Slow Fashion Ethics: Ecofeminist Ethics

The Earth needs our attention, but so do the people sewing our clothes. They come hand in hand. All of the recycled textiles in the world couldn’t save the industry if people making less than a living wage were sewing them.

Adrienne Antonson, Sustainability and STATE pt. 1

Some feminist ethics are a reaction to the failures of Kantian ethics. They disagree with Kant (and Kantian’s) about many things, but the most important disagreement is the ability to approach ethics from universal principles. Feminists claim that when Kant formulated categorical imperatives, he did not have women in mind – in fact he was only thinking about people like himself (free, land owning, white men). Kant’s rules were never meant to apply to women or people of color or children; he failed to take them into consideration when thinking about who counts as a “human.” When Kant imagined these universal principles, he failed to really think universally.

I say “some feminists” because the range of feminist ethics is wide reaching and extensive. There are various streams of feminisms, but they are all united in one goal: the liberation of women from oppression based on gender and flourishing of all humans.

One stream of feminism is heavily present in slow fashion: ecofeminism.

Ecofeminism is the connection of concern for the well being of human beings with that of the environment. Ecofeminists claim that human flourishing depends on the well being of the earth – we cannot be separated from our environment. For ecofeminists, serious moral issues are directly connected to the way we treat the environment around us. This connection exists because people are part of the natural environment. Therefore, if you treat the environment a particular way you will also see human life in a similar way. If the environment is a resource that you use and can treat without certain limits, then people will also be seen in this way. So, for example, Delores Williams identifies that sexual violence towards black women is intimately connected to the practice of strip mining – while black women are seen as sexual objects, mountains will be seen only for their ability to give us coal and vise versa.

I love the quote from Adrienne Antonson included at the beginning of this post – it’s a clear example of how a slow fashion advocate connects her practice to the care of her environment. In this quote, she determines that efforts to recycle clothing fail to accomplish the goal of ethical fashion if they don’t take garments workers into consideration – the two are inseparable. Thus, an ethical approach to the fashion industry must be concerned with garment workers and materials, dyes, garment factories, and pollution.

Ecofeminists in slow fashion are concerned about the flourishing of garment workers and the environment which produces our garments. They start from the very beginning with interest in raw materials – they are concerned with the production of the cloth, how factories operate, what energy sources are drawn upon, and how clothing is transported to buyers. They are focused on livable wages for garment workers and also the cotton farmer. They are interested in reducing pollution in the dyeing cycle and when raw materials are grown. They are concerned about the end of the clothing life-cycle – they want to know what happens to a garment when it is no longer worn by it’s target audience. Is it recycled, can it decompose, will it remain on the earth for hundreds of thousands of years?

The concerns of ecofeminsts are wide reaching, as they extend beyond human wellfare to the flourishing of the earth. But, as ecofeminists claim (and I agree), our environment is inseparable from the people in it – so if we are so concerned about garment workers we must be equally concerned about the land where those garment workers call home, the farmers who grow the materials that garment workers use to make our clothes, and the place where that garment will be thrown away when it is no longer useful. Clothing has a life cycle – and ecofeminists care about every stage.

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My New Moodboard

The first #slowfashionoctober prompt was to make a moodboard. Moodboards aren’t my forte. I like them for storing information, but I rarely find them useful as a whole. However, I took this week to try something different, to work out a moodboard of what feels like my style; what feels like me.

I learned that I love the look of vintage, or vintage inspired, clothing a LOT! woah, that was a surprise. Before, I probably would have called myself a casual minimalist, but after this exercise, I found myself slowly removing the minimalist street style pictures and filling my board with more wild landscapes and skirts. Now my mood board is filled with romantic images inspired by edwardian fashion combined with 1940’s tomboy’s.

I still don’t have a name for this style. North woods vintage? Off-duty museum docent? Time-travelling Laura Ingalls Wilder? I’m sure the name will come.

