Sustainable wardrobe challenge – Ruth Brown

Last year I made the move to focus more on sustainability and bring this in as a core value of my business. The climate crisis is no secret, the clothing industry is one of the  largest culprits of negative impact on the environment. I think sewing can go along way to make a difference whether it be mending, remaking or taking the time to make a loved item of clothing. I’ve spent a lot of time reading and researching and looking for ways and ideas to operate in a way that has less negative impact on the environment. I’ve felt inspired to learn about many small companies and individuals that are committed to caring and doing more. I think it is probably impossible to be perfectly sustainable but we can make considered, conscious decisions and share ideas. Collectively small impacts build up to big differences.

In this new series of blog posts I have invited fellow sewists to create a new outfit from one of my patterns and gifted fabric from my shop with the following brief:

The Brief:

Choose a Bobbins and Buttons pattern and fabric from the online shop selection to make it in. Choose an item/s of unloved clothing or unused textiles from your home to create a new outfit.

The outfit can be for you or a member of your family.

The pattern can be from the range or one created for Love Sewing magazine. It can be hacked or adapted to suit your requirements.

The unloved clothing or textiles could be just bought back into circulation by becoming part of a new outfit or upcycled into something to wear with the new piece or as part of the new piece. It might be clothing or table linen, curtains or other unused textiles. Think as creatively as you like!

Ruth Brown:

Hello Ruth can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your sewing. How did you start sewing?

Hi Julia! Thanks for asking me to take part.

I’m Ruth, I’m a journalist and spend most of my time writing, sewing or writing about sewing!

I started sewing when I was a child. I was taught the basics by my mum, who I suspect was trying to keep me busy while snatching a little sewing time for herself. I sewed on and off throughout my teens and twenties, taking courses in pattern cutting in London as a diversion from the 9-5, but it wasn’t until my thirties that I started to take it more seriously. Wanting a working life that fitted in with a young family, I began to shape my work around my hobby.

Sustainability Bobbins and buttons

Sewing your own clothes can be everything from a practical solution to a mindful, creative practice. How do you feel about the process?

For me sewing clothes is a bit of everything. It’s a great form of self-expression: from the choice of pattern and fabric through to the way we wear the finished article. I am not a flamboyant dresser, but I enjoy being able to tailor clothing to my own specifications, and I love to see others do the same. There’s no doubt that creativity and flow (something I’ve written about here  is part of the allure, but for me it’s the engineering involved in turning a flat piece of fabric into a three dimensional form that never fails to interest. I always thought I was rubbish at maths, but I’ve realised through sewing that it is actually quite fun!

The best thing about garment sewing, I think, is that it ticks the William Morris box: creating things that are both useful and aesthetically pleasing. Throw the psychological benefits of creative expression and entering a flow state into the bargain and you have, in my opinion, a real winner of a hobby.

Sustainability Bobbins and buttons

When you need or want a new item of clothing what are the deciding factors for whether to make or buy?

I don’t buy clothing anymore (shoes and socks being a stubborn exception). If I want something, I make it. Occasionally I will go round a shop and see what styles are in and what the clothes actually look like in the flesh. It never fails to shock me how cheap these clothes are in relation to the amount of work involved in their making, even at higher-end high street stores. 

sustainability Bobbins and Buttons

Please tell us about the outfit you have chosen to create and the unloved items you have used.

Given the brief, I wanted to make sure I chose something that would a) be a wardrobe workhorse and b) fill a genuine gap. I’m a fairly boring dresser – I have a low tolerance for frills and fancy fabrics. I love them on other people but as soon as I try them on it just feels wrong, so as much as I was drawn to all the pretty prints at Bobbins and Buttons – of which there are many! – I kept my sensible head on and looked for a staple.

At the moment, that’s warm and cosy clothing. With fuel prices soaring, I’m currently focused on making warm garments for next winter. Neither seasonal nor sexy, but hopefully more sustainable than ratcheting the heating up full blast – for my wallet at the very least…

I went for the Lynn sweater, which has a raglan sleeve and casual fit. My grey lambswool sweater disintegrated last year after over a decade of service and I have missed it, so the gap was clear. Replacing it will help bring a few items of clothing I already have back into circulation. I know it’s hard to believe, but I was very excited to make this grey sweater!

With a reasonable amount of leftovers I realised I could make a second sweater if I combined it with other off-cuts, and that this could create something a little more fun. I ended up with just over 0.5m left after cutting out the first sweater. I managed to get the back, sleeves and part of the front out of the grey, by reducing the length by 3 inches – this creates a boxier look to the sweater.

Julia then sent me a few off-cuts she had leftover from classes – one long thin piece of pink and a wider piece of emerald green. The pink wasn’t quite wide enough to create a classic chevron, so I opted for the green chevron and smaller triangles in pink. Some years ago I watched a Stitch Sisters video on YouTube where they made amazing chevron sweaters, so I took that as a departure point.

On reflection, I think the grey could have been smaller and the pink strip bigger, but the challenge was to work with what I had and not buy more fabric, so I am really pleased with the results, and so happy I managed to use up most of the scraps from the first sweater, and a few of Julia’s to boot!

