April to me means Fashion Revolution. Today I’m thinking of one of the most dedicated changemakers I know. Clare Farrell – academic, fashion professional and environmental activist – taught me about sustainable fashion at Central St Martins (University of the Arts London). Her activism work is regularly in the press (see BBC article here for example) and Clare’s profile in the UK continues to increase. If we’re going to talk about revolution, Clare is one of those people that will drive it. Whether or not you agree with Extinction Rebellion (of which Clare is a co-founder) stopping traffic in Central London or protesting at London Fashion Week, I think we are lucky to live in a society where protesting is allowed and gets everyone talking.
The chat I had with Clare when I started to dig into sustainable fashion is just as relevant today as it was when I started this blog. So here’s my contribution to Fashion Revolution this month. You can hear from Clare herself on how she thinks the makers’ movement can make a difference.
What work are you doing right now Clare? What triggered your interest in sustainable fashion?
As a creative fashion professional, I am constantly challenged by the paradox of my work versus talking about sustainability. In my fashion life, I work with commercial product development, short batch production as well as lecturing at Central St Martins.
It is hugely important for arts students to be taught to be critical about the industry that they will eventually work in, as well as good design. They need to be able to recognise the system they are working in. And how they can choose to avoid being part of the problem.
I am an environmentalist at heart. I wanted to embed my work with more meaning than purely creative fashion design, so I built myself a framework to make good decisions. My university thesis was on the environmental impact of fashion and textiles and how best to effect change.
My thinking has evolved over time. From being focussed on technical and scientific aspects of fashion and the environment, to thinking also about the importance of changing culture on a mass scale. I spend a lot of time on environmental and climate change campaigning, including blocking traffic and lying on roads in the name of air quality.
I also have my own small sustainable clothing line for female cyclists.
Sewing is often seen as an antidote to fast fashion. What do you make of the “makers movement”?
The makers’ movement encourages reskilling through craft which is a good thing. Skills, like mending, alterations and generally extending the life of clothing, are ones that we have largely lost as a nation. I know people who will throw something away if a button falls off. It’s like they are allergic to a needle and thread! If you don’t have the skills to keep clothes wearable you cannot be an accomplished user of clothing. But the craft industry is also booming and it can be very wasteful if people don’t think about what they are using. Also it takes time to be skilled at sewing – which can create a lot of waste. The first things you try and make something from scratch or upcycle something might be a car crash. But there’s no getting around that you have to start somewhere.
Where do you think home seamstresses can have the most impact in terms of lowering their environmental footprint? Do you have any advice for them?
It would be good if textile waste and processing became more commonly understood. No textiles should go in the bin. Old toiles, unusable scraps, socks, for example, can all go into textile recycling. If you donate them to charity in an unsellable state, charities will still make money from selling it onto textile recyclers. These are then repurposed for rags or shredded for things like furniture stuffing.
Note: you can read my blog post on the afterlife of used clothing here.
I advocate repurposing old clothing and textiles – upcycling, refitting, remaking. Making stuff from textiles that already exists is definitely more beneficial than buying virgin or manufactured materials, overstock or not. Once I designed a line for TRAID and used a lot of curtains and furnishing fabrics. At TRAID you can buy various lengths of cloth, although the quality can be variable. In general, I have found the cloth that was produced years ago was of better quality than new cloth we have today.
What new developments excite you in the textile world?
I’d love to see a lot more hemp being grown and used in clothing. It is one of the lowest impact fibres from an environmental perspective and would be hugely beneficial agriculturally. There would be a significant reduction in pesticide and herbicide use and water consumption. Even if a cotton jersey had 20% hemp it would only feel slightly more crispy. But we are so used to loving cotton and all its properties. There are social and political constraints which inhibit wholesale switches to using other fibres, due to the history and infrastructure around the cotton industry.
Technical solutions to textile recycling are interesting. There are big efforts being made to be able to automatically detect the composition of fabrics. For example, “smart yarns” that contain composition information in them. Or sewing in a radio frequency tag which can be scanned by a factory. Whilst these are exciting developments the problem is that the technology to reprocess them is not there on a large scale. Ultimately, we just need to have less waste!
If you’re interested in meeting Clare she will be at a screening of the documentary River Blue which I’m co-hosting over at Village Haberdashery in West Hampstead on 24 May. Tickets on their website – here’s the link.