fossil fuels

Sustainable Closet

Recycled Fabric: A Webinar

Yesterday I tuned into a cool webinar presented by

Textile Exchange

that was all information about recycled fabric.  It was free and open to anyone, and I was very grateful for that.  I was also impressed by the presentation itself.  It was informative without being boring; the background and processes were described with enough science but so much as to be overwhelming to those of us who are not scientists.

Here are a few takeaways:

  • Global fiber production is comprised of about sixty percent synthetic materials (derived from byproducts of crude oil) and forty percent natural materials (fiber that either comes from plants or animals)
  • Total global production of textiles in the world has tripled in the last thirty years
  • Quality of fibers cannot be improved during the recycling process; if a material originally used a low-quality dye, or has been contaminated in other ways, it will continue to carry those qualities into its next reincarnation
  • Natural fibers can be recycled by a mechanical process which involves sorting by like colors, then chopping in a variety of ways, and then eventually carding and re-spinning
  • Synthetic fibers can be recycled mechanically or chemically (in which case they are actually melted down and re-formed...while this can have an environmental impact, it also allows for closed-loop opportunities)

I really appreciated this webinar, and I appreciated that it was free and open to everyone.  If this topic interests you, check out the

Textile Exchange

website for more information, resources and links.

The Miracle of Modern Clothing

I started thinking about the unsustainability of my shopping habits in my mid 20s.  I knew that I shopped too much, leaned too hard on the excitement of new clothes.  It seemed effective, though, and I have always loved clothes, so it was a hard habit to shift.  At the time, I was working to eat healthier, eliminate toxins from my beauty routine and be healthier in most areas of my life, but I was stumped by my closet.  At my grocery store, I could trace the origins of many foods, but what about my clothes?  I worried most about labor: unsafe factories who knew where, and children chained to sewing machines.  I worried also about chemicals in the fabric dyes, and what were all of those new fibers that I had never heard of listed on the tags?

I can't lie, I was a true advocate of the power of retail therapy to recover from frustrations.  Why get a therapist when you can buy some fantastic boots for the same price, and feel great at the same time?  Right?  Of course, the answer is not exactly.  I still believe in the healing power of an occasional splurge, but what I started to notice was the pile of garments in my closet.  Where did they actually come from?  Why were some items deemed worthy of much higher prices than others?  Why did I need them desperately enough to derail my budget, and then feel fine getting rid of them sometimes only a short time later?  Did  name brand actually matter?

Strangely, what has had the most measurable impact on my apparel consumption since then has been the dawning realization that fashion and the global quest for petroleum are completely intertwined.  And while I've learned to make peace with oil paying our household bills, I remain uncomfortable with the veil of cultural silence around the high costs of textile waste and other fast-fashion addictions.  The price of a barrel of oil is not just tied to our gas tank and our 401k; it is linked to the cost of our clothing, and it's time to be held accountable for that.

It was very hard to find answers to these questions; I am still on my quest. In the very short term, the thing to consider is this:  when you buy a twelve dollar tee shirt, how could it possibly be that cheap?  Think of the steps: grow the cotton, clean and sort it, spin it into yarn, knit the yarn on special machines, dye the cloth, design the shirt, cut the pieces from the fabric, sew the shirt, make sure the shirt fits your target market, mass produce the shirt, add tags and packaging, and ship the tee shirt to the country of the store where it will be sold.

It's even more wild to consider the inexpensive polyester garment.  One thing that I've learned about oil over the last few years is that making it come out of the ground requires madness.  Hundreds of thousands of people (and their loved ones) are affected.  The workers drive, fly and boat to rigs.  They work in boiling hot and freezing cold conditions, with all manor of toxic materials and explosives, and the rigs operate twenty-four hours a day.  They work in countries all over the world, regardless of the political situation.  They work like that because we demand petroleum to make our cars run, our clothes fit, and our food taste the way we want, all at a price that we find palatable.  And we demand it with less and less patience.

