'Sustainable fashion' and binary thinking

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

I realised something recently. It's pretty simple, but seems rather important.

This realisation emerged from a comment someone made about my work on homemade clothes and sustainability. They challenged the whole idea of 'sustainable fashion', arguing that too often people assume that sustainable fashion is 'better' than mass-produced fashion - when strategies such as making our own clothes at home might bring their own challenges and limitations.

In response, I explained that I don't think homemade clothes are automatically more sustainable than mass-produced clothes (though they certainly have the potential to be) - in fact, that's the central point of my whole thesis - so, effectively, I agreed with the point they were making.

However, I quietly sidestepped the larger issue they raised. I could only think: well, of course I think sustainable fashion aims to be 'better'! That's the goal, right? Seeking solutions to problems and new ways of doing things? That's what we're all working towards!

Over time, I've come to realise that my confusion over this comment indicates two totally different understandings of what 'sustainable fashion' means. The first is binary, while the other (my own) is aspirational.

The binary understanding sees 'sustainable fashion' and 'unsustainable fashion' as two distinct categories. From this perspective, 'normal' high street fashion falls within the 'unsustainable' category - while anything placed within the 'sustainable' category carries the implicit claim of 'betterness'. 

This binary view is certainly easy to understand: it efficiently splits the fashion world into baddies and goodies. It helps you to feel good as a consumer - having picked the virtuous option versus the negative one. It's also a logical perception: if designers and journalists talk about 'sustainable fashion' it implies a single, unified group which exists in opposition to its nemesis, 'unsustainable fashion'. 

However, given the complexity of the fashion system, the energy and resources consumed in creating and maintaining garments, and the many human and social factors involved in wearing clothes, no initiative can truly claim to be 100% sustainable. I learned early on that this is true of design for sustainability more generally - you will always be trading off advantages against disadvantages, and dealing with unexpected impacts. There are no easy wins! 

From the binary perspective, there is great scope for challenging those who describe their work as sustainable fashion - the critics need only point to the inevitable negative impacts of their initiatives to argue that they are (at best) naive idealists, who have not considered the implications of their well-intentioned efforts.

In contrast, my understanding of sustainable fashion is that it's an aspiration - something that, to be honest, we haven't yet achieved. As a fashion designer exploring alternative fashion systems with sustainability as a goal, I might describe my work as 'sustainable fashion' - but that's a shorthand for the aspirations I have sought to pursue, not for '100% goodie'.

And I'm not alone. I don't know of a single person working within the field of sustainable fashion who thinks in this binary way - that what they are doing is definitively 'better' than the norm. Instead, I see a lot of people pursuing different approaches - based on their own priorities, interests and talents - and trying to expose alternative, more sustainable, ways of delivering the benefits of fashion. They are highly aware of the negative impacts of the strategies they are developing, and the trade-offs they are making.

Meanwhile, many of these people are working with the 'baddies' of the high street fashion world, seeking to explore alternatives on an industrial scale through collaboration, rather than competition - challenging that binary view from another angle.

Simple, right? We were talking at cross purposes all along. Just a shame it took me so long to realise!

I guess we all need to get a bit better at explaining what we mean by 'sustainable fashion'.


Three months, three exhibitions

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

There's been a sudden rush of activity on the exhibition front!

Knitwear: Chanel to Westwood

On 19 September, the fantastic Knitwear: Chanel to Westwood exhibition opened at the Fashion & Textile Museum in Bermondsey, London. The main exhibition is an incredible showcase of twentieth century knitwear, featuring not only work by big name designers, but also popular vernacular styles (such as a display of beautiful Fair Isle jumpers). Sitting alongside is the Visionary Knitwear display, curated by Sandy Black, a 'showcase of bold visions in contemporary fashion knitwear' - including my stitch-hacked piece, St Michael - 12 - 40 (shown, in situ, above).

I highly recommend the exhibition for all knitwear fans! It runs until 18 January 2015, and visitor information can be found here.

Brave Fixed World

Soon after attending the private view of the Knitwear exhibition, I was packing up work for another display - this time in Poland, part of Łódź Design Festival. The exhibition is called Brave Fixed World, and is curated by Daniel Charny (known for his fantastic Power of Making exhibition at the V&A in 2011). I'm sad that I won't get to see the exhibition, because it sounds great! Here's the introductory blurb:

The world we live in is shaped by the heroic successes of mechanisation and mass-production. The democratisation of access to goods and improved quality of life brought about by industrial production has come at a price. While the abundance of cheap standardised products strain our environment, we are distanced from the experience of making, so leaving many with the limited choices of buying new or doing nothing. This ‘Brave New World’ needs fixing.

The Gallery element looks at ‘fixes’ covering a range of activities ... fom these examples the Fixhub invites debate and speculation on what our world may be like if fixing became the norm? What if it became a legal imperative or a sweeping social movement? 

The exhibition runs from 10 to 19 October, and will feature my re-knitting work: the 'spectrum' diagram (which shows an array of re-knitting options), the 'tester' jumper showing five different treatments, and my first ever stitch-hacked piece, 'Who Made This?'.

Knitting Nottingham

Hot on the heels of the exhibition in Poland is Knitting Nottingham, an exhibition at Nottingham Trent University's Bonington Gallery which explores 'new knitting directions and technologies, which challenge current knit practice and offer future-focused ideas'. It celebrates Nottingham Trent University’s 170 years of knitting education, design and research.

Once again I'll be showcasing my re-knitting 'spectrum' diagram, my PhD 'tester' jumper, and a different stitch-hacked piece: ATH + Jayfor.

Knitting Nottingham runs from 6 to 28 November (plus a preview evening on 6 November), and is free to attend. Visitor information can be found here


10 years of Keep & Share!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Well, it's taken me a couple of weeks to get round to blogging - but I'm pleased to confirm that on 21 August we celebrated the tenth anniversary of Keep & Share with a fab party at London knitting hub Prick Your Finger.

The party incorporated a number of celebratory activities:

  • An exhibition of Keep & Share knitwear from the archive (click here to see the pieces on show, in the store section) and my PhD re-knitting 'tester' jumper
  • Plus two new pieces: The Backbone of Britain and Knitting Circle tags 2011-13 (follow the links to find out more)
  • I gave a talk about my work over the past decade (which I recorded - click here to watch)
  • And launched a 16-page pamphlet telling the story of the first ten years of Keep & Share (click here to download the pdf or request a hard copy)

It was a lovely do - thanks to everyone who came! And a massive thank you to Rachael Matthews of Prick Your Finger for hosting the party and exhibition!

You can read Rachael's blog post about the party here, and a post by Sarah Klymkiw on the TRAID blog here.

The exhibition will be up until Saturday 20 September, so you've still got a couple of weeks to check it out...