In The Revenge of Gaia, scientist James Lovelock argues that we should give the Earth and its ecological systems a well-deserved break and allow it to catch its breath again. Whilst I disagree with many of his proposed resuscitation techniques, such as nuclear energy, I would echo his calls for ‘a sustainable retreat’.
One area of our lives in which it would be easy to give the planet the weekend off would be clothing. Unlike food, we don’t actually have to produce it relentlessly every day. The vast majority of the apparel produced goes to those of us in the global West, and we’re not exactly walking around threadbare every day. We don’t need any more clothes for a long, long time. We only continue to buy clothes at anything like the scale we do because we have become sheep, longing to conform to society’s norms, as opposed to having any functional need for more and more. It is ironic that the marketing departments of many clothing brands encourage their targeted consumers to be unique, self-assured and confident in their own style, yet the entire industry is premised on the hope that everyone will mindlessly conform to whatever a small handful of elite industry heads decides is cool at any given moment.
The fashion industry, where clothes come in and out of style with every season that passes, has a massive impact on the ecological systems of the planet. The most common crop used for clothing is cotton. Despite it taking up only 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land, cotton uses 25% of the world’s pesticides. For every kilo of final cotton textile, 11,000 litres of water is used, meaning that for every cotton T-shirt we buy 2,700 litres of water have been consumed.
Cotton isn’t the only culprit – most common fibres should be ashamed of themselves. It is hardly surprising that synthetic fibres such as polyester and nylon are no angels either. The manufacture of nylon creates nitrous oxide (no laughing matter) which is 298 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Polyester, the world’s most popular man-made fibre weighed in at 17 million tonnes produced in 2001. It is made from oil, is very thirsty, uses over four times the amount of energy per tonne of spun fibre than hemp and its production is easily the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide of all the fabrics that we make clothes from.(275)
This constant damage to the planet makes even less sense when you consider that we have already produced enough clothes for the next decade; that is, if we could all just learn to share, mend, and swap those we already have. There are many projects established to make it as easy as possible to do so, all of which have the added benefit of you acquiring a new wardrobe without any additional cost to either your egocentric or holistic selves. Of course this is not a long-term strategy as all clothing will eventually wear out, but it is an important transitional strategy if we are to drastically reduce our water usage and the pollution of our water bodies, allow soil fertility to build up again, and avoid the very worst consequences of climate chaos. Long-term we need to grow plants that we can produce clothes out of locally, which meet people’s needs, but maybe not their every desire.
Short-term clothing solutions
Clothes swapping and sharing evenings
Just because you’re bored with some of your clothes, it doesn’t mean other people would be. Instead of hoarding them in your cupboards, bring them along to a clothes swapping party, pass them on to others who like them, and pick up items you fancy from those who are participating in exactly the same spirit as you.
Swishing parties(276) are easy to organise, and help planning them is at hand. Lucy Shea, the founder of Swishing(.com), says they are a great way to “save money, save the planet and have a party,” and are “for all those women who want to combine glamour, environmental protection and frugality”. Shoes and jewellery are also on offer for free. These seem to be tailored to, and frequented by, women at the moment, but there is absolutely no reason why guys couldn’t organise the same, other than the fact that they are perfectly happy with the two pairs of jeans and three T-shirts that they already own, and couldn’t think of anything worse than trying on clothes all evening.
If you want to combine swapping with some DIY workshops on how to mend and alter your clothes, the Wendy Tremayne inspired Swap-o-ramarama events take place in over one hundred cities globally. Both of these projects are perfect examples of how we can rethink the ways in which we can meet our clothing needs – in terms of both style and functionality – in the short- and long-term.
Make do and mend
This phrase grew out of the Second World War (the idea existed long before it), a time when all attention was on the war effort and clothes from industry were in very short supply. The Ministry of Information at the time produced a mini-book showing its population how to maintain and revamp their wardrobes, focusing on skills such as knitting, crocheting, sewing, how to deal with the ‘moth menace’, how to best wash your materials, darn socks and mend jeans. Stupidly, it didn’t tell anyone how they could best erase the skid marks off the inside of their pants caused by thoughts of the Jerries flying overhead.
These skills will be very useful in the future, and it is essential that we collectively keep the knowledge alive. Organising events such as the Stitch ’n bitch(277) – where I hope more stitching than bitching goes on – and regular Freeskilling evenings focused on clothes reparation and alteration is a perfect way to keep the vital knowledge of that war generation alive.
