We May Be in Better Shape Than We Thought

If you bemoan your fitness level, you might be interested in the results of this fitness test from 1889:

In order to ascertain the influence of tight clothing upon the action of the heart during exercise a dozen young women consented this summer to run 540 yards in their loose gymnasium garments, and then to run the same distance with corsets on. The running time was two minutes and thirty seconds for each person at each trial, and in order that there should be no cardiac excitement or depression following the first test, the second trial was made the following day. Before beginning the running the average heart impulse was 84 beats to the minute; after running the above-named distance the heart impulse was 152 beats to the minute; the average natural waist girth being 25 inches. The next day corsets were worn during the exercise, and the average girth of waist was reduced to 24 inches. The same distance was run in the same time by all, and immediately afterward the average heart impulse was found to be 168 beats per minute. When I state that I should feel myself justified in advising an athlete not to enter a running or rowing race whose heart impulse was 160 beats per minute after a little exercise, even though there were not the slightest evidence of disease, one can form some idea of the wear and tear on this important organ, and the physiological loss entailed upon the system in women who force it to labor for over half their lives under such a disadvantage as the tight corset imposes.

I’m not in great shape but I don’t think even I would have to wait 24 hours to try another two-and-a-half minute run!

This article on “The Physical Development of Women” was written by Dudley Allen Sargent, M.D., and published in the February 1889 issue of Scribner’s Magazine.

And before we had cellulite, we had “imperfect circulation”:

But there are other evils arising indirectly from this interference with the action of the heart and lungs. I refer to the malnutrition of all parts of the body in consequence of imperfect circulation. From long-continued observation, with the history of the individual before me, I have come to associate disproportionately large lower limbs with what is termed a feeble aspiration of the thorax. This means a failure of the heart and lungs to draw the blood back to the centre of the body. It tends to linger in the extremities through force of gravity; oxidation of the tissues is interfered with, and an accumulation of adipose below the waist is frequently the result. This tendency is much more common in women than in men. In my opinion this is largely due to the want of a sufficient aspiration of the thorax in consequence of the usual constriction about the waist. In some cases this accumulation of adipose in the lower extremities has become so excessive that the girth of the thighs actually exceeds the girth of the waist. It would hardly seem necessary to state to any one that a woman so formed is incapacitated not only for all gymnastic and athletic work, but for the common enjoyments of active life.


It is the symmetrical and proportionate development of parts, with adipose enough to cover the angles and hollows, that constitutes true beauty. This is the style of development that is likely to accompany the active gyrations of the premiere danseuse, the skater, and the lady fencer. It may be attained by such exercises as running, walking, rowing, swimming, tennis, or gymnastics where the lower limbs and body are actively used and the circulation and respiration are not impeded by tight clothing.

From 1890.

Also from 1890.

One hour’s physical exercise, however, even though it be of the best kind and under the most favorable circumstances, will not make amends for ten to four- teen hours of unfavorable treatment. The girls corsets must be taken off, in order that the heart, lungs, stomach, and viscera may have an opportunity to build up the body with the new material that will come to it as a result of the exercise, and to eliminate the old broken- down tissue from the system.

During exercise the skirt should be worn to the knee, or should be exchanged for the bloomer costume, such as is now in use in the college gymnasia for women.

The Bloomer costume, hear shown in 1855, had gained acceptance for exercise wear by 1889, at least according to Dr. Sargent.

The common-sense garments that are now being worn by hundreds of young ladies throughout the land who are practising and teaching physical exercises, are having a great influence in bringing about the much-needed dress reform. The girl of athletic taste finds much enjoyment in garments that allow her plenty of air to breathe and freedom of movement.

From 1905.

Details of a corset from 1887, now in the Chicago History Museum.  All that beauty and detail in something so restricting!

Mary Schenck Woolman

Mary Schenck Woolman

Over the years, I have picked up several old weaving, sewing, and home economics manuals.  Their publication dates range from 1906 to 1964.

Old textile and clothing handbooks.

Old textile and clothing handbooks.

A close-up of some of the titles.

A close-up of some of the titles.

