Category: Inside Story

Finding Quiet: Style + Craft

This I Wear | Finding Quiet: Style + Craft

I understand that this is not objectively scandalous, but I have never felt more rebellious than when I recently turned off my phone for approximately 10 hours and said no to noise and distraction. It feels important to note that I was not flying in an airplane but just hanging out.

Of course, I made sure to let certain important parties know that I would be unavailable so they didn’t assume the worst. Once these precautions were taken, I felt liberated…and a little uncomfortable. That moment when I see something I want to remember? Oh well, Instagram is inaccessible. The moment where I think of something I should Google? Not possible. Suddenly, the world was quieter and my mind was clearer. And though I was hyper-aware that my phone was off, I did not want to turn it back on at the end of the day.

Strangely, I feel a similar sense of quiet liberation as I’ve attempted sewing. Around the time that I started this blog two years ago, I started my first quilt – machine sewn patchwork but with the intention of hand quilting. I’m not a maker or an artist or a professional crafter, so this unfamiliar experience surprised me with an awareness of a more peaceful mind and a feeling of doing something almost counter-cultural, i.e. sitting still. I’ve recently started the hand quilting process (the project collected a little dust I’ll admit), and it’s been so incredibly enjoyable.

The craft of quilting itself encourages this type of peace. Through quilting, I’ve been able to engage in an extraordinary craft passed down through generations that both encourages thoughtful quiet moments when alone and connects and builds community when shared together. I didn’t know when I started that the added benefits would be an almost meditative state as I move the needle in and out of the fabric and the sudden empowerment that comes with knowing that I can make something out of seemingly nothing.

These two examples – turning off my cell phone and making things with my hands – might seem unrelated. But they both take me to a quieter world where it isn’t so hard to fight off distraction. And believe it or not, it’s not unrelated to our style either.

Once I became interested in quilting, I discovered that there are some amazing young people continuing the tradition too. One of my favorite people to follow is Maura Ambrose of Folk Fibers. Maura is a full-time quilter based in Austin. She uses natural dyes on all of her fabrics and then creates beautiful traditional quilts by hand. (Her recent feature on design*sponge made me all the more interested in her work.)

Her personal style too is as inspiring as her craft. Few people wear denim as well, and what I love about her style is that it seems so effortless and simple. She’s not trying too hard. Like her quilts, her style has no distracting details but lets herself shine through.

Maura is a great example of simplicity and quiet through her style and her work, and I admire her so much because the idea of quiet and focus in our daily lives, in the things we do for fun (or imagine, what we do for work), and in our style still feels revolutionary. It feels rebellious and empowering. It also feels joyful, as if the quiet leaves more space for happiness to flow in.

I’m thinking more and more about how to treat myself to the luxury of focus and distraction-free time in every aspect of my life, and I’m seeing it reflected in the things I want to spend my time doing and the people whose style I admire. I’m curious if you’re looking for this too, and even more curious if you’ve found quiet and its many benefits in an unexpected part of your life. What are you doing to remove distractions in your life?

I’m Not a Fashion Omnivore

This I Wear | I'm Not A Fashion Omnivore

Recently, I was visiting my brother, whom I totally and utterly credit with introducing to me to sustainable agriculture way back when it made a huge impact on what I have pursued in my life and work. He and his wife have both worked on farms extensively and every time I’m with them, I eat the most delicious, unexpected and almost entirely vegetarian meals. With them, there are no labels – the goal is simply to eat nutritious local food. But outside of this bubble, this diet would undoubtedly be labeled as vegetarian, making it sound much more high maintenance than it is.

Back in New York, everyone is high maintenance and has her own “special diet.” With all of the labels out there – vegetarian, vegan, gluten free, raw, Paleo – I’ve come to expect everyone to have their own diet boundaries. With all of these new diets, it’s easy to forget that there was a time when simply being vegetarian was surprising. Now, in most parts of the US, I’d like to think we’ve moved beyond the surprise.

