A small, sustainable wardrobe: dressing up

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

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As you are probably aware, it’s World Book Day next week. Fliss has been planning her costume for months – literally: since last October. And sometime between then and now, I made the promise to help her make an 1840s dress from scratch.

Now, before you start thinking that I am one of those mums who spends days planning and making her children’s fancy dress costumes, can I assure you that that is most certainly not the case. My children are more likely to be pointed towards the recycling bin and told to sort themselves out than have much input from me. Partly this is because I have had years of dressing up days to contend with, but it’s more down to the fact that dressing up days are, in my opinion, all about giving children the chance to flex their imaginations and creative minds and come up with something all by themselves. I flatly refuse to buy or hire costumes for them – don’t have a look at statistics on the number of costumes that get sent to landfill each November if you’re of a sensitive disposition – because it is the most ridiculously wasteful way to approach the issue. Added to the fact that it doesn’t stretch the children at all, it sets my teeth on edge.

Why, then, did I promise to help Fliss sew an 1840s dress? Well, we started with something reused and upcycled – a charity shop sheet that had already served as a spookily enormous cloak last autumn. But more than that, I was swayed by her utter devotion to the project. She has spent ages poring over Victorian costuming books, fashion plates and illustrations in her own copies of classic novels. She’s begged me to watch the Dressing up as a … videos by Prior Attire, in order to understand all the different layers. And, in truth, it’s an area that I’ve wanted to dip my toe into for a while now. There are many incredible creators of authentic (and not-so-authentic) historical dress out there that it’s a rabbit hole easily tumbled down, I can tell you.

Our dress falls very definitely into the not-so-authentic category. For starters, we used a polycotton sheet, because pure cotton sheets are hard to come by in the charity shops around here. We didn’t have the time, inclination or fabric to make copious numbers of petticoats to support her skirts. And of course she doesn’t own a corset – not that she needs one! Instead, we dug out a 1950s style net underskirt that was in the dressing up drawer (full of ghosts of costumes past, and heavily drawn upon) and layered her ballet character skirt on top.

The deal was that I would make the bodice while she made the skirt, and that we had from exactly 10am until 4pm to get it done. (Otherwise I could have spent days on this, and I have other things to do this half term.) This was a fast, furious and not particularly careful sew. I took the speedier, electric machine and she took the 1916 Singer, which she prefers anyway. We simplified the skirt, deciding upon a simple elastic waisted one instead of making cartridge pleats and then fixing it to the bodice – her ‘dress’ is actually a skirt and top. I wanted her to be able to make it quickly and easily and all by herself, which she managed with aplomb.

Thanks to York libraries we had access to a fabulous book, and this is the earliest of all the Victorian projects in it. And while we took shortcuts with the skirts, I am proud to say that I constructed the bodice authentically. The only things I changed were not lining it (to save fabric) and bias binding the neckline (because I ran out of piping). My favourite thing about this dress, apart from how wonderfully Victorian she looks in it, is how Victorian the bodice looks laid open, with all the seams in the right places, and not a dart in sight.

The pattern was surprisingly easy to draft. Because Fliss is still significantly smaller than the adult size given in the book, I scaled it down using not much more than common sense and intuition – not something I’d do were I making her a modern blouse. But that’s the thing about Victorian patterns – to my limited knowledge, anyway. They were made to be taken in and let out, adjusted as they changed owners and body shapes. The seams are left exposed and unfinished for a reason – and you can change the fit of the garment quite easily. I fitted the bodice on Fliss while we worked, pinning it into place and then sewing. The shawl front, which is actually a whole second layer on top of a fitted bodice, is simply attached at the neckline and pleated before the top and bottom edges are finished. The sleeves are set so low that they are actually identical. In modern garments, there’s always a left and a right sleeve, to allow for more fabric (and ease of movement) at the back of each shoulder. Not so in this outfit. And so the sleeves were the easiest I’ve ever set in. Finally, I pinned the back together so that it fitted nicely, folded back the excess fabric and sewed on a row of hooks and eyes. I didn’t trim any fabric, so that she can let it out as she grows. I know I’d want to, if my mum and I had made a Jane Eyre costume together.

Much as I’d like to show you a photo of the full effect, head included, I don’t put pictures of my children online, so you’ll have to make do with some headless Victorians instead. Think of her as the friendly household ghost. I can, however, show you the back of her practice hairdo:

which really completes the look.

Most of the time I groan when the children tell me about yet another dressing up day, but this was even more of a delight to make than I had anticipated. I think we might have sown the seeds of a new passion, for me if not for her. I can see myself making another such outfit, by hand, in natural materials, from the inside out. Practising my skills by cording petticoats before moving on to embroidering a shift, knitting some stockings, and maybe even constructing a pair of stays. Who knows if I’ll ever make the time. I’ll certainly keep reading about it.

And, from the reception that her Jane Eyre dress has had, I expect that Fliss will be wearing it to dress up whenever the occasion allows. Who knows, it might even go into a box when she heads off to university one day. Surely that amount of wear would make it a very sustainable costume. Which makes me very happy indeed.

Madeleine

What have you been sewing lately? Anything fun?

Please forgive the grainy phone photos! I ran out of steam after all that speedy sewing, and was too busy in the garden to take proper photos the following day…

Habits, old and new

In February, more than any other time of year, I find myself relying on old habits. Good ones, to keep life running smoothly. They might be easy – grabbing a jar of soup from the freezer as I head out the door to work – or require a bit more effort (my Tuesday night swim definitely fell into that category this week), but habits really do work.