I found this exercise especially helpful because I just started a new era of my academic career – teaching. My graduate student style was very similar to my at-home outfits – very casual. However, I knew for my teaching role I would need to do something different for one reason: I still look like an undergraduate. If I was going to understand myself as an authoritative voice who administers grades that potentially determine student’s futures, I had to make sure I could feel authoritative standing in front of a class of student’s who look the same age as I do. This really isn’t that hard, most of them wear t-shirts and running shorts to class, but there are a few who have a bit more style. I have a few “professional” clothes in my closet, which have served me well for conferences and presentations over my time in grad school, but teaching requires a few more tops than the two I currently own.

While I could have two wardrobes: a work wardrobe and a casual one, I would rather my closet blend more between my weekdays and weekends. In the long term, this will hopefully mean I have less clothing overall and each item receives more wears.

This mood board is pointing me in a different direction than I thought I had to go, and this new direction feels more authentic. I think many of the looks on this board could still be professional enough for the classroom setting (which is much less “professional” than any corporate environment). I see white blouses, wide legged pants, and pleated/gathered skirts with waistbands – those are all teaching appropriate! I’m excited to work towards a teaching wardrobe that is both professional and cabin-appropriate.

This little board above was distilled from a larger board I’ve been creating all week. I tried to gather looks for every season, and organized it by grouping the spring and summer looks on the bottom with fall and winter looks towards the top of the board. You can see my original board below.

Slow Fashion Ethics: Kantian Ethics

“We love fashion. But we don’t want our clothes to exploit people or destroy our planet.” – Fashion Revolution Manifesto

Kantian ethics is one of the first ethical theories I teach in my undergraduate courses. It’s simple, has two main rules, and most people are already familiar with it (even if they haven’t heard of Kant).

Immanual Kant (who penned the principles we now call Kantian) was a Prussian philosopher who was active in the late 18th century. He believed morality operated through these things called Categorical Imperatives – commands everyone (and he means every human being) must follow. These moral obligations are derived from human reason – which means that they are available to every person who can think.

While there are four formulations of the categorical imperatives, two are the most popular.

First – the Universalizability Principle.

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

— Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals

What does this even MEAN? It means if you can do it (morally speaking), then everyone can do it (also the inverse, if you can’t do it, no one else should be able to do it). In other words, you can’t be the exception to your rule. An example often given to describe this rule is truth telling. If you expect others to tell the truth at all times, you must also tell the truth at all times – no lying, no exceptions.

Let’s talk about the second principle

The Humanity Principle.

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.

— Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals

According to this principle, you must never treat people as a means to an end, or objects to help you accomplish your goal. People are not just things that help you get what you want. Every person has their own goals and, therefore, we must take the goals of others into consideration when they help us achieve our goals.

This principle shows up frequently in conversations about slow fashion. Like the quote from Fashion Revolution above, exploiting people (using them as things to help you achieve your goal) is wrong.

There are a couple of things about the fashion industry that should be concerning according to Kant’s principle of humanity. First, human beings have lost their lives while working to achieve the fashion industry’s goal of inexpensive clothing available in high volumes. In this case, the very lives of these garment workers were considered less important than the goal- their lives were means to an end (cheap clothes). Are garment workers just bodies that put together our clothing? Are they cast aside like broken machinery when they can no longer accomplish the quota’s which producers demand? Is the humanity of garment workers recognized by the fashion industry? When people lose their lives working to achieve an industry goal – we should question if that industry respects their lives. When a large amount of garment workers lose their lives at work, it reveals that they are not valued as persons, but rather just valued for their ability to stitch together a garment – they are simply means to an end.

Now, let’s return to the first principle. Consider the garment workers who lost their lives in the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013. A major concern to arise out of this tragedy is the working conditions in the garment industry. Garment workers were reportedly forced to work in unsafe conditions. It seems unfair (and unethical) that Western nations should have workplace safety standards, but other nations who provide our basic goods should not. Slow fashion advocates universalize workplace safety – if we expect to have safe working conditions – everyone should have safe working conditions. If we accept imported goods, the conditions in which those goods are produced must comply to the same standards of workplace safety that we would expect from locally made goods. There can be no exceptions – exceptions are unethical.

Kantian ethics can be extended to refer not just to human beings, but to living things (this jump is made in Veganism), but this is not a commonly held belief among philosophers or Kant scholars.

Next week I’ll introduce an ethical theory that directly competes with Kant’s categorical imperatives – but is sometimes used to try to convince the fashion industry to change its habits.

