material matters


Our baby was a month early and it still sometimes feels like I'm cramming to catch up; he's growing up fast and it's not easy to keep abreast of the changes.  I finally made him a toy rattle, and I'm pretty sure he would have enjoyed it even more a month or two ago, but he still took some time to check it out before breakfast this morning.

Make Stuff and Carry On

Selling a house is a drag, and I can report that trying to sell a house while home alone for a month with a seven-month old is an extreme drag.  I felt pretty good for the first three weeks but this week my spirits are low, I can't lie.  While it may not be a long time in the life of a home sale, this month feels to me like it may never end.

Since my time is largely spent either alone or with a couple of sweet creatures who can't understand a word I'm saying, I have a lot of time to think.  As a result, I have wavered occasionally about our plan...too soon?  Too much?  Not the right time?  At other points, I have started to consider even more drastic options, like keeping the house and renting it out instead of selling it, or just getting an apartment in Minnesota but not really making a final decision about the house in Houston until next year.  We made the hard decision and now I just want to get started on the next phase.

In the meantime, I have stolen a few hours here and there for making things.  I can't get involved in anything too messy or complicated, in case of a sudden house-showing evacuation, so that eliminates a lot of what I was hoping to work on this year. But on the other hand, there are other projects; patterns and projects which can still provide both opportunities for learning and also just the pleasure of making.  I recently made this bag from a pattern in a cool book called Linen Wool Cotton.  It turned out that the pattern had some mistakes, but the book remains beautiful and inspiring.

Closet New Yorker

I'm of the mind that it takes six months to firmly settle into a new space.  Maybe it's just me, but when I review the process of getting comfy in a new home, consistently around the six-month mark, the furniture gets rearranged a certain way, or the kitchen cupboards get permanently tamed...perhaps the pictures get lifted off the floor and hung, which frees up the spare bedroom to be organized.  Something  occurs around that time that makes things click and feel noticeably better.  Also possible is that I have considered these dynamics far more than a normal person, after having set up seven different homes in the last seven years.

Additionally abnormal is that I find few things as soothing as cleaning out a closet or reorganizing a cupboard.  When faced with the unknown, the unruly, the upsetting, or the inexplicable; taking control of an inefficient traffic zone or a dysfunctional office calms me.  Along the way, I find an item or two that can be shared with others, or dropped at Goodwill.  At the end of the day, I have the illusion of being in control of my life, with the added bonus that things run more smoothly in the house.

Piles are what signal that a zone is not functioning well.  A pile of clothes in the bottom of the closet means that the way the clothes are arranged is not effective.  A stack of items waiting to be put up in the cupboard means that we have the wrong things stored in the out of reach places.  I imagine that these types of things don't happen when you move into bigger homes instead of smaller ones.  We have only done that twice in the seven moves, and it is true that I did not have to play space jenga in those homes, although I did have to buy  more furniture (which now means that we have too much furniture for our small house).

Our current home necessitates space jenga at a professional level, so I am grateful for the prior practice.  I think I had a breakthrough last week.  The second bedroom of our two-bedroom house is currently occupied by a guest bed and a desk area for my husband.  Since we moved, my own desk area has been relocated  several times, and most recently it also lived in that room.  It was an improvement from having no desk area at all, but it still did not feel quite right.  There were piles everywhere, the path to the second bathroom was clogged, and regardless of those circumstances, the room could not continue to be my office, my husband's office, the guest bedroom and the nursery simultaneously once the baby arrives in August.  Something had to give, and finally last week, I may have cracked the code.

I was not sure if the solution would stick, but so far the functionality is high and it's working pretty well.  The solution has the added bonus of making me feel like hip New Yorker, because only someone  as tight on space as we are would even consider this option.  My new office is located inside my closet.

Through a carefully negotiated marital compromise back in the fall, I won the larger closet in the master bedroom, an outcome about which I feel, by turns, grateful, guilty, or entitled.  But regardless of how I feel, the most important thing is that everyone at home has what they need to do what they want and need to do.

