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.

***

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: sticking to the plan

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

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Do you like my new trousers? I did, about three weeks ago, when I had envisaged several days of leisurely sewing and tutorial writing. I had thought I’d be wearing them by the time the cold really began to set in. Before the rush of Christmas (and work in the run up to Christmas) began. Before I was squeezing awards nights and advent services on top of the usual evening activities of piano lessons and swimming and ballet. But alas, thanks to some computer programming issues, I’ve not been able to start them until this morning. Now I have a very limited timeframe to make them and photograph the tutorial and test the pattern. I’m not loving those ‘trousers’ quite so much any more.

The temptation to just go into town and buy a pair is pretty strong. I could combine it with a trip to the big central library, and have tea and cake with my mum. We could have a little wander around the lovely medieval streets of York and drink in the Christmassy ambience (and maybe some mulled wine). I could simply hand over some money and a lovely new pair of warm woollen trousers would be mine. There must be a nice pair out there somewhere.

If I’m honest, I haven’t even looked, because if I did find some, the temptation to buy them would be pretty strong. Today I am wearing a pair of Seb’s age 12-13 navy M&S tracksuit bottoms, because my other (mended!) pair of trews is in the wash and trousers are what I need to wear today. Fortunately, they are warm and comfy. Unfortunately, they are not quite my style. And while I would happily be seen in public in them (I wore them to the pool last night), it’s not an image I’m all that keen to cultivate.

The thing about trying to have a small, sustainable wardrobe is that it involves trying to stick to the plan even when the plan fails. And in our have-it-now age, that can be tricky. So I’ve reminded myself of why I’m going to stick to the plan. Why it matters. Because knowing that something actually matters is always my very best motivator.

  1. I’ve already bought the fabric. If I buy a pair of trousers, I’ll have a load of obsolete fabric sitting around. For some people, this is just stash; for me, it’s a waste.
  2. Even if I do buy some other trousers, I’ll probably use the fabric I’ve already bought to write and photograph the tutorial at some point. Which will result in two pairs of trousers, when I only need one.
  3. I do actually have the time to get it all done. I just need to get my head down and not stop until I get there. 
  4. I know that I never like ready-made clothes as much as homemade ones. I have got so used to my own fit, my own details, my own choice of fabrics and finishes that I find fault with even the nicest shop-bought clothes.
  5. Honestly? I don’t value shop-bought clothes as much as home made clothes. I know, I know. Even though I appreciate that someone, somewhere in the world put effort into making the garment, I am much more likely to donate it when a better alternative comes along. Given that I’ve got to make a pair of trousers anyway (for the tutorial), a bought pair will most likely end up being guiltily donated sooner or later. A homemade pair, on the other hand, will be worn beyond what is probably decent and then cut up to insulate potholders or something.

(And yes, I know that I could just make the tutorial pair in another size and gift them, but I really want a pair of the trousers I designed in wool, as I love them so much in chambray.)

Whether we make our own clothes or are shopping for a more eco-friendly wardrobe, we all come up against temptations to throw the plan out the window. I suspect that shoppers often see something really lovely when they weren’t looking for it, and have to resist the temptation to take it home. Makers might spend ages on a garment and then be really disappointed by the fit or finish. Sometimes it does us good to change our minds and deviate from the plan. They are our plans, after all.

But I’m sticking to this one, because I know that it really is the best way forward. After all, it’s just a pair of trousers. It’s only clothing, and I’m not going to end up naked if I don’t get these finished on time. So I’m going to end this post here, and get stuck into that basket of fabric and notions. With any luck, I’ll have a pair of trousers I love before too long.

Madeleine

Am I alone in finding it hard to stick to the plan sometimes? What are your pitfalls, and how do you talk yourself out of them? On the other hand, when do you go off piste?

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: Introducing Under the Ice socks

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

***

It won’t  come as a surprise to anyone that I like to knit my own socks. Hand-knit socks are the warmest, softest, best-fitting socks of all. They are, as Ilse says, like little jumpers for your feet. With the first frosts biting in our part of the world, I’ve been reaching for a pair every day.

Nor will it surprise you to learn that I don’t have an impressive drawer full of socks. I tend to have three or four pairs at any one time, switching out the baggiest and most holey for a new pair each winter. That’s enough for my needs (and our laundry routine) and enough, as they say, is as good as a feast.

