Sisyphean sewing tasks

A couple of months ago I bought a pair of trousers, and something about them made me question several things, who had made them, and what was the true cost beyond what I had paid at the till?

As with so many things with our economic model, there really was no way of finding out, so to avoid any more attacks of a queasy conscience, I decided that henceforth I would make my own trousers. How hard could it be after all?

Turns out that it was more difficult than I imagined. Pre-washing the fabric to allow for shrinkage was a lesson I learned after I shrunk the first pair and the now-too-short hemmed bottoms ended up flapping round my shins. Fabric choice was another lesson to learn, as the first lot of fabric I bought was white with pastel butterflies on it. I thought it was pretty and boho, my four-year-old asked me why I was wearing a pair of pajamas, during the day.

But having made one pair of trousers, simply by tracing the ones that I’d bought and had sent me down this path, I went on to make several more, honing my ability as I went along. I then challenged myself to make a few tops, using the same technique: tracing existing clothing and learning on the job.

There are loads of plusses with this I’ve found. 1. I can finally get trousers long enough. 2. I can circumnavigate what I’m told to wear by the fashion police, as I now only sew clothes that suit me and fit me properly ignoring being told that red is the only colour to wear during the three summer months of 2017 or that floral blankets a la post-twins Beyonce are the only things to be seen dead in. 3. I know who made my clothes. Me.

I’ll also be less willing to surrender them to a charity bag and will be more careful about not getting them stained. I’m awful for just doing a bit of painting or DIY and not putting scruffs on to do it!

So far so virtuous right? Nope, there was me thinking that from now on I could quell my queasy conscience regarding clothing, as one of the four major ways we impact on the environment (the others being transport, housing and food).

A few weeks into my new-found epiphany for making my own clothes I was confronted with a photograph on the Guardian website of a tide of toxic slurry apparently from a foreign fabric dyeing plant. So, my making my own clothes could be seen as a good thing, but what do you do to close the loop about fabric sourcing?

During my research I came across Mark Boyle’s Moneyless Man blog where I discovered that to be truly revolutionary and green in terms of clothing I need to be growing my own hemp and nettles and weaving cloth from them instead of sourcing fabric from a nice lady in a nice fabric shop. I guess that rules out using a sewing machine too, as to be truly authentic and post-apocalyptic I really need to be using a needle hewn from a piece of bone.

There are times when trying to do the ‘right’ thing seems like a Sisyphean task – like gender-neutral parenting or trying to keep your kids away from Disney. You’re pushing uphill against a cultural and societal tide that threatens to swamp you coming from the other direction. But, it won’t stop me from trying. I still love my homemade trousers, even if they look like nightwear!

ANTIDOTE: Making my own clothes has stopped me drifting into clothes shops thinking I can buy my way to looking a certain way. It’s a trap. The dream in the shop rarely translates into reality at home.

A little red sun hat

Last night while my son lay sleeping on the bed next to me I was silently stitching a small patch over a hole in a sun hat. This hat had made an reappearance in my life some 30+ years after it first came into it, during a wet family holiday to Wales.

For some reason, known only to my former self it came to reside in a very small red suitcase with an assortment of other items that I had deemed collectible reminders of my childhood. There it stayed in the loft until discovered by my four-year-old, and so my little red sun hat came out once more into the daylight.

He needs a sunhat for nursery, so why not my old one? The edge was a bit frayed, which is why I was carefully sewing, with tiny neat little stitches a small piece of red fabric over it. When I’d finished I was rather pleased with the results. Until a little nagging voice started, ‘why not just buy him a new one like his friends will have? No-one else will have a patched-up old hat on that used to belong to their mum.’

But these are society’s issues to do with status and as such when analysed have no logic to them. I have a perfectly good sunhat that’s been neatly sewn with a patch. It will shield my son’s eyes from the sun and protect his head and ears from sunburn. All the rest is just nonsense. Making do and mending isn’t the done thing in our status-anxiety filled days, but it should be. I took a great deal of satisfaction from sewing the hat, he looks cute in it, it does its job, and every time I look at it I’m reminded of my first ever family holiday and of my now departed dad. On every level it beats going out and buying a new one. That’s not to mention the fact that this country throws away, that’s throws away, not recycles or donates, millions of items of clothing a year, all in the name of our high-turnover fashion industry where things are so cheap to buy that they have become disposable. Well, not in this house, not while I’ve got a needle and thread they won’t!

ANTIDOTE: Make do and mend. It’s old fashioned, but worth doing.

 

The first world problems of kids’ birthday parties

I know I sound churlish, but I really do have a difficult relationship with children’s parties. Yesterday we went to the daughter of one of our close friends’ sixth birthday party. It was a disco with an entertainer in a village hall.

We walked inside from a beautiful sunny day and were met by lots of small people running around a darkened room while seriously loud, almost club-like loud music was playing. Not kids’ music or tunes, but club music, with videos. A five-year-old girl walked in wearing scarlet lipstick. I sympathised with our son, who, when faced with his unfavourite things; darkness combined with noise, turned around and tried to go back out.