Set Up your SSK’s

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About halfway through my Reyna shawl I had an idea. Reyna by Noora Backlund (a free shawl pattern) uses knit two together (k2tog) and the opposite facing decrease (ssk) to create the lace sections.

The slow and jerky nature of slipping stitches to create the correctly leaning decrease started to annoy me. So I found a way to orient my stitches on the needles so they were already set up to ssk and k2tog without having to do any extra slips. This is a free pattern – so I’m not going to be very discreet with the pattern details. However I won’t be regurgitating the pattern in this post, so check out that pattern!

The lace sections in the Reyna shawl are simple – right of the marker is a yarn over + k2tog classic lace combo. Left of the marker is it’s counterpoint: the y/o + ssk. The trouble is, after the speed of the k2tog, the slipping portion of the ssk feels jerky and awful. But there’s a faster way.

The trick is in the purling. On the wrong side rows, I used two different purl methods to change the directions of my stitches. On the side that is going to be the ssk section (wrong side of the shawl, right side of the marker) I used the combination purl stitch. Combination purling orients your purl stitch so the first leg of the stitch is behind the needle and the second leg is in front of the needle. Basically, it’s backwards. Then, after the marker, in the section that is going to be k2tog, I purled in my normal continental style.

Here’s the break down:

Right side: k2tog on left side of marker. Ssk on right side of marker

Wrong side: combination purl, marker, continental purl.

Just for added clarity – I made some videos! (It’s my first knitting and video experiment okay so it’s going to be bad.)

This is how I combination purl:

And this is my awkward continental purl:

So when it’s time for the right side, this is what my k2tog + y/o looks like

And here is my ssk + yo, all set up with no need to slip any stitches.

That’s my trick to setting up my ssk!

I have a secret. That combination purling method? I do that all the time. I confess that I’m a combination knitter. So for this shawl, I actually figured it out the other way around – I had to remember my awkward way to continental purl to properly set up my k2tog stitches.

One of the reasons I’m a combination knitter is because my purling was so awkward and started to hurt my fingers and wrists! So I found another way. A quick google search for continental knitting hand pain brought me to handful of links about arthritic knitters and easier methods on the joints. After switching to the combination method – my joint pain has significantly reduced and I can knit for longer sittings. I’m a full on combination knitting convert.

There are more informed videos out there about combination knitting (I learned from this video). If you’re interested, I recommend checking them out!

Thrifting Tips and Tricks: Sweaters

It’s no secret, the majority of my materials come from thrifted items. The low prices and wide variety of materials make it possible for me to stock my obsessive craft hobby on a tight budget. I’ve spent a lot of time at thrift stores searching for sweaters: so here are my favorite tips and tricks for how to find quality thrifted sweaters.

  1. Season Matters (mostly). I’ve noticed that more thrift stores I encounter rotate clothes on a seasonal basis. Especially larger chain stores, like Goodwill and St Vincent de Paul, seem to only stock seasonally relevant clothes. I rarely find quality sweaters during the summer months. So I stick to cooler weather months for my sweater thrifting. However, I have found that smaller towns or locally owned thrift stores rarely have the staff to be selective about seasonal clothing – so if you are on the hunt for sweaters in the summertime, I recommend searching in a smaller/locally owned shop.
  2. Check the Tags. Very obvious tip, but checking tags for fiber content is the best way to determine if a sweater is worth it. I try to avoid those acrylic sweaters, but sometimes I’m desperate for a specific color so I’ll compromise by purchasing a fiber with some acrylic or nylon content. While that 100% wool sweater might be the prize find, don’t discount other natural fibers or blends. Some of my favorite projects are made from thrifted cotton and finding a silk or silk blend yarn always feels like finding a secret treasure. I like to keep track of the brands I find with quality materials. That way, if I’m drawn to a sweater and notice the brand is one I’ve unravelled before, its likely to be another quality sweater. This also goes the other way, I keep track of the brands whose sweaters are almost always acrylic and avoid them like the plague. Some of my most unravelled brands are LOFT (and Ann Taylor), J. Jill, and J Crew. I also jump on any Eileen Fisher sweater I can find. The one’s I avoid are typical fast fashion brands like Forever21, H&M, and Old Navy (unless I really want cotton).
  3. Explore your area. You might find that the thrift store closest to home rarely carries quality sweaters, so branch out – check out some shops in different areas. Check the next town over, the suburbs, the city center, the outskirts of town. If I’m on the hunt for a specific project, I like to devote a weekend morning or afternoon to my quest and hit up the various thrift stores in a certain area of the city. If you do take this approach I recommend bringing snacks – it can be a big day. It might be a good idea to keep a running list of shops that tend to carry quality sweaters. Keep a list on your phone or in a notebook, that way if you’re in need for a good sweater and don’t have hours of time, your list can guide you.
  4. Stick to your budget. While I’ve had the occasional failed thrift store run, more often than not I can find numerous sweaters with fibers that would love to knit with. But, even thrift stores sweaters can add up in price and could quickly get out of control. Before you even leave your house, acknowledge what you can spend on materials that day. Setting those limits will prevent you from experiencing sweater regret.

