Jane Milburn's book, Slow Clothing, sits on my desk as a daily reminder. Stacked on top of titles from Clare Press and Lisa Messenger, Jane's book is a sustainability bible, and it comes in handy when I'm looking for new ways to mend or reuse something I've outlived.
Her blog, Textile Beat, is just as valuable, and it's an incredible resource for all things natural fibres, dressing with a conscience and embracing slow fashion. Amidst her busy schedule fighting the good fight for global sustainability, Jane found time to answer a few of my questions...
How has your background in agricultural science influenced your career in fashion?
My agricultural science degree led to rural communications work writing about agribusiness and where food comes from. In 2012, that segued into finding a voice around natural fibres and where clothes come from. I’ve always loved wearing natural fibres and noticed them being overtaken by mountains of synthetics with the arrival of fast fashion. As a uni student, I wore clothes I made for myself, clothes I bought from op shops and clothes that I’d upcycled. Decades later, it’s the same but different. Now I’m using all my career skills, experience and knowledge to inspire a more sustainable clothing culture. I am not convinced my career is in 'fashion', although fashion academic Sass Brown referred to me as a 'slow fashion practitioner', so I’ll take that. I simply wear and talk about the concept of having unique, interesting and comfortable clothes made from natural fibres that do not have a use-by date.
You’ve been blogging with your business, Textile Beat, for years. Is this what inspired you to write a book?
My book, Slow Clothing: finding meaning in what we wear, drew a circle around five years of action research into the way we dress. Globalisation created a transformational shift in the way we buy, use and dispose of clothing with little thought for our clothing footprint. People in Western countries such as Australia just embraced the seemingly limitless flow of affordable, ready-made clothes and it took the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013 for us to begin to question where they were coming and what they were made. I was watching the news of that factory collapse while doing a leadership study, and it informed the values-based approach I took in setting up Textile Beat. My book is not a book about fashion or the fashion industry, it is about clothing culture; it is about how we engage with our clothes. Slow Clothing is a philosophy. It is a way of thinking about, choosing, wearing and caring for clothes to ensure they bring meaning, value and joy to every day.
Can you share a little about your TED talk experience?
Really it is the best and worst of experiences! It is an honour to be identified as having an idea worth spreading and my talk was 'Slow Clothing in a Material World'. TED and QUT provided great mentoring, and they embraced my topic so much so, that they upcycled their event T-shirts! I’ve had a lot of public-speaking experience and I knew, from earlier work as an ABC rural journalist, that memorising and regurgitating words in sequence did not come easily for me but my speech was mostly delivered. It's on my website and it's a useful resource. When I spoke at a primary school recently, the children had watched the talk before I visited and were thrilled to see me arrive in the same denim pinafore.
How are our food habits related to our fashion habits?
Every day we eat and dress to survive and thrive. Our clothes do for us on the outside what food does inside. They protect and warm our bodies, and influence the way we feel and present ourselves to the world. Popular culture offers convenience with fast food like takeaway coffee, bottled water and disposable packaging. Similarly, fast fashion often requires minimal effort or thought from the user. Efficient global supply chains have made consumption quick, easy, cheap and disposable, and in the same way that most manufactured food in supermarkets is unhealthy and cheap - fast fashion is unhealthy too. There’s a concern now that chemicals and microplastic particles shedding from synthetic clothing are entering the food chain, and the health impacts of these problems are still unclear. As we have come to understand the value of slow food, we are coming to understand the value of slow fashion clothing.
Two decades ago when fast food arrived, American author Michael Pollan wrote his book, In defence of food, and defined 'An Eater’s Manifesto: eat food, not too much, mostly plants'. Similarly, in response to the arrival of fast fashion, I’ve defined, 'A Wearer’s Manifesto: wear clothes, have few, mostly natural fibres'.
Eating fresh whole food is our best defence against chronic diseases known to be linked to obesity. Similarly, wearing simple, natural-fibre clothing is our best defence against chronic insecurity caused by ever-changing trends. Just as our desire for perfect fruit and vegetables has led to a huge amount of food waste, we’re realising our desire for perfect wearables is producing a huge amount of fabric waste. Hopefully, we can create change through our choices.
Mending was a survival necessity for previous generations. What do you think about mending, recycling and reusing now?