We have a long distance to go to become truly moneyless for clothes. Most people today can’t use a needle and thread with any proficiency, let alone know how to grow the crops that make the fibres in the first place. This is largely due to the economics of insanity which result in us now being able to buy a T-shirt on the High Street for a couple of pounds, coupled with the fact that we now have absolutely no part to play in any of the stages of our clothes production, meaning we have only a fraction of the respect for them we ought to have. Until we reconnect with the processes of making our clothes, expect the ecological disaster that is the fashion and textiles industry to only get worse.
The Freeshop is a great logistical system for the sharing of clothes on a daily basis. Don’t forget that it also relies on stockists (that’s you and me) to keep its shelves full, so if you do have some clothes that no longer fit, or an item that you know you will never wear again, do drop them in and let them be used by someone who needs them.
If you’ve had enough of some of your clothes, why not take them apart, see what designs you can come up with, before combining them in some weird and wonderful manner. Friends will think you’ve been on a shopping spree when all you’ve done is mix and mismatched some of your old stuff to make something unique. At the very least it’s a lot more innovative and original than following the herd to High St.
Long-term clothing solution
A stitch in time will save nine, but there is a limit to how many times you can mend a piece of clothing before it is completely spent, especially when you consider the poor quality of mass produced clothes today.
For us to become truly moneyless in relation to our clothing in the long-term, we’re going to have to get used to the novel idea of having only as many items of high quality clothing as we functionally need for each season. We simply do not have the acreage per person in the UK to have fashion collections any bigger than is necessary, once current stocks run out.
I appreciate that we all like to have a range of clothes to choose from for different occasions, but choice and absolute sustainability are quite often non-compatible, and at some point in our future we have got to decide whether we want a bulging wardrobe on an uninhabitable planet, or a couple of practical and well-designed outfits on a biodiverse and healthy planet.
Making your own clothes requires skill, time and experience, but by starting to learn how we can source the materials we need to survive today, we’ll be well equipped for a time when it may be a necessity rather than an option. In doing so, we can get a great sense of creativity, autonomy and meaning from the knowledge that we’ve just made ourselves, or someone we love, a garment that will be very useful to them for years to come.
Below are a couple of options to consider. This is not a complete guide, but it should give you an idea of what it is possible to do in terms of moneyless, long-term clothing in the UK.
Hemp and Nettles
If you want to be moneyless for clothing in the UK by getting back to basics and making your own, one of the fibres on your menu has got to be hemp. One issue is that our government has a fetish for controlling as many aspects of our lives as they feel they can get away with; therefore, if you want to grow even the varieties of hemp that are only suitable for fibre production, you’ll need a licence from the Home Office. If you even want to import its seeds for the purposes of sowing, you will also need to apply for a licence from the Rural Payments Agency (RPA). Such laws are inherently unjust, and as Mahatma Gandhi once said, “so long as the superstition that men should obey unjust laws exists, so long will their slavery exist”. We cannot allow sustainability to be illegal.
Regardless of how you manage to get over this issue, there are many moneyless advantages to hemp. Hemp is one of the most crucial agricultural crops for a sustainable future, as it can easily be managed with zero imported inputs. Unlike other crops intended for clothing, it is very resilient and needs no pesticides; it adds nutrients to the soil and so can be inter-cropped with other useful plants who need what it supplies (therefore requiring no synthetic fertilisers); and the fact it grows quite thick means there is little need for weeding, meaning less work and more time to play chess or have hot tubs under the starry night sky with lovers and raspberry wine. Not only that – as if that wasn’t enough – but according to Matilda Lee, author of Eco Chic, “it ‘breathes’ and so keeps you cool in hot weather, and is soft, comfortable and yet hard-wearing”.
Hemp has no end of other uses, ranging from it being an excellent rope making material to producing very healthy seeds for eating.
Another very useful plant for making clothes is the stinging nettle (Urtica dioica). The fact it grows wild in huge quantities across the length and breadth of the country is a bonus, as it needs zero work in terms of cultivation. Suggesting to someone that they could make a pair of pants out of nettles seems almost akin to asking them to wipe their bum with a cactus, such is the seemingly absurd prospect of such an idea today. Yet we forget that people have been making their clothes out of nettles for millennia, and its popularity didn’t fade until around the 16th century when cotton came to prominence.
