Smock dress dreaming

Smock Dress Dreaming Sewing

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How do you feel about pockets, the bigger the better?

I love being free from a purse, throwing my necessities and maybe a craft project for good measure into a generously sized pocket, and apparently I’m not alone in feeling that capacious pockets offer freedom: “No pocketless people has ever been great since pockets were invented, and the female sex cannot rival [men] while it is pocketless” notes an 1899 article on the Rational Dress Society. Pockets (or lack thereof) are not just a symbol of sexism, but political in nature: evoking swagger, mystery, suffragettes, personal property, equality.

Similarly, the loose silhouette of early 20th Century ‘Village sacks,’ so named for the Greenwich Village artists who made and took to them, freed the female body and “conveyed the message that the wearer was a liberal woman who stood outside mainstream America.” (this I’ve learned from the incredible O’Keeffe: Living Modern catalog).

Which brings me to my modern loves: functional studio-meets-street smock designs by State the Label and GDS Cloth Goods which give me all the heart-eyes, the amazing catch-all crescents of Elizabeth Suzann‘s Clyde designs, and denim shift dresses and full skirts with wrap-around pockets by Aliya Wanek and Carleen. I contend that FLAX designs of the ’90s actually originated many of the sack and pocket shapes we’re seeing these days, my own vintage Flax jumpsuit adorned with inset wrap-around pockets, and a quick eBay search offering much inspiration (lower right in the collage above).

After doodling countless smock dresses on every surface within arms reach, I’ve taken to drafting my ideal dress, a mash up of my smock-pocket dreams and my self-drafted crop top and best woman dress. More soon!

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Making a fashion revolution

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Last week’s Fashion Revolution campaign has provided so much to read, think about, share, and act on. Fashion Revolution Week continues to grow awareness and expand upon previous year’s one-day campaigns for transparency in the fashion industry (asking #whomademyclothes) in response to the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza Complex in Bangladesh. The tragedy killed over 1100 garment workers and injured 2500, many of whom were trapped in the building.

Of course, and most unfortunately, Rana Plaza was the largest but not the first garment manufacturing accident. Garment and textile industry working conditions have throughout history been abusive, with protests and backlash leading to the abolishment of child labor and the creation of the 8-hour workday.

When the Fashion Revolution campaign asks “who made my clothes?” it is very easy for us makers to answer “I made my clothes” — Fashion Revolution Day is but one week before Me Made May, after all. But last year the maker community went further, with many of us posting “I made my clothes” and then asking “who made my fabric?”

This year, Emily from In the Folds initiated a great set of prompts called Makers for Fashion Revolution, with a topic to post about each day: I made my clothes; By Hand; Mending; Upcycled; Second hand first; Skill up; Goals.

I really enjoyed these phrases as jumping-off points for thinking about why and how I make clothing. I posted almost every day with the series of pictures at the top (you can find me on Instagram to see the full posts :)). I love that there is this virtual community of people nodding in agreement about these issues, inspiring one another, swapping ideas, and crowd-sourcing trouble-shooting and transparency.

And yet, between the #makersforfashrev social media conversations and reading lots of Fashion Revolution articles in different news outlets, I kept coming back to how personal choice is situated within systemic change. When we ask brands for transparency, are we really pressuring them into complying with human rights and ethical practices? When we make (or mend) our own clothing, are we truly creating change in the fashion system, or are we small potatoes?

Just a few days into the week, I found myself scanning through #fashrev posts and feeling dismayed by both the vastness of the industry (80 billion garments leave factories each year) and the (self-critical) virtuosity of my own campaign posts (I make/mend my clothes, and therefore abstain from unethical conditions). My mind went back to an essay I once read for an environmental policy class: To Hell with Shorter Showers.

Turns out, the piece, penned by Derick Jensen, is actually called Forget Shorter Showers, but I think the way I’ve mentally catalogued it sums up the position that individual actions will never even approach the impact of industrial resource use and waste:

“I want to be clear. I’m not saying we shouldn’t live simply. I live reasonably simply myself, but I don’t pretend that not buying much (or not driving much, or not having kids) is a powerful political act, or that it’s deeply revolutionary. It’s not. Personal change doesn’t equal social change.”

Last year there was an article focused on the “the myth of the ethical shopper” which made some parallel arguments. Frankly, I hated that article. Not because I think we can solve all the problems of the fashion industry by shopping ethically, but because it lacked nuance, rejecting the idea that people can be engaged citizens who also shop.

I think in addition to asking, we need to demand change and enforcement of standards — from brands, from politicians, from independent certifiers. We need to divest from fast fashion. And we need to shop secondhand, especially if/when we regularly donate to secondhand shops. Which, of course, does come back around to personal choice.