Thankfully, new habits are relatively easy to create, one at a time. I tend to throw one in every few weeks, just for fun. This week was the week of starting to eat a salad for lunch every day, on top of my usual mid-morning soup. It’s only been three days and already I’m planning my next batch. And loathe as I am to join in with food trends, I have to admit that jarred salads are pure genius. I’m making them three at a time and the third was as fresh and appealing as the first. I just grab a jar from the fridge as well as the freezer on my way out the door now.

Like all families, we tend to let things slip a bit when life gets busy, and our children asked John and I whether we might revamp our plastic-free efforts a bit. I was all too happy to agree – some plastic has begun to creep back into our shopping – and we had a look through our bin to see what the culprits were. It turned out that it was mainly the odd unusual purchase – and lots of plastic from food that friends gave us when they emptied their fridge before a recent holiday. While there are a few things that we’ve reverted to buying in plastic (for instance our toothy-tab supplier ran out for a while, so we’ve been back on tubes of toothpaste), for the most part habits have kept our bin slim. Neither John or I would think of heading to the shops without our shopping kits in tow, and really, it is no extra effort at all. So we’ve just made a list of plastic-free goods we need to replenish to avoid some packaging we have fallen back into buying, and that’s about all we plan to do for now.

It goes without saying that I do have some bad habits – drinking endless cups of tea is one I’m tackling at the moment. There’s nothing wrong with the odd cup of tea, but from time to time I find myself drinking nothing but the black, caffeinated variety all day, which can’t be good for me. So far, I’ve cut it down to two cups a day, and I’m finding myself ready for bed a little earlier with each missing cup. Seriously, I’m sleeping like a baby at the moment, and this is from someone who normally sleeps well. Who knew it was having such big effect?

Then there are habits that are good for the environment but not always so good for me, like not buying flowers any more. In the summer, this doesn’t matter as I grow my own, but in the winter I rely on the odd flowering pot plant. Well, this week I have been doubly blessed by a bunch of alstroemerias regifted by those same holiday-going friends, and the most gloriously bright bunch of tulips as a thank you from another friend. What a joy it is to have flowers in the house again. They make me smile every time I see them.

What’s more, they’ve got me thinking about my own garden again, and those bulb lasagnas I planted in the autumn. I wonder how they’re doing? I must pop out and check on them, as well as the other things under cover, and give them all a drink. Soon enough it’ll be time to get back into the habit of watering them every few days and pulling weeds when I get in from work. That’s the lovely things about habits in a temperate climate: they shift with the sun. Nothing lasts for ever – not the winter and its challenges, nor the habits we build to survive it – and that’s just the way it should be.

Madeleine

Have you been trying out any new habits recently? I’d love to know – and maybe try them for myself!

A small, sustainable wardrobe: in the middle (and an announcement)

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

Thanks once again to Ella for being my stylist and model this summer – I’ve included a few more of her gorgeous photos in this post.

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I’ll start today with a little announcement. Come the new year, I will be working outside the home rather more hours than I have been of late. Between my outside-the-home job and my patterns, I will easily be working full time. This has, of course, caused quite a lot of head-scratching about how exactly I’m going to fit everything in, and while some things are not yet decided (do I plant a vegetable garden this year? refuse all fleeces?), other things are. One change that I will have to make is in the frequency of my blogging. From January I’ll be writing just one post a week here, plus any tutorials for patterns that running. I am, however, determined to bring out the patterns that I have been working on, so watch out for six new ones to appear between now and the end of the academic year.

One of the other things that crossed my mind was what I was going to wear on these extra days at work. After all, I am increasing my days quite considerably, and don’t have the most enormous wardrobe in the world. For a moment, I did consider getting my sewing machine out and making a few extra items, but then sanity kicked in and I remembered how much I needed to get done over the past few weeks in order to keep those patterns coming out. So instead I had a rummage in my wardrobe and realised that I already had more than enough.

The thing is, most of my clothes are neither terribly smart nor terribly casual. The vast majority fall somewhere in the middle. And while this may seem to be a stroke of luck, I had actually planned it this way. Apart from a smart dress:

my cocktail dress:

some very scratty trousers:

a t-shirt that I embroidered for myself:

and most of my knits:

all of my clothes can be dressed up or down pretty easily.

Of course, I didn’t think this up for myself. There was a time when I had two parallel wardrobes: one for work and one for home. But over the past few years, as the amount I’ve worked outside the home has gone up and down, and as I’ve got a bit older and wanted to look presentable more of the time, I’ve moved towards having a more versatile set of clothes.

Put simply, this means that I need fewer clothes. It means that, when life takes an unexpected turn, I am at least able to dress for the occasion. It means less shopping, which means less waste. And it means that I have learned some rookie styling skills at long last.

To make a small wardrobe full of in-the-middle clothes work, you need to either be interested in putting outfits together on a daily basis (no thank you) or just spend a couple of hours putting together and photographing a load of outfits, right down to the jewellery and tights. I did this in the spring, and have to confess that it was a revelation. My already versatile wardrobe went from being okay to being really quite nice, thanks to a bit of forward planning. I have neither the time or the inclination to put outfits together on a daily basis. But knowing that I could just choose the next appropriate outfit on my list made me reasonably well-dressed with minimal effort, which is always a win in my book.

There are countless books and blogs about how to dress things up and down, and you probably know more about it than I do, anyway. So really, all this post is saying is this: the next time you add something to your wardrobe, think about where it sits on the smart/ casual spectrum. The higher proportion of your clothes that sit in the middle, the smaller your wardrobe can be.

For the curious, I’ve got six outfits lined up, put together from that dress:

and another off the peg dress from People Tree, and a couple of blouses:

plus my A-Line skirt:

and my new trousers, which I did make last week, and which I can’t wait to share with you. Here is the summer version, to tide you over until I can show you the woollen ones:

plus my heels and some leather flats and a cardigan and a scarf. Job done, sans shopping. Phew.

