Book review: Second Skin by India Flint

Reading has been an important part of my life since I understood the superpowers it conferred and proceeded to read through the whole local children’s library in the 1990s. And since I got hooked on minimalism and sustainability in 2014, great part of my readings have been around these topics, both on-line and off.

Second Skin: Choosing and Caring for Textiles and Clothing (Murdoch books 2011) by India Flint came my way through Julie who had talked about it for ages and had brought it along for the Fix it! workshop. She kindly lent me her copy and I dove into a very different sustainable fashion book than I had got used to.

And maybe that’s my already squared mind, but was very grateful that I had previously read the sustainable fashion books of the Kate Fletcher circle (1, 2, and especially 3) which – while much more prone to being out of date as fashion industry practices are a moving target, especially when it comes to sustainability claims and attempts in last ten years or so – give a comprehensive overview of the life cycle of garments in late capitalism and the efforts to make it more sustainable and ethical. Flint’s stuff is a labor of love, and the most gorgeous book I’ve read in a long-long time, but that’s the thing: she is not a sustainable fashion scholar or industry insider, she’s a fiber artist, a maker, a natural dyer, a radical mender…

So, I’ll give you reasons to read this one…

It’s a beautiful artifact! The illustrations and text are weaved together into a work of art. There is no way this can be made Kindle-friendly because it shouldn’t be.

Herstory! Flint traces her family history through a lineage of women who knew how to make and mend for their families, both for festivities and during duress, throughout her childhood’s amazement of the magic of stitching and up to her daughter’s textile projects. Also, of course, I’m biased because – surprise, surprise! – it’s WW2 Latvia that her grandmother escaped from, sewing machine in hand.

If you ever wanted a little big push to appreciate natural fibers (and learn that cotton is not the best one by far) here you have it. Flint loves her linen, hemp, silk, and, especially, wool, and the whole book is a love letter to them. My special additional kudos for her suggestion that first textile making – felting – might be an unintended side-product of fucking. Also, the very sensible suggestion that people working with fire hazards should wear wool protective clothing. Cute! Be careful, though, with the power of suggestion: I had two episodes of a very suffocating synthetics-panic while reading the book and those were garments I had had for ages.

She is pushing the ugly mending revolution, and I love it! Flint is a great inspiration to let go of conventional notions of perfect dyeing and invisible mending. She advocates for visible layers of customization, appropriation, evolution, and it’s liberating.

Career inspiration! She is a great example of person just doing her thing and truly pushing the boundaries of what ethical fashion on an individual level can be. It’s authentic and it’s beautiful, and beyond the conventional notions of pretty at the same time which gives her work even more power.

And reasons not to start your sustainable fashion journey with this book!

The biggest one for me is that her life – that she implicitly sets as an example – is a very marginal anecdote. Yes, in her life wool is super sustainable and ethical because it comes from her own sheep, she travels the world in her overdyed and self-made uniform giving natural dyeing workshops and dyes in her hotel rooms (giving advice how to avoid smoke detectors, no less), and she has spent all her life developing the skills to be as sustainable and autonomous in her use of textiles as one can be. It’s inspirational and frustrating at the same time! While baby steps of the spirit of her work can be incorporated in our daily lives as urban, semi-formal people with limited skills, the position from which she is speaking is frankly unattainable unless you drop whatever else you are doing. (Well, Julie is an example of such switch, though, and is doing great!)

She has clear preferences and giving a comprehensive vision of the textile industry is not among her priorities. While her love for natural fibers is cute and makes perfect sense for her lifestyle, all synthetics get just written off as shit unworthy of even engaging with. Yes, it’s does not mend or natural dye well, but this generalized position ignores the fact that synthetics can be recycled back to their virgin quality if designing or at least sorting post-wear is done right with a fraction of energy required to make new and no water, and that we have a shitton of polyester and nylon laying around, so turning a blind eye to it is not a solution and, due to the nature of the material, not much can be done about it on an individual consumer level. Flint has this frontier woman flair of textile autonomy which is very attractive but could be as well from 100 years ago when we weren’t all drowning in cheap polyester.

The same ‘this is not an issue because I do it in my backyard’ logic is applied to ethics and animal products. While I don’t like to engage in wool and silk vegan debates, because they shift the focus away from more urgent issues, Flint brushes off any such concerns with a mix of ‘but if I can do it well, we all can’ in case of wool and leather (+ the leather is just meat industry by-product’ argument – 1, 2, 3) and an esoteric elevation of the ‘but we use plants’ argument that every vegan has heard too many times for silk (basically saying that silkworms are shit animals with no quality of life anyway) and coming this close to talking about natural cycles of everybody feeding everybody else in one way or another. As with fiber preferences, Flint’s views on animal agriculture and usage of parts of dead animals in human apparel is a bit too much Little House on the Prairie for my taste.

The repeated eye rolling about the notion of organic cotton. While admitting that labeling something organic has a narrow meaning that doesn’t include water use or posterior dyeing, Flint is baffled that a synthetically dyed garment with whatever trimmings (remember that 100% synthetic thread is the industry standard) would still be labeled as organic cotton. D-oh! It’s ‘organic cotton’, not ‘organic garment’, unfortunately, but that label does not lie.

And just an example of how unfortunately blasé I am about all the pollution that surrounds me (and I think you could use a first person plural there), my reaction to her synthetics dye outrage because skin is a large and absorbent organ was along the lines of ‘buah, not even everything I put inside me (stomach and intestinal linings are much more absorbent surfaces) is pesticide and other poison free, so…’ My bad, but I relativization is the only mental tactic that keeps me sane.