But when it comes to fashion, a constrained diet is still surprising. And as a fashion “vegetarian”, what I want is often not on the menu. And though there are rare interactions with others who feel the same way and can share tips, it’s still a small tribe that is trying to find each other, mostly because there are lots of labels by which we call ourselves: minimalists, ethical shoppers, conscious consumers, sustainable fashion shoppers, and more that I probably don’t even know.

But I do know that I’m not a fashion omnivore. I’m pretty picky about what I will buy, but the fashion companies and retailers are like the crazy family in My Big Fat Greek Wedding: “He don’t eat meat?! Ok, I’ll make lamb.” They are still trying to make me “eat” things that aren’t in my fashion diet.

So what’s the ethical fashion diet, the “vegetarianism” of the shopping world?

Well the “meat” for me is pretty obvious. It’s fast fashion and it’s totally disposable. It is the $5 t-shirt, the slouchy pants that will be out of style within the next 6 months, and the sandblasted jeans that endangered the workers making them. It is definitely off the table.

But the “lamb” of my diet (or the fish or whatever someone mistakenly thinks vegetarians can eat) is the hardest part to explain and sometimes even difficult for me to recognize without reading the “ingredient list.” It is the clothing made by companies whose values and practices are questionable (e.g. American Apparel’s misogynistic CEO means I personally won’t shop with them) and the “made in USA” pieces that are produced in sweatshop conditions. Right now, the only safe thing we can assume from a “made in USA” label is that it provided jobs for people living in America. We can’t assume it was made by American citizens, that the job is in safe conditions, or that the quality is higher. We can’t even assume that the carbon footprint is smaller (fiber, fabrics and trim could have been imported).

Also in this category are the high quality pieces that might last forever but were made using questionable materials, whether fur or other animal products that are inhumanely produced, unsustainable fibers, conflict minerals or other controversially harvested materials. These issues are still tricky, and often may require compromise at times. As in the example of my bamboo scarf, I didn’t know it wasn’t in my diet until after I bought it. Sometimes we have to ask and research what the “ingredients” are and even then, we may still make mistakes for now.

But what about the “vegetables”? What are they and where are they?

Imagine if instead of going to the grocery store, you had to visit a different farm to find every kind of vegetable: it would be hard to know what vegetables exist or where the farms were. Not only would you be frustrated and inconvenienced, but you might be malnourished too. Well, that’s kind of how I view the state of ethical fashion right now: decentralized and disorganized.

As sad as that might sound, there are a lot of bright spots if you know where to look, and it’s been my goal this year to see this abundance. They are the handmade, the holistically sustainable, the secondhand and “second life” items, and the people who are so committed to providing safe and fulfilling work to their employees of the fashion world. They exist, but they just aren’t written on the menu yet. You have to ask for them.

Luckily, it’s easier than ever to connect with small production designers and makers online through platforms like Of a Kind, Madesmith and Etsy. Companies are starting to opt in for certifications and legal designations like B-Corporations that signal to the shopper that they are committed to creating more value in the world than just a good product. And smart people from bloggers to start-ups to established companies are starting to figure out their own boundaries are, which means communication on these important issues is improving, whether it’s easier to look up the information or it’s printed right on the label.

All of the above are merely examples of what your constraints might be in each category: what’s clearly off the table, what requires more inquiry or compromise for now, and what will make us jump up and down because it’s exactly what we’re looking for. It’s worth it to make these decisions for yourself, even if it takes time.

As for me, I might still have to work hard to find the vegetables, but when someone offers me the proverbial meat or fish, I say “no thanks” because I’m simply not hungry for that meal anymore.

Natural Beauty

Last week, I had a big moment. A moment that included me suddenly becoming so decisive about an issue I have cared little to nothing about that started with me downloading an app, involved me throwing out half of my medicine cabinet somewhere in the middle, and ended with my boyfriend asking was I “ok”.

Skincare and makeup have always been part of an important ritual of self-care for me, a way I could indulge my otherwise stressed out self in some nice smelling things that make me soft and pretty and remind me that I can indeed take care of myself. So while “natural” has always been nice when it is on the packaging of these products, it has never been a priority for me.

