Did you ever think that by making your clothes you can save the world? Am I being a little overdramatic or can this be true? If you are new to the sustainability issues in the clothing industry you might think that I am overreacting, but if you know even a little bit about what’s going on in those factories and sweatshops you might agree with me and you can read more here.
One day I hope to see our world and human society as equal as possible with a clean environment. Is it possible? I think it depends on us and we need to start with something. Even something small, like making your next t-shirt by yourself. This kind of seemingly small act will have a lot of positive impacts. But how to start, what materials to buy, right? Well, let’s see what Elizaveta Bennett from ArkDeFo can tell us about it.
What is your name and what is your main occupation at the moment?
My name is Elizaveta Bennett and I am the Creative Director of a multidisciplinary creative studio ArkDeFo, based in Edinburgh, Scotland. I run it together with my husband. We are specialising in professional commercial photography and fashion design.
Do you sew your own clothes? How long have you been doing that? Why did you start sewing?
I started making my own wardrobe entirely in 2019, with tiny exceptions for knitwear, socks/tights and jeans, that’s probably it. It was a pretty long journey (or at least it felt like it).
I lived in Berlin for almost five years and had never really made anything during all this time. I just wasn’t interested. I was doing analogue photography and was working in the darkroom pretty much 24/7.
Then before my wedding, I altered a few items by hand and remembered what a great feeling it was to be making clothes. And as a bride with partly hand-made wear, I felt very special. So when I moved to Edinburgh in a few weeks, one of the first things that I unpacked was my old sewing machine.
All women in my family have always been very crafty, I felt like the less talented one. I was making “princess dresses” as a kid but wasn’t allowed to use a sewing machine. Later I drove my mum crazy by trying to change the patterns and do things my way. Being told off so many times, I lost interest and haven’t touched a machine for many years.
But then suddenly I had this need to be making things. I started ordering fabrics online, trying things out, remembering how to make clothes. My first attempts were rather clumsy, but I wouldn’t stop. I was sewing like a maddie. Day and night. Things didn’t work, I tried again and again.
I didn’t just move the country, I moved from single life to a family with 2 teenagers. Despite being completely calm on the surface, my subconscious was agonising – the change was too big. Sewing suddenly became my art-therapy: it kept me calm and focused.
And from making dresses for “pretty Instagram pictures” my passion developed into actual dressmaking. The more I was making, the more backaches I was getting, the more I started questioning the whole fast-fashion industry: how could a dress cost £20 when it takes at least a day to make it? I know it’s different in a factory environment: it’s faster, it’s more people, but wait, are these people getting paid enough? And bit by bit I was discovering more and more uncomfortable truth about the fast fashion industry and eventually switched to making my own clothes and stopped shopping completely.
What about materials, what materials do you prefer to work with and what are the most sustainable from your point of view?
Fabrics was another layer of uncomfortable information for me. When I just started sewing in Edinburgh, I was ordering the cheapest stuff: I couldn’t spend money on good fabrics while I was still experimenting. I also didn’t know much about good-bad materials. When I started getting better in dress-making, I thought that cotton would be the best choice: it’s natural, right? Should be good for the skin (and the planet). But turned out it’s not!
The cotton production industry is one of the worst in the world: it is very unkind to the soil and the people working on it. Instead of crop rotation, they use huge amounts of pesticides to grow it faster and to kill the beasties. This results in insane soil pollution and all sorts of cancers for the workers. Not even mentioning how much water cotton production needs. The more you research, the more uncomfortable it becomes. Wool is another natural fibre that has been massively compromised: did you know that many farmers put poor sheep in the pesticide baths (?!) to keep the wool in better condition. Or shave them too early and poor things die from cold.
From my research I have come to this conclusion: if I want to buy cotton or wool, it must be labelled as organic. Organic cotton means no pesticides, organic wool also means humanity.
