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A stitch in time: slow fashion

This article appeared in Dumbo Feather issue 31, second quarter 2012

When I was teenager, my mother sat me down and tried to teach me to mend. But I was about as interested in learning how to darn the hole in my jumper as I was in joining a sports team, or understanding advanced mathematics, or crossing the road properly: zilch.

It’s a skill her mother taught her and her mother before her, back through the branches of my family tree to a time before people even wore clothes. Back then, beyond the practicality of its verbal status, mending didn’t have a name. It was just the thing that was done to sustain the life of a garment, out of the necessity, desire and common-sensibility to get the most out of the least. But now, mending is an element of ‘Slow Fashion’, one of a clutch of movements in the art of slow – food, architecture, design, living – wending their way through Western consciousness.

The term ‘Slow Fashion’ was coined by English researcher, author and change-maker Kate Fletcher in 2007, in response to the untenability of mass production and consumption in the fashion industry. A knitting together of the sustainable, eco, green and ethical fashion movements, it is driving an ethical, philosophical and practical shift away from fast fashion – so named for its ability to spin cash for its makers; not the factory workers themselves whose labour generates the garments, but the business owners whose stakes entitle them to the profits.

In fact fast or ‘McFashion’ is no quicker to make or consume than any other garment and it typically uses unsustainable, resource intensive textile production methods. Cotton, for example, is considered the world’s ‘dirtiest’ crop because of its reliance on insecticides. Once harvested it is processed with a heady mix of harmful compounds: silicone waxes, harsh petroleum scours, softeners, heavy metals, flame and soil retardants, ammonia, and formaldehyde.

Yet slow is not the opposite of fast. “There is no dualism,” wrote Kate in a landmark paper for The Ecologist in 2007.  “[Slow] is simply a different approach in which designers, buyers, retailers and consumers are more aware of the impacts of products on workers, communities and ecosystems. [It] is about a richer interaction between designer and maker; maker and garment; garment and user.”

‘Slow Fashion’ also refers to the way we think about and engage with fashion. “In the collective cultural consciousness, fashion is consumption, materialism, commercialisation and marketing,” ponders Kate on her own website. “It is buying high street and high end. It is watching, shopping, is normal to access and engage with fashion primarily by exchanging money for product; it is expected that these same products will look dated and stylistically incongruous in six months; it is usual to discard rather than repair.”

Slow Fashion is the exception not the norm, so conscious, considered purchasing is a must. Clothing made from organic, recycled, reclaimed, or fast-growing fabrics like bamboo are good choices. Buy from brands that seek accreditation from organisations like Ethical Clothing Australia, whose ‘Meet Your Maker’ label assures buyers that everyone involved in a garment’s production received fair wages and worked in decent conditions.

Oppose and boycott mass produced fashion and buy from local, artisan or domestic makers. Stop impulse buying. Shop in second-hand or vintage stores. Donate unwanted garments on, or hold clothes swaps with friends. Select classic, well-made garments that will last longer and transcend trends. Do your research. Make do by buying fewer clothes less often. Learn to sew, customise and alter your own clothing. Let your mother teach you to mend.