So I measured my desk, and checked the area, and sure enough the numbers worked.  After maximizing the height in the closet more effectively and shifting some other items around a bit, I ended up with a private little zone where papers can linger and mail can clutter, without bothering anyone.  I worried that it might feel claustrophobic, as it probably would to a normal person, but to me, so far, it feels kind of cozy and appropriate.  The dresses and coats hanging on one side of my computer screen remind me of my creative hopes and dreams, in addition to offering sound insulation from the outside world.  The dead space on the shelf on the other side of the computer wasn't functional for hanging items anyway, so now it houses the files and bits that I need to organize our life.  The cherry on top of it all is that I can shut myself all the way into it, or completely out of it.

Maternity 101

I started wearing maternity clothes this week.  I felt bad about it because it seems so early.  Nonetheless, suddenly none of my pants fit.  It was nearly overnight, and for a person like me who views a closet as something to be curated and tended to, like a garden, it was cause for minor mourning.  For some reason, I thought it would be a more gradual and less dramatic transition.  But no.

Let me say this.  I understand that many people in my life have already been through this at least once, or even multiple times.  I am late to the party.  For some, this experience was years ago, and for others it much more recent.  I have come to realize how isolating an experience this is, although I also recognize that to be part of nature's plan.  You aren't supposed to be focused on child-free aspects of your life when all of your body's energy is working to prepare you mentally and physically to produce and care for offspring.  Biology requires that I learn how to put the needs of another before my own interests and curiosities.  Since this is not easy, nature wants me to start practicing now,  months prior to birth.  I have never questioned the fact that my pregnant and new-parent friends kind of disappear, but before this, I had also never examined the minutiae which creates this dynamic, nor how it feels to be the one disappearing.

One of the strangest things has been the loss of use of tools that normally bring me comfort.  Aside from the love and caring of my husband and friends, which I have obviously not lost, food and clothing are two things which I consistently rely on to make me feel good, better, energized, comfortable, comforted, happier, more relaxed.  When I am anxious, I organize my closet.  When I am not thrilled about getting out of bed, I make espresso.  When I feel toxic, I eat more salad.  When I need a pick-me-up, I reach for a favorite outfit.  If the budget is tight, I style new outfits using old clothes.  When the budget is generous, I enjoy the energizing power of new clothes.

The first trimester of pregnancy yanked those familiar crutches right out from under me, making it harder to feel excited about the baby whose arrival I already found intimidating.  Even though we completely brought this upon ourselves, I can't deny that it feel profoundly unfair to not only have to give up cocktails and my favorite jeans, but to also not find appetizing most of the foods which I normally would use for nourishment.  Luckily in recent days, my appetite has been returning to a version of its former self.  Clothing, however, remained a source of depression.

My job offer arrived the same week that I outgrew all of my pants.  Along with the offer came the news that the dress code is business casual.  Not unreasonable, but bad news for the woman who was hoping to skate through pregnancy in muumuus and leggings.  It also thwarted my goal of making my own maternity clothes, at least in the very short term.

What followed was a harrowing round of research.  I do most of my shopping online, and only venture out to stores occasionally or out of necessity.  So I started looking for new clothes this way as well, but then got nervous about the fit of garments on my new shape; I had no idea what to expect.  I fell down the rabbit hole for days, disappointed with how few choices there seemed to be, and amazed that I had never known about this situation before.  I combed through my pattern-drafting books, and there was not a word about the fit of maternity garments.  I also reviewed my vintage sewing books, of which I have a handful.  They were also silent on the subject of the pregnant female figure.  I couldn't even find any fashion design sketches on the topic.  How could this be?