Ironically, I am now off into town to see if I can find a denim skirt in any of the charity shops, because I’m going to end up needing all my in-the-middle clothes for work and have nothing left to wear at home except those mended chinos and Seb’s tracksuit bottoms again. Perhaps I should take my own advice and buy something more versatile… but then again, rules are made to be broken.

Madeleine

Do you have separate work and home (and going out) wardrobes, or lots of overlap? What works best for you?

A small, sustainable wardrobe: everyday mending

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

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The very first thing I did today was mend a pair of trousers. I have a pair of chinos from a well known high-street store that I have worn and worn and worn over the last couple of years, and as a result I have worn a couple of holes right through the fabric by the back pockets. They are pretty baggy and saggy and out of shape. The fabric is fraying all along the waistband, pocket edges, and anywhere else that it possibly can. I could quite legitimately stick them in the rag recycling bag, except that they are now the most buttery-soft, not-in-the-least-bit-fussy, I-don’t-care-if-I-get-them-dirty trousers in the world. There’s room for them in my wardrobe yet.

The reason they were finally mended today was that I wanted to add them to a lights wash, and as anyone with experience of such things will tell you, adding things with holes to a washing machine is a recipe for disaster. Your little holes will grow. Sometimes they even turn into huge, unmendable rips. It was time for a quick fix.

Mending is one of those things that a lot of people just don’t do any more. It’s seen as fiddly, and difficult. There’s still some sort of myth that mends need to be either pretty (think Liberty patches) or invisible. So it’s no wonder that those of us who do intend to mend end up with a basket full, waiting for several hours of our attention.

In the real world, mends need to be quick and functional. If this had been a dropped dress hem or a snag in a pair of expensive woollen tights, I would have taken more time over a bit of handsewing. But these trousers are not going to be worn anywhere fancier than around the house, in the garden, or to the shops. I don’t care if people can see that I’ve stitched them up. In fact, I rather hope they do, and that it encourages them to do the same.

This particular job took less than the time it takes to make a cup of tea. I threaded my machine, set it to a narrow zigzag stitch and ran  over both holes a few times.

I didn’t even bother to change the thread on my bobbin: no-one is going to see the inside anyway.

People of a certain generation tend to mend their clothes because they were taught to do so as children. Most of us don’t. For some people, mended clothes feel like poverty, and I understand that. But for the rest of us, mending is a choice, and it is one that we really ought to take. A new pair of cotton chinos costs much more than £30 or £40. A quick search throws up all sorts of figures for water usage in the production of a single pair of jeans – any where from 3,781 to 11,000 litres. Whichever figure you choose, that’s an awful lot of water. Cotton chinos will have a similarly outrageous wet footprint. These weren’t organic cotton either. Cotton is the most pesticide-hungry of all major agricultural crops, and I’d like to get as much use as I can out of these to make up for the havoc they have already wreaked. The last thing I want to do is go out and buy another pair to do the gardening in.

The truth is that I won’t be wearing these to work or out to dinner. I do now have a reasonably-smart-and-warm trouser-shaped hole in my wardrobe. But these will serve beautifully as a way of keeping a new pair clean and smart for much longer than if I chucked these and went out and bought a new pair to wear for everything from cleaning my bike to public speaking at work. After all, that’s what people used to do with their clothes: keep old, mended ones for everyday, and enjoy something new as their Sunday best. No ordinary person would have dreamed of going out and buying something  new to dig the garden in.

I like to mend things as they need it, rather than letting it grow into an intimidating pile. Mostly it’s a quick fix – I’ve been known to use duck tape to keep old slippers going – but I do take my time occasionally. As a rule, though, no mending job should take more than ten minutes, which isn’t much to give in return for a freshly functional garment. You don’t need much in the way of skill, or even a sewing machine. Everyone should be able to sew on a button, pick up a hem and whipstitch a rip, in my opinion. It’s as much a life skill as being able to cook a meal, or change a tyre.

There has been a surge of interest in mending lately, with the most beautiful visible mends all over the internet. Some of them are truly gorgeous: sashiko stitching, fussy-cut patches, floral embroidery over holes. Visible mending is a rabbit hole that I could very happily fall down, given the time. Mostly though, I’m sticking to the fast and furious everyday mends that just keep everything ticking over. Five minutes, and the job is done, and I can get started on the washing.

Madeleine

Do you mend your clothes? Are you skilled at it, or do you take the fast route, or (like me) do you use a mixture of the two approaches?

Trying for a lower-waste Christmas

Having been trying really hard to reduce our consumption of plastic this year, it goes without saying that we’re trying to have a lower waste Christmas. We don’t tend to produce much more rubbish than usual over the holiday, but there are some improvements that can be made. Having said that, I’m not going to announce a plastic-free or zero waste Christmas around here, because that simply isn’t going to happen. So, as usual, I am counting every bit of plastic avoided as a little win.

One area that we don’t have any control over is how friends and relatives wrap presents for our children. Some of them are very like us and reuse paper and ribbons, which makes life easy. Others use plastic or ‘foil’ wrapping paper and copious sellotape. Things come in shiny (read: plastic) gift bags, and cards come with more ‘foil’ (plastic again) or glitter (yes, more plastic) which render them unrecyclable.

I can’t actually remember the last time we bought any proper wrapping paper, because for over a decade we’ve been cutting off the tape, smoothing it all out and reusing it. We deal with the plastic paper by reusing it the following year. Cards – whether plasticky or not – are cut up to make labels and the remnants recycled. Envelopes are opened up and added to our scrap paper ‘notebook’ (a pile of paper held together by a bulldog clip) and we often give gift bags to the local charity shop to sell again next Christmas.

