Friday, 24 April 2015

Fashion Revolution Day: who made your fabric?

As a sewer, the answer to the question, "who made my clothes?" can often be, "I did!" I'm a long way from having an entirely me-made wardrobe - not sure I'm even aiming for that - but I do really enjoy noticing that pretty much every load of laundry we do now includes at least one thing that I sewed. Who made my clothes? Not an underpaid, exploited worker in a dangerous factory somewhere: I made them myself.
If I stop there, though, at that feeling of pleasure [virtuousness? self-congratulation??] at being able to sew my own clothes, I think I'm missing the point of the question. Cutting and sewing fabric is just the final stage of making a garment. It's understandable that it's that stage that comes to mind today, because we're commemorating the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster that killed 1,133 (or more) people who were mostly garment workers. But there's a lot of work that goes into producing clothing before the cutting and sewing happens - starting with growing cotton (or flax, hemp, bamboo, nettles, pine trees, banana palms...) from seed, or raising sheep, goats, silk worms, or llamas, or maybe drilling for oil, through all sorts of processes (some much more complex/polluting/resource-hungry than others) just to make yarn, and then onto dyeing, knitting or weaving. People are involved at every step. Much has been done to make our home-sewn clothes before we ever pick up our scissors.

So instead of using Fashion Revolution Day as a celebration of home-sewing, a kind of fun warm-up to Me-Made May, maybe we could adapt the question so that it serves its intended purpose: to encourage us to think about people we often forget, who work to produce the goods that we buy. Who makes my fabric? Where are they? Are they working in safe conditions? Are they paid a fair wage for their labour? Can they unionise to defend their rights? Is their neighbourhood impacted positively or negatively by the production of the cloth (or the raw materials for it) that I buy?
With so much choice confronting us when we shop for fabric (or clothes), it's hard to keep sight of these issues. We all prefer not to ask uncomfortable questions, and instead we get caught up in the search for - or the thrill of finding - just the right shade of blue, the perfect drape, the ideal amount of stretch, the prettiest-ever print, and all at a good price... We don't actually believe that any of those things are more important than the safety and well-being of our fellow humans, but we're easily led to behave as if they are. I "need" some turquoise striped jersey - but not like the person picking the cotton needs a living wage and protection from deadly pesticides. We forget to think of it that way; the point of Fashion Revolution Day is to remind us.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Going to the Knitting & Stitching Show this week?

I've been at the Knitting & Stitching Show at Ally Pally this afternoon. This is the first time they've opened on a Wednesday and it was blissfully quiet: no elbow matches, no scrums, no danger of being thrown headlong into the pile of cut-price yarn at that stall, not even a queue for the toilets! Also, I managed not to purchase a SINGLE THING. Yep, a zero-growth day for the stash. It seemed like there were slightly fewer stalls this year, and more interesting gallery exhibits - plenty to enjoy without buying more stuff. In case you're heading up there in the next few days, here are the highlights according to me:

Galleries:

Beautiful watercolours, stitched pictures, and soft sculpture (including the apples used on the show publicity), and lovely illustrations by her husband, Charles, too. Both artists are now dead and their son and daughter are manning the gallery. There's a video of Renate speaking about her work; she was involved in planning the exhibit before she passed away earlier this year.

This thought-provoking gallery features the tiniest hand-stitched lettering EVER. And cross-stitched biscuits. My mum and I had a chat with Caren, who was really friendly and slightly bemused that someone had just 'tidied up' a deliberately out-of-place element of her display!

Stalls:

Baa Ram Ewe (TGK15) has very attractive seamless knitting patterns; I didn't spot any organic wool at the show this year, unfortunately, but theirs is made of all-British fibres and spun in Yorkshire. Janice Gunner's quilts (RCF8) prove that saving teeny tiny scraps of fabric isn't ridiculous (although my mum led the way to this one, the vindication was all mine). My mum's perennial favourite is Aid for Burma KSDP (TGI10) - lots of unusual trims and applique thingamajigs as well as handmade accessories. Organic cotton fabrics were thin on the ground this year but, if you need more fabric, The Eternal Maker (L12, L15) has loads of Cloud 9 and Birch.


