby antiques mall.  There I found a superb early 1920s dress with embroidery and a sweet little change purse with Florida tourist destinations.

This mall has been in business for about three years, and is located in an old textile mill.  It’s is huge, and has been pretty much full since opening.  Unfortunately I noticed that one big room has closed, and there were a few empty spaces.  Worst of all, I’m seeing more new decorative objects.  These are not a good signs.

I’ll show off all my plunder later this week, but here are a few things I loved but did not buy.

I see a lot vintage prints, and I just love the ones showing women involved in sports.  These two were new to me.

This is a counter display, and is three-dimensional.  I love stuff like this, but I just do not have the space for it.

My regular vintage clothing dealers were not there, but I did spot a few nice pieces in various booths.  This was a lovely 1960s dress and jacket ensemble from maker Dan Millstein.

I pretty much limit myself to buying only fashion magazines, but this The American Magazine cover was just too fantastic not to share.

I’s love to hear what other vintage shoppers are finding in their geographic areas.  Are sellers of old stuff all moving to the internet?

 

 

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Fashion History on Instagram

Some time ago I promised to make a list of the best fashion history accounts that I follow on Instagram, and I apologize to all the people who requested a copy of the list.  Instead of trying to figure out who wanted it, I’m just going to post it here.

I also apologize to those of you who do not have an Instagram account.  If you have a smartphone or tablet, then you can open an account just to enjoy this resource.  You don’t have to post any photos.  And you can always see my latest photo by clicking on the photo in the right sidebar, under “More Fashion History on Instagram.”

Keep in mind that  I follow a lot of people on Instagram and these are just the ones that have a strong fashion history emphasis.  Also, I only follow accounts where the person running it gives the source of each photograph.  There are dozens of people who post lots of pretty pictures from other sources, but this is not Pinterest.

I’m sure I have left some out, so I’ll be adding to the list.  And feel free to suggest any others that I may not have found.

https://www.instagram.com/myvintagevogue/  @myvintagevogue

https://www.instagram.com/documentingfashion_courtauld/  @documentingfashion_courtauld

https://www.instagram.com/jacqwg/ @jacqwg

https://www.instagram.com/americanagefashion/ @americanagefashion

https://www.instagram.com/madameweigel.patterns/  @madameweigel.patterns

https://www.instagram.com/fashiontextilemuseum/ @fashiontextilemuseum

https://www.instagram.com/nyucostumestudies/ @nyucostumestudies

https://www.instagram.com/amberbutchart/ @amberbutchart

https://www.instagram.com/historyalamode/ @historyalamode

https://www.instagram.com/beecroftartgallerycostume/  @beecroftartgallerycostume

https://www.instagram.com/julenmorrasazpiazu/ @julenmorrasazpiazu

https://www.instagram.com/fidmmuseum/ @fidmmuseum

https://www.instagram.com/fashionhistorymuseum/ @fashionhistorymuseum

https://www.instagram.com/isabellabradfordauthor/ @isabellabradfordauthor

https://www.instagram.com/historicalgarments/ @historicalgarments

https://www.instagram.com/oliapresnyakova/ @oliapresnyakova

https://www.instagram.com/the_art_of_dress/ @the_art_of_dress

https://www.instagram.com/unl_historic_costume/  @unl_historic_costume

https://www.instagram.com/fox_historic_costume/  @fox_historic_costume

https://www.instagram.com/scadfash/ @scadfash

https://www.instagram.com/museumatfit/ @museumatfit

https://www.instagram.com/fitspecialcollections/ @fitspecialcollections

 

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