A small, sustainable wardrobe: just the right amount

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?

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?

Thoughts from the mill

2 September 1933

Months ago, when spring was late and it wouldn’t stop raining, my good friend Mrs Bow and I planned a trip to Quarry Bank. Ever since reading Mrs Gaskell’s North and South, I’ve longed to visit a northern cotton mill, see the machinery in action and learn more about the workers’ lives. Fliss read the novel this summer and fell in love with the unromantic town of Milton (as well as, I suspect, the very romantic Mr Thornton), and Seb, Ilse and Mandy Bow will all be learning about the industrial revolution in their history lessons soon. More than any of that though, Mrs Bow and I decided that we were in need of a good day out, and so plotted this little field trip for the end of the summer holidays.

Of course, the mill is still a working factory, but on Tuesday some of the longer-standing members of the workforce were holding demonstrations of cotton processing through the ages. Although the children seemed to find the cottager hand-carding and -spinning the raw fibres a little mundane (apparently spinning is so everyday) I had to resist climbing over the baskets and having a go myself. Cotton must be more difficult to spin than wool, and the woman was using a small version of a great wheel, which she spun from while seated. Most wheels nowadays have a treadle to drive the mechanism, which leaves both hands free to draft and spin the fibres. On a great wheel, you use one hand to turn the wheel and the other to draw the fibres back as the twist runs into them. The woman was quite skilful, and I was impressed by the fineness and evenness of the thread she produced.

If I’m honest, there wasn’t much about the cottage industries of carding, spinning or even weaving that we didn’t already know, as we’ve read a lot about this over the past couple of years. Nor was the operation of the spinning mules a mystery; we saw some in action in Wales last year. What I didn’t know was how cotton was spun nowadays, and when I asked I was sent up to the top floor where the modern machines were in action.

It turns out that the iconic spinning mules, with children crawling forwards and backwards to clear and reuse the waste cotton beneath, were superseded fairly quickly by the American invention of the ring spinner. Yet because British mills had already invested in expensive mules – of such quality that they are still in operation today – works such as Quarry Bank have only invested in ring spinners in the past fifteen to twenty years. The quality of the cotton produced is much the same, but the ring spinner is much faster and, more importantly, requires far fewer people to operate. Suddenly we have a machine which, despite rising standards of living for the workers, is still cheaper to produce than it was last century. No wonder cloth is more easily available than ever.

With the memory of the Great War still fresh in our minds, we are in little danger of taking cheap cloth for granted. Clothes are still too expensive, whether ready made or home sewn, for people to discard them on a whim. Most people I know will still make things over, and mend them, rather than buy new. But the bolts of bright cottons in the shops in York are very tempting, and we are well enough off for me to indulge the girls when they ask very nicely for a new summer frock even if they haven’t quite outgrown their old ones. Looking at the whole process under one roof, from the bales of fluff shipped in from around the globe, to the smooth and colourful finished article, makes it seem like an awful lot of resource to spend on something new to wear. Never mind the historical human cost: the children scrambling to get away from the heavy iron in time, the fluff on the lungs, the Indians who lost their fingers to the cruel British stranglehold on the industry – there must be other human costs that we don’t or won’t see even today.

All in all, our visit to the mill left me better educated and resolved to stick to my self-imposed rules about fabric. As someone who sews, it would be so easy to have a whole cupboard full of lovely prints and textures at my disposal. Instead, I try my hardest to buy new only when I really need to, and from a trusted source, and to make every purchase something so beautiful and so special that I’ll treasure it until the last scrap has been sewn into the most kaleidoscopic of quilts. Having said that though, I did buy a little pack of their fabrics to sew into the quilt I have planned for this winter. If nothing else, it’ll remind me of our visit to the mill and what I came away thinking.

Cecily

Plastic free on holiday

As soon as we’d found solutions to all sorts of plastic-free conundrums at home, we set off on the first part of our summer holiday and have been thinking on our feet ever since.

I have to admit, I’m loving Plastic Free July. I love the conversations it promotes, the way it’s forced me to use different shops, and the fact that I’m being more inventive in my shopping again.

