Slow Fashion: What Is It & How Can I Get Some?
This Q&A appears in the Fall 2018 issue of knitscene magazine.
Karen Templer, owner of the Fringe Supply Co. and voice of the Fringe Association blog, began something special a few years back. It’s called Slow Fashion October, and it’s all about exploring and educating ourselves about ethical and sustainable fashion choices and practices. With Slow Fashion October coming up on its fourth year, we asked Karen some questions about what it means to engage in slow fashion and about her personal journey on the slow-fashion path. (You can follow the movement on Instagram by following @slowfashionoctober and share your own slow fashion endeavors by tagging the account and using the hashtag #slowfashionoctober.)
Q: How do you define “slow fashion”?
A: It means different things to different people, but to me it primarily means not thinking of your clothes as disposable. It’s about trying to be informed and conscientious about where things are made, under what conditions, and at what human and environmental cost. Choosing carefully; owning fewer things for longer; incorporating handmade and secondhand; and taking care and responsibility for what you own. It’s the opposite of fast fashion.
Q: What is “fast fashion”?
A: Fast fashion is chiefly mass-market fashion and all of the ills that come with it. Up until a couple of decades ago, something like 80–90% of clothes sold in the U.S. were made in the U.S., under labor and workplace laws. Then trade agreements made it possible for companies to either move or outsource manufacturing to countries that don’t have much (or anything) in the way of labor laws, and where garment workers are working—and literally dying—often in unsafe conditions for well below a living wage, using dyes our FDA wouldn’t approve, and disposing of waste in hugely damaging ways. And they’re now cranking out clothes at an unprecedented pace, using largely synthetic fibers that don’t degrade and that get into our water system. Fashion is now the second most pollutive industry on earth, and I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that what’s happening with the workers in many of these factories is a humanitarian crisis. And it’s all in the service of selling us way more clothes than we need (or wear!) at impossibly cheap prices, which has contributed to an enormous uptick in how many clothes the average person buys and disposes of each year. So the fast-fashion mill is working exactly as they’ve designed it to—and slow fashion is about pushing back and opting out of that vicious cycle as much as possible.
Q: Can you describe your personal journey with slow fashion?
A: I grew up with a mom who had grown up making her own clothes, who made a lot of my clothes, taught me to sew as a kid, and taught me to look for quality and origins when shopping. We’d be at the mall and she’d look for the “made in USA” label, and check the seam allowances to see if things could be let out as I grew, scrutinize whether the plaid was matched at the seams—all of that. This was before fast fashion—when being that sort of diligent shopper was still possible and normal. But I’ve always been a fashion junkie and I got swept along on the fast-fashion tide just like most everyone else. I’m 100% guilty of having thoughtlessly bought way too many clothes, believing it was fine (even altruistic) to drop them off at the charity shop when I wasn’t wearing them, etc.
Then I learned to knit, which brought me back to sewing, and put me in the orbit of a lot of people who were striving to make most or all of their own clothes. I started reading and listening and understanding that it was not just out of a love of handmade clothes, or wanting to be in control of their wardrobe stylistically—although it’s certainly all of that—but also about fast-fashion avoidance. It was thought provoking and eye opening. And that set me on a path.
Q: What’s the story behind Slow Fashion October?
A: As I became more interested in the subject, the situation, I was hungry for a larger conversation about it—because it’s so complex! So I put up a blog post, inspired in part by Me Made May, saying, “Hey, would anyone want to spend a month really diving into the topic of slow fashion?” And the response (via #slowfashionoctober on Instagram) was enormous, as was the demand that I host it again (and again). In all of this, and still a few years later, I think of myself as facilitator and listener and learner. I hope people are inspired to think and ask questions of themselves as a result of running up against what I’m doing with my closet—just as I was inspired by others—but I’m just someone trying to open up the conversation, and trying to do better myself, day by day.
Q: What has been rewarding about the project?
A: The connections and conversations are always fascinating and challenging, in a good way, and I love connecting with people over something really meaningful like this. But the closet I’ve built over the past several years is a huge reward unto itself. Getting dressed in the morning in clothes I cherish and can tell you stories about, one garment after the next—and feeling good about what I’m wearing on a whole different level—is so worth all of the effort it has taken to get to where I am. And I still have a ways to go!
Q: What has been challenging about the project?
A: I always say I think it’s the hardest conversation to have — more fraught than politics. In part that’s because everyone has their own idea of what “slow fashion” even means, so there are divergent starting points, and naturally there’s an element of misunderstanding or talking at cross purposes that comes from that. But it’s also just really hard for anyone to find out they might have a closet full of harm. You feel shocked and defensive—some feel immediately as if they’ll be judged, even though it’s a perfectly common state of affairs—and plus when you find that out, your instinct is to want to get rid of everything and refill your closet with conscientious garments. But neither part of that is generally possible, or even advisable. (Please honor the people who sewed your clothes by wearing them as long as they last!) That’s an awkward position to be in, and starting or joining a conversation from that place can be . . . complicated. So the most challenging part is letting people know it’s ok that they didn’t realize this was happening and helping them get their heads around what to do next.
Q: What do you have in store for this next Slow Fashion October?
