A small, sustainable wardrobe: we are the grown ups now

A series about the clothes we wear and the impact they have both on us and the world around us.

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My Sharpen Your Pencils dress as modelled by the gorgeous Ella. We got together for a photoshoot in the summer holidays, and she wowed me with how a  woman in her late teens or early twenties might style and wear my clothes. There are more photos to follow of both of us in the patterns. The dress pattern will be available in the coming months.

For some time now, I’ve been mulling over how to present my patterns within the wider context in which they are created. In the end, a series seems the best way forward: a weekly post about clothing and its impact both on us and the world around us.

I have always been interested in the wider world, the health of our planet, and the living conditions of its poorest inhabitants. You don’t grow up in a country like Tanzania in the 1980s and then turn a blind eye to issues like climate change, pollution, poverty, or human rights. Perhaps it seems odd – frivolous even – to approach these issues through the prism of the clothes we wear. Perhaps it is. But we all, without exception, clothe ourselves each day. And when you are conscious of your daily choices in one sphere, this consciousness spills over into other parts of your life, until before you know it, you are buying your loose leaf tea in an old ice cream tub and looking for a car share buddy.

I can distinctly remember learning about climate change at school. I was an early member of Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots – a global environmental organisation which started in Tanzania, educating and inspiring children from kindergarten through to university about the change that they can make to the planet and its people. I remember reading Douglas Adam’s wonderful Last Chance to See, and about the rate at which the rainforests were disappearing, and being taught about the importance of educating women in eradicating poverty. So we kids made our changes: we stopped buying aerosols, and ate less meat, and learned to recycle our waste.

And all the time, I trusted the grown ups to sort the big things out.

More than twenty years on, little has changed. If anything, the rate of destruction has increased. We are producing over 300 million tons of plastic every year. Girls all over the world – including developed countries – miss school every month because of lack of sanitary ware. Between 150 and 200 species go extinct every day. Governments make decisions which they know are harmful rather than helpful to the world and its inhabitants. Even Lovelock’s fantastically optimistic Gaia hypothesis has lost its nerve.

We could do nothing. We could weep and wail and feel powerless in the face of big corporations, big government, big natural disasters that heap still more misery onto human misery. Or we could simply accept that we are the grown ups now.

I have money in my pocket, and I can choose where to spend it. I have places to go, and I can choose how to get there. I have children, and I can choose what sort of a role model I wish to be for them. I have friends, and I can choose what to talk about with them. And I have a voice, here on this blog, that I can choose how to use.

Most recently, I had the choice of what to do with the time that has opened up to me as my children grow ever bigger. I put a lot of thought into what I wanted the legacy of this time to be. In the end, I decided to start a business selling dressmaking and knitwear patterns. How, you might think, is that a positive choice? How will that make a difference? How is that being a grown up?

I started making my own clothes when our children were small and, frankly, we had no money for adult clothes shopping. More pertinently, we had nothing like the money required to buy the ethically made garments I really wanted. So as well as shopping second hand and accepting hand-me-downs, I decided to teach myself to make them. Of course, there wasn’t spare cash for patterns either, so I borrowed a book from the library and tried to draft my own.

Over a decade later, I’ve learned a vast amount. Best of all, I’ve taken charge of the choices I make. Knitting and dressmaking can be as sustainable – or otherwise – as you make it. Churning out clothes that you don’t need or don’t even want is no better than going shopping every Saturday. If you are taking clothes to the charity shop, you are still consuming too much.

Instead, I’ve become fascinated by detail, by skill, by versatility and material. I demand a huge amount of my clothes: that they be warm or cool or cross-seasonal, that they be comfortable, that they be attractive, that they fit into a reasonably compatible colour palette, that they have the sort of details that make them not just good enough, but exactly as I want them. One of the things that delighted me most about the reception of my Snow Day jumper was the number of people who commented on the little details. I added an uneven hem because it looks good and keeps my lower back warm. I added a very wide boat neck because I wanted a jumper that was both a little bit sexy but also cosy. The sleeves are ribbed to make them extra warm, because I feel the cold. And these details matter because that is my only jumper. I don’t have another jumper in my wardrobe. It needs to work hard.