Take last week, for instance. I’ve known that we were going to a fancy dress party for months, but had done nothing about the green face paint or red hair dye that Seb and Fliss had requested. In my book, a promise is a promise, and so I found myself on the way to a till with plastic face paint and plastic sponges in a plastic palette wrapped in plastic. Here I was, about to purchase something I really didn’t want to. But when it came to it, I couldn’t. I turned around, put it back and reasoned that I could find another way. The same thing happened with a can of spray-on hair dye for Fliss. And so it was that we found ourselves on the afternoon before our departure smearing natural, paper-bagged henna in Fliss’ hair while Seb melted a bit of an old green pastel crayon in some coconut oil. Both solutions, I am relieved to say, not only worked, but were more fun than the requested products would have been.

Since we were driving south, it was easy to throw a few essentials into the car. Nothing fancy; just the usual suspects: water bottles, flasks, shopping and produce bags and so forth. The one thing that did raise an eyebrow were the cloth napkins, but I’d seen so many zero-wasters treat them as essentials that I thought I’d give them a go. So far they’ve been used as napkins, tables, hankies, towels, damp cooling cloths, kneckerchiefs, fabric bags, a way to make scratchy theatre seats more comfortable against bare legs, and emergency sunscreens. I will never travel without one again.

The whole plastic-free endeavour has lent a lovely holiday lackadaisicalness to shopping and meals. Essentially, we pack a picnic each morning, wash out our containers once empty, and hit the shops with them on the way home. It’s rather nice, roaming the aisles to see what’s plastic-free, and shopping for just one or two meals at a time. It turns out that the vast majority of unpackaged food is extremely healthy, so we’re eating well into the bargain. House-sitting, where the basics are already to hand, is a huge help of course, but it is still easier than either John or I expected. When I told the greengrocer today that I didn’t want his reduced strawberries because of the plastic punnets, he told me that he often decants them for plastic-free customers and reuses the punnets, which impressed me. (Unlike the helpful but misguided butcher who almost lined my stainless steel box with plastic film. John stopped him just in time.)

So far, so good, which makes me even happier than I already am, just being in London with my family. Next week’s camping will throw up some new challenges, no doubt. But I also have no doubt that we’ll rise to them. After all, the Eden Project is on the itinerary, and who could fail to be inspired by that?

Madeleine

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far in Plastic Free July? We haven’t been perfect, but we’ve done pretty well by simply refusing what we don’t strictly need. And, thankfully, ice-cream cones are still very firmly on the menu.

 

Little wins and smaller bins

At the start of Plastic Free July, we made a commitment to just try our best and celebrate the little wins. We knew that there would continue to be single-use-plastics in our lives – the stuff is so invidious – but we also knew that we could use less of it. So far, just over halfway through the month, we’ve had to empty our little plastics bin twice, decanting as much as possible into the recycling. And while that could feel dispiriting, almost all of it is either plastics we already had in the house, or the result of Ilse’s birthday party last weekend.

We actually bought very little single-use plastic for Ilse’s party. She was very keen on having ice cream to cool everyone down after a trip to the park, and as there’s no ice-cream stand near our house I went for the biggest, sturdiest tub I could find, with a view to reusing it afterwards. She also wanted soft, sesame-topped burger buns rather than the crustier rolls we usually buy, and they only came in plastic. Oh, and the butter for her cake came in plastic butter ‘paper’. Perfect? No. But not bad for an kid’s birthday party. In truth, the majority of plastic came with her gifts, and she was delighted to receive such thoughtful, personal presents. All in all, I think it was a success.

Other than that, I’ve long been the sort of person who cuts open tubes of toothpaste and bottles of moisturiser to get the very last bit out, and that packaging has gone into our bin. Bags of rice, packets of pasta… it’s amazing how quickly it all adds up when you start paying attention. However, John has had absolutely no trouble at all doing all our greengrocer, butcher, bakery and local shopping plastic free. For my part, our supermarket shopping looks very much like this:

 

So while we have emptied our plastics bin twice (decanting as much as possible into recycling), it is beginning to slow down. So much so, in fact, that we’ve been able to do a little bin reshuffle to reflect our aims.