The radical mending that sound so well as a manifesto is hard! Even achieving a moderately acceptable level of reasonably functional fix requires skill. I’m learning it the hard way. The same goes for dyeing and garment-making described in this book. Coming from a person who has spent all her life playing with textiles, practices she describes meditative and empowering can get frustrating very quickly. With the additional rub that you’re failing at fugly mending…

So I suggest you read it when you have already covered the general textile and fashion industry basics, at least I’m happy that for me it happened in this order.

My takeaway inspirations (and caveats) are:
(a) to be more serious about phasing out the pure synthetics from my wardrobe and bringing in natural fibers (though I already failed at that miserably during the May swap),
(b) to take a second look at threads available at my local mercerías in an effort to move towards cotton ones (although I also have my mother’s sewing treasure box in Rīga with rainbow synthetic threads that could last me a lifetime; ugh the awful choices between ‘use up what you have’ and ‘purchase better’),
(c) to maybe dip my toes in some very basic avocado or onion skin dyeing for my stained whites… I’ll let you know!

What interesting sustainable fashion books have you read lately? Is there any one book that changed it all for you?

How expensive is an ethical wardrobe? 2017 second half money talk

What can I do? Money is part of the essentials. So let’s talk about it!

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Money is almost always a tricky social issue, especially so when it comes to niches – like ethical fashion blogs – where people tell other people how they should spend their money. Blah-blah-blah, voting with your euros… and then sponsored posts and things-things-things! I already wrote a detailed post in July about my overall money-spending goals, so this one is an itemized update on last six months. The order of preferences has stayed the same: (1) intensively using up what I have, (2) incorporating mainly pre-loved garments, (3) ethically sourcing the ones I have troubles finding second-hand (underwear, hosiery, footwear).

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This is what January-June looked like:

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And these are the last six months in a nutshell:

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Two observations jump at me, and they are connected: (a) despite my July intentions, I’ve spent significantly more money on getting dressed than in the previous six months which already almost twice as in each of the 2016’s six-month chunks, and (b) I allowed myself to buy a set of two new main garments I did not need; without those 160€ my spending list would look much better. Here comes a complete run-down through each item:

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The birks: I was after a pair of vegan birks for a long time, remembering my knock-off footbed sandals ~2007 as the comfiest summer shoe ever. In July my trusty 2014 Crocs broke beyond repair, so now I have a pair of street sandals and the same model in EVA for the swimming pool. I’m very happy with both, despite the fact that the street pair is unfit for both cycling and long walks (Oh, feet blisters!). The swimming pool ones haven’t touched the street, so technically I could even exclude them from this list.

Verdict: Nicely invested 95€. Would repeat.

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SiiL knickers: Liisa made it possible for me to switch from LuvaHuva knickers – extremely comfy and well made but quite pricey – to ones made three street blocks from me. From organic cotton mixes bought in Barcelona and made by a friend = best ethical fashion! Also, these six pieces allowed to retire some worn out knickers, always a good idea. Although this pattern turned out to be better for winter than for Barcelona summer (the rubber band leads to chaffing), they’ve been great from October till now.

Verdict: Great! Mil gracias, Liisa.

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I bought naked “peinetas” – hair combs – to try to repurpose a pair of feather earrings Marina sent me. I re-crafted the feathers but the result was too exuberant even for me! So I passed them back to Marina hoping she could use them for her pre-Burning Men crafting sessions.

Verdict: Oh, well! Not all repair endeavors end up being successes, I tried my best.

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Swedish Stockings hosiery: I finally made the hosiery upgrade from Calzedonia to Swedish Stockings. The cashmere blend tights are ~3 times more expensive than the Calzedonia equivalent… I keep telling myself that that’s the right thing to do, but the price point still feels uncomfortable for me. I opened the tight season in November and so far have basically worn out three pairs of woolen tights: two Calzedonia leftovers I had from the previous winter and the Swedish Stockings one. That would mean a seasonal investment of around 120€ for three pairs of winter tights. The tights themselves are very nice: a generous fit (higher waist than Calzedonia has), very nice feel, but they clearly do not last forever.
I also bought six pairs of their step socks… Well, those are a complete fail! They are too tiny to stay on my feet, (and probably because of that) break very easily. Did not work.

Verdict: Tights yes, socks no! I keep telling myself that there is no way back to high-street hosiery… My new plan is to take full advantage of Swedish Stockings’ recycling initiative. As they promise 30% discount for those who return stockings for recycling, my three pairs of cashmere blend tights would end up costing around 80€. Much better! The only challenge now is to stretch the hosiery I have until the end of the season, and to save them up to send to Sweden. Taking into account that it’s around 16ºC now in Barcelona and I’m getting rid of my short dresses anyway, seems doable.

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The WAG set: Oh, my! I hadn’t bought a *new* main garment since 2015. But ideas about African prints and find something made locally when visiting Cape Town fogged my mind. The attention to the customer was impeccable, we had a great time, I tried on a million things, and ended up paying a small fortune for an unlined set made of conventional cotton.

Verdict: There is no way back, so now my mission is to wear it again, again and again. I’ll do my best!

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Trench repairs: details of my hand-me-down trench needed repairs, and neighborhood repair shops – seamstresses and the cobbler – were able to take care of it.

Verdict: My trench is back in shape, and I feel immensely grateful for living in a place where there is still access to fixers.

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Bra strap fixers for Laura’s dress: I picked up this polyester dress in September swap and wore it 11 times to understand that it’s not for me. Knowing that the main reason that the previous owner had passed it on was a problem with bra straps, I first used safety pins and then gathered all my bravery and precision to make my first bra strap fixers.

