**This is a slightly modified re-post from my private blog; I originally wrote this in February 2013.**
"There's such beauty possible by human hand, passed down by mothers to their daughters, but now the world don't want it anymore." --Queenie, in Lark Rise to Candleford (the TV series!)
Ages ago I read an article in a magazine about a woman named Natalie Chanin. The article piqued my interest because she was from dear Ashley's hometown in Alabama, and Natalie Chanin had left her fashion-design career in New York City to return to her town and start Project Alabama. I loved the ethics behind the project.
Fast-forward many years. Now Ms. Chanin runs Alabama Chanin. She designs garments that are made from grown-in-the-USA organic cotton jersey and then handsewn by local women.
For my birthday last year (2012) I bought myself a Natalie Chanin book, and almost immediately dove into jersey. I made a bandana first, then a princess dress for my daughter for Halloween (I just made up the pattern), and then a heavily-beaded black headband. Finally after the Christmas busy-ness was over it was time to create a garment for myself!
First I cut out the pieces for the skirt: 4 pieces of this heavy jersey I'd purchased a couple of years ago, and 4 pieces from a black tee from Goodwill (that is actually a t-shirt from the film department of the university where I got my master's degree--love it). I attached the front fabric to the backing fabric with pins, then stenciled the "Bloomers" pattern (found in the book) onto it using black fabric paint. Then I set the paint with an iron. Then I stitched around each little leaf--in effect, quilting the skirt.
Then it was time to carefully snip out the inside of the leaves, revealing the black backing fabric underneath.
Then I got to sew up each seam by hand, and then fell the seams with a pretty little running stitch visible on the right side. (Some sizing adjustments had to be made--lots of nipping in at the waist!) After all that was done the waistband was finished with elastic fold-over tape and I owned the most comfortable skirt I have ever worn in my life.
I started it sometime in mid-to-late January and finished it before Valentine's Day--it took about 2-3 weeks of sewing at night--but not every night! While I sewed I watched episodes of Lark Rise to Candleford, so I'm calling it my Lark Rise Skirt.
Sewing by hand is so relaxing. There's an aggression to machine stitching that sometimes feels hard to handle--at night, when my family is asleep, I would rather curl up on the sofa. I found that I didn't mind that it took me a few weeks to make a four-gored skirt--which I could make by machine in 2 hours (without the embellishments!). In fact, I relished it. And I identified with Queenie, quoted above, when she mourned the fact that her bobbin lace was being replaced by machine-made lace.
Purely by coincidence during this same time frame I was reading Overdressed by Elizabeth Cline. I consider myself fairly well-versed on the outsourcing of textile and garment manufacturing but this thorough book drove home all the points that have nagged at my conscience for years. It's not just the abysmal working conditions of some garment workers across the globe, but it's the degradation of clothing construction. As one woman noted in the book "most people today are simply wearing rags, and they don't even know it." Clothing is no longer well-made. I remember a few years ago feeling absolute disgust when I found a hole in my son's pajamas after they were washed for the FIRST time. Last year I bought a dress online that was delivered to my house with a rip in the left side seam. Last month I bought leggings at TJ Maxx that developed holes after I wore them ONE time. (I've been darning them, as I darn socks, because I refuse to surrender!)
Instead of paying more money for a few well-made clothes, we are snatching up $5 tee shirts like the cost is low. The price is low. Thecost is extremely high. Cline discussed the environmental impact of our frenzied clothing consumption. Like many people I happily send items to Goodwill after I'm done with them, believing they will find a good home on someone else's body.
The truth is that even the thrift stores are overrun with 'cheap fashion'. Items that don't sell are bundled and sent to Africa, where they are re-sold there. But a huge quantity of clothing is refused there as well as not being wearable. And that turns into ugly waste.
I also had not thought much about the fabric content of my clothing. I knew that I preferred the natural fibers of linen, wool and cotton, but I never really thought about polyester or other man-made fabrics. Now I know that polyester is a non-biodegradable thermoplastic. Non-biodegradable!
Elizabeth Cline's book convicted me. Although almost every scrap of fabric my children wear is pre-owned (exceptions: tights, underwear), and I do my own fair share of thrift store shopping, I have internalized a moral imperative. I now view my clothing through a radically different lens. New clothing will be natural fibers *only* (possible exception: certain skivvies). I'm also going to give my clothing a little more respect--in other words, I'm going to be an even better steward. I already darn socks (multiple times!), sew on buttons, mend. But I'm going to be more careful about how I launder items to reduce wear-and-tear.
I love when my interests and passions intersect neatly and brilliantly all at one time: the ethics of clothing manufacturing, environmentalism, frugality (not to be confused with being cheap), sewing, the inter-generational aspect of handwork. Constructing my Lark Rise skirt has been a game-changer. Reading Overdressed was a paradigm-shifter.
Fortunately Alabama Chanin sells cotton jersey that is organically grown in the U.S.A. And fortunately I love sitting with a lap full of soft jersey in the quiet evening. Next up (after I finish knitting a wool cloche hat I'm working on now): another jersey skirt, embellished this time with vintage buttons inherited from my grandmother--and my husband wants me start watching Sherlock. The Sherlock skirt!