I commonly hear people remark on how expensive maternity clothes are, and then ask why someone would want to spend money on items they only wear for a short time.  But I will say this: sad as it is, for how long do we normally wear garments that we buy?  Certainly we have items that we wear for years, but on the other hand, I would wager that most people buy many things that are worn for far less than a year.  Especially those of us in our twenties or thirties.  In recent years, I have been working to buy things less impulsively, and with a longer view, but on the other hand, when I broke down yesterday and bought those comfy maternity jeans and a cute new business-casual outfit which shows my bump, I felt very happy.  I felt good, and comfortable, for the first time in weeks.  I felt like my old self and my new self were finally united.  That in and of itself has value.  And even if I can't wear these things for the entire next six months, I know that I will continue to need them for at least a period of time after the baby is born.  If it turns out I can't use them after, I'm sure some other woman in my life will be thrilled to use them, and there is also value in that.

I still plan to try to make some garments, but in the short term, I'm thrilled to be able to once again throw on some jeans, eat something yummy, wonder who my baby will be, and go about my day.

Stitching Time

There is little to report, but a nice calm before the next life hurricane is cause for celebration, not consternation.

Texas continues to entertain, although I haven't been struck with my usual urge to dissect local absurdities.  My mind has not been altogether here.  I had a nice visit to Minnesota, where I enjoyed the hot commodity of fresh air and open windows.  We didn't buy the land that I thought we would, and that was the right decision for the time being.  I'm still waiting for news on the dream job, which also has my mind one foot out the door, as slim as those chances are.  As per usual chez LaCasse, champagne chills in preparation for either an invitation to interview, or the inevitable thanks-but-no-thanks email.

I finished my classes, and am grateful to have no more homework.  My final illustration project left me with many ideas and with more work to do on my own this summer, which is, to me, the sign of a class worth taking.  So now, I'm doodling and stitching, organizing and plotting, drafting and resting, and alternating between feeling wonderfully relaxed and intermittently antsy.  I continue to sew by hand, even when I know I should switch to a machine...sewing by hand costs me time, but makes me happy and brave, so for now it dominates.

I have disassembled my wedding dress in order to examine the fabric for its reincarnation into the anniversary dress.  I have begun sewing a dress that I envisioned in my final illustration project.  And I really need to be making lightweight tanks and sundresses, because the Texas heat is upon me and I forgot how serious it is.

Reading continues on the history of cotton and it is an amazing story.  Vaguely familiar parts of our nation's history are coming to life in a much more vibrant way for me through the lens of the story of this challenging fiber, and its links to this part of the country.

Big Cotton: Light Reading

I've been reading about cotton, and it has a fascinating story.

Here are some of my surprising discoveries so far:

  • Cotton was referred to as "vegetable wool" by the armies of Alexander the Great, during a time when the dominant sources of clothing were related to animal fibers and materials.
  • Even though Eli Whitney made the cotton industry unimaginably profitable (and indeed, possible) with the invention of the cotton gin, his net profit from his invention never amounted to more than a few thousand dollars, due to ill-advised business decisions, piracy of his invention, and the resulting legal battles.
  • The four varieties of cotton which evolved to produce cotton lint originated in present-day Pakistan, sub-Saharan Africa, coastal Chile/Peru, and Central American/Mexico.
  • Cotton originally grew in a variety of colors, but after the invention of the cotton gin, only the white-ish colored cotton was selected for production, in order to simplify sorting and manufacturing.
  • Upland cotton, or Gossypium Hirsutum, accounts for ninety-five percent of all cotton grown and used around the world.
  • The cotton gin revitalized the waning institution of slavery by greatly reducing the hours required to prepare cotton for textile manufacturing and therefore making it again worth the cost of feeding and housing a labor force.
  • Seventy percent of early textile mill workers died of respiratory illnesses caused by cotton lint inhaled in the poorly ventilated factories, whose windows were often nailed shut in order to keep humidity levels high enough to prevent thread breakage during production.

Make Clothes, Not Scraps

Since I have been learning to sew, I have accumulated many scraps born from testing fits of patterns, from making mistakes, and from making garments.  I can't bring myself to throw them away.  It feels so weird, and counter-productive, to take pieces of brand-new fabric and throw them in the trash.  As a result, I have a pretty large drawer of scrappy bits.

