Friday, 20 September 2013

Organic Textiles Weekend

Apparently it's Organic Textiles Weekend - part of the Soil Association's Organic September, and they've published a really good infographic which explains the benefits of organic cotton all the way from the field to your wardrobe. The theme for Organic September this year is 'small changes, big difference', and you're invited to share the small change you plan to make on the website. It bothers me a bit that a lot of the suggested changes are about things you could buy - buying a pair of organic cotton jeans if you don't actually need new jeans right now doesn't help anything! Neither does adding some overpriced organic luxury snack item to your supermarket trolley. These supplements should not be used as a substitute for a balanced diet, if you know what I mean. You have to buy organic instead of the other stuff. Then it's really a change, and not just more shopping.

I'm not exactly making a change myself, just continuing with the never-ending process of trying to buy less/use what I have/keep it simple... Being able to sew is so helpful on this front! It's incredibly satisfying to turn something I already have into something I need. Lately I found myself in need of a nightie, but couldn't find one (an organic one) I liked and also am a bit impecunious. Then I thought of the huge piece of lovely organic cotton interlock that's been taking up so much space in my stash cupboard for years. Perfect autumn nightie fabric! I lengthened a self-drafted/rubbed-off raglan top pattern and added pockets. (No photo for you: it doesn't look good on a hanger and I'm not putting myself in my nightie all over the interwebs.) It was quick to make, is super-cosy, and the stash is (slightly) reduced - win win win - but I'm getting popped stitches all along the hem, which I stitched with a twin needle. Anyone know why that is? Is this just not a strong enough finish for a nightdress hem, or is it to do with my thread, or what? I used free-with-my-machine polyester in the two needles and organic cotton in the bobbin; it's the bobbin thread that's breaking. Should I have matched all 3 threads? Would a wider twin needle produce a stretchier hem? Advice gratefully received!
While you're advising me, what do we think about velvet leggings? 'Washed' velvet, at that (crushed velvet's marginally more sophisticated sister)? Just far too 1995, or that magic combination of stylish and warm? I mentioned in my last post that I was thinking of buying some organic velour to make leggings, but then remembered I have some filleted trousers in my stash that could be re-purposed instead. Black washed velvet (or velour because it's knitted??). The trousers were made for me by my mum in, yes, the mid-'90s...

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Conscious Crafting - some sewing links

I've been feeling a bit uninspired on the blogging front lately, as you might have noticed... After writing my post about consumerism I felt like that was the kind of thing I'd hoped to write when I started this blog. I can't churn that out on a regular basis, though. At the same time I realised it's ridiculous to feel like I should post more frequently - it's my blog, after all, so any sense of guilt or obligation is entirely self-imposed! Isn't it silly? And I haven't wanted to write posts for the sake of it, without anything to say, just filling up the internet. That means I've made things and left them unblogged (also, how nice to just get on with doing without trying to work out what to say about it or stopping to take in-progress photos!); if you'd like to keep up with me going Look what I made!, I am still doing that on Flickr.

Anyway, today's post includes a list, as promised, of sources for more responsible sewing supplies. When we crafters make things, we put in so much care and effort, and we have the luxury of doing it all for fun. Many of us feel that sewing things, rather than buying them, is more ethical - you can be sure something wasn't made in a sweatshop if it was made in your living room. But, unless you're growing, spinning, and weaving your own cotton, what we think of as our "raw materials" are actually the products of many other people's work. The garment factory isn't the only place that exploitation occurs. Conventional cotton farming is a chemical nightmare, using vast quantities of pesticides that poison workers as well as the soil and water. Monsanto's GMO Bt cotton seed is linked to devastating numbers of farmer suicides in India. Processing raw cotton into fabric has many stages and all of these can be done in more or less environmentally friendly ways, and with more or less exploitation of workers.
Lisette Portfolio blouse, fabric from the Organic Textile Co
If I'm going to put a lot of work into making a new dress or blouse, I like to know that the other people involved in the process, working not for pleasure but for a living, have been able to do their jobs safely and for a fair wage. Because the global economic system is inherently unfair and dependent on human and environmental exploitation, there's no perfect answer - but for me, buying certified organic cotton is significantly better. It ensures, at least, no agrochemical poisoning of workers and ecosystems. Organic certification standards also include social criteria - no child labour (rife in the cotton industry), rules on wages and working hours, trading relationships, etc. - and cover every stage of production. (The Fairtrade mark has even higher social standards, of course, so finding fabric with both certificates is always a plus.) Choosing organic cotton over non-organic is a way for me to respect the many people whose hands the fibre passes through before it reaches mine, as well as the planet that we all live on.
A kitchen towel for my grandparents - waffle fabric (now discontinued - WHY?!)
from the Organic Textile Co, bound with Cloud 9 prints
When I first decided to choose organic cotton, maybe a decade ago, my options were very limited. There was cream, cream, and yet more cream. Actually I do love the warm tone of unbleached cotton, but I used to snap up any other shade I could find (and sometimes regretted it: I still have in my stash a large cut of bright purple handwoven shirting that's never quite the right colour for anything). And prints? No chance. But, since then, awareness of the benefits of organic production has spread, and choices for eco-minded crafters have multiplied like rabbits on an organic farm. Of course ruling out conventional cotton does still rule out the vast majority of fabrics on the market - but imposing limits on our choices is probably a good thing anyway. If you do an internet search you'll come up with a great many places to buy organic cotton, but I thought it might be helpful to share links to a few shops that I've used with a little review of each one (no sponsorship here, by the way, I'm just a normal customer of these businesses).