I have always wondered about the authors of these books, and how they came by their expertise.  Take just one of those books, Textiles: A Handbook for the Student and the Consumer by Woolman and McGowan (1915); inside we find everything from an overview of centuries of textile history, to descriptions and diagrams of processing machines, to chemical tests for fiber qualities, as well as dye recipes and clothing budgets .  My assumption about an author that wrote such an all-encompassing book is that he must have come from a long line of textile manufacturers, and must have spent his whole life in the mills.

Fortunately, I found someone else interested in these authors, associate professor of history Linda Przybyszewski.  Her book, The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish, tells the story of the “Dress Doctors,” the women home economists of the 1900s.   Many of them were women who were interested in the sciences, but were prevented from working in any university science department except home economics.  “Everything that touched the home was of interest to home economists and became a specialty within their profession: truth in labeling, public sanitation, theories of child development, nutritional discoveries, architecture, and dress.” (p. 3)

In this book, I learned that the authors of that beloved book Textiles, were not men who had grown up in the industry.  They were women, and one of them came to textiles quite by accident, later in life.  Przybyszewski wrote such an entertaining account of that one, Mary Schenck Woolman, that I was intrigued, followed her footnotes, and read the original sources.

Mary Schenck was born to a well-off family in Camden, New Jersey, in 1860, and attended a Quaker school that emphasized vocational education and social service.

“In school she specialized in languages and history. Careers for women were then looked upon with suspicion, and the first college courses for women were just being established. Many of her classmates entered Cornell, but Mary Schenck could not go so far from home. She attended classes at the University of Pennsylvania, although no degree was given to women at that time.” (Journal of Home Economics, Vol. 32, No. 9, p. 586, link below)

At the age of 22, she married, but her father died soon after, and Mary’s mother and husband had poor health.  She set about teaching herself practical skills, and in 1891, the small family sold their large home and moved to a boarding house in New York City.  Mary had gotten a job correcting manuscripts for publishers, so it was natural for one of the other boarders, a professor at Teachers College, to have her look over a manuscript for a sewing instruction book.

The method it taught was to practice each stitch in isolation until it was perfect, and then go on to another.  Mary thought it was horribly boring and would make girls hate to sew.  She thought it would be much better to have the girls make simple projects that would give them a sense of accomplishment.  The president of the college asked her to write a new book with her method, and Mary became part of the staff of the college in 1892.  She stayed there for 20 years, but she was not just a sewing instructor for students.  Her book, A Sewing Course for Schools, was published in 1900, and A Sewing Course for Teachers was published in 1907.  She toured cities in the East to teach other instructors this method.

“Her interest in the industrial phases of textiles led to her second big life interest, the development of trade education for girls. Her special knowledge made her sought as adviser to boards of trade and commissions which were trying to develop industrial work. It was during her early years at Teachers College that Mrs. Woolman was asked to meet with a group of prominent men and women of New York City to discuss the problems of the working girl, then poorly paid and living under most undesirable conditions. At the request of Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler, Mrs. Woolman was released for half time at Teachers College to develop the Manhattan Trade School for Girls…” (Journal of Home Economics, Vol. 32, No. 9, p. 587)

After a small beginning, the school was expanded to provide services for 500 girls daily.   It was set up to be able to admit girls (ages 14 to 17) at any time, to stay open year-round and also offer night classes, and to help place the girls in jobs and follow up on them.  Most of the students stayed for just a few months, but after a while when they realized that the training did bring them higher pay, some were willing to stay for a year.  After seven years, the school had placed 730 girls.  In 1910, Woolman wrote a book, The Making of a Trade School, describing in detail how they ran the school.

“The public school offers such children a general education which will be completed in the eighth grade, but the majority leave before that time.  For varying reasons, such at their foreign birth, irregular attendance, the impossibility of much personal attention in the crowded classrooms of a great city, poor conditions of health, and the desire of pupils to escape the routine of school as soon as the law will allow, the greater number of them, who go early into trade, have not had a satisfactory education for helping them in their working life… young workers still come from the schools at fourteen with poor health, little available hand skill, unprepared to write business letters or to express themselves clearly either by tongue  or by pen, uninterested in the daily news except in personal or tragic events, unaware of municipal conditions affecting them, ignorant of the simple terms of business life, and with their arithmetic unavailable for use…The mechanical processes, therefore, which they do know are now useless unless they can think out the problem.” (pp. 6, 7)