I recently read a figure that 30% of all textiles get tossed as scraps in garment production.  Given that we currently produce three times the amount of textiles that we did thirty years ago, doesn't that mean that we are currently "scrapping" almost the full amount of textiles produced thirty years ago.  I'm sure that we can do better.

Several months ago, I ordered some organic cotton jersey in a lovely blush color, which I think will be awesome with a little bit of summer tan.  It is natural enough to be earthy, but still could work with black, metal or chocolate colors, and so has just enough modern to it.  Equally excellent, it works well with other colors already present in my wardrobe, which for me is the key to not spending more time than necessary getting dressed for the day.

Inspired by Alabama Chanin's latest excellent book, I decided to see if I could build a basic summer wardrobe using a length of this yummy blush jersey.  I ordered an approximate amount that I thought would be appropriate, and it turns out that the amount I wanted was exactly the size that their producer knits it, which is even better for my experiment.  Hopefully, close to every bit of the jersey will be used to create the pieces.  I will be using the final project for my illustration class as a vehicle for planning the designs and I have four weeks to get that done.

In Partial Defense of Polyester

In an earlier post (Miracle of Modern Clothing), I described some concerns I have about the cozy relationship our closets have with oil production.  My understanding of sustainable clothing, and of ways to improve our system of clothing production is amateur, ongoing, and limited at best.  However, in my continued quest to deepen my understanding, I have recently finished reading a book right about fast fashion and our cultural appetite for it (To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing out the World? by Lucy Siegle).

Siegle offers some facts which remind me, again, how nothing is simple.  Most specifically, I'm forced to admit that cotton and other natural fibers are not automatically better than synthetics like polyester (a fact which somehow makes me feel optimistic and pessimistic  at the same time).

Here are some fiber and material tidbits that may be surprising:
  • textile production has more than doubled in the last thirty years (a fact reiterated during a recent webinar I participated in)
  • the textile industry uses 3.2% of all water available to the human race each year (somewhere between six and nine trillion litres of water), and 1,074 billion kilowatt hours of electricity
  • approximately 1.6 lbs coal is used in order to prepare 1 lb of fabric (in this fact I could not ascertain exactly what it means to "prepare" the fabric; likely it is the spinning, weaving/knitting, dyeing, washing and prepping)
Siegle devotes a significant portion of the book writing about a variety of natural fibers and materials, and while addressing the conditions in which these fibers are produced, she enumerates significant reasons for me to reconsider my former position of natural-equals-good, synthetic-equals-bad.

Additionally, I am also forced to offer some anecdotal life praise for synthetic technology in clothing.  I like to run outdoors in winter weather, preferably when it is chilly and even snowing lightly.  A run like this is made exceedingly more comfortable by fleece-lined moisture-wicking cozy polyester-based goodness.  When my husband is on a rig, or at a well-site, he wears gear which protects him by retarding flame and repelling toxic materials.  Good old natural fibers do not generally offer that same level of protection.  My mom lives somewhere very cold, but finds the touch of wool on her skin intolerable; a fiber like acrylic, which offers warmth but it soft, provides a solution for her and many others like her.  Also for much of our swimwear, yoga wear, and anything with elastic and stretch, we currently require petroleum products.

Siegle's book is written in an unfortunately fashionista manner, with a tone that can sometimes feel silly or superficial, but on the other hand, she does significant legwork and cites a plethora of sources.  In the end, the research presented is compelling and the book is a much-needed call to reflection people that love clothes but hate the waste created by ceaseless faster-cheaper-ever-more-disposable trend chasing.

Siegle's work reinforces my own hunch regarding how to shop and dress responsibly, which amounts basically to "it's complicated."  Neither natural fibers or synthetics are perfect; and all must be used carefully instead of casually.  Textiles derived from synthetics can't be a permanent solution; as oil supplies continue to deplete, they will price themselves out of the cheap and easy range anyway.  Regardless of how available they are now, we will do well to begin forming other habits now so as to not suffer massive sticker and pollution shock with regard to our closet at the same time as we are solving our coming transportation challenges.