Despite spending a ridiculous amount of time searching for organic cotton fabric shops on the web, I only discovered this one by chance at the Knitting & Stitching Show a couple of years ago. They stock mostly shirting weight fabric, with lots (lots!) of beautiful colours including many shot weaves, and there are a few prints, corduroys, velveteens and other things too. You can buy fat quarters if you want, or colour-co-ordinated charm packs for quilting. The ethical stance of the company is nice and clear.
Lovely striped jersey from Gossypium
Gossypium is an organic and fair trade cotton clothing and homeware company with a small selection of fabrics and Clothkits-type sewing kits for sale. I find their prices reasonable - single jersey for £9.50/m, if memory serves - and the quality excellent. They've recently upgraded their website and there's nothing but yoga clothing on there now - I'm told the fabrics and kits are still available from the shop in Lewes, and I'm hoping it's possible to order them over the phone. I guess they'd be able to send swatches if you asked. Gossypium is linked to the Agrocel cotton farmers' co-op and all their cotton is certified Fairtrade as well as organic.
These baby PJs were made out of checked sheeting from Gossypium
Greenfibres is a hardcore eco-shop in Totnes. I don't buy a huge amount from them because their prices are fairly high, but everything I've had has been of excellent quality. The range of fabrics is quite small and doesn't include any prints or many colours, but a variety of weaves and weights. They have hemp, silk, and sometimes organic wool fabrics alongside the organic cottons. I used the soft voile for my first Tova shirt (the price on this fabric is actually very reasonable because it's enormously wide). Greenfibres also sell organic cotton sewing thread and some eco-knitting yarns, plus all sorts of clothing and household items. The people behind Greenfibres know their stuff and are very clear and thorough about their environmental and social principles.
Soft voile from Greenfibres for my Tova blouse
Kitschy Coo
I found this shop a few weeks ago on reader/Mack and Mabel blogger Julie's own list of organic cotton retailers. When I saw the website I told Boyfriend, "Sometimes it's a good thing I don't have much money," because budget was truly the only thing that stopped me ordering miles and miles of Scandinavian printed knits. Most of the designs are actually a bit too childish/kitsch for me but there are some lovely adult-friendly styles mixed in there. I restricted myself to two prints which will hopefully be stitched up soon - watch this space. Be aware that there are a few non-organic cotton fabrics mixed in here (mostly ribbings, I think), but the majority is GOTS-certified.
Adults can wear foxy jersey too, right?
The Organic Textile Company
This Welsh firm stocks a huge selection of organic cotton fabrics, many fairly traded from weavers in India, in all sorts of colours and weights. They have both woven and knitted fabrics, as well as organic thread, very fluffy organic cotton batting, and now a few notions too. The product photos on the website don't do the fabrics justice, but the prices are good and I've been happy with everything I've ordered (I've ordered far too much...). I'm sometimes concerned that the ethical principles behind this shop are a bit vague, for example they've recently started stocking clearance linen fabrics with no information on the sourcing, processing, etc. They also sell some bamboo viscose fabrics, which (as acknowledged on the website) probably don't live up to their eco hype. My policy is to ask about something before buying if it's not clear where it's from, what certification it has, etc. - Phil is always happy to answer an email. The range keeps expanding and includes all sorts of really good clothing fabrics now; I have my eye on the black velour for some cosy winter leggings. Do check the special offers page, I've found a few serious bargains there in the past.
Herringbone and Crossweave fabrics from the Organic Textile Co - project details here
Quite a few of the stylish modern sewing shops now carry some organic cottons alongside their conventional fabrics; I mention Raystitch because their organic range is a bit broader than most, with some stuff from the Organic Textile Company (slightly higher prices but much better photos!) and a range of handwoven stripes that I haven't seen anywhere else. Their lovely Essex Road shop is worth a visit if you're in north London - seeing fabric on the bolt is so much better than a little swatch.