“The organizer of a trade school faces… a serious difficulty in obtaining instructors who are adequate to the task before them…The usual teacher of manual training knows too little of the ways of the workrooms and is too theoretical in her instruction to be trusted to train workers who must satisfy trade demands.  On the other hand, the trade worker, good as she may be in her specialty, seldom knows how to teach.  She can drive her group of workers, but she cannot train the green hands to do more than work quickly at one thing.”  (pp. 43, 44)

Other difficulties that had to be solved were that parents could not afford any fees and were reluctant to send the girls to this school when they could be out working, the city and state refused to fund the school,  and that the girls needed materials to practice on but could not afford them.  Out if all the occupations available, only some were selected to be taught at the school, trades that were thought to offer good wages, chance of advancement, and “favorable conditions, both physical and moral.”

Woolman seemed to have such sympathy for these girls.  I think it’s a rare person that can combine warm-hearted concern with wide-ranging planning and logistics as she did.

Also in 1910, Ellen Beers McGowan became a student of Woolman’s at Teachers College, and became very interested in textiles.  Woolman suggested that they write a college textbook together, with McGowan contributing the scientific material on the physical and chemical testing of fabrics.  Woolman spent seven summers abroad, learning about the industry.  McGowan wrote, ” She was a fluent and indefatigable writer, tireless in assembling factual material. She never adapted another writer’s work to her own ends but went to original sources growers, manufacturers, finishers, government reports, authorities in every related field. To describe a manufacturing process, for example, meant that she must first see it in action.”  (Journal of Home Economics, Vol. 32, No. 9, p. 589)

That book, Textiles: A Handbook for the Student and Consumer, came out in 1913.  The whole book is online at that link.  My copy is from the fourth reprinting, in 1915.

One of the many illustrations of textile industry jobs in Woolman's book, Textiles.

One of the many illustrations of textile industry jobs in Woolman’s and McGowan’s book, Textiles.

Part of a clothing budget for a family of five.

Part of a clothing budget for a family of five.

Clothing budget for the woman and oldest daughter of the family, from 1913.

Clothing budget for the woman and oldest daughter of the family, from 1913.

During World War I, Woolman was made Textile Specialist for Massachusetts under the War Emergency Fund of the United States Department of Agriculture.  She organized exhibits that were set up in a war hut on Boston Common, to show women how to re-use clothing to make their resources stretch further during the war.  (The image I linked to may or may not be hers, but that is the type of thing she taught. Sadly, I can’t find any images of those exhibits, but here is an article from 1920 describing more about them.)  She wrote two more books, Clothing: Choice, Care, and Cost and Textile Problems for the Consumer, before her death in 1940.

The Journal of Home Economics devoted five pages to her life and accomplishments, and you can read the entire article here.  In fact, you can read all sorts of home ec information on this fabulous website, the Cornell Home Economics Archive: Research, Tradition, History (HEARTH).  What the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is to birders, HEARTH is to people interested in the home sciences.  There are also great pictures in the Human Ecology Historical Photographs Collection — I especially love the categories  Textiles and Clothing and Local and County Fairs.

I am very grateful Linda Pryzbyszewski shared the story of these authors and the resources for finding out more about them and their era.

Sustainability – a Hopeful View

In my last two posts, I have shared a little of what I have been reading about sustainable textiles.  I never did find any information focused on art/craft textiles or even textiles for interiors, just on apparel.  My overall impression from reading all these books was that things are so bad, and so intertwined, that there’s really no hope of any improvement. What one author would suggest as a solution, the next author would find fault with.  (One of the books even said, in its second-to-last sentence, that hope was vanishing.)

But I kept seeing references to a book called Cradle to Cradle. It was published in 2002, and the authors had a new book called The Upcycle:Beyond Sustainability –Designing for Abundance.   I thought I could try one more book on the topic, and I am very glad I did.

The authors are William McDonough and Michael Braungart, and I will just let them speak for themselves:

A decade ago, we — Bill, an architect, and Michael, a chemist — published Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.  We had come across an idea in our design and chemistry work that we considered extraordinarily exciting.  Human beings don’t have a pollution problem; they have a design problem.  If humans were to devise products, tools, furniture, homes, factories, and cities more intelligently from the start, they wouldn’t even need to think in terms of waste, or contamination, or scarcity.  Good design would allow for abundance, endless reuse, and pleasure.