Our own presents – those that will be unwrapped in the house – are usually ‘wrapped’ in a (reused) cloth gift bag or a (again reused) pretty box tied up with a ribbon. I keep good bags and boxes when we are given them, and you don’t need many. I don’t use tape unless I’ve run out of ribbons, and when we do, it’s the paper stuff. When there’s nothing big enough, plain brown recycled paper (which we found in red last year) does the job, and can easily be rolled up and used again. And thankfully Father Christmas is most obliging, wrapping everything in either newspaper or scraps of wrapping paper too small to be of other use, and because it’s all plastic-free it becomes ready-scrunched tinder for the stoves.

Perhaps this might sound Scrooge-like, saving paper from one year to the next, but to tell the truth I rather like it. It’s much more creative, finding ways to make everyone’s present look pretty without just turning to the latest shiny offering from WHSmiths. Sometimes the children like to potato-print the brown paper packages, sometimes we attach pine-cones and the like to ribbons. I’ve some rather nice two-coloured handspun that I’m going to use, left over from a project, on people who I know will use it again. And there’s always a medley of colours and patterns under our tree.

Filling the advent calendars took a little thought, because I have used plastic-wrapped sweets and chocolates until this year. I made the children’s calendars years ago, and they were one of my very first crafting projects. I sketched out the scenes, worked out a colour scheme and set to work doing some simple embroidery and appliqué. They are far from perfect, and no doubt I’d do a better job now, but the children love them and that’s all that matters.

I toyed with the idea of unwrapped sweets, but they would make the pockets sticky and I don’t want to wash these. In the end, we visited one of the lovely traditional sweet shops in central York, where the woman was incredibly helpful in making sure that I’d have at least the 72 sweets I needed. Then Seb and Ilse spent a happy afternoon wrapping them in scrap paper and stuffing them into the pockets. Before you ask, they always fill their own calendars. They like to put their favourite sweets into special days, and love the whole process.

Christmas cards are not something we’ve ever really got into, and we have no intention of starting now. But there are certain relatives who we do give them to, so a pack of ten is ample. We like to buy them from Oxfam, and I was pleased to find this almost plastic-free pack there. (It has a pointless velcro tab holding it closed.) There’s a hare on five of them…

and a partridge on the others.

Needless to say I’ll be cutting up the cardboard case itself and using it as a couple of postcards.

Food is another thing that won’t really change: we buy most of our Christmas lunch direct from the market stalls and little local shops that we buy from week in, week out. Our butcher will have an unwrapped bird ready for us. The greengrocer will have everything unwrapped, as usual, on his stall. Milk comes from the milkman, and I’ll add a couple of reused glass bottles of juice to our order, for the children. And there are a few glass bottles of frozen elderberry cordial waiting to be paired with some sparkling water from the sodastream. I just need to make sure that the prossecco comes with real corks…

Everyone in our house gets a handmade gift from me, which is pretty low waste, given that I’ve got plans for a tea cosy and some wrist warmers from the leftover yarn. Ilse, Ben and Fliss’s knits are almost done (the hats still need bobbles), and I’m casting on Seb’s later today. I won’t post about John’s here, because he sometimes reads the blog, and Mother and Father’s are going to remain tip top secret. But the children know about their hats, as they no longer all go to bed early enough for secret knitting to take place.

Which brings me to the biggest change we’ve made this Christmas: shopping locally. In previous years we’ve done a mixture of local and online shopping. This year, we’ve enjoyed going into York and getting it all done in just a couple of focused outings. If you take your own bags and choose wisely, it can be virtually waste-free. There have been just a couple of things that I’ve not been able to find in the shops, but I’ve made sure to request minimal plastic, and it hasn’t been too bad.

We took the children into town late on Saturday afternoon, to see the lights and do their little bit of shopping. If you’ve ever been to York in December, you’ll know that it gets absolutely packed, with coach loads of tourists bussed in to enjoy the medieval shambles and independent shops. York feels very Dickensian in the winter, and I can see why people love it. After a while though, the crowds all got a bit much, so we went for a stroll through the deserted Minster Gardens. The stained glass of the minster was glowing, and coming out on the far side of the park, the Treasurer’s House was all lit up for Christmas.

We popped into a favourite little Italian for supper, and it was lovely, sitting there in the noise and the bustle, the last of the shopping at our feet, getting warm and cosy in the ancient heart of the city. Of all the changes we could be making, this must by far be the most pleasant.

I know that we could make even less waste by avoiding Christmas altogether, but we’re not going to do that. Instead, we’re just being that little bit more careful. Over the years we’ve become increasingly conscious of how we celebrate, and to my mind, little shifts made over many years are more effective than one big gesture. Nothing feels painful, the changes are sustainable.

No doubt we’ll do something else differently next year, and then again in the future when the children have all grown up. But for now, this is how we’re trying to have a lower-waste Christmas, and still celebrate the occasion.

Madeleine

Are you trying to reduce your waste/ consumption this Christmas? How are you doing it? I’d love any hints and tips…

A small, sustainable wardrobe: toiletries

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

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When I was packing for our trip to Derbyshire, I realised that all I needed to do in terms of toiletries was empty my shelf of the bathroom cabinet into my toilet bag, add a clean muslin face cloth, and I was done.

I think this was the first time that I didn’t have the odd thing to leave behind, and I put that down entirely to the effort I’ve been making to use fewer disposable plastics. There were no cotton wool pads to count out, no big bottles of shampoo to decant into something smaller, no opaque canisters of dental floss to shake and wonder at their contents. For the first time ever, I just put everything in my little bag and went.