Hand-knit socks are expensive, if you buy them – and rightly so. Someone, somewhere in the world, will have spent literally hours and hours on them. If you would like some hand-knit socks and don’t want to knit  them for yourself, you could do much worse than to buy a beautiful pair through a fair-trade concern, ensuring that the maker is properly rewarded for their effort and skill.

I prefer to spend less money on some yarn, and make a slightly larger donation to a development charity, because I love knitting socks. At this time of year, when the frenzy of carol concerts and nativities and children’s parties hits fever pitch, there is nothing I like more than a quiet evening in front of the fire, working round and round on a pair of socks. Sometimes I decide I want that so much that someone gets a pair for Christmas, on top of the pair I knit for myself. This year Ilse has been lamenting her outgrown pair, and I have been happy to oblige her by making her these ones, rather than the hats that the others are receiving. Everyone – including me – is happy.

Socks are one of those things that really make me stop and think about fast fashion. Really, the amount of time it takes to knit a pair of short socks like these pales in comparison to the effort involved in keeping your family in fine-knit woollen over-the-knee stockings. Prior to machine knitting, socks must surely have been a highly-prized possession for all but the very wealthy. And while, nowadays, there are people who devote themselves to knitting the most spectacular sock wardrobes, I can’t imagine having the time to do anything of the sort with a whole family to clothe from scratch. There is a reason we darned socks rather than starting afresh. In a time when I can pick up a pack of socks along with my groceries, they have become hugely underappreciated.

Last winter I wanted to see how much effort it would take to make a pair of socks from raw fleece. There is a wonderful documentary series, made by RTI in the 1970s, called Hands, which explores a whole range of traditional Irish crafts. In one episode, a woman spins yarn from their own sheep to knit her husband a warm new pair of socks. Armed with a fairly fine sheep’s fleece and some alpaca (for strength), I set about doing the same, and I’m wearing the resulting pair as I write this. They are the nicest pair of socks I’ve ever had: soft and warm and strong and elastic. But more than that, I’ve learned a lot of new skills and have a deeper appreciation of the true value of clothing.

I went back to basics this year, creating a pattern along the lines of the first pair that I ever knit, with short row toe and then the heel formed in exactly the same way. It’s a forgiving first pair, because you get to master the hardest part of the sock straight away, and so there’s no danger of having to frog any previous work. Given the fact that I’ve written the pattern out in full English as well as knitters’ abbreviations, there’s little danger of any frogging at all. In fact, I’ve written a full four-part photographed tutorial of every step, just to make things crystal clear. If you can knit reasonably confidently in the round (magic loop on circular needles, though there’s no reason why these couldn’t be worked on four needles), you can make these socks. Even if you’ve never used magic loop before, it’s pretty easy and I do explain it in the tutorials – socks were my first magic loop project and I didn’t come a cropper.

We’ve named these socks Under the Ice because that is what they look like: a  cross-section of a frozen pond in winter. As I wrote for the pattern notes:

Each year, early December is when I realise that the November weather I had mistaken for winter was merely autumn. There are fewer and fewer eggs in the nesting boxes when I go thaw the hens’ drinker, and the birdbath that we keep filled for wild visitors is more often filled with ice than water. I smash the ice on both into a million tiny crystals which glisten on the lawn until the sun finally touches them. But in our little pond, the ice is left intact. There, it sustains life, acting as a strange blanket against the harsher cold above. Under the ice, life goes on. Dormant creatures, from dozing frogs to larvae too small to see lie in the still-wet water beneath. The very depths of the pond are the warmest, where even the coldest Yorkshire night can’t reach.

There is, however, nothing to stop you knitting these in another colour way (my sister is making an ombre pair in two tones of pink), or omitting the stripes altogether. I’ve also included basic instructions on how to knit a pair with contrasting heels and toes. This is a bit of a blank-slate pattern; get this down and you’ll be able to play with colour as you like.

I’ll release the pattern on Monday 3 December, in my Ravelry and Etsy shops. It’ll be available for free for the first 24 hours on Ravelry, so do pop over and pick a copy up if you would like one. After that it’ll become a paid-for pattern, but the tutorials will remain available for free indefinitely.

What with all my Christmas knitting (which is moving along nicely) and the other projects I have lined up, I won’t be getting to my own pair of socks until the new year, but that’s fine by me. I’ve chosen some deliciously soft yarn in Old Pink and am looking forward to a bit of soothing knitting to carry me through those cold, dark evenings. So if you don’t have time for sock knitting this December, I hope you’ll join me in January instead.

Madeleine

Are you an aspiring sock knitter, or an accomplished one? Anyone fancy having a go at these?

 

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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…