This concept, we believe, could move the dialogue far beyond a simple interest in recycling, because we noticed that the entire recycling effort grew from a negative belief.  The theory being put forward by most sustainability advocates, and increasingly by industry, goes something like this:

Human beings create enormous amounts of waste and should strive to become “less bad.”  Use less energy.  Poison less.  Cut down fewer trees…. all people can hope to achieve is eco-efficiency, minimization, and avoidance, to recycle a limited percentage of objects humans use daily — bottles, paper — and fashion them into, unfortunately, a lesser product, one that can be used once more, or twice more, or maybe even five times more.  But then where does this product go?  Into a landfill?  An incinerator? (Location 146 of 3117)

But as modern engineers and designers commonly create a product now, the item is designed only for its first use, not its potential next uses after it breaks, or grows threadbare, or goes out of fashion, or crumbles.  The item works is way from one downward cycle to another, becoming less valuable (think a food-grade plastic bottle smashed down, remelted with other plastics, and made into a speed bump) or more toxic (such as wood turned into a composite board what of formaldehyde-based glues).

We believe there is a different perspective…(Location 156)

Using the Cradle to Cradle framework, we can upcycle to talk about designing not just for health but for abundance, proliferation, delight.  We can upcycle to talk about not how human industry can be just “less bad,” but how it can be more good, an extraordinary positive in our world.  (Location 194)

Here is one textile-related example of their work:

When asked to design an upholstery textile, Bill wanted a product that would express his core value of how to love all of the children, of all species, for all time, to create a healthful fabric…

This idea of making healthful fabric was not an obviously achievable goal, given that a good percentage of conventional fabrics contain chemicals undefined in terms of ecological and human health.  Trimmings and loom clippings often have to be disposed of as hazardous waste.  Fabric dyes often contain toxins, even such heavy metals as cobalt or zirconium.

The usual way to reduce toxic load is to filter out dangerous substances… at the end of the process.  We took a different approach, eliminating these dangerous substances at the beginning.  It’s just easier, more efficient… we eliminated from consideration approximately 8,000 chemicals commonly introduced in the textile industry… We went even further and chose 38 positive ingredients from which to make the entire fabric line.

…this is where the abundance of upcycling comes into play all of a sudden…

…because chemicals without toxic characteristics were involved in production, regulatory paperwork was no longer necessary or required.  Employees who had worn gloves and masks for a measure of flimsy protection against workplace toxins could take them off.  Space previously used for the storage of hazardous chemicals was now available as additional workspace…  (Location 998 of 3117)

These next two quotes offer such a different perspective from what I am used to:

If this planet is going to support millions more people than are here now, we want to look at each new person as a joy, a neighbor, a creative contributor to the common good, not as a burden.  What might each person invent to improve our world?  How can all of us support their ingenuity?  What is fair for them?  What can people design for their health and longevity?  How can we express intergenerational generosity?  (Location 2015)

There is no more delightfully serious function in life and in business than to create joy.  (Location 2398)

I found it so refreshing to read ideas that dare to sound optimistic, for a change.   These ideas, with the reasoning and evidence behind them, are fleshed out more fully in the book.  You can also check out the nine Hannover Principles that guide the authors’ work, and their Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.

Six Books on Sustainability and Some Things I Learned

Try not to think of this as a really long post, try to think of it as a quick way to sample six books on sustainability, and see if any of them intrigue you.  I have linked to their pages at Google Books and most of them have pretty good-sized samples there if you would like to read more.

Green Essentials:What You Need to Know about the Environment by Geoffrey C. Saign, 1994, Mercury House.

In 1994, what was essential to know about about the sustainability of cotton, fabric, dyes, textiles, and fashion?  Apparently, nothing.  This 528-page book mentions that the Aral Sea was shrinking due to irrigating arid land, and names the cotton boll weevil on a list of invading insect pests, but otherwise there is no mention of any of these other topics.  It’s interesting to me that 20 years ago, Sustainable Fashion wasn’t in the mainstream of environmental concerns.

The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard, 2010, Free Press, a division of Simon and Schuster.