Now, it won’t take a genius to work out that I am not a connoisseur of beauty counters. I have never been interested in spending my time and money on that sort of thing, and that’s unlikely to change now. I am quite happy to go barefaced much of the time, and when I do wear make-up I don’t wear much. But I do like to be clean, care for my hair properly, look after my teeth, and look reasonably well presented when I’m at work or socialising. And, because I love reading this sort of post on other people’s blogs, I thought I’d include it here in the spirit of sharing solutions to some of the tricker challenges I’ve come up against in creating a smaller, more sustainable set of toiletries. Without further ado, this is what is currently on my bathroom shelf, from top to bottom, left to right.

Everyone needs a toothbrush. I need a bamboo one, and will be asking a certain someone if they might pop one in my stocking. I’ve never used an electric toothbrush and I’ve never had a single cavity, so I’m going to stick with what works for me.

A little jar of homemade balm serves lots of purposes. I use mine on my face (especially before bed), but also on the ends of my hair (and any flyaway bits), and any dry bits on my hands, elbows and so forth. It’s also a great lip balm. This one is scented with lavender, but I’m going to make some more next weekend in wintry scents.

A lone remaining toothpaste tablet. We switched to these this summer, when I finally found them with fluoride (controversial, I know, but that’s our decision). I buy 240 at a time and we keep them in a little jar, as it stops them getting damp in a steamy bathroom. They are such an easy plastic-free swap, and we all like them.

Dental floss. This comes in a little glass jar with a metal lid, and refills come in cardboard. It’s made of silk, so I can put it straight into our bathroom bin after use. (Our bathroom bin is lined with newspaper and goes straight onto the compost heap.)

A wooden comb – I’ve had this for years and only ever use wide-toothed combs as I have curls.

Solid conditioner. Again, I have curls. At a recent party a man (who I later found out was a hairdresser, and not just odd) started talking to me about my hair and how I look after it. He advocated conditioner-only washing, which made me happy because that’s exactly what I’ve been doing for a couple of years. That bar had been on the go for nearly four months – they are a bit pricey but they do last.

An old lip balm tin with one remaining pill in it. My prescription tablets (nothing alarming, but essential) do come in a plastic blister pack. I can’t do anything about this. I decant them, a week at a time, into this tin, so I know that I’ve taken the right amount.

Foundation/ concealer. I don’t really want to name brands here, but let me just say that I’ve finally changed my foundation after a very long time and this stuff is amazing. It’s also plastic-free, completely natural and very moisturising. I am a convert. (And if you really want to know what it is, ask in the comments.)

Mascara, from pre-plastic-reducing days. This is on its last legs. I’m holding out until Christmas for a tin of eyeliner/ mascara and a double ended mascara/ eyeliner brush that I found on Etsy. I’ll let you know how I get on with them.

Nail scissors.

That white thing is a crystal deodorant. They last for years and years.

A muslin face cloth. I have a few which came free with various natural beauty products. They are gentler on the face than a normal flannel (which I’ve just realised I should also have included in this photograph.)

Lip balm. Like the mascara, this is from my pre-plastic-reducing days, and is nearly empty. I’m hoping it’ll last until Christmas, because I have politely requested a pot of lip and cheek colour/ moisture from the same company as the foundation.

Eyeliner. Once again, this is pre-plastic-reduction. It’s been sharpened since then, so I really hope I get that tin of kohl for Christmas…

That’s it. There is of course a box of shared/ rarely used things in the cupboard – hairdressing scissors (my sister trims my hair and that of the girls), a tin of sunblock left over from the summer, some basic medical supplies – you get the picture. Please don’t go away thinking that I am a paragon of plastic-free living, because I can assure you that I am not. There is still far too much waste generated in this house for my liking. But we all do as well as we can, for now, and have certainly reduced our consumption of single-use plastics considerably. And if you’re questioning whether toiletries are part of a wardrobe, I think they are. After all, they are part of what we use on a daily basis to present ourselves in our preferred ways. I really like the simplicity of my collection, but am not averse to raiding the kitchen cabinets to make up a face mask or a hot oil hair treatment. I’ve never got into painting my nails, or wearing eyeshadow, which keeps things simpler. But simple needn’t mean austere – I’ve discovered some really lovely new products since July and have all sorts of sustainable smellies in mind for my kids for Christmas. If anything, this part of my wardrobe has pushed me further out of my comfort zone than any other, and that’s always a good thing.

Madeleine

What does your toiletry collection look like? Have you been trying to use natural/ plastic-free products, or given up on any conventional ones? Any tips would be gratefully received!

A small, sustainable wardrobe: just the right amount

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

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Before writing this post, I ran upstairs and took a quick photo of my side of the wardrobe.

Now, I am well aware that most people would consider it to be a little… empty. To be honest, sometimes I open it and think Goodness, is that all? But my surprise doesn’t stem from a feeling of scarcity. On the contrary, it comes from an ingrained suspicion that just the right amount shouldn’t look so sparse.

A combination of marketing, media and social norms makes us think that we ought to have full and varied wardrobes. That we need a selection of tops, a selection of bags, a selection of cashmere sweaters. Of course, as soon as you stop and think about it, you realise that we don’t need this sort of variety. We might want it, but we don’t need it.

Sometimes, though, we don’t even want it.

As a twenty-something, trying to put together what I thought was an adult wardrobe, I felt swamped by the sheer quantity of items in my fairly modest collection. In my early thirties, minimalist guidelines felt rigid and dull. Over the past few years, I’ve given up caring about how many things I have. Sometimes I add an extra couple of items, sometimes I pare it right back. I go with my gut and make only the clothes that I know I will love wearing. Even though the quantity is loose and undefined, I always know when I have just the right amount of clothes, and I suspect that you do, too.