Everything in nature is cycling through the atmosphere and the soil. Humans are part of that, not above it. In the bush, you can see how big old trees have regrown around a lost limb. Mending is integral to life. When we mend our things we are mending ourselves, as well as saving money and reducing waste. We’ve been conditioned – by people who want to sell us more stuff – to believe we need bigger, brighter, newer stuff to appear successful. It is hard to shake that conditioning. I still remember how it felt going on the radio in 2013, and saying, 'I wear second-hand clothes'. It is not that I can’t afford to buy new things, it is just that I love the sense of rescue and discovery that thrifting engenders.
I also believe that secondhand is organic. When we buy preloved clothes, we do not add chemicals or production stress to the environment. Everything else is various shades of greenwashing. There is no use-by date on simple, natural, well-made clothes. We can wear them until they wear out – when we know how to care, mend and upcycle.
The other thing about making and mending is it gives us insight. Until we make something for ourselves to wear, we cannot appreciate the resources, time and skill that go into the clothes we buy.
What kinds of materials should we avoid to reduce our fashion impact?
I am not necessarily a materials expert, nor do I want to be prescriptive. Personally, I avoid any synthetic or plastic materials derived from petroleum such as polyester, acrylic, nylon, lycra, fake fur and neoprene. If you already have them, use them and when they need replacing consider what natural materials are available. For example, when my swimmers needed replacing, I bought black wool undies and they’re working brilliantly so far. Aim to have fewer items of better quality because constant churn is the problem.
What plant-based natural fabrics should we be investing in?
I’m not really into specific recommendations, but linen is my favourite. I embrace the crush and just wash, shake and hang to dry. By all means, buy certified organic if it reassures you but everything has an environmental impact. Some people are concerned about water use and chemicals in the production phase of fabrics like cotton and bamboo. For me, the key is buying quality items and wearing them until they’re worn out because then any initial impact is diminished across a lifetime of use. One of my more controversial quotes is this: ‘Second-hand is the new organic. When we buy preloved clothes, we do not add chemicals or production stress to the environment. Everything else is various shades of greenwashing.’
Transitioning from fast fashion to slow fashion can be overwhelming for those new to it. What advice would you give to someone just starting out on their slow fashion journey?
Whatever you already have in your wardrobe is enough to last you two years at least. Stop shopping for entertainment and go bushwalking instead. We have so much already yet we are seduced into buying more. Begin by becoming conscious of what you are wearing, thinking before you spend any money, and have a goal to buy well and less often. There’s a four-stage action plan outlined in my book. Stop buying for a while, to give yourself space to think about what you already own and how much you really need. Study your style to understand what best suits your shape, age and stage. Sort and curate your existing wardrobe. Seek out responsible choices to make every future purchase a winner that will serve you well. Buying pre-loved and secondhand fashion is a great way to re-use and reduce.
What other easy, slow fashion habits can you suggest for those who are new to sustainable shopping?
Invest in comfortable shoes and underwear. You rarely, if ever, find these preloved. Buy ethical brands and Australian made whenever possible.
Wash clothes less often. Only wash your clothes (as distinct from your underwear) when they look or smell dirty. Use other techniques to extend the time between washes – don’t wear your good clothes around the home, sponge any spills as they happen, hand-wash relevant bits, freshen by airing on the line or steaming while you’re in the shower. Unless you live in a hot place, sweat a lot and wear fitted styles, natural-fibre clothes can do multiple wears.
Learn the basics of sewing. Start simple. You learn to sew by doing it. When a seam pops or a button drops, attend to it as soon as practicable. Mend a hole, stitch over a stain or alter a hemline that is not quite right for you. Sew a simple top, skirt or dress, to experience the autonomy and agency of making something for yourself.
What inspires you to continue the work that you’re doing to promote slow fashion?
I am inspired and empowered by the potential for common sense and creativity to help us tread lightly on Earth – for the sake of future generations. My work is grounded in lived experience and expresses my values of authenticity, creativity, autonomy and purpose. It brings together everything that went before – in terms of my upbringing, education and professional career – and enables me to voice what I believe in. My stepping up coincided with a conscious awakening about the impact our choices have on the world in which we live. The philosophy of Slow Clothing brings wholeness through living simply, creatively and fairly.
To learn more about sustainability or buy Jane's book, Slow Clothing, head to textilebeat.com, and as always, think sustainably about your wardrobe.
The Fashion Advocate x