Verdict: I’m so proud of myself! And you are very welcome, next wearer of this dress.

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A new pack of hair pins: I came to Riga knowing that my current go-to hairstyle is a pinned-up french braid but didn’t take hair pins with me. D-oh!

Verdict: Even I could use some better planning at times.

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How do you deal with additional time and money investment that ethical fashion implies? Do you fall for some decision-fatigue buys of “I need this and I don’t care” or “oh my gosh, oh my gosh, it’s too beautiful”? What was your most dubious buy of 2017?

Fashion, sustainability and tidying books I read in 2017

For the second year in row I’ve had the ambition to read more books than there are weeks in a year, and for the second year in row I’m failing miserably. I ended 2016 at 42/52, so 81%. At the moment I’m at 37/52, so 71%. Disappointing! However, 12 of those 2017 books were blog-related either touching the whys (sustainability, climate change, consumerism), hows (sustainable fashion) and aesthetic pleasures (style!). Here’s the list in the order I read them:

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Tuite, Rebecca C. 2014. Seven Sisters Style: The All-American Preppy Look.

A pretty look-book explaining the rise of the preppy look which I’ll always eagerly repin despite the class bias. The funniest part is that styles that we now associate with arrogance and careful selection to “look the part”, was born out of quest for comfort and were seen as highly inappropriate and rebellious at their time. What can I say, give me a mix of nice knits and emancipation of women any time!

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Black, Sandy. 2008. Eco-chic: The Fashion Paradox.

A bit outdated and avant-garde focused sustainable fashion book. A reminder that less than ten years ago sustainable fashion was an artsy fringe activity nobody expected to become relevant to the mainstream.

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Carson, Rachel. 1962 [2005]. Silent Spring.

Yes, I hadn’t read the seminal book that launched the environmentalism. And now I have. It still is a very powerful reminder of the arrogant recklessness of the industrial management of nature (that tends to bring unintended consequences of colossal scale). Although the pesticides of today are not exactly as horrible as the organochlorine pesticides that Carson was focusing on, we have more than enough toxic messes around the world continuing the proud tradition of human hubris.

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Sontag, Susan. 1977 [1979]. On Photography.

Aha, another classic that I finally read this year! While not neatly fitting in the overarching theme, a recommended read to everybody taking daily selfies. Somehow I do feel relieved that Sontag did not live to see Instagram… Diagnosis? We are all sick, but that won’t stop us from documenting the illness.

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Gilman, Charlotte P. 1915 [2002]. The Dress of Women: A Critical Introduction to the Symbolism and Sociology of Clothing.

Oh, this was such a treat! Gilman, the ultra-rational feminist hero – read her What Diantha Did for a 1910 (!) answer to the still-relevant housework issue! – charging against the stupidity of fashion. Early social scientists just wrote what they thought, interpreting their participant observations from the armchair (OK, like Bauman and other theorists of postmodernity still do / did until they left us). You cannot trust them as describing a representative reality, but they surely reflect certain stirrings of their time. This one is fascinating! I already mentioned this book here and here.

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Corn, Wanda M. 2017. Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern.

I got this gem thanks to Marina who was willing to cater to my “see an exciting book in a museum shop, decide later” whims. For me this book was just the right mix of art and personal style without entering personal life. Bravo! The argument is very convincing, and more so with O’Keeffe than with others: if the artists has spent decades carefully curating (and making) her wardrobe and surroundings, it makes perfect sense to analyze them alongside her paintings.

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Fletcher, Kate and Lynda Grose. 2012. Fashion and Sustainability: Design for Change.

Another sustainable fashion textbook, better than Black’s, worse than revised 2014 Fletcher below. In 2017 I was eager to build up an adequate knowledge base to start with, now I think I’m good, thanks! But I have to agree that in the last decade the sustainable fashion industry has moved with an incredible speed.

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Fletcher, Kate. 2008 [2014]. Sustainable Fashion and Textiles: Design Journey.

For a still-relevant overview of the sustainable fashion industry from the point of view of design (and lots of optimistic hope about the designer’s power to be an influence for good), read this one! Fletcher is the fashion philosopher of NOW (of, the notion of “craft of use” is irresistible), but if you have other favorites, let me know in the comments.

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And then I went on a Marie Kondo binge you can read about here

Kondo, Marie. 2010 [2014]. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.

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Kondo, Marie. 2017. Spark Joy.

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Kondo, Marie and Yuko Uramoto. 2017. The Life-changing Manga of Tidying Up: A Magical Story.

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Monbiot, George. 2006 [2007]. Heat: How Can We Stop the Planet Burning.

I read Heat for the first time in 2008, and it was a game-changer for me. I took several small, individual steps to reduce my carbon footprint but didn’t stop flying (bad, bad me…). Not being a home- or business-owner, those were really tiny, but the book cemented my convictions that (1) climate change is happening (I know that in the USA “climate change” is understood to be the doubting term vs. much stronger “global warming”; however, assuming that words have meaning, not only spin, the shit storm that has already started goes beyond warming and is changing the climate in a multitude of ways, for example, when the Gulf stream stops, we won’t see much warming happening)  and we made it happen, obviously; (2) we have enough knowledge since long ago about the causes, so in principle we could have stopped it; (3) but we are shitty animals, our brains cannot deal with gradual and impersonal danger, so deserve to die and leave it to lizard-people to build the next civilization. That third part is not Monbiot’s, he really tries to be optimistic about the whole thing, but re-reading ten years later and knowing that we are even more fucked now, oh, well! Monbiot’s book started my climate change education and nothing has changed my climate pessimism since I read it for the first time.

