Most readers will be familiar by now with images of trash-mountains of discarded clothing, a shameful by-product of the 21st century garment industry. In 2021 the global apparel market reached a value of US$1.5 trillion dollars, a figure that represents staggering levels of over-production, some 85 per cent of it destined for landfill.
Just a few generations ago, clothes were still a vital and valuable commodity. "No other animal gets dressed," Sofi Thanhauser states in Worn: A People's History of Clothing. As the naked species, humans have a fundamental dependency on the skills of spinning, weaving and stitching. How have we come so far adrift from the traditional scale and purpose of these crafts?
Thanhauser engages with this question by offering a deep history of fabric making: fragments of woven and dyed fibre dating back 36,000 years have been found in cave sites in the Caucasus. Fine materials for clothing were one of the earliest commodities for trade across Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
The evolution of modern fabrics created from the natural materials of flax, silk and wool is integrally bound up with the development of social conventions and local economies. Spinning wheels and looms were on a scale with other items of household furniture, and could be operated by one person in a domestic environment.
Female labour was central to the textile economy, which spawned a diversity of specialised trades in shoemaking, millinery, haberdashery, lace-making, dyeing, hosiery and corsetry. Then came the industrial revolution, which, Thanhauser argues, was first and foremost a revolution in fabrics.
A central part of the transition was a shift to cotton as the dominant fibre. The early years of the revolution saw exponential increases in the quantities of cotton going onto the market: in the US, from 1.5 million pounds to 36.5 million pounds in a single decade to 1800, then to 167.5 million pounds by 1820. A million enslaved workers were brought to the Deep South to enable accelerated harvesting.
In India, now the world's second largest cotton producer, the colonial dimensions of the cotton trade destroyed a widespread culture of traditional weaving and spinning. As the industrial battle of the bulk got under way, the East India Company replaced local negotiators with its own agents, who set out to drive up quantities and drive down prices until weavers were reduced to abject poverty.
Long-term effects of forced production in the garment industry continue to wreak havoc with the environment and human lives in the 21st century. Crops are treated with chemicals that leach into rivers and flow down-stream into oceans. Factory workers in China and Bangladesh on below-poverty wages create items of clothing for international brands promoted with images of glamour and relaxed life styles.
Radical measures to redress the situation are no longer optional. The garment industry is responsible for 10 per cent of global carbon emissions and 20 per cent of industrial water pollution yet, corporate power-play aside, it is much easier to scale down than the fossil fuel industry. There's no need to wait for legislation and industrial reform.
Thanhauser's subtitle - "a people's history of clothing" - is a reminder that clothing is, as it always was, a matter for the people. If, as she suggests, we have to effectively reverse the economic strategies of the industrial revolution, a consumer-led counter-revolution in the culture and production of garments is an absolutely viable proposition.
Most of us could make do for some years with what we already have, supplemented with a few purchases from an op-shop. Given the woeful quality of the mass-produced garments we'd be left with, though, this is a rather joyless option. Which is why increasing numbers of people are rediscovering a time-honoured alternative and making their own.
During the past decade, while the global apparel market has been driving up production and driving down prices with levels of aggression that hark back to the tactics of the East India company, another industry has been quietly burgeoning on the sidelines.
In 2010, British fashion designer Carolyn Denham and photographer Roderick Field founded Merchant and Mills, a small company dedicated to the revival of artisan sewing. Their barn-like store in the coastal town of Rye stocked patterns, fabrics and tools to inspire customers to make functional garments from natural, ethically sourced materials.
Fabric companies with similar goals have joined the trend, which is now evolving into a global export market. Opportunities to revive once thriving regional mills in Australia are there.
As growers of the world's finest wool, why don't we? This is an area where local economies can meet global trading patterns without the formation of huge corporate monopolies.
Independent pattern companies have contributed to the culture, offering extended size options and online resources to assist inexperienced sewers in their first attempts at garment making.
Small retail outlets such as Fibresmith in Melbourne, The Drapery in Adelaide, and Weft and Warp and The Stitching Room in Canberra provide hubs in which the purchase of materials is only part of a comprehensive commitment to fostering the arts and crafts of garment making.
For those with little or no experience, The Stitching Room in Philip is a good first port of call. Store owner Clare Lovell started the business in 2019 with three collaborators: textile artist Toni, pattern maker Kerry and dressmaker Therese. They offer expert tuition, with weekend classes for children, evening sessions for busy professionals and more leisurely day-time gatherings.
Around 20 per cent of their clientele are new sewers, many of whom have been gifted a machine they don't know how to use. Sitting at the huge communal table, they are surrounded by incentives: exquisitely patterned sweaters, an artfully crocheted rug, cleverly designed bags and tools to organise a project.
A kilometre away at Weft and Warp, proprietors Rebecca and Matthew Harper and their colleague Letitia Winter take a discerning curatorial approach to their expanding stock of fabric and haberdashery. They place emphasis on personal communication with suppliers in Europe, Britain, Japan and Korea.
Ecological concerns are paramount. They focus on minimising waste, and take trouble to track the origins and production processes of their merchandise.
"We'd be insincere if we claimed complete knowledge," Rebecca Harper acknowledges, "but we try to minimise damage by the choices we make".
Domestic sewers need no longer be associated with the image of the cotton frock. With a bit of experience, you can turn out perfectly-fitting coats, anoraks, shirts, jackets and jeans of quality and style, and the chances are they will be in use for many years.
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