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?

Photo shoot

Every so often, this blog forces me to do something miles out of my comfort zone. This week, it was the photo shoots for the sewing patterns I’ve been developing.

If I’m entirely honest, it’s probably a good thing that I didn’t think about this part of the process when I decided to start selling my patterns. I knew, in a vague sort of way, that there would have to be photographs of some sort, but as long as it remained a hazy and unspecified prospect that was fine by me. Finally, though, my hand was forced by the fact that I’d made an appointment with a very talented young woman and that my photographer is due to go back to university soon. Given the choice of now or never, I went for now.

All I can say is: do not underestimate the amount of skill and confidence it takes to style an outfit and then be photographed in it. My friend’s daughter, Ella, arrived at our house with two suitcases of clothes and accessories and proceeded to throw on my clothes with such style and ease that absolutely everything looked right. Ben, our photographer for the day, had the privilege of clicking the shutter at someone who knew how to stand or sit, and had only to focus on the lighting and framing of the shot. My friend and I quickly left them to it, busying ourselves with folding and ironing and many cups of tea. It was one of the most inspiring and fun days I’ve had on this project, and the photographs are better than I had dreamed of.

I loved seeing a seventeen year old wear my clothes with such flair and inventiveness. She could have gone on and on, creating different looks for different occasions. I keep a very small wardrobe, relying on my clothes to be versatile enough to be dressed up for work or a wedding or down for gardening – there’s little I wouldn’t do in any of them. I tend to do simple shifts in formality: swapping heels for Chelsea boots or a knit for a tailored coat. Ella’s outfits were far more inventive and striking, and left my girls in awe. I can’t wait to share her photographs with you.

At the same time though, I love to see clothes on the person who made them. There is something symbiotic about the relationship between conception, execution and the physical reality that ensues. When I design, I think about who I want to be in a particular item: sharp and stylish, patterned and a little bit vintage, or just someone who is off to dig the parsnips. I love it when bloggers post photos of themselves in their creations, but never fully appreciated the effort until it was my turn.

Suffice to say that I have a lot to learn, and that Ben is very patient. The end result is a series of very honest photos: these are the clothes that I have designed and made and that I wear on a daily basis. They show how I wear them, and what they look like in use. I’m so pleased that we persevered with the shoot, because now we have photos of the clothes styled and modelled in two very different ways, but on two ordinary people, using the contents of their own wardrobes, on a slightly overcast day, in and around my house and garden, photographed by a novice. None of us had ever done anything like this before, and, although some of us were better at it than others, we all worked together to achieve an end product to be proud of. I couldn’t have hoped for more.

So, in the spirit of this week’s photo shoots, I leave you with the first up-to-date photograph of me published on this blog. It was another overcast day and I was hoping the sun would come out – and then it did.

Please would you be kind enough to resubscribe?

During my break from this blog, I’ve had so much fun dreaming up all the things I want to do with it. Cecily’s voice, for a start, is something that I’d like to keep alive. One day, I’d like to draw my favourite posts together into an ebook, if only for me to read when I’m old. And yet I also want to express myself as a modern woman: someone with an education, a career, a family, and choices. I want to talk about all the places we go and things that we do – that we simply wouldn’t have been able to do in 1932. I’d also like to link up to or talk about other people’s blogs that bring me so much pleasure, and the inspirational attitudes and achievements they portray.

In short, I’d like the blog to be a place where I can express the many different aspects of who I am. A place where I can publish a short story that I’ve written, or just muse about daily life. I want to talk about the modern flute music that I’ve been learning, or about spinning alpaca fibres, or choosing patterns from Ravelry. I also want to start sharing some of my own patterns – some for free, some for sale – which will mean writing about them sometimes.

