It's basically SAW: Beauty Edition.
It all started at the end of 2014, around the time that fast fashion was being hotly debated in the media. I was walking past the window of one of the offending businesses when I saw the exact dress I had been envisioning and wanting as part of my capsule wardrobe.
It was midi length and fell just below the knees, a tall girl’s dream! It was a beautiful charcoal grey colour with a flattering scoop neck and I was completely in love with the stretchy jersey fabric, it was so soft and comfortable but it hugged my figure in a flattering way. I’ve rarely felt this way, but this was the piece of clothing that I felt entirely myself in. I wanted to wear it to sleep, wear it on my wedding day, if I was a cartoon character I’d be drawn in a charcoal grey midi dress.
We had a wonderful nine months together -- walking around the city, New Year's Eve dancing all night in a French bar with my partner, and I took it on holiday with me to Amsterdam, England and Scotland. Waking up on Sunday morning, pulling on my dress and making espresso in my kitchen barefoot on the cold tiles. It pulled my old aubergine boots together perfectly with my new pink scarf in a way that made me believe that somehow it would live for a few years. Some fast fashion companies have a way of making their clothing look expensive and well made all the while concealing the self destruct button cleverly sewn into the lining.
After six months of looking great the dress suddenly started shrinking about an inch each time I washed it. I tried to prolong its life with cold water and air drying but it was hopeless, and by June I was left with a long sleeved shirt that barely covered the tops of my thighs. I put the remains of my dress in a donation bin and spent the rest of the day panic-searching for a facsimile.
I wasn’t supposed to be this upset; I was supposed to be buying another 15-euro dress. I didn’t want a different one. I wanted my dress, my brain was like a five-year-old who left her favorite toy on the train and didn’t understand how she had been holding it just a minute ago and couldn’t any more. I could picture it perfectly in my mind's eye, the shape, texture, and smell, and yet it no longer existed. I wanted my grey dress, I wanted my grey dress.
As I trawled the Internet I remembered how the dress had seemed like such a bargain, only 15 Euros. It was so sad to realize that six months ago I could have walked into any major city from Muscat, Oman to San Francisco and bought that dress in my size. It had been ripped prematurely out of my life and now, because of the high turnover of these companies, it was impossible to replace.
This was the final nail in the coffin for disposable fashion and I. It exploits people, poisons the planet, increases debt and lastly it makes it impossible for us to form a bond with our clothes. I don’t dare buy another fast fashion item, I’m scared I will fall in love with it, want to make it a part of my everyday life and, according to H&M or Zara, I’m not allowed to do that. What’s even worse than this is, as little as we are supposed to care about the clothes, we are supposed to care even less about the people who made them for us.
A few weeks ago I watched the documentary True Cost and saw the towering slag heaps of rotting textiles, the stained faces of miserable tannery workers, and the poisoned rivers. The stories of cotton farmers working with dangerous pesticides as brain tumours blossomed silently between their temples. The whole industry has been completely unsustainable for decades, and yet we still find a way to block it all out because the clothing is so beautiful and so affordable.
The aim of the film's creators was to re-establish a connection between the consumers and workers. We are naïve and childlike when it comes to thinking about where our clothes come from, they seem to appear in shops out of nowhere brought in by magic capitalist pixies who predict exactly what clothes we are going to be attracted to in a fortnight.
By the end of the documentary I felt completely horrified and guilty. I had managed to convince myself that cheap clothes were somehow easy to make because they were easy to buy. I wanted to reconnect with the clothing I wore and attempt to bridge the gap and understand the textile workers a little more. I decided that instead of buying new knitwear for the autumn, I would try and make some just to see how difficult it is to make a single, practical piece of clothing for myself.
My first project was a turtleneck sweater. The ten balls of merino wool I needed to make it cost me 30 Euros. Twice as much as my dress.
I shut myself up, said no to a few social invitations and cast on. I knitted in bed, in cafés, waiting rooms, I knitted for entire six-hour shifts in the evening starting at 7 or 8pm and collapsing into bed at 2am. I became addicted to reality shows I’m too embarrassed to admit I watched, purling more frantically to the dramatic music as it was revealed that someone cheated on someone else again. I don’t know why, but watching terrible television makes you a much more productive knitter ,or as I like to say, "watch shit and knit quick."
I googled "hand knitted sweater" and found a range of much more professional-looking apparel than my project on Etsy. Some vintage pieces were around $20 and a few people were advertising made to order cable knits starting from $100. Considering it had taken me the better part of a month and countless hours to finish a single sweater I definitely couldn’t do this for a living or even a hobby, but that’s what makes clothing so special when you make it yourself. You can’t really put a price on the time you have taken out of your life to make it. Friends and family stroked the arms of my sweater fondly, not because it was particularly extraordinary, but because it took so long to make. The general consensus was that knitting it was admirable, kind of like learning Russian for fun or making egg custard from scratch, but ultimately, for most people it just wasn’t worth the bother.
Vivienne Westwood delivered a brilliant talk in London about capitalism and fashion. She explained that the cost of affordable clothing such as my dearly departed grey dress is subsidized by debt and hyperinflation. Inspired, I decided to follow her motto and "Buy less, choose well, make it last."
How many pieces of clothing could I make myself in a year? Five or six? How many could I afford if I paid a local designer to make me something beautiful, out of good material with a strong stitch that doesn’t get them too behind on their rent? About the same? How many new items of clothing does a person really need in a year?
I mourn for the longevity of clothing, I’ve had so many things I just didn’t get as much time with as I wanted. I envy my partner’s Billabong shorts he bought secondhand eight years ago. It’s almost unheard of for clothing to last that long, and although I occasionally tell him he should get a new pair or offer sew one of its buttons back on, I feel in contrast that I barely had any time with my grey dress. I would have happily paid someone a good salary to make me a better one that could have lasted me a couple of extra years.
I do think that we need to have a closer relationship with our clothes, and think about where they came from. I know I will not take care of anything I wear as carefully as the sweater I sat and hand knitted for uncountable hours. This experiment has taught me how important the objects that we come into contact with every day are and how grateful we should be to the people who made them for us.