Slow And Steady

Collectively, the fashion industry is one of the leading polluters in the world, contaminating water, shipping here, there and everywhere, and filling landfills with our (not at all biodegradable) discards. Not to mention the labor conditions. So, what’s a well-meaning clothes horse to do? We turned to Karen Templer, of the blog and shop Fringe Association and founder of #SlowFashionOctober. Here, Karen shares the story of her fashion transformation and gives the rest of us tips of how to kickstart our own overhaul.

BY KAREN TEMPLER
PHOTOGRAPHED BY ZACHARY GRAY

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Late one recent night, I walked into my workroom to put away my computer. I had been working since dawn; I was tired and stressed, as small business owners tend to be. But as I walked into the room, I caught a glimpse of a sweater in progress on my dress form—wide black-and-ivory stripes in a gorgeous merino-cashmere yarn, inspired equally by Jenni Kayne and Debbie Harry. My heart did a little cartwheel, and I muttered to myself, "I love what I’m doing with my life.” 

As a kid, I dreamt of a life in fashion. I thought of clothes as an art form, but never weighed them in political or humanitarian terms. Instead of studying fashion, I became a graphic designer. Turned web producer. Turned book editor. Turned web producer some more. Then, five years ago, while working a job I hated, I learned to knit. I expected to be able to one day knit myself a sweater, but I never expected knitting to change my life and my relationship to my closet, to fashion. Now, my more than full time job is making my own wardrobe and blogging about it. Except it’s nothing like that sounds. 

To my family and friends and even the less attentive of my Instagram followers, I likely just seem to be a clothes fanatic. We think of caring about clothes as frivolous, but we as a society are obsessed with them. In recent decades, the number of garments owned by each person in this country has leapt by an order of magnitude. To match, so has the rate at which we discard those garments. Fast, cheap, poorly-made clothes have created a vicious buying cycle, and we give no thought to what happens when we dump them in a donation bin mere weeks or months later. Comprised of synthetic textiles and colored with toxic, synthetic dyes, these garments do not—will never—biodegrade. Charities welcome our donations and proclaim that we’re doing good, and yet they get vastly more than they can handle. Most of our discards—about 80 pounds per person per year—go into landfills and incinerators (read: into our atmosphere). Some is loaded onto container ships to cross the ocean yet again, to be sold second-hand in other countries, shredded and recycled, or dumped in Africa, where our cheap castoffs have decimated endemic textile traditions. 

There’s an incredible video called Unravel by Meghna Gupta, in which the workers at a shredding plant in India try to find explanations for the mountains of like-new clothes that arrive month after month. One woman posits that it must be more expensive for Westerners to wash their clothes than to replace them—why else would we be throwing so many away? 

The fact is, fast-fashion prices have gotten so low it almost is cheaper to replace clothes than to wash them. And how are they that cheap? Think, for a moment, of the cost of materials, labor, transatlantic shipping, distribution, marketing, design, corporate, you name it. The clothes are cheap because the person who sewed them in some anonymous overseas factory wasn’t paid a living wage, or works in a building on the verge of collapse, or works in filth. Our clothes are largely produced in places where labor laws are sparse to non-existent, and where people are allowed to work with dyes our FDA says are too toxic for humans. And yet, we accept the word “Import” on a product page as a sufficient amount of information. 

Two of my favorite factoids: (1) Just a few decades ago, more than 90% of our garments were produced in the U.S.; now it’s more like 2%. (2) The global fashion industry is the number two polluter in the world, after only the oil industry. I was not tuned into this until I learned to knit, joined the handmade community, and met a bunch of very thoughtful people who were determined to make the majority of their own clothes. Not just because it’s fun and rewarding and individualistic—which it absolutely is!—but because they care about opting out of this system as much as possible. It got me asking what was possible for me. Meanwhile, I had found that wearing sweaters I’d knitted myself was a magical experience. It brought me back to sewing, which I had done when I was younger, although I'm a beginner all over again. The more handmade garments I added to my closet, the less interest I had in mall clothes. After all my so-called obsession with clothes, it wasn’t all that hard to give up. 

Realistically, I can’t make everything. My skills are evolving, but limited and handmade clothes take time — especially sweaters. So I’ve made it my business (literally) to know about small batch fashion designers. They are cropping up all over, especially in Nashville, where I recently moved. It is possible to know exactly where your clothes come from, who made them and in what conditions. With someone like Nashville’s Elizabeth Suzann, a lot of the fabrics are also locally woven. They cost more than fast-fashion clothes, because they use quality materials and everyone involved was paid a fair wage. But if you choose carefully, buy thoughtfully, and don’t expect to replace things every couple of weeks, you not only wind up with clothes you’ll cherish, you also get the satisfaction of supporting these small businesses, rather than contributing to a cycle of ills. 

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If it sounds like I own gross amounts of clothing and spend all day acquiring it, I don't. My closet is tiny, I have the equivalent of two full-time jobs and precious little sewing/knitting time, and a big part of how I spend my days is supporting others in the development of their skills and awareness, through my blog Fringe Association. It’s called Slow Fashion for a reason. It’s taken me a few years to get halfway to the wardrobe I want. But on days where I’m dressed from head to toe in handmade, small-batch, U.S.-made and vintage, I’ve never felt better. It’ll be another month before I can put on that striped sweater—made with my own hands with yarn milled responsibly—and show it off on my blog and Instagram. Some people will think “there she goes again, obsessing about her clothes.” But for years that sweater will keep me warm in the knowledge that I’m doing a good thing.