The process of making the second sweater has inspired me to do the same for my kids with even smaller scraps. I’m looking forward to playing around a little bit more with the idea.

Sustainability Bobbins and buttons

The clothing industry is responsible for many problems from ethical to environmental impact. Do you think sewing your own clothing can offer some solutions?

I’d love to think sewing could be a solution, but I wonder what the level of wastage would actually be if we all made our own clothes. Factories are able to create economies of scale and optimise fabric usage in a way that individual sewers, en masse, cannot. One company I’m particularly interested in is Patrick Grant’s Community Clothing – if more fashion lines could be made following the social enterprise model, I think we’d have genuine change in the industry. That, and the cottage industries I see popping up all over the place by individual sewers starting their own businesses and scaling up their personal making to cater for others, is a great start.

Personally, I’m all too aware that some of my sewing is incredibly fast, and I couldn’t reasonably cast any stones at anyone opting for fast fashion. I do recognise, though, that I can do more, and even small nudges in the right direction – when committed to by enough people – can make a big difference. 

One of the issues often raised with sustainable fashion or sewing is that the price of products tend to be more expensive. What are your thoughts on this?

It’s inevitable that more sustainably and ethically produced fashion is going to cost more, and this means a lot of people will be excluded from enjoying it. I don’t know exactly what the answer is here – it can’t be, ‘well you can’t have nice clothes because you haven’t got enough money’, and it can’t be, ‘you can only have nice clothes if you learn to sew’. Let’s face it, sewing can be a horribly expensive hobby if you let it get the better of you. It also takes a large amount of time to get good enough to make things you’d actually happily wear out of the house. That’s simply not an option for a lot of people. Some of the discussions around the environment, sustainability and ethical consumerism are, however well-intended, myopically elitist and high-handed. I don’t think it needs to be that way, and I’d encourage anyone interested in sewing more sustainably to focus on their own consumption, and what it really means (eg. thrifting takes a lot of time too!) before they criticise the choices of strangers.

sustainability Bobbins and buttons

How can we make sustainable sewing cost effective?

I have written about this elsewhere, and unfortunately I came to the rather un-feelgood conclusion that sewing isn’t sustainable. I’m not putting a downer on trying to be more sustainable – my point is that humans, in the way we currently inhabit the world, are not sustainable. Trying to be more sustainable than we already are is, however, within every person’s remit, no matter how limited resources. Just an awareness of the impact of our making, without driving ourselves around the bend with guilt, can make a difference. And if you’re on a really limited budget, there should be no shame or stigma in choosing fabrics that don’t claim the sustainability credentials but do fit the bill for what you want to make – after all, if you’re going to wear it over and over again and love it to bits, that is probably more sustainable in real terms than the old bedsheet from the charity shop which seemed like a right-on purchase but will never be worn.

Sustainability Bobbins and buttons

What do you do with items of clothing that no longer fit or serve a purpose?

Clothing I no longer want or wear is either refashioned into something for myself, my kids, a bag lining or some other project. If perfectly serviceable and well-made it is sent to a charity shop. Some garments, for example jersey, are stuffed into a Closet Core pouf and retrieved when I need to make the kids t-shirts or find a contrast ribbing. I’m not great at chucking stuff out, and this does occasionally pay dividends.

Sustainability Bobbins and buttons

Do you get seduced by new fashion trends or an exciting new pattern that has just been launched?

I’m not easily seduced anymore – in the past I definitely let my magpie eye get the better of me. Now I use that eye for work and keep a practical eye for my wardrobe. It’s not particularly Instagrammable, but it does the job for real life.

Sustainability Bobbins and buttons

Do you have any tips or project ideas for using up scraps of fabric?

I have a never ending barrel of ideas for using up scraps, the issue is always time! I use a lot of odds and ends to create and test sewing project tutorials for work. This could be anything from a make-up bag to oven gloves or a peg bag. The beauty of small makes is that they make lovely gifts and if you enjoy making them everyone wins. You could be scrap busting all day if you had the time and inclination, and you’d never need to buy another present ever again!

Sustainability Bobbins and buttons

Where can readers find out more about you?

You can see my articles, sewing patterns and pattern hacks in the pages of Love Sewing magazine every month or on my website and you can see what I’ve been making on Instagram @grinlowstudio.

Sustainability Bobbins and buttons
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Julia Claridge

I was about 6 or 7 years old when I had my first go on a sewing machine, it was an old hand crank machine that my mum used with her patients, she was an occupational therapist. I still vividly remember watching with amazement as the tiny perfectly formed stitches were created as I turned the handle. I Grew up in the 70’s and 80’s when buying clothes was less affordable and dressmaking was an answer to updating your wardrobe more regularly. My own mother was a talented dressmaker who made most of my clothes and my sisters clothes as well as a many for herself. I soon got involved with making my clothes, I loved the whole experience of picking out fabrics, trims and a pattern to create a new outfit, then going home to make a new garment or outfit. When it came to leaving school I visited a careers advisor who asked what I wanted to do next. My answer was ..Sew! Read more...

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