I still have a lot of polyester fabrics I bought at the beginning of my journey, and I am using them to make beautiful garments and give them a longer life. Sustainability has different sides to it. Including using what we already have. The main problem with polyester is not polyester itself, but how people treat it: buying a £10 polyester top for one night out and throwing it away “cause it was cheap and I don’t care” is a big problem. Pure polyester fibre is one of the few ones that can be 100% recycled to the same state, without losing any quality. And I honestly don’t understand why there are no polyester recycling bins in the cities next to the paper or glass recycling ones.
But of course, I am not a polyester advocate and after giving new life to existing materials I intend to work mostly with natural fibres. So as far I think that hemp and linen are my two favourites: their production is the least harmful to the planet, both plants grow very fast and are very durable.
What do you have to say about the current situation in the fast fashion industry?
I don’t even know where to start, this is a very painful topic for me. There are two sides to the fast fashion and thinking of each of them often leaves me in tears (and I won’t even talk about the fabric production for fast fashion brands – that’s exactly what I have said earlier, pure pollution of the planet and the people).
The first side is the making part: production of the garments in the factories in the far East, using cheap labour, making people work insane hours in order to survive while sitting in tight air-less factories, yet paying them as little as possible. And right now with the world on lockdown, I think everyone has seen the true face of these companies: refusing to support their workers during this extraordinary situation, and even more than that – refusing to pay for the work already done for them!
With the social pressure, some companies have come forward and said that they did pay, but why does it take us (in the west) to start pressuring multi-billion corporations to pay what they owe? And then they come out with all these interviews: look at us, we are the good guys, we have paid. No, you are not the good guys, you have paid because that’s what people should do in the first place when someone is doing a job for them.
And the second side is us – the consumers. We choose to pay into this business and this doesn’t make us any better than those corporations. We choose to buy bad-quality for cheap, we choose to buy a lot, we choose to not care. But we forget that we, the customers, we have the control: we can choose to stop supporting all these chains, stop supporting human slavery, earth and animal exploitation. We can choose to stop this brainwash of “buy more more more”, slow down, stop for a moment and start giving a damn.
How do you see the future of the clothing industry?
It’s hard to say, but I do hope it changes for the best. I hope that consumers will change it. If we demand quality over quantity, if we demand 100% transparency from the brands (pretty much an ingredient’s list for every item: from how the fabric was sourced to how it was made and by whom), if we stop buying into lies, we can make a big change.
My personal hope is that we come back to craftsmanship: tailored clothes and custom made shoes instead of mass-production. Remember how to repair, repurpose, reuse. It all had been done before, why can’t we come back to that? I know people who throw away a shirt because of a loose button – when have we forgotten how to fix a button?
I also hope more people will learn again how to make their own clothes: it’s not rocket science! Yes, it does take a little bit more time than walking in a shop and getting it, but when you look carefully at the garments they sell us, you’ll see that they use very simple patterns and anyone could make it at home. But from better fabrics, without compromises for the sizes or colours, and with more appreciation. To me, this is the essence of sustainability. Anyone can be a fashion designer.
If I want to start sewing my own clothes, what should be my first steps?
I would say get a sewing machine and master the stitches first: it’s all about the practice! Grab some old sheets and experiment! There are tons of videos online about machines and stitches and techniques.
And once you feel confident with a machine, I’d be very happy to invite you to take my course “Basic wardrobe for beginners”. I have designed a few online classes (https://courses.arkdefo.com) which can help you to go for it. I use little models to explain the basic ideas of the patterns, I teach my students to make patterns for their size, and guide them step by step in the making process. After 15 video lessons, you will be able to make your very first new wardrobe: from t-shirts and dresses to trousers and hoodies. I have also designed a booklet with instructions (a ready to print and a web version – both come with the course) so that you can remind yourself of certain steps without rewinding the videos.
And most importantly I insist on a “just go for it” attitude! You will make mistakes, you will ruin a few fabrics and probably will break a few needles, but with every mistake will come the experience and a better understanding of how to make stuff. Practice makes perfect!
Well, sounds good for me!
I seriously encourage you to try this out and with the code of ANNALOGIC10 you will get -10%!
Together we will make big things happen,
Cover photo and all the rest of the photos were kindly provided by Elizaveta Bennett.