The fact is that I love designing clothes. I love knitting or sewing or embroidering them, and watching them come to life in my hands. I love making things fit properly, and choosing colours, and learning about historical dress. I love dreaming up collections that work well together.

I do not love getting dressed. I do not love having a surfeit of choices. On an average day, I have other things that I would far rather think about than which top goes with which pair of trousers. You might find that fun, but I don’t. I want to have a couple of clean, practical options for the day ahead. I want to know that I’ll wear all my clothes out while they are still my favourites. I want to know that I will look reasonably well turned out with minimum effort.

I don’t think that sustainability need involve clearing out of much-loved clothes, just to chase a smaller number, because people will only go out and buy more to replace what they’ve discarded. If you find that the twenty-three tops that you own are just right, then the twenty-three tops that you own are just right. It’s mad to throw half of them out, feel unhappy about the lack of choice, and gradually refill your wardrobe. If you really want to want a smaller wardrobe, get there slowly. After all, you’ve already acquired all those items. If they bring you pleasure and stop you shopping, they are serving a valuable purpose.

Most of us are lucky enough to have wardrobes as full – if not fuller – than we want. If we want to dress sustainably, we need to make sure that we are conscious of our consumption. That when we do buy more, we buy from sources that we know and trust. That we stop to ask ourselves whether a purchase really is going to be worn again and again. That we aren’t shopping out of habit, or making for the sake of making. Given this approach, most wardrobes will naturally shrink over time.

On a purely personal level, much of my pleasure in my little wardrobe comes from the fact that I just don’t care about whether I conform to those particular social norms any more. I care about my family, my friends, my hobbies, my work, the wider world. After all, a wardrobe is only clothes. For those of us lucky enough to have all we need, there are more important things to be worrying about than how many we ought to have.

Madeleine

For those of you who like to know such things, of course the odd thing was on or in the wash, or lives in a drawer.

Are you happy with the size of your wardrobe? Do you love everything in it? How could you make more sustainable choices?

A small, sustainable wardrobe: special occasions

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

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I don’t know about you, but I only attend a handful of special occasions these days. This year, I have had to dress up for one christening, one fancy dress party, one 40th birthday bash and I have our Christmas party still to come. The days of all our friends getting married and naming babies are long gone. The days of endless university formal halls and May balls are even further in the past. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I went to a black tie do. I no longer need a selection of cocktail and floor length gowns.

Not that I ever had a particularly large one. I remember one ex-boyfriend commenting poisonously at a college ball about the fact that I was wearing that old thing again. The injustice of men being able to trot out the exact same tux time and again, while women are supposed to look different each and every function is not lost on me. Luckily I didn’t particularly care about such conventions then, and I don’t now. If you have a single outfit that you feel fabulous in, then wear it again and again. Getting all dressed up is for your benefit, not anyone else’s. You are not required to put on a show.

I have precisely one special occasion dress in my wardrobe. I made it out of some beautiful Thai silk that my dad brought back from a trip abroad. It is simple and strappy and almost backless and I adore it. If I need a dress in a hurry – and the last time I wore it I had exactly one day’s notice – I know I can slip it on. I keep all the things to go with it – sheer tights, for example – at the back of my drawer, and it is my beautiful, reliable fall-back option.

Having said that, I haven’t worn it once this year. When I knew that the christening was coming up, I timed the making of a new Sharpen Your Pencils dress to coincide with the date. Something smart and new is just as fun to don as something fancy. I just dressed it up with some gold jewellery, heels and a pashmina. It has been worn to work countless times since: not something I could have done with a sparklier frock.

The fancy dress party required an altogether different look, but the window of my local charity shop offered up the perfect second hand find, net petticoat and all. I happily be-bopped and oo-ooed my way through the backing vocals of a number of Elvis hits, fully intending to return it to the shop so that it could live to serve another party. (I say intending because my girls were not having any of it. They wanted to keep it to wear to their own parties, fancy dress or not. Needless to say, it has already had many more outings.)

The most fun, though, was dressing up for my friend’s 40th last weekend. Help! I wrote to my sister. Do you have a party dress I can borrow? She brought a little selection to our family gathering in Derbyshire and I picked out one I’d borrowed before: a gorgeous vintage-inspired frock in pink with a diamanté bow. I thought I’d just wear it with my rather clunky heels, until I remembered that another friend has the same small feet as me and a rather more extensive wardrobe. She duly turned up with a collection of heels and handbags, so I picked out a couple to finish the outfit off.

Why is it that dressing up in someone else’s things is so much more fun than wearing your own? It is like getting into costume. I have never in my life owned a pair of fake snakeskin shoes, but it was fun to be that person for a night. It was fun to wear a floaty pink dress and carry a boxy mock-croc bag. And it was fun to hand it all back again, knowing that it wasn’t going to sit reproachfully in my wardrobe for the next ten years.

The fact is that sharing is the way forward. In my experience, people aren’t precious about their things. Most people, myself included, just want things to be used. I’m always happy to lend stuff to others, particularly if it saves them from buying something that might be used just once. The sharing economy is something that we’ve heard a lot about it recent years, but it’s not new. It applies to so many areas of our lives: baby equipment, wedding veils, interview suits, a smart black dress for a funeral. Though not all are cause for celebration, these are all special occasions in that they are not (thank goodness) everyday. If you know someone who has what you need, just ask politely if you can borrow it. They might say yes, they might say no. I’ve never known anyone to say no, but I do have generous friends and family. Just be sure to make it clear that they can borrow from you, too.