Eventually we coaxed him into the melee and we retreated to help out with the food in the kitchen, where endless packages of crisps, biscuits, cakes and popcorn were opened, and decanted into bowls. The bin got more and more full; I kept trying to distract myself my saying that my son was enjoying all the mayhem, as was the birthday girl. Surely my unease was just me being a misery, after all what’s a few plastic containers, cups and plates being chucked out if it made a few children happy? But on a sunny Saturday in June this will have been replicated up and down the country. All those plastic containers, so brief in their use, casually discarded and forgotten about, just destined for landfill. Towards the end our son made a bid for the door, for grass, freedom and sunshine. I, meanwhile, helped with the tidying up; taking a big plastic sack of rubbish out to the bin, thinking of how carefully I try to sort things out at home for the compost bin, the fire, the recycle. How I try to be a better gatekeeper.

There must be a way of jumping off the kids’ birthday party merry-go-round with its attendant pressure to invite the entire class and to be bigger and better. Surely they are symptomatic of our out-of-sync way of living? We in the 21st century create and live in ‘a volcano of waste’ and it’s morally as well as materially unacceptable for us to just carry on as if this standard of lifestyle can continue ad infinitum.

So, what do we do this year when it comes to our son’s fifth birthday? Do we not do it at all and opt out of the whole thing? Or do we do a greener version with homemade food at our home? I mentioned to my friend that I dread the gifts at birthdays and Christmas and that I really hate the current trend for piling up your kids’ presents on these occasions in front of the fireplace and Facebooking about how much they’ve got. I suggested that I could put on the invites not to bring presents, but she looked at me like I’d just said I was going to vote for Lord Buckethead.

After the party we drove home past the woods near where we live and decided to opt for a family walk. It was such a palate cleanser, greenery, sunlight and mud. I may have imagined this but our son seemed to relish the freedom and natural feel of being in the woods running around looking for logs and bridges to cross. I certainly did, I could feel my shoulders drop as I soaked up the bird song and crunchy leaves underfoot. I feel much more at home in the woods than in noise and endless plastic containers (not that the woods are free of plastic litter, but that’s a subject for another day), but maybe it’s just me, maybe I’m the one who’s out of tune? But then I think to myself, as I try to swim against the tide, what if I’m the one who’s right and they’re wrong? Such existentialism doesn’t sort the to-birthday-party or to not-birthday-party dilemma though or our love of the disposable. First world problems.

#PlasticFreeJuly

The problem with opening your eyes…

Awareness is a funny thing isn’t it? When I used to teach graphic design a few years ago I used to impress upon my students the dreadful thing that is the Comic Sans typeface. Students would give a sharp intake of breath, for hadn’t I just impugned the reputation of their favourite typeface? The one they’d grown up using, and loved. Once I’d pointed out all the things that were wrong with Comic Sans, then they could never look at it in quite the same way again.

It’s the same, I’ve found, with litter. Once I started doing regular litter picks in my street and round the block, then I see litter everywhere. I can walk down the same streets with friends and they don’t notice the odd can stuffed into a hedge, or crisp packet floating down the road. They just don’t see it. But, once I started noticing litter then I just can’t switch off from noticing it.

And, I’m finding that’s the same with politics, and the environment. Today I stumbled across Naomi Klein, whose writing on climate change, while welcome, is rather terrifying. We seem to be stumbling towards a future where the planet will start to bite back in terms of extreme weather events and instability, as well as running rather low on precious resources, and when I start to actually take in the enormity of this prospect it makes me want to run for the cover of my duvet.

So, what do we do when our awareness has been raised about something? It’s like seeing Stephen Fry naked, once you’ve seen some things, you can’t un-see them, and you can’t stop being aware once you know about something.

Yet the problem with ‘green’ concerns I’ve noticed, and it was something Paul Kingsnorth picked up in his recent book, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, is that they are couched in terms of keeping things the way they are but putting the word ‘eco’ in front of them. So, don’t stop flying, just call it ‘eco tourism’, pick the ‘green’ delivery slot when you supermarket shop online, buy fairtrade, eat organic and wash at 30 degrees, so much so status quo. The problem is that none of those things encourages actual behaviour change, they just prompt guilt followed by the ability to assuage that guilt by making a ‘green’ purchase or ‘thinking about the environment’ before acting. I suspect that the reason most people follow that path, myself included, is that because to fully take on board what the scientists are saying would mean a complete sea-change in Western living, and so despite being aware, it’s just easier to try to pretend we haven’t seen what’s coming. I tried googling ‘ways to save the planet’ and it just came up with trite ‘top 10’ lists of things. Nothing that’s really difficult to do.

So, I went on a Reduce Your Footprint quiz on the Earth Day website. I score well on cycling everywhere, not ever flying and not being a conspicuous consumer. I score badly on eating meat and dairy weekly, using gas to heat my house, as well as my commute to work, which although I rarely use a car round town, does stack up my annual mileage.

It looks as though I need to eat less meat. Fine by me, but not by my husband who acts as though his throat has been cut if he has a meal without a meat product in it. I need to use less gas to heat the house, not a huge problem as we do have a wood burner and lots of jumpers, so that’s doable. But the last one, how do I cut down my mileage? Car share, work from home or find another job locally. And here is where I come up against the issue that most of us come up against, to really commit to making a difference it may have to hurt, we may have to put our money where our mouth is and take some tough decisions, which is why the ‘greenwash’ products do so well, because they are so much easier than actually changing habits or lifestyles.

But I think it’s about time that I tried to try, as thinking I’m all holy and green while driving a gas-guzzler to work won’t ‘greenwash’ any more!