Ray Harwood, a professor of textiles engineering at De Montford University (DMU) in Leicestershire, believes that nettles could be a very important fibre again in the future, and has set up a project aptly called STING (Sustainable Technologies in Nettle Growing). If you want more information about how you can best utilise nettles for clothing, contacting them would be a great place to start.
Once you acquire whatever fibre you are going to use, you will need to learn other skills too, such as how to spin a yarn and turn it into something that resembles cloth. I’d recommend spending some time working with somebody who has a lot of experience in using these skills, along with utilising every possible means to educate yourself in what could be a crucial skill of the future.
Braintanned roadkill buckskin
Before you make a drum out of your roadkill buckskin (see page 288), think about using it for your own clothing first. Buckskin originally referred to the leather made out of the hide of the male deer, the buck, but is more commonly used these days for any leather with certain characteristics and qualities, notably its softness and pliability.
If this is something you really want to learn more about, Matt Richard’s book Deerskins into Buckskins: How to Tan with Brain, Soap or Eggs(278) is essential reading, though volunteering with someone who can teach you would be very beneficial to you mastering the art.
Here is a very brief introduction to the process so that you may get a very basic idea of the time, skill level and effort involved. The stages go something like this:
• Skinning – this involves removing the hide from the carcass, taking care to keep it as complete as you possibly can. Using a sharp, flat rock, scrap away the flesh and fat of the animal.
• Hair removal – there are two main ways to do this: the dry scrape method and the wet scrape method. The former involves drying and stretching it on a frame, and then taking a very sharp stone to it to remove the hair. The wet method involves immersing it in a solution of lye in water, before taking a dull stone or a split leg bone to it. Wet scraping is easier to do, but dry scraping can often lead to better absorption of the brains (a later step). An old traditional alternative, practised by American Indians, was to simply put the hide in a cold river or stream, weigh it down with rocks, and let the passing water erode the hair over time.
• Stretching – here the drying, tanned hide is stretched out, so that the dressing below can lubricate the fibres of the hide and keep it soft and pliable.
• Tanning – once the hide has been sufficiently scraped, it needs to be dressed with the animal’s brain. This can also be done with egg yolk or an oil and soap concoction.
• Smoking – if every stage so far has been done correctly, you should have a buckskin that is supple and dry. At this point it should be smoked long enough that the colour of the smoke (which will depend on what wood you use) penetrates through to the other side of the hide, at which time the skin should be turned over again until it becomes your desired colour.
As a vegan who doesn’t see veganism as the ideal but as a response to the Industrial Revolution and the notion of agriculture, I have only one issue with using roadkill buckskin clothing: it inadvertently promotes and normalises the use of leather to a population who will, in all likelihood, not then go out and make their own leather clothing themselves from roadkill, but instead go off to a department store which will undoubtedly have sourced their materials from supply chains that are incredibly cruel to the animals whose bodies they are profiting from. Such an outcome would be the antithesis of my intention.
That said, I believe that using roadkill buckskin is actually ‘more vegan’ than buying natural fibre clothing that has come from the global industrial-scale economy. I realise that seems an absurd, potentially provocative statement to make and it certainly isn’t my intention to offend other vegans. But I do believe that vegans who think that buying cotton and other pesticide-ridden fibres produced on land that has, first, been relegated from Wild to agriculturally managed land before, subsequently, being shipped around the world using fossil fuels (which have been extracted in ways that inevitably destroys huge swaths of habitat and all that once lived in it – the Gulf of Mexico being but one example), are deluding themselves to some extent about how ‘vegan’ their lifestyles really are. Pesticides are not vegan, the clue is in the name. Neither are fossil fuels. This is not a criticism in any sense, as I have nothing but respect for anyone who lives as aligned to their beliefs as they feel they can, especially those whose aim is only to minimise cruelty. It is merely a challenge to those who already live with compassion to extend the boundaries within which they contemplate the consequences of their consumption.
Living moneylessly does not mean you have to go unadorned. There is no end of simple materials you can use to decorate yourself with, all of which you could find on a stroll through the woods, countryside or beach. Materials include cordage made from natural fibres (again, hemp is good), bone, shells, plants, seeds, wood, petals or anything that you find as you are out foraging. All you need is a little imagination and a desire to be creative.