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.

Future (of) Fashion: White Papers

Some years ago, after I started cleaning up my diet a bit and trying to remove some of the processed stuff that I leaned on too hard, it wasn't long before I started eyeing my closet nervously.  If I was concerned about toxic food, shouldn't I also be investigating the ramifications dyes, processes and chemicals used in finishing fabrics and leather?  I was scared to know the answer, because I have always loved clothes and shoes, but I had to be honest with myself.  When I wore a shirt, it was touching my body just as much as the organic food beauty products I sought.

When I removed a shirt from its regular rotation in my closet, it often went to goodwill.  There is no way that all items given to Goodwill always get used by other people, so many of them probably still go into the ground, whether or not I put my shirt directly into the bin.  Patagonia is a company that has been a leader in thinking about the impact, and the afterlife, of their clothing, with their "Footprint Chronicles" and their Common Threads Initiative, and even their recommendations that we buy less and use what we buy longer.  But I struggle with the sporty style; it does not come naturally to me.  So what to do?

At the time I began thinking about this, there was not very much information available about the supply chain of clothing companies.  I read everything I could find, but was often disappointed; most fashion people are not authors; they are visual people, not necessarily into crafting the written word, or researching the science behind a textile.

I have recently finished a book that does bridge this gap.  Business owners and academics weighed in, back in 2007, as it turns out, but it took me a little while to find it.  Future Fashion White Papers is well-written, with articles by business owners, professors, and other fashion industry professionals.  

It contains information about fibers, production methods, business models and regulatory systems for the supply chain that people are working on in order to clean up the toxic wake left by the fashion industry. It speaks honestly to the flaws in our over-consumptive system, without leaving the reader hopeless or guilty.  It's a strong resource for anyone interested in tracing the timeline of their clothing, especially if you are curious what happens after you give your shirt to Goodwill.

Limits & Boundaries

I've discovered over the course of recent years that I'm more creative when hemmed in by boundaries and limits.  If I can't have more, I have to make what I have feel like more.  Sadly, I wasn't as good at this when I was a broke first-year teacher, but I'm making up for lost time now.

I often cook this way.  I am collector of cookbooks, and also of ingredients that appeal to me while I am grocery shopping.  The collecting occurs more in order of inspiration rather than of necessity.  Then, when I actually want to eat or drink something, I look at the ingredients or recipes already at hand, and build from there.  I am a late bloomer, learning only in adulthood many have known forever: that fresh food tastes better and is better for me.

Cooking this way has caused me to learn how to use and enjoy foods with which I was not formerly familiar.  Similarly, sewing clothes made with organic and sustainable processes feels tricky and unclear, but still, I have more luck when I honor my boundaries.  I make an effort to sew garments that are responsibly sourced, comfortable to wear, are made of materials that pollute less than others, and do not require dry cleaning (at least until more Mulberry's-type dry cleaners surface).  These rules, when combined with my nascent sewing skills, mean that it takes a very long time to actually make something I want to wear.  But think of often have you made an unplanned or very rushed garment purchase, and then never worn said garment?  Or only worn it a few times?  What a waste.

Every item of clothing requires the growing of fibers.  After that long and tricky process, the fibers are spun, dyed, knit or woven; they are cut, sewn, and then transported, possibly across oceans.  Even worse, if the fibers didn't originally grow in the ground, they were cooked in a vat after the oil was extracted from the bowels of the earth, or they were culled from animals that were most likely treated far less well than our pets, and then all of those other steps happened.

There is no way that most of the clothing sold today is priced in a manner that reflects the true cost of all of those steps, and until we change our habits collectively, we are not close to living responsibly.  My boundaries and limits do not stop me from shopping as much as I want them too, but they definitely slow me down.  And whether I make clothes for just me, or to sell to others at some future point, those boundaries also make me better at my craft.