A few months ago, I read about makeup artist Rose-Marie Swift who created the truly organic and healthful line of RMS Beauty after her own experience of severe illness due to the metals in cosmetics. Her intention with RMS Beauty was “creating a product that’s not only non-toxic, but that actually heals and nourishes skin.” This idea of makeup being nourishing and restorative, way beyond just being “not toxic”, really struck me. My makeup could make my skin better, not just hide the bad? This felt radical.

But I did nothing, mostly because makeup is a little intimidating.

Last Friday at work, an email reminded me of the GoodGuide mobile app, which ranks products and the companies that make them on health, environmental and social factors. I gave it a quick download out of curiosity, and the first ratings I searched for was the makeup I use, and IT WAS BAD. It was really bad. Some of the ingredients were banned in other countries. One of the ingredients is suspected of causing developmental, reproductive, and/or skin or sense organ toxicity. The guide is not perfect (I’m still questioning the basis of brand’s social and environmental scores), but the health score and ingredient list is firmly based in facts.

As soon as work was over, I walked right out and bought my first RMS Beauty product. I even struck up a conversation with a fellow shopper who apparently makes her own skin cleansing oil at home (It’s cheaper than face wash and way more balancing even for oily skin. Learn more here.). I’m pretty sure we were supposed to be best friends, and I should have taken her out for a glass of red wine so she could teach me everything else she knows, but that’s beside the point.

On Saturday morning, I kept the process going. I threw out a ton of products in my medicine cabinet (recycling when possible of course), and I felt no regret. And then, I took the next leap: I bought a new natural deodorant that everyone has been raving about, but I was too scared to try because it comes in a jar and you have to use your finger to apply it. Yes, it sounds weird, but the Soapwalla organic deodorant cream is amazing. The natural formula doesn’t include those metals that make your deodorant into an antiperspirant (i.e. they interrupt your body’s natural sweating mechanism so that you can’t release moisture – yikes!). So while it won’t make you stop sweating, it will keep you dry and fresh.

My whole skincare and makeup routine is not totally natural yet. But I’ve already come to one big realization: I wasn’t using natural products before because they didn’t “feel” or look like what I was familiar with – deodorant is supposed to be in a stick, shave gel in a resource-intensive aerosol bottle, and microbeads make for a great scrub. But just because something is familiar doesn’t mean it is safe. The aerosol and the metals in my deodorant are pretty darn bad. And those microbeads are actually plastics that are polluting our oceans.

Natural products are going to be an experiment for me, and they are not always going to come in the familiar forms that I’m used to. But that doesn’t mean they don’t work as well. In many ways, they could work even better, like RMS’s promise to improve skin. I’ve also found that sometimes they take awhile to really prove that they are working, because our bodies have been compensating for those harsh chemicals for so long (think of your greasy hair – your body is producing extra oil because that harsh sudsy shampoo is stripping it of natural moisture!).

So what’s next in natural beauty? Besides updating my products, I’m also thinking of how else I can change my routines. I’m even thinking of trying dry shampoo, so I wash my hair less to shorten my showers and save water. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Find out the details of some of my favorite natural beauty products on my Pinterest board, Natural Beauty. And don’t forget to share your favorite natural products, whether bought or made at home.

Factory Geeks

This I Wear | Factory Geeks
Photos of Everlane’s Cashmere (top) & Silk Shirt (bottom) Factories via Everlane.com

Gleaming machines. Skilled workers laboring over handmade goods with perfectly placed beads of sweat and interesting tattoos. Or men and women hunched over machines wearing masks over their noses and mouths. What images do you see when you hear the word “factory”? And when did we all become curious about what the inside of factories look like?

Whether it’s a small family-run or artisan operation or the large scale and precise factories we’ve come to associate with China, factories big and small are capturing our attention.

I have two theories to perhaps explain the sudden interest in factories.

The first is that we are genuinely interested and concerned in how our garments came to exist and who touched them along the way. Tragedies like last year’s Rana Plaza Factory collapse in Bangladesh brought factory conditions to our attention, and now we want to know the working conditions of the people who make our clothes. In other cases, perceived transparency turned out to be assumed transparency, and consumers have demanded more information in return, as in the case of Everlane and their #KnowYourFactories campaign that followed consumer confusion over where Everlane’s products were made. We want to see inside of factories, because we as global citizens and consumers are starting to question the impact of the journey of our clothing.