Confessions of an Eco-Sinner:Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff by Fred Pearce, 2008, Beacon Press

These two books are very similar, in that they cover all sorts of products that we buy and discard.  There may be more information packed into Leonard’s book, but I felt that Pearce’s is more readable, less frenetic.

Leonard’s is organized by the steps of production — extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal — and within each of those steps she writes about different items.  There are only 7 pages in her book on cotton and clothing, but those 7 pages are packed with unforgettable information.  She spends a lot of time on the miserable labor conditions of women in Haiti who sew for Disney (you can read updates about those conditions and a plethora of other Disney issues on the Corporate Research Project website).

Pearce’s book devotes a chapter to each item we use or wear on a daily basis – coffee, cell phones, wedding rings, socks.  Four of the chapters cover with the manufacturing of new clothes, and one covers the resale of donated clothes.  Pearce flew all over the world and talked with a sheep rancher in Australia, garment workers in Bangladesh, and cotton farmers in India, among others.  His vivid portrayals of these individuals provide a handle for understanding the complex stages of production.

This was my favorite book from all of these.  The last four chapters cover reasons for hope and after reading all this depressing information, I really needed those!

Pearce has more hopeful things to say about Africa than I have ever read before.  Here is a cotton farmer in Mali.

And here is a gorgeous pile of handwoven scarves from Swaziland.

These next three books all came out last year, and they cover a lot of the same information, but each one has a slightly different angle.  I need to reread all three to absorb their information better.

Sustainable Fashion: Past, Present, Future by Jennifer Farley Gordon and Colleen Hill, 2015, Bloomsbury Academic

This book originated from an exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology.  It traces the history of several aspects of the fashion industry, such as dyes, fibers, and craftsmanship from the 18th century on.  It is illustrated with photos of historical clothing — they are only in black and white!  but many of them are shown in color on the exhibition’s website.

A major point in this book is that there is no perfect fiber or fabric.  Speaking of cotton, the authors say, “…the fiber’s designation as organic often ends at harvest, without accounting for further stages of its life cycle — many of which are not sustainable.”  (Kindle Location 1538 of 6770)  (Sorry, I can’t find out how to make “locations” change to “page numbers” in e-books.)

A really thorough review of this book is on one of my favorite blogs,  Worn Through, so I won’t spend any more time on it here, I encourage you to read that review.

Fixing Fashion:Rethinking the Way We Think, Market, and Buy Our Clothes by Michael Lavernge, 2015, New Society Publishers

This book was written by a fashion industry insider.  Among other positions, he was a sourcing manager for Sara Lee, which at the time owned Hanes (who owns Playtex, Champion, etc. etc.).  Throughout the book he relates how difficult it is to establish and maintain a transparent chain of supply — companies change names, buy each other out, spin off divisions, etc.  His blow-by-blow details of corporate takeovers prove his industry knowledge, but I could have done with a little less of them.

Lavergne sort of fell into his career in apparel manufacturing, at the same time the North American companies were beginning to outsource jobs overseas.   In each chapter he tells a little about how his career played out, and then how that relates to industry trends. He is honest about times he wasn’t prepared for the realities he met, or didn’t know what he needed to, so it’s interesting to see how those challenges illustrate the larger changes in industry.

Like Sustainable Fashion, this book covers a lot of textile industry history, but there were two subjects that were totally new to me.  The first: Just because a clothing label says the item came from a certain country, doesn’t mean the workers that made it did.  Lavernge writes,” Entering the US market is no easy feat; the US has built up some of the most complex sets of customs and tariffs rules in the world… ‘free trade’ deals are more correctly described as managed trade agreements.” (Location 1075 of 4277, italics his.)

He details events in 1994: “… a Western-educated Jordanian businessman, Omar Salah… was able to convince disparate political actors from Israel, the U.S. and Jordan to facilitate a special export processing agreement allowing goods manufactured in Jordan to enter American markets free of import duties and restrictions.”

