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?

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?