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What were your sources of wisdom and brain-food in 2017? Do you have any information-consumption goals for 2018? How about less screens and more books?

Stop browsing fast fashion, browse the internet instead

One of the most powerful tricks up fast fashion’s sleeve is the magic of browsing. If you have time to kill, here you have the carefully arranged – often with the help of up and coming artists – flagship stores and the “I’ll only take a look while I’m waiting”… Especially when it’s cold outside and the idea of a *new* big furry hat seems like a very good one!

So, following the steps of John and Yoko, I’m suggesting a bed-in against fast fashion and physical fashion browsing as a pass-time. Curl up under a blanket with your favorite device and browse the internet instead of badly made and fugly (for real, often the stuff these people sell really offend my aesthetic sensibilities) polyester garments. And for finders keepers and future reference, my not at all revolutionary suggestion is using Pinterest. Especially for hoarding visual inspiration it makes so much more sense than bookmarking stuff in your browser or any other link collector I’ve tried.

So these are my fashion-related uses of Pinterest (+ a wide array of other boards for feminist pins, interesting books and cute animals):

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Gathering my own #wiw pictures

An exercise in vanity and a better overview of the unending repetition in my wardrobe. It has been almost a year now of a weekly outfit post, and my fashion consistencies and inclinations are very clear at this point.

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Visual fashion inspiration for cold and warm weather

Not aspiring to replicate or “buy the outfit”, but when a photo calls my attention as fashion inspiration, to one of the following boards it goes, depending on the approximate (Mediterranean) season it would be appropriate for:

or

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A reality-check exercise of what you feel like wearing

I did this one last December picking out from my cold weather inspo board the looks that I would happily wear, taking account the current aesthetic cravings, weather and lifestyle. Comparing this with what I’ve been wearing both last and this cold seasons, you can see that my leaning towards knee-length patterned dresses or top + flared skirt combos, opaque tights and fun sneakers for winter hasn’t changed:

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Reasonable and ethical show board, because hobbit feet

Something in my heart that has been dealing with footwear struggles for many years has pushed me towards a small but robust shoe board. It is a merged have- and wish-list, and, as always with these exercises, my preferences are clear:

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A fashion-related link-depository

I bookmark in my browser only the links I have to deal with: upcoming Sunday brain-food, Wiki pages I want to read, etc. Reviewed links I want to keep go into a Pinterest board. The two fashion related I have are for news and for taking note of ethical brands. For brands I pin an item or two that both reflect the offer of the brand and that I find most appealing, so that a quick look through the board could tell me where to go for sports bras and where for wax print dresses.

and

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The caveats to all this are that:
(a) Pinterest is clearly for puritan aesthetics, so uploading naughty pictures may make you lose all you boards (repinning is safe, so do that) and the criteria are not really clear. If you want naked people and stuff, get a Tumblr, we all know that, right?
(b) once you are done with your reality-checked desires, real-life browsing might be needed, especially if you are looking for second-hand options (always better than virgin fibres!). So when you have a clear vision and an approximate (un)shopping list, get out of the bed and go visit your community swaps (or organize one) or second-hand dealers!

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Do you browse fashion stores out of boredom? How do you collect your fashion inspiration? And how do you organize your links?

Educational afternoon: The True Cost and Upcycling Barcelona

Despite some challenges – the Catalan procés has monopolized the attention of many people in Barcelona and people seem to enjoy clothes’ swaps more than brainwashing sessions, even if vegan quiches are provided – we had our screening of The True Cost + an additional perspective on the current fashion revolution from Virginia Rondeel, fashion designer dedicated to upcycling and co-founder of Upcycling Barcelona.

Our beloved audience.

Quiches designed to lure in the unsuspecting.

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The True Cost presents itself as “a groundbreaking documentary film that pulls back the curtain on the untold story and asks us to consider, who really pays the price for our clothing?” However, unless you have spent last 15-20 years naked in a hippy/Amish community, you should have at least a foggy idea that garment making is not a local seamstress business anymore and that somehow you can now get garments for ridiculous prices. The True Cost is a well made piece of consciousness-rising that packs into 92 minutes all the basics of what’s wrong with fast fashion. It is well paced and emotionally charged, taking the viewer on a guilt trip across the universe. The perfect choice to start – or restart – the conversation on garment industry and alternatives to fast fashion. And it leaves you willing to take some action, so…

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To give a more local human touch to the story, Virginia from Upcycling Barcelona took the floor after the movie and talked about her way of slowing down fashion here in Barcelona: creating garments from post-consumer shirts and curating a space for other upcycling designers and wannabe upcyclers. In their shop you can find selected second-hand garments and pieces made of tablecloths, inner tubes of bicycle tires,  industry samples, etc. even upcycled bridal gowns + sewing courses for those wishing to take back the power to fix and modify our clothing.

Virginia is also one of the founders of l’Associació de moda sostenible de Barcelona and involved with the Fashion Revolution activities in Barcelona. Here you have a glimpse at the second-hand and upcycled neighborhood fashion show she organized in April, commemorating the Rana Plaza tragedy and reminding that other fashion is possible:

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Not to forget that our very legal screening was made possible by crowdfunding friendfunding. Thank you so much, Kristine, Marina, Jeanne, and Mery + our anonymous tip-jar donors! Unfortunately, their generosity wasn’t enough to fulfill my part of the promise and provide them with so many #fuckfastfashion stickers that they could cover all Cambridge, New York, Salamanca, and Barcelona respectively. I tried to compensate lack of glamour with lots of love, so I got out my magic markers and reimagined my friends as paper dolls… It will have to do this time.