“While much of the early work done at the international level in promoting the trade deal had sold the concept based on its potential contribution to regional peace, stability and the creation of employment for Jordanians, the reality on the ground turned out to be something quite different.  Instead of acting as a catalyst for local job creation, international apparel firms from China and South Asia were given the green light to import the vast majority of their factory laborers from their home countries.  According to data from the Jordanian Ministry of Labour, by 2006 just over 66 percent of the 54,000 QIZ [Qualifying Industrial Zone] employees were foreign ‘guest workers.’… the other 34 percent, who were Jordanian nationals, were often assigned tasks in teams and multiples of three or four people, when half that number of employees would have sufficed.  Job titles were being created simply to achieve quotas for local hiring and job creation.” (Location 1156 of 4277)

Lavergne goes on to compare two of those factories, one run poorly and one run well — having workers brought in from China and Sri Lanka doesn’t necessarily equate with unfair treatment, but this is one example of a hurdle to supply-chain accountability.

These are Sri Lankan workers actually in Sri Lanka.  Reading these books was tough going for me but I have loved researching images on these issues.

The second topic that was new to me: the role of auditors.  He writes about this in detail for pages, so I’ll sum up.  Let’s say that an American retail company says that from now on, it is going to hold all its suppliers to Fair Trade Certification standards.  They send an inspector to a Bangladeshi factory, and he finds it has no fire escapes.  Are they going to shut down the whole factory while proper fire escapes are built?  No, the auditor reports back to the retail company with the non-compliance issue, and a “corrective action plan,” or CAP.  Depending on circumstances, the factory owner may be told he has two months to build the fire escapes, after which his orders will be cancelled.  After those two months, the auditor goes back, finds out the fire escapes still haven’t been built, dutifully reports the truth, files another corrective action plan, and the cycle continues.

“The auditing industry that has evolved over the past 20 years or so to serve the outsourced needs of international brands and retailers is now a multi-billion-dollar goliath.” (Location 1756 of 4277.)  Lavergne explains that the monitoring and auditing industry is as prone to corruption as are the clothing factories — bribing the auditors may be cheaper than fixing the faults in the plant, or auditors may threaten a plant with a bad report unless they get some supplemental pay.


Once we have purchased that Fast Fashion item, worn it a few times, and gotten sick of it?  What do we do?  We virtuously give it to a charity thrift shop, where it is passed on to someone in need, right?

Well, not exactly.  To find out what really happens to it, we go to —
Clothing Poverty: The Hidden World of Fast Fashion and Second-Hand Clothes by Andrew Brooks, 2015, Zed Books.

This book goes into great depth on what happens to our discarded clothes.  Only about 6 – 10 % (depending on whose statistics you read) stay in the donor country at their thrift stores, the rest gets baled up and resold, usually ending up in Africa.  Even there it is not just given to needy people, but is sold and resold.  That might be fine, but the market vendors there have to buy the bales sight unseen, with no assurance that the garments inside will be ones that they can actually sell.  (Think about the market for a bale of Canadian winter coats in Nigeria.)  The garments that do get sold undermine the market for traditional clothing, driving established businesses into bankruptcy and increasing dependence on these foreign handouts.

One of the facts that stayed with me from this book, is that Oxfam has a huge role in this process. Brooks interviewed Tony Clark, a general manager at Oxfam’s processing plant for donated clothes, Wastesaver.  “Oxfam’s role as a campaigning organization advocating for change in the cotton sector sits uneasily with its position in the second-hand clothing system of provision.  Clark commented that ‘[i]t was quite an eye opener for me’ speaking to colleagues within Oxfam who are campaigning against US cotton subsidies and promoting fair-trade clothing. ‘Oxfam was reluctant to talk about clothing ending up in countries they worked in…which could affect local industry.'” (Location 1455 of 5493)

Oxfam had started a small sorting plant in Dakar that employs 25 people, but the spokesman Clark said, “We can’t shift everything from a commercial to an ethical basis because the risk is too great…[we] invested £300,000…[we are] paying full duty, putting us at a commercial disadvantage in-country.”

I remembered this when I was watching the film The True Cost – Livia Firth from Oxfam was shown berating a spokeswoman for H & M stores as to exactly how much was the “living wage” they paid their garment workers.  But according to Andrew Brooks, Oxfam’s practices are contributing to these problems as well.

So, if we can’t in good conscience buy new clothes or donate old ones, and instead we wear vintage clothes, then we can feel virtuous, right?