Another very real problem with cheap apparel is that it falls apart quickly.  It is frequently referred to as disposable fashion.  People wear that shirt or dress a few times, and it begins to pill, unravel, shrink, or discolor, sometimes in just a few wearings.  Workers across the globe just performed a long string of tasks, several of which required endurance of physically demanding and sketchy working conditions, so a woman could wear a dress to the beach a few times and then throw it away.  Oil that required millions of years to form, was extracted and used for a product with a lifespan of weeks.  Disposable fashion is essentially an extreme form of living on a global credit card.

I have always derived great pleasure from beautiful clothes; I doubt that will ever change.  But can't we just have a slightly smaller collection of garments in our closet that we keep at least for a slightly longer time?  Fewer purchases make room for purchases of slightly higher value; we can afford clothes made of materials that don't make us sick, and we can afford to pay workers enough money, if we are willing to buy fewer items at a higher value each.  Can't we afford to ensure that we wear things that don't cause illness and discomfort to others?

I'm hopeful that it's only a matter of time before a public starting to ask questions about the origins of the beef and the farmer who grew the potatoes, will also ask questions about the the farm, the oil rig, and the factory used to produce the clothes on their backs.

"Kuwait on the Prairie"

As far as we can tell, there is no oil in Minnesota.  Mostly, as we observe what having oil can do for and to a community, we have been grateful that the place that we call home would not be used and abused by the boom and bust cycles which plague the modern oil economy.  During visits home, I have been happy about the lack of random derricks and rusted out equipment lingering in fields.  I have felt grateful that prices of food, fuel and housing do not feel as artificially inflated resulting from oil companies temporarily pouring money and people into a place.

On the other hand, there is the Bakken formation, in western North Dakota.  Growing up, all I knew of North Dakota was Fargo, where my parents were born and raised.  I knew that it was cold, even colder than where I had lived in Minnesota, and that many people I knew from the area around our cabin lived in Fargo during the times they were not enjoying the Minnesota lakes, where we all spent as much time as possible.

My life with my husband's work has been largely separate from my life at home.  If we are home visiting,  the language and rhythms and energy of oil production feel distant and far away, a separate existence.  However, a few weeks ago, there was an article about western North Dakota oil production in my favorite magazine, The New Yorker.  I read The New Yorker not because I care about New York, which I don't particularly, but because it is consistently some of the best writing around.  The articles are detailed, relevant, thorough, intriguing, and help me feel connected to the world.  I read about the Arab Spring, the development of an American art museum by the Walmart family, the history of cancer, the possible viability of insects as a viable source of protein for developed nations, and all manner of other random things which I would normally only catch headlines for.  And on that day, I read about places and a topic already partially familiar to me.

I had recently made the drive between Minnesota and Calgary, and had been comforted to see the physical space between those two places.  It made me much less homesick to understand that in one day, propelled by forces mostly within my control, I could traverse the chasm between our oil-soaked life in Calgary and our family life in Minnesota.  During that drive, I was also comforted, for the first time, by the presence of an oil industry.  I saw with my own eyes residue of oil and gas world linked to a place that was very close to home.  It struck me as a possible long-term way home for us, and have thought of it frequently since that trip.

Sew By Hand

I was planning to write about work, because I've been working much more in the last couple weeks (still in a temporary, free-agent capacity), and my brain is busy with reactions to it, pros/cons, hopes, fears...but when I started typing, this is what happened:

  • You can operate your needle while drinking champagne, but using the machine while under the influence is not advisable
  • Hand-sewing travels well (you just have to use fingernail clippers instead of scissors if you're going through airport security)
  • More time is spent stitching, but less time is spent ripping (which is the way I like to roll)
  • Less ripping of stitches = less wasted thread
  • No fossil fuel is required in the assembly of the garment
  • Stitching by hand goes nicely with talking, in person or even by Skype

This list mostly holds true for knitting, as well.  Right now, however, none of the ideas on the list pertain to work, so I need to mull that over.

In the meantime, here is a picture of what I was making when I learned that I really like to sew by hand.  It was designed by Alabama Chanin, but every stitch was sewn by me.