The world’s resources are too stretched for us all to be buying a new frock for every occasion. There are far too many fancy dresses hanging, unworn, in our wardrobes. Of course there are companies from which you can hire designer dresses, and I would seriously consider using one of these if I needed to. But the truth is that I never have, because I’ve always been lent something lovelier.

So what can you do if you already have a wardrobe full of once-worn fancy frocks? You could pick your very favourite(s) and donate the rest to charity. You could put some up for sale. You could send an email to your friends, letting them know that they can borrow them in the party season ahead. You could organise a swap, where everyone brings and goes away with a complete and newly-configured formal outfit.

Given a conversation I had with my sister-in-law, who was highly amused by the thought of me dressed in gold, I’m not sure that my cocktail dress is going to get an outing this Christmas, either. I suspect a parcel of glittery loans will be landing on my doormat before long. I might keep an eye out at the charity shops for a pair of wear-them-once heels to buy and redonate. Sometimes the things we do for the sake of the planet can be onerous, but this is anything but. It might be a Yorkshire thing, but it’s a lot more fun borrowing and sourcing second-hand than flashing the plastic. I’m quite looking forward to the next time I get to dress up. I wonder who I’ll be?

Madeleine

Do you have a special occasion wardrobe that you rely on, or do you buy a new outfit every time? Or are you a borrower and a lender, like me? Let us know your solutions, because party season is on its way…

A small, sustainable wardrobe: introducing a lined A-line skirt – and a giveaway

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

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One of the most important things about building a small, sustainable wardrobe is having things just the way you like them. It’s no good having a beautiful skirt in a lovely fabric which fits you perfectly if it doesn’t go with any of your tops. It’s equally limiting to know that your skirt, which goes with everything you own, is in a fibre that you just don’t get along with. Shopping for clothes, when everything has to work as hard as it does in a tiny wardrobe, can be a frustrating business. Which is one of the reasons that I make most of mine.

Sewing your own clothes gives you complete control over fit, fabric and finish. But it also gives you control over your supply chain. Without the ability to sew, the ethical consumer is limited to an ever-expanding but still fairly small number of suppliers. It can be hard to get what you want – and it can be expensive, too, if you buy all your clothes from such companies. Learn to sew and you can choose reasonably priced organic, fair-trade fabrics and threads from small, responsible companies. A simple skirt needn’t cost a fortune to be sustainably produced – provided you have the skills to make it. And you can still support skilled workers by buying other things – like jackets and underthings – from your favourite ethical companies.

When I was dreaming up my first knitting and sewing patterns, I knew exactly what I wanted to design: a micro-collection that new knitters and dressmakers could make for themselves. An introduction to making that bypassed the scarves and cushion covers and went straight to what I wanted when I started out: a simple wardrobe that I could make for myself. And so the very first of my dressmaking patterns to be released is a version of the very first garment I ever sewed for myself: an A-line skirt.

My first skirt was not exactly responsible, but it was fun. Do you remember the trend for buttons and ribbons on skirts, circa 2005? I really wanted a woolen A-line skirt embellished with ribbons – I’m sure they were everywhere that winter. Short on cash, I went to a local craft store and bought a length of acrylic felt and some inexpensive ribbons, and set to work. One wonky zip later, I was the proud owner of a pseudo-woolen skirt, the likes of which I had been ogling in Monsoon. I topstitched the ribbons around the hem and was delighted with the effect. (Needless to say the acrylic bagged horribly after a few wears and will no doubt still be around in a few hundred years, and for that I apologise. That was before I switched on about unnecessary plastic use.)

Simple as it is, the A-line skirt is one that I have returned to again and again over the years – in much nicer fabrics and with properly inserted zips. I don’t think you can beat it for its versatility. It is the sort of skirt that you can go to work in (think heels and a blouse), wear in the garden (add wellies and a jumper), take on holiday (avec strappy top and sandals) or just wear at the weekends (with nice boots and your favourite top). My most recent – in real wool felt – was such a favourite that it looked quite disgraceful by the time I cut it up for potholders. And the sample I sewed last week – to test the pattern pdf and take tutorial photos of – is a lovely teal linen version, for Fliss. Of course, as soon as she put it on I thought, that is the perfect school uniform skirt for her, and I’ll be making up a couple more in navy after her next growth spurt.

Being ageless, A-line skirts suit pretty much everyone. They don’t smack of a particular trend or era, and so can be worn by old and young alike. Depending on your choice of fabric, colour and pattern, they complement anyone’s wardrobe. Fliss has plans to embroider hers all along the hem, as she did to great effect with her old dance skirt this summer. But you could make one in a floral, tartan, tweed or whatever motif takes your fancy. They are the blank canvas of the skirt world.

As this is a beginner’s pattern, I have written and photographed a full tutorial series which will be published over four weeks following the pattern release next Friday. This tutorial/ sewalong will take you through printing and cutting your pattern pieces to laying out your pieces, sewing them together, inserting a zip and hand-finishing the hem. As with my Snow Day pattern, the directions are written out in full, plain English. I’ve even gone so far as to label each edge, so that you can simply look for edge g and h and sew them together, without wondering which is the top of the front of the waistband, and so on.  But you don’t have to be a beginner to use this. Although the beginners’ tutorial takes you through how to sew the skirt unlined, the pattern pdf instructions are for making this up as a lined skirt. So you can choose whichever set of instructions you prefer, or which best suit your abilities.

Speaking of abilities, you need to be able to sew an accurate straight line and a slight curve on a sewing machine if you want to make this skirt. Of course you’ll also need other skills, like wielding an iron and being able to use scissors and tape, but we’ll take those for granted. This is a pattern suitable for confident beginners.