Stitch Organics
This Etsy shop is a recent discovery for me. The range is quite small but includes some really useful basics that I've struggled to find elsewhere. The batiste I ordered is lovely, not quite "opaque" as described but extremely light and soft, perfect for underlinings. My mum bought some of the recycled batting, which looks like a good low-loft alternative to the very fluffy organic stuff mentioned above. Organic cotton sewing thread is available here too, at a better price than Greenfibres' and in more colours than at the Organic Textile Co. Stephanie, the shop owner, has a blog where she shows off her own organic sewing projects.
I used navy jersey from Alabama Chanin to bind my quilt
Alabama Chanin
This is the only non-UK shop I'm including here: I didn't want to leave it out, because their high-quality organic cotton single jersey (in two different weights) comes in a huge range of beautiful colours. It's the same fabric the company use for their very-high-end clothing line, and Natalie Chanin has clearly put a lot of work into getting the colours just right - they're subtle and expensive-looking. The fabric itself is not too pricey but postage to the UK is a bit of a killer (I placed my two orders to coincide with relatives crossing the Atlantic, so I only had to pay domestic P&P).
A flannel scrap bundle from Cloud 9
There are some lovely printed organic cottons from American companies (not actually produced in the US) that are available from various sewing shops in the UK. Cloud 9 keep bringing out range after range of really attractive designs, now on five different organic cotton substrates: mostly quilting cotton, but also sheeting, canvas, flannel, and voile. I think a lot of crafters buy their fabrics just for the prints (and quality), and not because they particularly care about organic farming, so I wish Cloud 9 would do a bit more to promote awareness of the environmental and human benefits of organic cotton - they do have some information on their site but it's hidden away in the FAQs section. Birch also produce numerous lines of quilting cottons and have branched out into interlock jersey, home decor fabric, canvas, and flannel too. Monaluna were responsible for a very popular fox print a couple of years ago, now reissued, and have several ranges of sweet retro-ish quilting cottons, including a few solids. I think their quilting cotton is slightly thicker/denser than Cloud 9's or Birch's - has anyone else found that? Some of Amy Butler's wildly popular designs are available in organic cotton, although these are not so easy to track down (I haven't bought any of them yet myself). The same prints are also used on non-organic cotton, so you have to be careful to buy the right thing.
A Slouchy Make-Up Bag in Cloud 9 fabric
Something to bear in mind when buying organic fabric (or anything else): you should always be able to find out what certification the product has, and where in the world it's come from. If the web page doesn't include that information I always ask, and if the retailer doesn't know and isn't willing to find out, I generally don't buy - supply chain transparency and traceability is key to the integrity of organic standards. If something is advertised as "organic" but has no certification, you can report it to the Soil Association - but at the moment there's only legal protection on the use of the word "organic" for food, not for other things like textiles or skincare. So with fabrics, certification details are your only guarantee that something really is organic. Any seller who's serious about organic principles will be open to your questions - if they can't answer you, or even act like you're insulting them by asking (this happened to me with a well-known US website that imports fabric from Japan), take your business elsewhere.

Do you have a favourite place to shop for organic cotton sewing supplies? Let me know in the comments. There are some really lovely eco-options for knitters, too, but I think I'll save those for another post. I wasn't planning for this one to turn into an essay!

Just one last note: some big high-street names are still refusing to sign up to the fire and building safety plan that's been drawn up to prevent any repeat of the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh. There's a petition asking River Island to summon up a shred of human decency, an online tool for you to send a quick message to Bench, Peacocks, and the other hold-outs.