Yes, these are not all. And, yes, I have to work on my scanning skills.

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In this little circle of at least partial converts last Saturday we defined one very important function of events where preaching to the choir is on the menu. It is a way to reaffirm ourselves as not crazy, not marginals, and not alone. And that is already a lot. Because, only if we find the resilience to keep cultivating our own little sustainable parcel, we have the basis to talk to those yet to be educated and convinced.

For the ground I’ve already covered about this topic of converting (your wardrobe) and convincing (others):

Baby steps: Detoxing a wardrobe takes time – on developing a personal strategies of procurement, being honest what sources work for what kind of garments for you; this step will permit you to prioritize your investments.

Persuasion or #fuckfastfashion, but gently – my answers to the most common (fake) arguments in favor of fast fashion. I start the post with a warning that anger and blaming do not help, be gentle.

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What have been the moments / movies / books / people that have quided you towards sustainable fashion? Do you remember the aha! moment? What reassurance in your fashion ethics do you turn to “when you’re weary, feeling small“?

Lessons learnt from the Fashion Revolution MOOC

Lesson 1: If you are interested in this course, you probably already know all the content.

If you want to learn the nuts and bolts of industry and materials, this will not happen. You will have to go into technical reports and academic literature to do so. Befriend a librarian at your closest polytechnic library and prepare stimulating snacks, because nobody makes entertaining videos out of those books! This MOOC is an inverse classroom of “learn through your own research” and the few materials provided are really low brow. Every piece of journalism about fast fashion industry will provide as much.

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Lesson 2: This is not a course, it’s an activist training.

The course enlisted gazillions of people and directed their actions to press fast fashion makers. Smart! At the center of that training is that individual behaviour change without awareness raising is less valuable than the other way around. But you cannot advocate against what you yourself are doing, that makes 0 sense! Imagine how seriously you would take somebody lecturing you on factory farming while munching on industrial chicken nuggets…

In general these people are worry much more about labor conditions than about the environmental impact (you could have guessed it by now, as the call to arms is #whomademyclothes and not #whatstheecologicalfootprintofmyclothes), even to the point of questioning boycotting out of fear that this may cause job loss and factory closure. And calling that a long term strategy! If we are to shift the whole industry towards better practices, most of those jobs will have to change so radically that we might as well consider them whole new jobs (hence the old ones will have to disappear). In an actual long term perspective, “keep the jobs” leads us towards stagnation. Think of the coal industry as an example: for much empathy you might feel for the individual workers whose already hard lives would be shook up by job losses, a sober assessment of the industry will show that disappearance of those jobs would be better in long term for both workers and consumers. The same goes for children in Bangladesh sewing sequins to fast fashion garments.

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My Pledge = Keep calm and carry on!

I’ve already outlined my wardrobe strategy as a ladder of steps – (1) use up what you have, (2) replace with pre-loved and second-hand, (3) buy new only categories you don’t find second-hand (in my case, underwear, hosiery and footwear), then do your research and buy well made and ethical garments – and my awareness efforts include this blog and regular community clothes’ swaps. You can read more about our communist fashion events here, here and here.

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How are your wardrobes doing? Do you feel like in need of an polytechnic library or are you informed enough? And on what side of the “boycott fast fashion vs. engage and try to change it” debate are you?

Garment makers and fixers, I salute you

I could’ve done my “creative and empathetic storytelling through our clothes” in the most normative way: “Oh, look at the exploited garment workers of China-India-Bangladesh-Cambodia”. And that would have been very legitimate. I know enough about their average working conditions as to orient my consumption towards patterns that could either improve their working conditions or put them out of work (in its current fast fashion modality). But these are not the garment workers I think about often. There have been so many media exposés that only cognitive dissonance stands between this point of information saturation and a real fashion revolution. I’ve made my boycotting decisions and moved on.

The garment workers I do think about often are the in-between ones. I think about the EU periphery seamstresses in Lithuania and Romania stitching the “made in EU” labels on garments that have been externalized inside the unified market. I think about those that fall between the abysmal wage/hours/rights ratios of overseas fast fashion workers and the top-of-the-game haute couture artisans (and starry-eyed ecofashion employees (1, 2)). I think about the anonymous seamstresses that the up-and-coming designers and “makers” externalize the sewing to. I think about the grandmas who make everyday miracles at mend-and-repair chain stores (especially the part or running around the city and looking for the most similar zipper or buttons to replace). I think about the fact that your fingers and eyes still suffer, even if you are gold embroidering a one-of-a-kind Valentino gown.

The 1960s cellulose disposable clothing didn’t really revolutionize the industry towards relatively simple and fully mechanized. We have an even more complex garment industry where robots haven’t been able to replace people at most tasks (just think about the fact that sequins and beads is usually an indicator of child labor!).

People doing basic maintenance that the rest of us never learned to do and would chose not to anyways… Going away from the basic “but-I-don’t-have-a-sewing-machine” argument, raise your hand if you think of mending when finding a hole in your sock! Raise the other hand if you know how to darn a sock! It’s not a whole forest of raised hands, unless you ask that to a bunch of quite older ladies. Full disclosure here: my grandma darns my socks, but only the woolen (artisanal) and expensive (Bonne Maison) ones. The cheap little ones just disintegrate on their own…

What I’m saying is:
1. Mass sewing/fixing of garments is not a fun activity neither for your neck, eyes, or mind. (In general there are very few things that work well and maintain maker satisfaction and product quality at mass scale. Marxist alienation, anyone?)
2. Even if we manage to radically improve the worst labor conditions in the garment industry (and we should, obviously!), the new improved low won’t be pleasant either.