I’m really proud of this pattern. Not because it’s fancy or complex (it is neither), but because it takes something which could be fancy and complex and makes it simple. What you will receive is exactly the sort of pattern I would make for myself, with the sort of clear and logical explanations I use as self-talk when I’m working out how to assemble a garment. The pattern itself is hand-drafted, hand-graded from the middle size (UK 12) and represents a lot of detailed work. It is not a commercial pattern. It is a home dressmaker’s pattern, carefully prepared for sharing.

With sharing in mind, I’d like to announce a little giveaway with respect to this pattern. I’m going to send a free copy of the A-line skirt pattern to one of every ten people who leave a comment at the end of this post. Whatever the number of comments, I’ll round it up and choose that number of commenters at random to receive a free copy.

If you would like to enter the giveaway, please leave a comment on this post by Thursday 1 November 2018. Please only leave one comment per person, and make sure that you use a valid email address so that I can contact you if you win. I’ll be drawing the winner(s) and sending out the pattern(s) on Friday 2 November. Please note that you need to leave a comment in order to be entered – emails will not count. And if you’d like to leave a comment but don’t want to be entered in the draw, just say so in your comment!

Edited: The pattern itself will be released next Monday, 5 November 2018, and will be available via Etsy. Apologies for the delay and thank you for your patience! I’ll update this post with a link when it goes live. The pattern is graded for waist sizes 25″-31.5″/ 64cm-80cm (UK sizes 8-16).

Edited: The pattern is now available via my Etsy shop.

Madeleine

What was the first garment you ever made for yourself? Do you have any go-to patterns that you’ve used over and over again (this is one of mine). Or are you a dressmaking newbie? I’d love to know!

A small, sustainable wardrobe: how to buy new

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

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I know, I know. Shopping is the antithesis of having a small wardrobe. Buying new does not bode well for sustainability. But sometimes you need to buy something, and you need to buy it new.

I don’t use the word need lightly. I’m not talking about the perfect pair of shoes to go with a new dress, or the cruel temptation in the latest catalogue to plop fatly onto my hall floor. Not that I’m immune to such things: we are all human. No, I’m talking underwear and base layers. Tights, socks, thermal vests, bras and knickers. The things that I do genuinely think we need to buy new.

I don’t actually have any qualms about buying all of these things brand new, because I know that I will wear these basics over and over again until they are fit for nothing but the compost heap. What I do sometimes struggle with is how to buy them. Do I shop ethically but online, and risk a sea of plastic packaging? Do I worry about the delivery truck driving just to my house, when I could collect something from M&S on my bike? Do I spend more on my underthings than a couple of good meals? Is that obscene? Should I buy one set for me and one for charity? (Nobody donates underthings to charity, new or used). What do I do with the old ones? How many do I need? What colours? Seriously, I could go on. But life is short, and there are more important things to agonise about, so I have a few rules of thumb. In no particular order, these are personal my New Things purchasing guidelines.

Number one: buy organic if you can. Especially if you are buying cotton. Contrary to popular belief, buying organic isn’t about you. Quite frankly, with the amount of toxins sloshing about our daily lives I really don’t think that the residues of pesticides on our clothing – especially after multiple washes – are going to have a significant impact on our health. But they do have an enormous impact on the health and wellbeing of the people who grow cotton. They also have a tremendous impact on the health of the soil in which it is grown, and the surrounding ecosystem.

Number two: buy from a company that you trust to treat its workers fairly. Again, this is about people. I want to know – not just hope – that the people putting my clothes together are paid properly and treated with dignity.

Number three: buy less. Just buy what you need (and maybe a second set to donate, if you feel that way inclined). I have enough to get me through a week. I don’t need more than that. Let your laundry habits be your guide.

Number four: a little forethought goes a long way. I know it sounds dull, but sitting down and working out how many skin-coloured sets vs. other-coloured sets you actually need is a vital part of buying less. Work out which colours of tights will enable to you actually get dressed in the mornings. And for goodness’ sake, make sure you know what’s comfortable.

Number five: go local and go small. If you can buy what you need locally, then do. It saves on transport emissions as well as packaging. If you can’t, try to buy from a smaller company with ethical credentials. Most of us don’t have time to investigate the business ethics of every company we buy from, but you can get a sense of whether ethics are a priority or just a greenwashing exercise. Oh, and ask for plastic-free packaging if they don’t offer it as standard.

Number six: love what you buy. Don’t buy something that you don’t particularly like, just because it’s fair trade or organic or whatever. Hold out for something that you are going to enjoy putting on week after week until it falls apart. Otherwise you’ll be back on the shopping treadmill before you know it.

Number seven: aftercare. Now that you’ve bought it, take care of it. Wool and silk last far, far longer with a bit of attention. Wash things by hand, or at the very least, on the delicates cycle with some wool/ silk detergent. It takes far less time than you think.

I tend to do a little overhaul every spring and autumn and this autumn I’ve not had to buy much new. Some underthings and the thermal vest pictured above. None of it was cheap, but I’ve been wearing those vests for years and know exactly how long it’ll last. We’re being advised not to buy anything that we won’t wear at least 30 times, which is a very achievable target. I’ve worked my vests out at 135 days of wear – and that’s a conservative estimate. After a few seasons, it’ll be in no state for anything but to be snipped up and mixed into the compost heap. So I think it’s worth it, on all sorts of levels.

As I said, there are other things that I buy new, from time to time. No doubt they will be the subject of another post. Really, though, the same rules apply. That, and just trying your best, and not being too hard on yourself if you get it wrong and find yourself wondering what to do with that novelty PVC catsuit on November 1st. You know the drill. Only 29 more outings to go. Ready to do the school run in style?

Madeleine

Have I missed anything out? What are your rules of thumb for buying new?