In my wardrobe there is a fairly stable number of items, though of course it fluctuates a little. At the moment I have three pairs of shoes, three coats or jackets, one jumper and two cardigans, three dresses, three tops and four bottoms. Actually, I only have two bottoms, because I’m waiting to test the printed version of a couple of patterns. But there will be four, soon. I make my clothes exactly the way I want them, and then I wear them over and over again. Eventually they wear out, and I cut them up and make them into other things: quilts and potholders and so on, to give as gifts or use around the house. It works out that I generally need to replace one of each category each year. That means that I make one new knit, one dress, one top and one or two bottoms a year. I buy new shoes, coats and underwear as I need them, usually secondhand or from ethical companies.

Of course, having a tiny wardrobe isn’t going to save the world. But it was one of my first steps to making a significant difference. And I do believe that I make a significant difference. Every time I refuse to buy wrapped cheese, every time I log onto The Life You Can Save, every time I get on a train instead of an airplane. Spending less on shopping means that I have more money to donate or spend with trusted companies. Making my own clothes, and making them precisely as I want them, ironically means that I spend less time thinking about my clothes and more time thinking about things that matter. Each night I put away the few things that have needed to be washed. Each morning I put on whatever is clean and suitable for the demands of the day. I might wear the same things over and over again, but I couldn’t care less. I love all of my clothes and feel fabulous in them.

If you wanted to, you could work through all the patterns with me and, at the end of three years, we’d have sibling wardrobes. In different colours, no doubt, and different patterns and materials, but essentially the same. That would be fun. Equally, I’d be happy if people made just one of my patterns, so that they had that one great dress, or sweater, or pair of socks, and stopped buying more and more and more. Because the world just can’t take it any longer.

In my messy, imperfect life, making my own clothes is one of many things that I do to try to make a difference. I make mistakes all the time (though not in my patterns, I hope!), but I keep on trying. The internet is full of inspirational people sharing their personal passions. This is my offering: make the world the way you want it to be, from the clothes on your back to the cares in your head. Be conscious. Most of all, know that the choices you make do matter. We might not all be politicians or aid workers or company bosses. But we are the grown ups now.

Madeleine

Do you buy lots of clothes, in the search for the ‘perfect’ this or that? Do you make any of your own? What would your ideal wardrobe look like, in order to work for you and the world around you?

11 thoughts on “A small, sustainable wardrobe: we are the grown ups now”

  1. Such a thoughtful and articulate post on a serious subject. I have spent many of my adult years looking for those elusive clothes that tick all the boxes: fit well, last well, and make me feel happy wearing them. Almost every tee shirt I have purchased in the past ten years gets little holes in them after washing. I rarely dry my clothes in a tumble dryer so that they last longer. It is only in the past two years that I have come close to a wardrobe that I love, mostly because I am strict with myself in choosing silhouettes, fabrics, and colors that suit me. I look forward to buying your patterns and learning to adapt them to my needs. With all the dire warnings about our planet’s sustainable future, the world of fashion is a perfect place to start making a difference.

    1. Thank you. It sounds as though you’ve put a lot of thought into this, too. We don’t have a tumble dryer, so I don’t know how much more quickly that would make my clothes wear out, but that sounds like an excellent step towards taking care of the clothes you have. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you say that you are strict with yourself. I am too – about thinking before I purchase fabrics or ready-made clothes (new or second-hand), and then wearing what I make or buy. Knowing what you really like is key. I love that you mention adapting my patterns to your needs. You must let me know how you get on!