While it’s possible to extend the “ethical shopper” narrative into a “myth of the ethical maker,” I think that would be entirely overlooking the added engagement provided by a tactile understanding of clothing (and perhaps fiber) production. In our digital age, craft and tactile art practices become a hands-on refuge for learning by doing, which, as Nicki Taylor highlighted in a piece on the Fibershed blog, engenders an appreciation for the systems of production and material sources that make clothing ourselves possible. Though not every maker may have that kind of revelation, I think it would be hard to find someone whose choice to make clothing has not affected their assessment of the quality and quantity of clothing produced by the greater fashion system.

My own experience of sewing and knitting has deepened my understanding of the time and effort involved in developing well-fitting, well-made, long-lasting garments. And precisely because I make some of my clothes, I am constantly reminded by threading the needle of my sewing machine or seaming up a sweater that there people around the world making pretty much every other piece of clothing I come across — as their livelihood, not a hobby.

So I think we also need to use that personal choice to invest in alternative systems – in fair trade, in regional manufacturing, in a fibershed. (If I do say so myself). But not just in terms of economic power — the mythical ethical shopper trap looms again — but in non-consumer efforts like building community, sharing skills, and lobbying politicians.

On Fashion Revolution Day, I opted to ask brands #whomademyclothes rather than focusing on my goals (per the #makersforfashrev prompts), but as I’ve been forming this post, it’s become clear to me that my goal is to figure out how to engage more actively in the political side of this movement for transparency. How to “show up” not just in my personal acts of making clothing, but in my civic engagement.

The personal is political, in so much as it is a hands-on way for us to understand systems of power that benefit from unjust politics — but the personal is not a substitution for the political.

p.s. Some resources I’m starting with: Clean Clothes Campaign; Labour Behind the Label; Detox Fashion; American Fashion podcast on TPP; learning more about Fair Trade standards

 

khadi chronicles pt. 1

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when I came across khadi by the yard for sale at A Verb for Keeping Warm I was enchanted. To me, khadi is powerful cloth. Incredibly alluring, especially if you like the feel of course linen and natural colors and small textural reminders that human hands made your cloth, but beyond that it is politically potent. Five years ago I had the opportunity to participate in an incredible study abroad program which traveled from the US to India, Tanzania, New Zealand and Mexico and explored the impacts of globalization and grassroots resistance — it was a pivotal journey for me intellectually and emotionally, one which I am grateful for every single day. I first learned about the history of khadi while in India, so seeing and touching it was a visceral reminder of that journey and the (positive and negative) transformative potential of textiles.

khadi chronicles_8Khadi is a term for handspun and handwoven cloth, but it is also emblematic of the movement for Indian self-reliance and freedom from British colonialism. Gandhi advocated for each person to spin their own cotton and each community to weave their own cloth so that the Indian people would create home-grown textiles rather than buying fabric back from the British who held tight control over the cotton markets. Gandhi encouraged a daily practice of spinning with a foldable spinning wheel or charkha and community-scale fiber farmning, weaving, dyeing, and block-printing; a true example that the revolution begins at home. (This cursory overview of the history of khadi was imparted by my teacher in India, Saatchi, and a brief stay in the village and ashram of Sevagram; this website is another resource). While I doubt all khadi cotton is still spun at home on a charkha, some of this cottage industry remains, both for educational purposes and cloth production.

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I bought a meager yard and a half, maybe even just a yard and a quarter, of organic cotton, naturally dyed khadi that day at Verb, and at the time I wasn’t really sewing clothing. I guess that khadi was the start of my stash, and I treasured it, saving it until I had dusted off my sewing skills. Even then, cutting into this plainweave, turquoise fabric made my heart jump! But this simple Wiksten tank has become a wardrobe staple for me.

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I chose the Wiksten tank pattern because I wanted a garment with a modern, simple design that would be straightforward for my beginner sewing skills and showcase the beauty of this cloth. The yardage had natural color variations including a large faded streak that I intentionally placed along the center back.

Nearly a year later I felt more confident in my sewing skills and I was fortunate to have a slightly larger fabric budget, so I returned to Verb to buy more khadi — this time gray and brown stripes of the same thick, organic, naturally dyed cloth. On the eve of Me Made May I sewed up a Scout Tee with added volume in the back (using Jen’s great tutorial for slashing & spreading the pattern) and lengthened sleeves (+2″ I think?). When I bought the fabric I had a Scout tee in mind because again I wanted a classic, modern wardrobe staple, but I definitely thought that the stripes went horizontally. Not so! The stripes run along the grainline and the cloth is pretty narrow, so I forged ahead with vertical stripes, and I’m very pleased with it.

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Both of these tops are now part of my core wardrobe, and I love that each time I wear one I’m reminded not only of my own travels but of the incredible journey from field to garment. With this narrative in mind, I made sure to wear my khadi Wiksten as part of my outfit for Fashion Revolution Day:

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Stay tuned ~ tomorrow I’ll be posting another khadi garment & a few more words about my love for this cloth!