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.Embed from Getty Images
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?Embed from Getty Images
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.”
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
You have a valid concern. I often think about the toxicity of dyeing yarn and the process necessary to deem a yarn “superwash.” Superwash yarns are mostly processed in China due to a different view regarding a lack of environmental concern. Though lets all agree this is a double-edged sword. What is the trade-off for keeping manufacturing in the US?
Now, I did not know anything about that! That is exactly why I wanted to bring this topic up, I knew I would learn a lot more!
And then I guess you could get into, China is processing our superwash yarn in not-so-good ways, but it helps us launder things better and make them last longer, so maybe overall it’s better for the planet. But how are we to know for sure? I really want enough information to be able to decide these things easily. (I don’t know how to do an emoticon for a “grrr” face, so you will just have to imagine it. )
Hi “Textile Ranger” buddy –
I’m way left of Senator Sanders, was once modestly trained in political science, and am still impressed with the “humanism” of the early Marx. I also see the nefarious influence and effects of capitalism everywhere (and certainly importantly in commercial textiles).
But I wonder if this concern in the area of craft is not a bit misplaced.
Yes, contemporary quilters (and maybe even those in the past) may be dependent in the practice of their craft on textiles produced under less that ideal circumstances and with possibly harmful effects. bit I wonder how serious and consequential our exposure is.
I can get angry (and do) about Wall Street, but can’t summon up much irritation about a quilter who may be (likely entirely innocently) using textiles produced under less than admirable circumstances.
For me, personally, it’s OK to go about enjoying quilting without worrying much about such things.
But your heart is certainly in the right place.
R. John Howe
Textiles and Text
Thank you for your kind words of assurance. I think you are right about quilting being okay, because after all we can use vintage and discarded items. And in the event that I never bought another piece of fabric, I could probably live the rest of my life crafting happily with the vines and goat hair, etc. that I have locally. But I also want to let manufacturers know that really every detail of production is important to me, the same way that if I buy salmon, I want to know it’s being fished sustainably; if I buy hardwood floors, I don’t want them to be coming from illegally logged wood. I see a movement towards more transparency in the supply chain of other items; I hope we are going to see more of it in the craft world too.
Left of Bernie Sanders??? You may have some opinions on some of the other books I read and am going to write about — I look forward to your input if you do! 🙂
Really interesting read. I had never thought about having more information from manufacturers about fabric, finished clothes yes, but not fabric. I have bought some nice African fabric from a lady who buys direct and goes to Africa to source it herself, but is just hadn’t thought about the cotton in a fabric shop. Thanks for a thought provoking post.
Glad to spark some new ideas for you! I have been reading about this on and off for about four years and I don’t have all the information I would like, but I think it’s an important subject for those of us who buy more craft supplies than we do new fashionable clothing. We still need to know where it comes from.
Thanks. This is something I think about a lot, and I have looked into to some extent. (Are you surprised?) A very large portion of the cottons we buy for quilting are grown in the US, but then shipped overseas for processing into fabrics. WHY? Well, primarily because there are workers there who can be paid low wages, and there are few constraints on safety. Those cost savings are more than enough to make up for the cost of shipping both ways. Information is incredibly hard to assemble into an understandable whole. I’ll look forward to reading more from you about it. Here is a link to my post on batik production, and at the bottom are a few other links to my posts on other parts of fabric manufacture. https://catbirdquilts.wordpress.com/2015/04/03/cotton-batik-production/
Yes, I have been reading about this for months, and it is such a big tangled subject it has given me headaches. I thought about not writing about it at all, but I knew you have been researching it too, and I thought you would be interested in what I’ve seen and read, just to know if those resources are worth your time.
I am glad to know most of what is used for quilting is at least grown in the US. The very worst problem I see in all of this is Uzbekistan cotton, with the forced labor, and drying up of the Aral Sea with the inefficient irrigation they use.