And a local tip: there's a fantastic vintage clothing shop in Hornsey (the area at the bottom of the hill in front of Alexandra Palace). It's called Mishka, and if you get on a W3 bus opposite the Palm Court entrance/exit, going towards Finsbury Park, you can get off virtually right outside the shop (the stop's called Priory Park). It's a chaotic treasure trove and there's always some fabric and haberdashery for sale alongside the incredible clothes. I've heard that some of the Downton Abbey costumes came from here. If you're not completely exhausted by the K&S Show, it's well worth a visit.

Have fun!

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

big yellow taxi reversing

In a quiet back street close to my building, a small car park has been turned into a community food-growing project. Apparently a few local residents have been trying to make this happen for the best part of a decade; I heard about it last summer when a planning notice went up and I put my name down straight away. When the raised planters were installed in January I was delighted to be given a tiny individual plot.
While I was busy working there one day in the spring, I noticed the Joni Mitchell song playing in my head, and laughed; 'paradise' might be stretching it (though we do have an apple tree) but we're certainly bringing a little bit of life back to this grotty old parking lot. What was a car-dumping, fly-tipping, drug-dealing sort of place is now a veg-growing, skill-learning, food-poverty-reducing, connection-making sort of place instead.
27 June
Although we're very fortunate to live in an area with ample green space - shared lawns right outside the building and a large park just around the corner - there's no outside space here to call our own: not even a windowsill. I have houseplants, of course, and have tried growing salad leaves indoors, but that can never compare to the rich experience of real gardening, can it? My little plot may be just six foot by three, but it has weather (good and bad) and bugs (good and bad). My composting problem, so long-running that it was mentioned in my first ever blog post, is now solved as well.
Weekly progress 4 April - 20 June
I'm trying out the square foot gardening method; I've managed to find plenty of guidance online rather than buying the book. I'm not being absolutely strict, for example I've just used the sandy topsoil that was in the planter already (enriched at the outset with a bit of rotted manure and recently mulched with municipal compost), but it seems like a good way to keep my plot organised and it allows me to cram in far more plants than I could with conventionally spaced rows. Although the space is very small I've got plenty of variety, and it takes just enough work to be enjoyable rather than too much for my limited energyWe're already eating home-grown veg at least a couple of times each week, and hopefully there'll be a lot more produce in the coming months. (For anyone who wants more gardening details like plant names, bug sagas, and produce, I'm keeping a weekly log on Flickr.)
Peppermint and a little radish
And then, of course, there's the community aspect of it. I often enjoy the peace and quiet of being at the garden alone, but there is nothing like a shared project to get people chatting. I think we all want to live in friendly neighbourhoods where people talk to each other, but without something to talk about it can be difficult to create that sense of community. This gardening project makes for easy, natural conversations between the gardeners (even when there's a language barrier - an elderly woman who only speaks Portuguese hugged me last week when I told her my name!), and it doesn't stop there: passersby are fascinated by the garden and very often stop to ask me what I'm growing, how the plots are divided up, or who can join in. My local council gets a lot of things wrong, but the investment they've made here (working with the charity Groundwork) is definitely money well spent.

The project seems like a great example of the "think global, act local" idea. While I'm not suggesting that growing a few cabbages with your neighbours is going to save the world, I do believe that tiny projects like this can feed into much bigger causes in subtle ways. With the very small scale of the growing that we're doing, all of us will still have to buy vegetables, so the impact on 'food miles' won't be enormously significant. I think it will affect people's thinking, though, and that's always where real change has to start. If you need bees to pollinate the broad beans that you've lovingly nurtured from seed, the news stories about the bee crisis and David Cameron's plans to overturn the EU neonicotinoid ban might hit home for you a bit more. Unusual weather patterns attributed to climate change become directly relevant when they're making or breaking your gooseberry crop. And the personal interactions between people from different backgrounds, who might otherwise never speak to each other, can't do any harm for wider social justice and peace.

But mostly I'm in it for the veg.

A few gardening links:
Alys Fowler's Edible Garden television series
The Real Seed Catalogue
Incredible Edible Todmorden