As I suspect you know, GDPR comes into force tomorrow. I’m by no means an expert, but it’s a set of regulations intended to protect individuals’ data. Because I would one day like to try selling some of my sewing and knitting patterns through this blog, it makes sense for me to make sure that my mailing list complies with these regulations from the off. That means that I need everyone on my list to have actively clicked through a couple of steps to confirm that they really do want to be on my mailing list. You’ll notice that there’s a new paragraph in the ‘Join our community’ box – this is there so that you know what you are signing up for. There will be a second email coming out today, asking you to resubscribe. I’ll have to delete my previous mailing list this evening. I hope you don’t find this all too off-putting; as I say, it is just to ensure that I comply with regulations from the start. I promise I’ll stop bombarding you with emails and get back to normal from tomorrow!

With all the official stuff said, can I say that I am practically hopping with excitement to start sharing my designs with you? I love to teach, and this first set of patterns is designed with people who are new to garment-making in mind. Given the number of people who have commented on my hand-made wardrobe and said that they’d never know where to begin, I thought that I could help. And now that means complying with GDPR, even if you are reading this from outside the EU.

I hope that this doesn’t scare you off. I have no intention of the blog becoming a hollow marketing ploy. I just want to share what I’m making, and see if there’s any sort of future in it.

In the meantime, there’s a spot reserved for me just in front of my spring flowerpots. The met office has promised sunshine for later today, and so I’ll take my knitting out there, with Wuthering Heights on the radio for company. Before that, though, there’s the hoovering to do, and a post to dream up while I do so, about Ben’s first flight into the big world this year. Fledgling, I think I’ll call it, and add a photo of the quilt I made for him to take. He’s heading home for the summer next week, and the medium-sized cousins are coming to stay. It’s going to be a houseful. I can’t wait.

Hello, from 2018

Blogging as Cecily Graham used to be perfect for me. It’s tremendous fun, reimagining your life in a different era. I don’t think I’ll give her up entirely – the thirties is still a time I look upon with so much fondness, probably because so many of my favourite novels were written then. But after two years the format became somewhat limiting. There were things I wanted to write about that simply didn’t exist in the thirties. And there were elements of me that a nineteen thirties wife and mother simply couldn’t portray. Much as I love the era, I love the opportunities and freedom of the present even more.

Even so, I didn’t intend to stop blogging quite so abruptly, and for that I do apologise. I kept meaning to write a farewell post but never quite found the words. Quite a few things happened last August – nothing bad, I assure you – and as life morphs I find my horizons shifting. The world gets bigger every year, it seems, with new opportunities and more time to explore them.

I did miss this space, though. I missed curating this tiny corner of the internet, celebrating brief moments of Cecily’s days. Recently, reading through old posts, I was surprised by how much I’d forgotten. We did a lot of lovely things over those two years. We’ve done more since, and although I’m sorry that I didn’t share them here it was right, because a break and a change were in order. As Cecily’s voice felt increasingly limiting, I was gaining confidence in my own. It can be quite a frightening thing, putting yourself out there on the internet to be seen and judged by others. I’m always impressed by people who do that from the off. It’s taken me two and a half years to make that decision.

Rather than write a biography, I’d just like to set a few things straight. The rest will doubtless emerge bit by bit, but I don’t want people to be confused. Like Cecily, I am married but I have three children, not four. I always wanted four and so indulged Cecily in that regard. However, I’m going to keep writing about all four children as I found it an effective way of including what my kids were up to whilst muddying the waters enough to keep their lives truly private. I’ll also keep referring to my husband and other people by their fictional names. I work part time, and though I love my job I won’t be writing about it here. We live in York, and are lucky enough to have a house with a big garden for the hens and the veg patch and so forth. It’s my little bit of countryside on the edge of the city.

In case you’re wondering about the knitting in the photograph, it’s a Georgetown cardigan, knit out of my own handspun alpaca. (It still gives me a thrill to say that.) It’s lovely and soft, and a straightforward knit which is just what I’ve needed over the past couple of weeks. But I’m hoping to get it off the needles soon, in order to get back to another project that I can’t wait to share with you.

Which only leaves me to thank you from the bottom of my heart for coming back to read this post, and beg your forgiveness as I update the website and emails over the next couple of weeks. I’ve got lots and lots to do, but it’s so good to be back.

Madeleine x