Very timely! I was just talking TODAY to someone re the film I saw from your site, I think, re what happens to the clothing we discard. It took place in India and there were PILES of clothing, all sorted in different colours. If you remember which film it was I would appreciate it. Your list is amazing and dizzying. Thank you. She also said she was wearing 20 year old T shirts but is slowly getting rid of them!
Wow, I don’t remember that! I looked up “video” in my posts and I did not see anything specifically about India or recycling. If it was me, I wish I could find it! If you remember that you saw it somewhere else, please let me know.
Very thought provoking. Living in a country that doesn’t produce cotton, we will always have to import but I’ve never really considered where that place may be. The textile world is rather murky and though there are regular articles in the press about the dire conditions of workers in the clothing industry but little about where the good practice is so that I can support it.
I know! Textile workers have always worked in bad conditions but I want that to be over. It’s one thing to do tedious work but it’s another to be unsafe or forced to work longer hours than you contracted for. I will keep looking for good resources.
An excellent post and I look forward to future installments. I am very interested in this area. My particular interest is knitting but I also sew (and wear clothes!) And you are right it is hard to find anything but dribs and drabs of info. I see a growing online discussion about making your own ethical wardrobe but little about the origin of the fabrics. There is also a growing awareness about processing issues and fibre sources amongst knitters and spinners and I am heartened by your perspective as a quilter. A couple of great books you might enjoy are Overdressed: the shockingly high cost of cheap fashion and Sustainable Fashion and Textiles by Kate Fletcher. The latter one has some really great info on a materials diversity approach to sustainability.
I saw the Kate Fletcher one on Google Books today and I will look into it. I am currently reading the Atlas of Sustainable Design (or something like that) and that has good information too. Thank you for commenting!
I get so edgy and depressed, thinking about all this. When we were in Ireland last year, we went to Avoca Handweavers and the guy there, working the loom, told us most of the wool they use iS from China! They are importing Chinese wool to Ireland, for heaven’s sake! I just wish I could find a straightforward list of do’s and don’t’s . . . that didn’t cost a complete fortune!
I know! I can’t believe how hard it has been to find guidelines. I am going to research those links from The True Cost film website and see what I can find, but I know some of them are limited to the UK as far as resources.
Well, we will keep looking and I know we will find ways to do good for our companions in textiles.
As always Great Post! I like the sight. Blessings Always, Mtetar
Thank you! There are a lot of resources to explore at the website, I am looking forward to checking them out now that I have finished reading this big stack of books! 🙂
I’m a knitter and I’m happy to see that there are more and more yarns that are eco, fair trade, made with non toxic dyes and so on. Clothes is harder to find. When it comes to fabric I only use outsorted since am a weaver too…
Yes, I am able to find a small number of products that declare where they are made and how, and I could probably craft happily with them until the end of my days. But I hope we can get more companies on board with labeling clearly so we can know we are making those better choices.
Thank you for commenting!
Kerry;s comment…that makes me gag. Chinese wool woven in Ireland and of course it will say, MADE in Ireland………leaving everyone to believe………..
You’re right, I would never have even suspected that!
Wool in Ireland from China? Such things have gone on for a long time. As it happens I am preparing a Textile Museum lecture on Russian printed textiles. These textiles have been produced since at least Peter the Great, but one finding, maybe relevant to the concerns here, is that Russia was an important exporter of flax in the 19th century. No outrage I’ve seen about an Irish lady who discovered that she was working with linen from Russian flax. 🙂
And Russia imported cotton from Great Britain. Great Britain got a lot of its 19th century cotton from the U.S. Until the U.S. Civil War, a lot of that was produced under conditions of slave labor. Now that’s something to be outraged about.
R. John Howe
Textiles and Text
Excellent post. Even using natural dyes, I encountered various levels of toxicity.
Yes, good point, that’s one of the things that keeps coming out in these books, that we have to be aware what we consider truly sustainable. If I send off to another country for a natural dye, am I depleting a small population of plants?
I play around with the plants on my place to see what colors I get, but if I were going to sell dyed yarns, I would want to be sure they weren’t going to cause reactions on people’s skins, etc.