  2. Fabulous post–I love these thoughts. I make my own clothes because I want to downshift, and I can’t find things in the shops that fit me well or will last long. If I buy ready-to-wear, I try very hard to get it second hand at least. I also do the Project 333 rotation, which forces me to think about what I have, why I have it, and what is taking up space. I like that you’ve detailed what you have in your closet here in specific pieces and numbers. I always find the numbers to be tricky–how many tops is enough? (The only thing I would say about small wardrobes is that they are a little dependent on a climate that doesn’t change a lot through the year. I happen to live in a place that goes from 100+F in summer to well below zero in winter, and my clothes have to accommodate that. I don’t drive very much (mostly walking or public transit) so I can’t dress the same year round and be comfortable.

    I will say, I’ve not nailed it yet, and at least some of this is because my shape has changed a lot over the past eleven years (having five babies in six years’ time is murder on the body). But I continue to think about it, to try to be mindful of what I buy, and why, whether it will last, whether it goes with lots of other things and makes me feel good wearing it. I mostly don’t wear synthetics anymore, in part because they don’t feel good on my body, but also because I don’t like that they are essentially plastic bottles that will never break down, no matter what I do with them after I’ve finished wearing them. Synthetics don’t last as long as natural fibers, and tend to look shabby quicker. (And are more difficult to repair in my experience).

    1. Thanks Juliana – you’ve raised loads of really interesting points. Like you, I avoid synthetics when I can and buy them second hand where possible. I especially avoid them in things that need regular laundering (because of microplastics pollution) – but don’t get me started on acrylic school uniforms. We do our best.

      Numbers are an interesting one because of the factors you mention – pregnancy, climate – as well as how often you work outside the home, whether you wear a uniform and so on. More importantly, I think that we have a sense of how many clothes we are personally comfortable with. I’m happiest with the numbers above, but I know they wouldn’t be right for everyone. I do know, though, that my number has dropped the better my clothes have got. They all fit, are carefully designed and are kept in good repair.
      By the way, I was impressed by your recent skirt makeovers – that’s just the sort of thing we’re talking about!

  3. Thank you for this really thoughtful and thought provoking post, especially in the wake of the news report this week concerning the increasing volume of clothing that we are throwing away.

    1. Absolutely – and I’m looking forward to catching up with the Stacey Dooley documentary on iPlayer very soon. The BBC says we are buying 26.7 kilos of new clothing per capita each year in the UK – that’s more than a suitcase weighs. And three in five garments are thrown away within a year of purchase – they can’t possibly be worn out. Statistics like that can be so disheartening, until you consider how much lower those numbers are because a significant minority are consuming far less than the average.

  4. Like you, I remember lobbying the ‘grown-ups’ to ban CFCs and save the rainforests. Now we’re the grown-ups. Although I didn’t become prime minister – as I once dreamed – we grown-ups can take action to save the planet. Thanks for an important, inspirational and timely reminder that the world is made by our choices. One of those should be to move away from disposable fast fashion. It’s so wasteful of the planet’s resources.

    1. Thanks, Jo. Fast fashion really is a disaster for the planet – from the natural resources it uses, unecessary use of synthetics, exploitation of people in fields and factories, transportation, donation of far more garments than can ever be used, and the damage done to local textiles industries when fast fashion discards are shipped in and flood the market. And you’re right: it’s only one of many choices that we can – and do – make. Thank goodness there are so many like-minded people making a difference.

  5. Thank you for this! I have been more aware of my wardrobe, what I have, what I actually wear, what I want. I want to start making my clothes. I especially need pants that I like. I have never been one to wear dresses, unless the occasion calls for it. I can get things done in pants. I have made dresses, tops, and skirts, even yoga pants….but never pants that are more tailored. I am a bit nervous about trying that, for some reason. I will keep my fingers crossed for something like this from you in the future. 😉

    1. Hi Susanne, lovely to hear from you. I have a lovely pattern for peg trousers (pants) that are aimed at newer dressmakers. I’ve been wearing a chambray pair all summer and am going to make a winter pair in chocolate-cloloured wool very soon. They are smart but comfy and can be dressed up or down. I’ll post a photo soon, in this series, and am planning to launch the pattern in January as a new year make-a-long. Maybe they’ll be the thing for you!

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