I hope these tips help you on your thrifted sweater adventures. Let me know if you have any favorite tips and tricks when you search for thrifted sweaters in the comments below. And thanks to Mia for suggesting this topic as a blog post. I hope this helps, Mia!

Happy Thrifting!

Craft Culture: My Top Five Crafty Podcasts

The audio podcast was an essential part component to my full immersion into craft culture. Listening periodically to devoted makers describe their crafting journeys has tuned me into my own perspective on craft. These podcasts continue the tradition of oral education in traditional crafts. I imagine that, at one time, discussing projects, techniques, patterns, and materials was something done by makers who lived close to each other; family members, close friends, and neighbors. Now, as a general knowledge of needlecrafts has disappeared from collective culture, finding these important places of communication requires a little extra effort. Enter: the podcast – today’s version of folk knowledge.

Here are my top five

  1. Love to Sew. Helen and Caroline are my two favorite hosts of any podcast. They make me giggle out loud in elevators, nod along in the hallway, and dream up sewing projects after every episode. I have learned valuable skills and tricks from these two and the wonderful folks they interview. Also, the theme song is brilliant. My favorite episode so far is this one. Overall theme of this podcast: you can make anything.
  2. Mrs. M’s Curiousity Cabinet. Everything about this podcast is my style. From Meg’s attention to the ecological implications of making to her soothing presentation of her making journey – this podcast inspires me to keep asking questions about my habits and materials. Her research oriented approach to knitting and sewing really satisfies my academic side, but I think even non-research folks will love this podcast. Each episode is packed with information and inspiration. Meg even answered a question I posed to her in a comment on instagram (in this episode)!
  3. Making (formerly Woolful). This is a hugely popular podcast, and the first proper knitting podcast I ever listened to back in 2014. It’s new iteration – combining Ashley Yousling’s Woolful with Carrie Hoge’s Making Zine (one of my favorite designers and publications) is pure magic. The story telling and interviewing in this podcast is beautiful.
  4. Curious Handmade. I’m really late to the game on this one. Helen Stewart is a veteran in the knitting podcast genre, but I didn’t start listening to her until last November… I now realize what I was missing. Helen has this ability to describe knitting projects and patterns with words that renders the need for images useless. This podcast really inspires me to dream up perfect projects that fit into my life, while moving slow enough to make space for realistic expectations with our crafty time.
  5. Live from Here with Christ Thile. Okay this isn’t a podcast, its a radio show. It’s also not about crafts, its about music, laughter, and pure radio magic. I had to include it because I love this show and knit to it all the time. Prairie Home Companion was one of my favorite things while growing up in Minnesota – though not without serious issues (like obvious sexism). Chris Thile has transported this show into the 21st century with modern artists, storytelling, and content. Every one of my favorite musicians has been on this show in the last two years including Brandy Carlile, Abigail Washburn, and just this whole episode with Marcus Mumford, Corrine Bailey Rae, Trevor Noah, and Gabby Moreno…). I love to listen to this show while eating wild rice soup and staring at my Dala Horses and dreaming about cross country skiing.