I never thought I’d post a picture of our household bins online, but nor did I think I’d be declaring ice-cream purchases, so there you go. Allow me to introduce our little bins, from left to right. When we bought the blue bins at IKEA, many years ago, we’d already worked out that the smaller the bin the less rubbish you were likely to produce. Not only is it inconvenient to have to empty the bin more regularly, but it also makes me cringe. The bin on the left was our original rubbish bin, and its partner our compost caddy, until I had an epiphany and swapped them around. As a result, for many years we’ve had a landfill bin that takes a supermarket carrier bag, and tried to empty it just once a week, with varying levels of success. The wicker bin used to be a plastic-bag-lined bin in our bathroom, until it became our recycling bin (in which to carry things out to the garage and sort them into the council crates). The little Tanzanian basket on the right is our bathroom bin now.

Why, you might wonder, am I writing about our bins online? Lots of reasons, really. For a start, we’ve tried to align size with desirability. We’re most comfortable filling the biggest bin with old flowers and peelings, which gets carried to the end of the garden and composted. Next up is recycling, although we are well aware recycling isn’t really the solution. The smallest of the downstairs bins is for plastic – and, so far, none of these bins needs lining with even a reused bag. And now we’ve reached the point where our little bathroom bin is the recipient of only compostable stuff, so we’re lining it with newspaper and adding it to the compost heap.

The only rubbish that isn’t allowed for here is food waste. We genuinely do waste very little food – we’ve been working on that for years – but there are still some types of rubbish that I wouldn’t put in any of our bins. Mostly, to be honest, it’s old chicken bones, boiled up for stock after a roast. They’ll attract rats if I add them to the compost, and make a wet and smelly mess in our unlined wicker landfill bin. For now, I’ve lined a funny little drawer in the bottom of our freezer with newspaper, and the plan is to wait until it’s full, then put the frozen parcel out with the landfill on bin day. When we started Plastic Free July, none of us thought we’d be storing our waste in the freezer, but my wonderful family have just gone with it, as usual.

There have been a few unexpected benefits of our plastic-free endeavours. Ilse, Seb, Fliss and I have rekindled our interest in baking, making all sorts of bread (me) and cakes (the children). Afternoon tea has hit an all-time high in our house.

Bartenders feel inclined to top up my reusable cup with a little extra, once I’ve explained why I don’t want a plastic cup to take outside into these balmy evenings. I’ve also visited shops and parts of the supermarket I never went near before. The woman on the deli counter knows me now, and is delighted by how many of us are bringing our own containers in for cheese, olives and the like. The fishmonger helped me choose some absolutely delicious fish, which I later realised was not the most sustainable breed, but we live and learn, and we chose something different the next time. And it’s so nice to fill the fridge with food already decanted into your own containers, and not have to hunt down the scissors every time you make a meal.

With the end of term in sight, and summer trips on the horizon, we’re thinking ahead but I’m confident that we can do a pretty good job, even when we’re living out of our boot. No doubt there will be some plastic involved, but it’ll be less than it would have been ordinarily, and I’m happy with that for now. If I think about all our little wins, and all the other people around the globe similarly turning down one piece of plastic at a time, they begin to feel quite substantial. So at this point, just over halfway through the month, I’d say we’re winning, on balance. And this is just the start.

Madeleine

PS – Have you been taking part – formally or informally – in Plastic Free July? Do you have any wins you’d like to celebrate? I’d also love to hear about any tips you might have for plastic-free road trips…

Celebrating Plastic Free July

You know how sometimes things seem to come together and fall into place just perfectly? Over the past few weeks I’ve been increasingly uncomfortable about all the plastic our family seems to be getting through. Then my brother told me about a packaging free shop in the town where he lives. And Seb read, on the back of a Morrisons receipt, that the supermarket is inviting customers to bring their own containers to take home fresh meat and fish. And yet somehow we are putting the bin out more often than we used to. So I went online to look up plastic free options and inspiration and stumbled upon Plastic Free July.