A: You’ll have to tune in to see! But always just trying to further the conversation, raise awareness of the problem and the solutions!
Q: How does craft and being a maker fit into the idea of slow fashion?
A: Making your own clothes is one of the most direct and immediate ways you can begin to opt out of fast fashion, for sure. There are lots of parts of the equation with store-bought clothes (where did the fiber come from and how was it farmed, where was it milled/dyed, made into a garment, etc.), so there’s the question of how many parts of the supply chain are knowable, first of all, and which parts you can take on yourself.
For instance, if you’re knitting a sweater instead of buying one, you’ve taken the question of the unknown factory worker out of the equation. You’re probably not going to raise the sheep, shear it, spin the yarn, dye it, and then knit the sweater (although huge props to those who can and do!). But you can ask yourself where the yarn and fiber are coming from. We’re lucky as knitters that there are more and more yarn makers being fully transparent about these things, and we have so many choices when we buy yarn. It’s harder with fabric, but hopefully that will also become more accountable as more consumers demand it.
Of course, most of us can’t hope to make all of our clothes—or even want to—so it’s about figuring out what’s right and possible for you personally. And then finding responsible sources for those things you don’t make yourself, whether that’s secondhand or from a responsible fashion brand. Supporting companies that are striving to do the right thing—from in-house production to working with the good and responsible factories of the world, all of which is very difficult in today’s ecosystem—is just as important as not supporting those that aren’t.
Q: How has being a maker impacted your view of the clothes you buy?
A: I’m not only now making the majority of my clothes, but I’m also living with far fewer of them—because I was a glutton. So I buy only a few garments a year now, whereas I used to buy a few garments every month (or on one whirlwind trip through the clearance racks). I never set foot in a mall anymore, or sit in traffic trying to get to one, or spend hours combing the web for stuff to buy, and that is a gift unto itself. I’ve gained so much time from cutting shopping out of my life. But the real impact is knowing how it feels to own and wear a garment I’ve made, coming to understand that those clothes are treasures, and not wanting anything in my closet that I don’t feel similarly attached to. I just don’t want soulless store-bought clothes anymore. There are more and more sources for thoughtful, sustainably made ones, and by not shopping frivolously, I’m able to afford to buy one really good piece here and there. When you’re investing either time or money (or both) in a garment, you do learn to choose more carefully, and you wind up with a closet full of clothes you actually love and want to wear for a long time.
Q: Do you have suggestions for how crafters can implement slow fashion practices into their lives?
A: The most responsible thing any of us can do is to use what’s already in our possession. We bought it; it’s our responsibility now. So first: Take stock of what you have and whether you wear it. Take a hard look at what you do or don’t, ask yourself why/not, and use that to inform your choices about what you make or buy going forward, so you’re only adding things to your closet that will really work for you. If dyeing or altering or refashioning won’t solve it, find new homes for things you won’t wear—whether it’s a friend or family member who can put them to use, a consignment shop, Dress for Success, or a local women’s or homeless shelter. Make sure you’re donating them somewhere where they are wanted and will be used. (The vast majority of what gets dropped into donation bins winds up in an incinerator or bundled onto a boat back across the ocean for various fates. The charities are now flooded with way more than they can resell.) Then simply commit to consuming less from there on out, and being much more thoughtful about it.
Most of all, remember it’s a process—a slow one! You can really only take it one garment at a time. You should expect the turnover to take years, and that’s ok.
Q: How far does one need to take “slow fashion” for it to be considered “slow” enough?
A: I think that’s a thing that everyone has to decide for themselves. We all have different means, availability, skills, priorities and restrictions, so I think the important thing is to be aware and thoughtful, and do what you can, whatever that may be.
Q: How do you reconcile “slow fashion” with knitters who make a new sweater every month? Is that slow fashion, or is it just fast fashion with more local labor?
A: Slow fashion is often conflated with minimalism or “capsule wardrobes” and so on, but for me it’s not so much about any notion of what’s the right size for anyone’s wardrobe to be. I think what matters is simply to have what you’ll love and use and care for. For some people, that might be half or three times as many clothes as it is for me, so I wouldn’t make any judgment one way or the other as long as you’re taking responsibility for the contents of your closet. It’s certainly possible (and common) to be just as mindless and gluttonous a consumer of yarn and fabric as of clothes or anything else. So it’s important to pay attention to how much you’re buying and where it comes from, whether that’s yarn or ready-to-wear clothes.
Q: What are some of your favorite slow fashion resources (books, magazines, podcasts, etc.)?
A: I highly recommend a short film on the Internet called Unravel. It’s 14 minutes long and so thought provoking. And then the feature-length documentary The True Cost (available on Netflix) is a major eye-opener. So I would start with those two!
On my blog, in addition to posting about my own adventures in trying to have a responsible wardrobe, I also share lots of links on a regular basis. (You can click the Slow Fashion link in the right rail to browse through all of the related content.) And on Instagram, follow @slowfashionoctober (and/or @karentempler) and @fash_rev (Fashion Revolution), which is a trove of resources and statistics.
For the print version of this interview, get your copy of knitscene Fall 2018 today! And get your slow fashion on this fall!
Find projects for slow fashion in our fall pages: