June 2018

Peppermint Magazine have interviewed me this month for a piece about Ancient Wisdom and fashion/textiles. It’s a great issue exploring how studying the belief systems and knowledge of past cultures , we can learn to be more self-aware, live more in harmony with nature and thrive in this modern, hectic world:

 

“We have always made and used clothes and textiles for both functional and symbolic reasons – both for warmth and protection; and to signify our status and identity. The oldest known textiles date back 6,000 years ago and prior to that we were probably just using animal skins. But, the evolution of human’s relationship to clothes and textile is fascinating because of this dual nature of cloth – we need clothes and textiles to keep us warm and protected from the elements, but we also use textiles and clothing to communicate and to express ourselves.

In pre-industrial societies, the decoration and embellishment of textiles was done to signify status or identity. For example, in some African tribes, unmarried young men would wear certain cloth to signal that they were looking for a partner. Clothing was also seen as an important part of ritual. A jacket could be used as a form of psychological protection (with added embellishments to ward off evil spirits!) as someone goes through an important life stage, such as a transition into adulthood.

This dual nature of clothing and textiles is still evident today in our highly-modernised societies, and it has come to define the modern, industrialised fast fashion industry. We obviously still need clothes to keep us warm and protect us from warmth/rain etc, but we have become hyper- obsessed with using clothes to signal and communicate our identity and sense of belonging, at the expense of people and the planet. We have seen the rise of fashion brands and an advertising system that is constantly selling us the idea of newness and constant change through our clothing. The only problem now is that this constant need to re-invent our identity or sense of self is tied up with an unsustainable throughput of materials, energy and water. Creative expression is a really valuable human need but we need to find other ways beyond buying lots of clothes to do this.

In my mother and grandmothers time, they would either make their own clothes or save up to purchase a very expensive, well-made item. But now we don’t value our clothes as much because they have become so cheap and because we haven’t played a part in designing or making them.  I call it ‘textile upskilling’  – I’ve been teaching people to mend, darn, sew and quilt for many years because we know that when people have been involved in making or repairing their own clothes, they develop a much deeper and more thoughtful relationship to their garments.

Before industrialisation, we would have used wool, animal hides, cotton, silk, linens, hemps – all the natural fibres –  we had not invented synthetics yet. They would have all been woven on hand-looms or felted in the case of wool. Now synthetics like polyester makes up over half of our global fibre production. Yet, the debate about naturals being better than synthetics is not quite as simple as it seems.

There are so many factors to consider when we are thinking about the impacts of fibre on people and the planet. Cotton is obviously a natural fibre but it actually requires huge amounts of pesticides and water to grow at a mass scale. And even though polyester is made from non-renewable petroleum and uses really harsh chemicals in the production stage, it’s actually the only fibre that we can completely recycle and close the loop on without losing quality. And using recycled fibres is a much more sustainable option, across all environmental indicators.

In terms of colour, in the past we used natural dyes made from plants and soils. In some parts of India, we still see these ancient textile colouring techniques and there has also been a huge resurgence in interest around natural dyes amongst fashion/textile designers and hobbyists.Natural dyes are primarily non-toxic but it is almost impossible to use natural dyes at the scale needed to produce the world’s fibre needs. Synthetic dyes will never go away, but there needs to be much more awareness and innovation from the industry around ‘green chemistry’ and reducing the impacts of these dyes.

A few tips we could learn from our grandparents, would be to purchase more consciously and take care of what clothing we own. Treat each garment with the care and respect it deserves, as it has been created through the most amazing, intensive production process – from a raw material, through textile manufacture to garment production and into your life.

There are many lessons to learn from the past about how we can be less impactful  – we can learn to be more resourcefulness as an industry and close the loop on clothing. “