Originating in Australia in 2011, this year looks set to have millions of participants in over 150 countries worldwide – including me. I’ve pledged to give up single-use plastics… forever. It goes without saying that I won’t succeed and I like the way that they acknowledge that directly. It doesn’t bother me at all, setting myself up to fail in this way, because I won’t view it as failure. Instead, I’m going to celebrate each and every piece of single use plastic that we don’t use. There are bound to be all sorts that slip the net: medical blister packs, butter ‘paper’, single-use plastics that we already own. But there are bound to be plastic items that we refuse, and that’s why this can only be a win-win scenario.

So much has changed since the first time I made a concerted effort to reduce the single-use plastic in our lives – about ten years ago. Back then, it felt a bit niche, to be honest. Nowadays it feels positively mainstream. I told my car-share buddy about it on the way to work and she enthusiastically told me that she’d like to give it a go, then sat down with me to create a resource to share the opportunity with the rest of our organisation. Beth Terry‘s blog was the only one I could find on the topic, way back when. Now there are several excellent blogs which look at everything from plastic-free living to zero-waste lifestyles in a realistic and encouraging way. Best of all, a quick internet search turned up all sorts of options in and around York, from the market to Whittards to a farm shop that is literally on my way to work and sells both fresh and frozen food sans plastic, as far as I can tell. (The aforementioned car-share buddy and I have a stop planned for later in the week.) Then there are all the online shops specialising in plastic-free living: I ordered my first tin of non-nano suncream along with a few other consumables that we are about to run out of. I couldn’t find those sorts of products the last time I looked.

If I am honest with myself, I had become complacent about certain plastics. Things that I never used to buy: punnets of grapes, tubs of hummus and yoghurt, rigid packs of organic mince – had become regular features in my online trolley. Thanks to the powers of habit and the efforts of my husband, we had stuck to several ingrained behaviours, such as using the market for fruit, veg and most meat, and getting our milk delivered in glass bottles. However, I knew that the teabags thrown onto the compost heap contained plastic; I was just tired of swilling out the teapot. I knew I needed a wake-up call and some inspiration. What I hadn’t appreciated was how much I needed to feel that lots of other people were trying to do this too. Thanks to co-workers and my  children and my lovely husband who took our own containers to the butcher to see what they would say, this doesn’t feel like such an uphill battle any more.

Sure, there are lots of horrifying statistics and videos out there, and they deserve our attention. But when searching, with Ilse, for some child-appropriate information (good old Newsround) we discovered that a company is developing a product designed to clean up the big bits of plastic in the oceans. I simply cannot believe that future generations are never going to dig up our landfill and develop the technology to recycle it. And pressure is mounting to ban or tax more forms of single-use plastic than just the bag.

I’m not anti-plastic. In fact, Cecily is going to make a very excited appearance on the blog next week, writing all about the wonder material that has so much potential to improve the world. When I was a kid in Tanzania, plastic was a pretty rare and precious thing. My mother kept her UK-shopping plastic bags neatly folded, and used them over and over again. Ice-cream tubs would live on for years alongside the tupperware. In the run up to Plastic Free July, I keep rescuing plastic from the recycling. There won’t be many more squeezy bottles or freezer bags coming into our home. Plastic plays a significant role in our lives, and a shift in mindset makes it suddenly invaluable.

I’m not planning on writing about the issues surrounding plastic or offering comprehensive lists of tips – other people have already done that extremely well. What I would like to do is share this journey with you once in a while – because I’m sure it will be a very long and bumpy journey – and invite you along for the ride. Like every adventure, it’ll be more fun with company.

Madeleine

Are you already a plastic-free pro, or just interested in finding out more? I’m really curious about what you think. And I’d love to know if you do sign up to Plastic Free July. You could leave a comment, or drop me a private email. Whatever you do, big or small, alone or as part of a community, I hope we can celebrate every small refusal of another bit of unnecessary plastic – and cheer each other along.