The second theory is that we are just naturally curious beings who want to know how things are made and can’t resist seeing the pieces of the puzzle come together. Evidence includes the popularity of the TV show “How It’s Made” and the incredible numbers of tumblr accounts focused on visual after visual of factories (the most extreme example may be “F**k Yeah Made in USA”). The allure is out of sheer curiosity rather than concern.

Regardless of whether either theory is right, exposure means we have opportunities to question our assumptions about what a factory looks like. If this trend continues, I hope that exposure and curiosity will soon turn into demand for greater transparency in production for the safety and health of workers but also to bring us closer to the skill and resources that go into the things we own.

Is this new to you? Get sucked in with the rest of us with these intriguing videos and photo stories:

L.L.Bean “Bean Boots” – Made in Maine

The Making Of A Watch from Shinola on Vimeo.

And you must also check out The American Edit’s tour of Faribault Woolen Mills!

Please share your favorite factory stories and videos in the comments section!

Inside Story: Design Ethics

This I Wear | Design Ethics

When we speak about ethical fashion, usually we refer to what went into the item – how it was made, who made it, and with what. But what about the ethics of design?

Not too long ago, a friend shared with me the story of how a New York-based designer, a true champion in the current “Save the Garment Center” initiative, had mistakenly labeled a fabric print as Aztec when in reality, it was a classic design from the South Pacific cultures including Fiji. I don’t have the full story and I don’t know if the matter has yet been resolved with an apology or a renaming of the product in order to give proper credit. However, as soon as this was brought to my attention, I realized how much of an issue this is today.

The “issue” is intellectual property, in this case patterns and designs, of indigenous peoples around the world. And as the fashion industry (as well as the home goods industry) increasingly expresses interest in “artisan” goods, it’s important to ask if the goods were actually made by artisans or just inspired by their designs. And if they were just inspired, the next question to ask is if the company paid the artisans for the licensing of the designs.

Because in reality, there is no shortage of examples of the fashion industry stealing from artisans, indigenous peoples, and small makers.

One of the most prominent cases is of the Maasai, a tribe in Africa known for their speed and agility as well as their beaded crafts. In 2011, The Maasai Intellectual Property Initiative was established to pursue legal action against companies that use their tribe name to describe their products without asking for permission or giving payment for the licensing. It truly is a sign of the times when the goals of the initiative include talk of a “cultural brand”, but at the very heart of the issue is that 80% of the Maasai are living in poverty, and major brands from Jaguar to Nike have been vastly profiting off of the reputation of the Maasai in branding their products.

The first time this struck me, though, was reading about artist Tanya Aguiniga’s interest in helping bring clarification to the distinction between Native American-inspired and Native American-designed and –made through her “Artists Helping Artisans” program. The distinction made headlines when Urban Outfitters used Navajo-inspired prints in their collections and labeled them as Navajo and then claimed they weren’t doing anything wrong. Unfortunately, at least at the time, the Navajo designs weren’t copyrighted, though they could press Urban Outfitters to remove their name from the offending products.

I think of this often when I see jewelry or other accessories commonly produced by artisans in bigger mainstream shops and wonder if they were actually made by artisans or if they were copied without any acknowledgment (or payment!) given to the original artist. You only have to watch a few episodes of “Man Shops Globe” following Anthropologie’s buyer Keith Johnson to see that there is a fine line between supporting global craftspeople and going home to mass produce something “inspired” by the designs seen during travels. But you can also see something on Etsy or at a local craft fair only to see it in replicated in a major retailer’s costume jewelry line the following season to know that this problem is not exclusive to the global handicraft market.

If major designers can sue for counterfeit handbags and designs stolen and produced by mass retailers like Forever21, it’s time to protect the little guys too.

With current trends in artisan goods skyrocketing, make sure you’re buying artisan made and not artisan inspired. When you see an ethnic print, ask questions about the origin. And let’s make ethical design, just as important as ethical production and trade.

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