Not exactly.  According to Brooks, “Hipster sensibilities and uniqueness cannot persevere in isolation for long, hence interest in vintage clothing has crossed over and steadily become co-opted into the mainstream as retro trends are remade by fast-fashion brands.” (Location 2945 of 5493)  “The emergence of vintage boutiques has been part of gentrification in the North’s global cities…” (Location 2953)  “The cultural economy which surrounds consumption – exhibitions, blogs, themed parties, commercialized nostalgia – is all part of the social landscape that enables vintage clothing systems of provision.”  (Location 2995)

This book was the toughest read for me.  The tone is unfailingly pessimistic, and the author seems to hold each and every person in the “global North” personally responsible for every ill that besets the “global South.”  (Maybe it was that comment he made against blogs.)  But still, I am glad I read it.

So, that’s roughly 1500 pages on sustainable fashion condensed to less than 2000 words!  I plan to do another post on some of the solutions proposed to these problems, and I also want to keep researching the sustainability of craft fabrics and yarns.




Looking into Sustainable Textiles, Part One

Looking into Sustainable Textiles, Part One

Wherever you fall on the diet spectrum, you can find loads of information about the food you eat.  If you survive on junk food, you are surrounded by warnings to change your ways, and once you decide to switch to healthy habits, you can find information on preventing disease from Alzheimer’s to yellow fever. No matter how specialized the category, you can figure out from food labels if that food fits your requirements.  You can find fair trade, non-genetically modified, organic, gluten-free anything if you want it, and you can find out its country of origin too.   A bag of dog treats has to tell you what’s in them and where they came from.

But when it comes to textiles, there is nothing like this level of information available.

All I want to know is, where was the cotton grown, what chemicals are in the dyes, where was it spun, woven, and printed?

Manufacturers have to tell you fiber content, but beyond that, you can’t find out much.  I want the fabrics I buy to be processed in environmentally and socially responsible ways.  The fabric mills are not actively promoting their fabrics as ethical — does that mean they don’t know its importance to their customers?  Or does it mean they would prefer I don’t know how bad their processing practices are?  (Back to the food label comparison — the dog treats that are made in the USA have big stamps on the package proclaiming that; the ones made elsewhere bury the information in the small print beneath the ingredient list.  So I feel like if the fabric mills were proud of their practices, they would make sure to tell us about it.)

For the last few months, I have been trying to read about sustainability and responsibility in the textile industry.  The problems are so overwhelming and so interconnected, that I can only stand to read a little at a time.

You probably have some idea of the problems wrapped up with the textile industry:

  • cotton is one of the most irrigated crops
  • 25% of the insecticides in the world are used in cotton production (Organic Trade Association)
  • most of the people applying pesticides to the cotton have no protection from them and face horrible health problems as a result
  • the chemicals used can build up in the soil and water
  • there are high energy costs from transporting textiles to different countries for each step of their processing
  • millions of workers face unsafe conditions, including being locked into their factories and being forced to work overtime
  • millions of garments are worn just a few times, then dumped, or passed on to a donation center — and 90% of those are baled up and sent overseas to be resold, undercutting local textile industries

I am specifically interested in the textile craft industry.  I know there are a few products out there that are organic and fair trade, and of course we have literally tons of material available we can re-use.  But as far as new materials — what are the human and environmental costs of quilting fabrics, weaving thread, knitting yarns?  Are there any organizations or websites that have established standards, where we can quickly determine what companies and products (if any) meet our own standards?

Are these fibers and fabrics as safe as they look?

Most of the information I can find concerns the fashion segment of the industry.  I know all of you are concerned about these issues too, so I thought I would share what I’ve been learning in a series of posts.

For an overview, I recommend the video The True Cost.  The film makers did an excellent job of putting a human face on each of these aspects.   The Bangladeshi garment worker Shima Akhter in particular is so animated and well-spoken — there are 4 million garment workers in Bangladesh, and Shima represents them so clearly.  (If you do watch the video, be aware that there a few brief violent scenes, so you may not want to have children viewing with you.  And if you aren’t inclined to watch the video, you can pick up most of the same information on its website at the link above.)