So instead of the anonymous empathy exercise, I’m covering the closest social circles first. There is a long line of women that have directly and indirectly influenced my relationships with garments. Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg, only the visible part, but these very-close-to-home circles remind me of how personalized garment production and repair can be. Even in industrial societies and big cities. And how much dexterity, imagination and pure magic goes into garments. Each garment. At every stage of production and repair.

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First, some context. Scarcity (or uniformity, or sheer ugliness) of ready-to-wear garments incentivizes creativity and problem solving. Up until the mid-1990s in Latvia obtaining clothing for the whole family and taking care of it was a demanding duty squarely placed on the shoulders of women. While not as essential as obtaining food and cooking it, a varied set of skills was required to keep everybody warm and presentable enough. So women made their own curtains, crocheted baby booties, bartered for a piece of nice fabric, and knew that fashion as form of self expression was hard work. And if your arms grew from an entirely wrong place for sewing, you could establish a reciprocal relationship with a friend, colleague, or neighbor who could do that for you in exchange for another favor or money. In Soviet Union favors mattered more than money. For a glimpse at Soviet aesthetics, see this Pinterest board.

Specialization is bound to happen in such contexts (hi, Adam Smith!), so everybody knew back then that, if you needed to go beyond the basic darning and fixing or got your hands on an especially nice fabric, the neighbor lady of flat Nº17 or Katya from Accountancy department was the ones to turn to.

Hence due to circumstances beyond my control I have always been surrounded by women making and fixing garments. This is my tribute to them and their superpowers (and a sketch of the networks of favors and barters that characterized the informal Soviet garment market):

Jūlija, my grand-grandmother. Garment superpower: making something out of nothing and dressing her six children with that. For example, I still have a crochet needle she made out of an aluminum spoon. It does the job perfectly and is much more ergonomic than the conventional crochet needles.

Milda, my grandmother. Garment superpower: diplomacy and making useful connections. While crafting is not among her talents (pedagogy and cooking are), she knew better than anybody how to make mutually beneficial arrangements with skilled people and obtain the necessary materials. One of her colleagues, Biruta, was known for her sewing skills, so most of my mother’s and her sister’s early wardrobes were made by her. The little blue blouse remains as evidence. Another of her colleagues, Māra, is a lace-making superwoman. She taught me how to crochet, and, when I started wearing the little blue blouse, we assumed it was her needlework at the front. One of my favorite garment-related episodes is her doubting if she had made those embroideries but then turning it inside out and instantly knowing that “no, it’s not mine, I do it differently”.

Anda, my godmother. Garment superpower: access to fabrics. For many years Anda worked at a Supply base. That meant first-hand access to goods that did not trickle down to the shops and made her a crucial point in my family’s fashion options. All the skills in the world won’t help you if don’t have the fabrics!

Erna, my grandpa’s sister. Superpower: surpassing her origins in style. With no formal training in either art or fashion, Erna was a beautiful and stylish women. She sew in her free time for herself and her friends, mostly out of smuggled Burda magazines, that could be purchased in the black market.

Ginta, my mother. Superpower: rational calculus (and being the most stylish mom, obviously!). Ginta started sewing early, learning the basics at school (gendered Home Economics ftw!) and at home. My grandma had changed the seamstress and now was frequenting Drosma (superpower: living a life of Western aesthetics and entrepreneurship behind the Iron Curtain). The most repeated anecdote about Drosma back then is how she ran a clandestine jeans (very scarce merchandise in USSR!) manufacture from her basement, so you get the idea. Drosma was the one who shared sewing tips and tricks with Ginta and sold Ginta her old overlock. Milda managed to obtain a modern sewing machine.

My mom sew not only for herself and her family (one of her pleasures when we go through late 1980s and early 1990s photos is pointing out all the garments made by her), but also for friends and friends of friends who paid for the pieces and became returning customers. Having a trusted seamstress wasn’t considered a luxury back then, it was the only escape from the uniform (and scarce!) industrially produced garments. Ginta made blouses, skirts, dresses, even wedding dresses. My barbies were the best dressed as time by time they received a little copy of whatever Ginta was sewing! I happily slept through the noise of the sewing machine and dreamed of becoming a fashion designer.

But times change and priorities do, too. Ginta developed a successful career unrelated to garments, her sewing machine got packed away and somewhere in early 2000s most of our clothing became anonymous fast fashion. We still maintain relationship with one magic worker – Elita (superpower: saving garments!). Elita does made-to-order sewing from scratch for her loyal customers and then some side gigs for “new designers” unable to make their own designs, but I wear out her patience by bringing my worn-out-but-beloved garments and hoping that she will be able to save the disintegrating fast fashion piece just one more time. An usually she can. Forget Hermione Granger, this is the real magic!

This was Ginta’s submission for a Burda sewing contest ~1991. Both of us are fully clad in garments made by her.

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The most recent additions to this data base of talent are my friend Liisa who is responsible for both accompanying me during my first steps at the sewing machine and is the author of almost half of my knickers. Another one is the Argentinian lady at my closest fix-and-mend chain shop. She is ready to tell you her whole life, appreciates extravagance, and her smallest granddaughter now wears Marina’s ear headband. I don’t know her name yet but I have a feeling that it won’t take long.