Reclaiming Femininity: how I respond when people call me a 1950’s housewife

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Pictured here (clockwise from top left): my bento bag (from making no. 4), a candle made by my friend Brie, my great aunt Joan’s thimble and sewing scissors, a necklace made by my friend Carly, my basic fingerless mitts, a pink skein of Manos del Urugray, and my Flora Mittens.

Domestic. Feminine. Girly. 1950’s Housewife. All “compliments” that require a huge amount of interpretation on my part to be received well. When I first picked up knitting I had no idea about its history or its current cultural connotations as a woman’s activity. As I began to knit around my family and friends, I heard comments using the adjectives above with greater frequency. Being called domestic or feminine felt more like an insult than a compliment. It has taken a lot of thought to reach the point where I say thank you when someone compares me to a 1950’s housewife rather than slam the door in their face.

If I’m being honest with myself, I am feminine. Identifying as feminine is difficult to do considering my strong identity as a tomboy and my rejection of anything girly as a child. This rejection was still present when I picked up knitting in 2011, completely unaware of its feminine connotations. I was also completely unaware how this new hobby would reveal years of internalized sexism. As I became more and more of a “knitter” I wrestled with what it meant for me to be feminine and my deeply held negativity about femininity.

Let’s return to my identity as a tom boy. This identity had a very clear origin: sometime in elementary school I chose to embrace all things “boyish” and reject anything “girly.” Previous to this point I was a huge fan of the characteristic girly stuff: dresses, pink, dancing, dolls, etc. I chose to push aside those interests and take on totally new interests like football, the color orange, and cargo pants. Now I find it absolutely hilarious that to my eight-year-old brain cargo pants and orange were the most boyish things I could imagine.

One of the reasons I rejected femininity as a child was because, in my community, feminine things were characterized as boring, frivolous, and limiting. If I was girly, I couldn’t enjoy playing outside or being loud and rambunctious – which I desperately wanted to do at all hours. Somehow I made the all-or-nothing calculation that if I were to be strong, athletic, and loud, I couldn’t be feminine. I identified with these traits that could be traditionally labeled masculine and gave up my feminine traits. While I am glad I embraced those parts of me that were loud and strong, I can identify that for most of my childhood I did not feel like I could be myself. My decision to reject the feminine had been detrimental to my sense of identity.

After years of schooling and some very helpful academic courses on feminism and theology, I realized that qualities labeled masculine and feminine could, in fact, be embodied in one individual. These traits that are labeled feminine or masculine aren’t actually inherently gendered. The color orange does not, at its core, belong more to men or women. The ability to follow a recipe for cupcakes does not inherently belong more to women than men. Gendered traits are formed by communities and cultures. I realized that in my community, those traditional feminine qualities get quite a bad reputation. Even though I was raised in the era of “girl power,” girly things weren’t considered powerful and girls could only feel powerful if they rejected femininity.

Because I believed words like domestic and feminine to be boring, I had a hard time imagining why someone would tell me, to my face, that I was so domestic or I reminded them of a 1950’s housewife. In my mind these phrases were akin to calling me boring, frivolous, or antiquated. However, now I understand that my association of femininity with frivolity was internalized sexism and revealed how my community valued (read: did not value) traditional feminine traits, qualities, and activities. After coming to terms with my community’s belittlement of the feminine, I began to explore the values of traditional femininity. I rediscovered my love of dresses, embraced my appreciation for the color pink, and owned my skills in baking, knitting, and sewing. Rather than hide my love for these things, I embrace these activities as equally valuable to my skills in more male dominated spheres like rock climbing, technology support, and building/fixing things.

My obsession with knitting, and perhaps my initial ignorance of its gendered history, was the spark that began my reunion with femininity. Now that I no longer view feminine qualities and activities as boring, I feel more connected to the strong, creative, and feminine women who have preceded me. Women like my great aunt Joan who was a master weaver, natural dyer, and spinner and my great grandmothers Eleanor and Mary Belle who could knit lace weight garments with their eyes closed. These women were previously just names on my family tree before I took up knitting. For them, traditional women’s crafts weren’t limiting, but provided necessities and freedom in the form of economic independence. When I think about them, being called a 1950’s housewife seems a bit more bad-ass than it did before.