But although the video does an excellent job of presenting industry problems clearly and concisely, it doesn’t seem to offer much in the way of solutions.  Primarily, the filmmakers suggest buying fair trade clothing from upscale designers.  It seems to me that the video’s target audience is the small segment of the fashion market that is female, between sizes 2 and 18, who can afford to spend $200 for a plain white cardigan or $680 (no, that is not a typo) for a pair of shorts.  Here’s why I say that:  there are several segments showing young shoppers shallowly bragging about all the bargains they have scored in a day’s shopping, and how cute they are going to look, but there is not anything in the film that addresses those young fashionistas directly, saying, “Here, let me show you how to express yourself in a way beyond shopping.”

Maybe you could embroider your own design on something.

Maybe you could embroider your own design on something.

There is a lot of talking about the evil heads of large corporations, and how they misdirect attention from larger issues and make young consumers feel they have to shop — “I can’t afford a house, but I afford 4 t-shirts.”   (My thought was, “Really?  The connected generation is powerless to recognize the manipulation of a GAP ad?”)

The website associated with the video has an extensive list of resources for further reading though, and I am looking forward to following those links.

Next up:  Five Books on Sustainable Fashion and What I Learned






Old Sisters Together

Old Sisters Together

folded quilts

Old Sisters Together

Slipping sliding in their stacks
to nestle folds and feathers
Frail whispers float
in sun-warmed air
lacing memories together.

“We’re glad you joined us, Ruby, dear.”
(“Her stitches are gigantic!”)
(“We’ll take them out after she goes,
no need to be so frantic!
You were a beginner once,
and you improved with time.”)
(“What? You picked my stitches out?”)
(“Of course we did, as long ago,
someone picked out mine.”)

folds 3

“These children underneath the frame!
Albert’s bumped his head,
Neal’s mouth is stuffed with butter
but I don’t see any bread!
Annie’s grabbed my thimble —
can’t we send them out to play?”
“No, let them stay, they grow up so fast,
we’ll laugh at this some day.”

folds 2

“Grace, this quilt will look so pretty
when you get to your new home
in Missouri…Texas…Idaho…
and wherever else you roam.”

(“In ’32 they lost the farm,
that was the hardest year.”)
“I’ll trade you purple daisies, Ruth,
for that red I need right here.”

(“Both her boys were called up last month,
and her brother has gone too.”)
“Cora, I’m so glad you’re here,
no one marks as well as you!”

The partings seem so many,
New arrivals all too few.
When troubles strike
and gray times spread
what can “just women” do?

Such hopelessness —
No jobs
The dust
Cold enemies in wait…

Can we ever overcome this?

It’s bound to be too late.


Pull out all the colors
Blend the patterns bold and bright
Swap your scraps and stories
and slowly build the light.
Gather in a circle,
place your stitches next to mine.
We’ll pass on all the love we can,
our hands always intertwined.


I read a writing prompt: “The shadows on your wall are speaking.  Write about the conversation that follows.”*  At my house, the shadows don’t talk, but the textiles are never silent!

And then I read Verónica’s story about how knitting helps her with blue times, and Kerry’s post on what the linens are saying at her house, and we seemed to be on the same page, thinking about how the small touches by ordinary women have meant so much to us through the years.

*The prompt is from A Year of Creative Writing Prompts by Love in Ink

Return to Routine

Return to Routine

Our family celebrates the holidays in about the most laid-back, stress-free way possible, but still I am always glad to get back to ordinary life.

All the posts I have read recently have been bubbling around in my mind and today they led me to the first project of the year.

Take Joanna’s string quilt blocks (inspired by Maryline’s string quilt ), and Kerry’s recent thoughts on doing a daily stint of tasks towards a goal — mix it up with Lucie’s Use Up Your Scraps Month and my leftovers from a Disappearing Nine Patch quilt I did two years ago, and here’s what you get:

String blocks, mostly men's shirt fabric.

String blocks, mostly men’s shirt fabric.

I love men’s wear patterns and re-using old shirts, but without reading Joanna’s and Maryline’s instructions, I would never have thought to stitch them on a foundation fabric to help keep them aligned.  It works wonders!  There is such satisfaction in emptying bobbins too, as I stitch the strips to muslin scraps from a local guild’s white elephant sale.

I haven’t decided yet if I will cut these rectangles in half into squares, or maybe the long way, into longer, thinner rectangles.  Once I start, I just want to work through all the possibilities!