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What are the garment stories in your family? Do you know any people involved in the formal or the informal garment markets? What do they say about their work and the industry as such?

How expensive is an ethical wardrobe? 2017 first half money talk

My priciest fashion investments of last 6 months: Veja Arcade sneakers, Muroexe Materia boots and 3 pairs of Bonne Maison knee-socks.

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Ethical fashion is expensive. Boom! OK, let’s calibrate that a little bit: newly bought ethical fashion tends to be more expensive than the ridiculously underpriced fast fashion + there are distortions at both ends of the spectrum. On the low side, depending on geography, local artisans might be able to make things for you even cheaper, as you won’t pay the overheads of running a big international conglomerate. On the high end, while couture fashion is mostly Europe-centered and artisan-made stuff (you know that if you follow Emma Watson’s phenomenal success at bringing awareness to ethical fashion via red carpet) that occupies a very slight fraction of the market, the following steps down the fashion ladder (high- and very-high-end prêt-à-porter) tend to care more about brand names and “trends” (whatever that is) than supply chains and labor conditions.

Ethical fashion at the moment is a marginal market where brand-names matter less, yet certainly has its own stars and starlets. And prices. In a world where a beautiful LBD easily costs over 200$ and a discounted winter coat goes over 300$, a suggestion that everybody should pledge to ethical fashion seems very elitist. Ethical fashion activists can run their moth dry about the distorted garment market, investment pieces, buying better and cost-per-wear (me on that, Hannah Theisen from Life + Style + Justice on that), but that doesn’t change the value of a euro.

Apart from just enumerating my wardrobe strategies, I’ve decided to disclose numbers. I have spreadsheets, you know. We are 6 full months into 2017, so I have these data and all the 2016 spending on clothing myself to compare and analyze. Ta-dah! All prices are in euros, the inflation hasn’t been serious, so the values are comparable:

First of all: A lot of money thrown at garments! 2017 is being expensive. I console myself with the clear usefulness of the items and the 2015 data. I don’t have a precise list of what exactly I bought in 2015, but I have the totals: 337.03€ in January-June and 268.13€ in July-December. Apparently, I’ve been in a similar spending situation before…

I won’t do an exhaustive run through all the purchases but here are my thoughts on the overall pattern and several caveats on how my wardrobe is very privileged:

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Observation 1: I comply with my ideal consumption pattern. Going with my ladder of preference, I’m actively using up and obtaining pre-loved items for free. This implies that the purchases – when made – are well researched, ethical (there are still some material and supply chain issues there, I know!) and rather pricey.

Observation 2: Things wear out. I did a great job in spacing my purchases and spending money on apparel every second month in 2016, but that just hasn’t been possible in 2017 (nor in 2015). My explanation is the life cycles of garments: I shred my sneakers mercilessly, tights break and underwear wears out. I’ll be able to confirm this hypothesis by the end of 2018.

Observation 3: I don’t buy second-hand, it usually comes for free. I have two major sources: my mom and swaps. That’s why I’ve made only two second-hand purchases in last 18 months!

Observation 4: I need better underwear (bras! have you ever seen an ethical sturdy underwire bra instead of all those whimsical bralettes?) and, especially, hosiery sources. I’m fine with their “made in” tags, but materials and supply chains are rather dubious. Will look into it!

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Caveat 1: My repair costs are externalized. There should be around 100€ per year in repair costs that so far my mom has been covering. Our seamstress is in Riga, we usually go together, the whole money relationship is a bit weird when I’m in Riga. I’m thinking about this… + there is the occasional gift from her!

Caveat 2: My hand-me-downs are exceptional! They come from my mom and swaps, and they come in heaps! I have been very picky lately, overcoming the scarcity mindset and planning what to look for… I buy all the auxiliaries – underwear, hosiery, footwear, weather gear – but the last serious one seems to have been the ¡No pasarán! tshirt from Red Federica Montseny crowdfunding… in 2015.

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What will July-December bring? Hopefully, less expenses in this segment of my spending. But also SiiL knickers and – finally! – a pair of vegan Birkenstocks if the gods of stocks/sizes will stand by me (after 3 years of intensive wear, the Crocs sandals broke down beyond repair). I’ll tell you in December.

#30wears and 18 months of counting

Only 5 items have passed a 75 wear threshold in last 18 months: the gray cardigan (80 wears), Hummel jacket (79) and all three pairs of Veja Taua model I’ve owned (92, 154 & 101).

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I sneered at #30wears when I first read about Livia Firth’s initiative. Hah, where’s the merit in that? 30 miserable wears! I do more in few months, let alone throughout the lifetime of a garment… and then I went through my spreadsheets and summed all the wears. You win, Livia!

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#30wears is (yeah, another one!) ethical fashion initiative, in this case reminding that the simplest, cheapest and greenest way to make our wardrobes more ethical is to wear what we already own for as many times as we can. Basic, right? The number is rather arbitrary, but makes an intuitive sense of being a significant number of wears… and less scary than the magic 50 or 100.

It might be the imprint of a (post)Soviet scarcity mentality when hoarding made all the sense in the world, but I find absurd having something just for one wear. In my head that’s some kind of perverse consumption failure. And, no, I haven’t owned an evening gown or a wedding dress. No, I don’t do much red carpet, so repeating outfits is OK. Also, nobody notices what I’m wearing.

Intrigued by a new quantitative threshold (mine is 10 wears per season), the spreadsheet lover in me brought together the numbers for last 18 months. I’ve been counting them for this long, so that’s the available time horizon.

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I went through my numbers, and I am not impressed. They range from 0 (May swap finds waiting October) to 154 (Veja Taua Bahia), and have clear patterns. So these are the lessons learned if you want to wear your items more (and get better cost-per-wear, too!):

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It’s a numbers game. The least items you have, the more likely you are to wear each item. Obvious, yes, but I had an already heavily reduced wardrobe during this period, and less than a third of the garments I’ve worn have reached the magic 30.
Step 1: Reduce the total number of items in your wardrobe!

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This one follows the previous: the longer you have something, the more opportunities it has to be worn. There is a trick there, though. First, some exceptional items – special occasion garments, family vintage, sentimental stuff – work against this rule. If you are keeping something for its sentimental value, admit it and treat it differently. But only after really inquiring with your heart and all the family ghosts. The other mental hurdle is the well known “I’ll wear it someday”. Na-ah, if you are not wearing it now or waiting eagerly for seasons to change so that you could wear it, let it go.
Step 2: Keep only those items that you wear! If even a #30wears challenge can’t make you wear it, find another home for that party dress you wore once.

The same denim jacket from 2003 till 2017. 45 wears in last 18 months, but a scary unknown number since our paths crossed in 2003.

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Very few tears and unravellings are unmendable. Time is your ally in upping the number of wears, and so is mending as it will keep your favorites with you. If you have a “fix” pile that just silently dies in some bag for months, do yourself a favor and get rid of it!
Step 3: Find a seamstress you trust and can afford (or do it yourself if you have those kind of fingers!), and get your stuff fixed.

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Seasonality! Contingent on your location, but throughout-the-year versatility really pushes up the number of wears. Think jeans. Think t-shirts with and without layers. In my case, think necklaces.
Step 4: Depending on your climate, think about ways how you could carry the same garment throughout (most of) the year!

The same Dana Zēberga necklace in February, March, May and June.

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Function, function, function! If you have only one thing for one use and you need it often, you have a winner! I have one winter hat – a hand-me-down from C – and that’s easy, I have six winter scarves and struggle with indecision. And they are all heirlooms, too. Harsh weather garments – bikinis and winter coats – can fall into this category if you manage stick to having only one. ONE IS ALL YOU NEED HERE! (Underwear and hosiery are clearly exceptions to this and the next rule.)
Step 5: Question the function of each garment! Try to bring it down to one per function.

And this is only a half of the scarf-situation.

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Duplicates are bullshit. I’ve done several attempts at this in my life and it has always been a massive fail. Even when two not identical garments have exactly the same function, they are not helping anybody, unless your lifestyle requires it (think uniforms!). There is clearly one item too many between my two pairs of informal short shorts (going at 30 and 13 wears so far).
Step 6: Rethink your duplicates! Chances are that you prefer one to other, so keep your favorite.

My problem here is that the patterned ones are much more comfy but even I’m not ready for this kind of pattern clash. Ugh!

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Verdict: Wear counting is a fun thing to do! It opens your eyes to the very short life of our garments and to how rarely we actually wear stuff. A thought experiment: a garment you machine wash after every use (keep in mind that very few garments need this!) and wear seasonally could get around 25 wears per year (52/2) while a garment worn year-round on every third day = 365/3.
However, counting and the slows progress of numbers will drive you crazy if you start with a very ample wardrobe. My suggestion is a Marie Kondo purge of everything not fitting (the body or the lifestyle) or sparking joy, followed by counting. Spreadsheets don’t lie but they need room to do their magic!

Heirlooms in the age of fast fashion: Do they still make any?

I’ll be talking about family stuff, so here you have photos from the time my mom was participating in a sewing contest of Burda Moden; it’s very early 1990s and I’m the small person there. I definitely had the most stylish mom. Look at those earrings!

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Most of my garments won’t last. Many of them are poor quality fast fashion that I still pick up as hand-me-downs and swaps. And, due to my excel-driven wardrobe pruning decisions (i.e. unwillingly worn items have to go), my most loved items are worn to shreds and then some. Yes, my seamstress is used to me bringing in worn out jersey garments and pleading for a fix! Also, I’m not very careful with my stuff in general. Fragile and delicate is not really my cup of tea.

An unintended consequence that emerges from this combination of cheap, mass produced and low quality clothing and me cultivating a “here and now” wardrobe approach is lack of heirlooms. I use the notion of “heirloom” in a rather lax manner here, we don’t have much jewelry to pass. But apparently not much quality vintage either. A change in criteria in family hasn’t helped. Unless somebody is hiding stuff (I suspect that my aunt is!), the most interesting garments were cleaned out from family closets some 15 years ago when it became clear that the Soviet (and Post-soviet) need of saving things for a rainy day is gone forever. I did wear some of my grandma’s half-slips as skirt for a while (hey! it was 2003, teen magazines told me it was OK) but that was pretty much it.

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I’m currently holding on to few items of family vintage, mostly accessories. Those seem to adjust better to the passing of time and wear out less:

Grandpa’s ducky tie and rainbow cufflinks. I stole several grandpa’s ties when I was in my teens (and wore them! before Avrile Lavigne did), this is the only one left due to it’s novelty print. The rest of them were geometrical 70s stuff in dirty colors. I know nothing about the history of these accessories but keep fantasizing about the perfect white shirt and full skirt to wear them with. Some day…

The Justina wristwatch, from the other side of the little family I’ve built with C. Having understood the use of a watch during travel and meetings, in 2012 I wanted a wristwatch. It just happened that C was going though his old stuff in his childhood bedroom and showing me an array of wristwatches he had worn. So I got one to wear and take care of, one that he wore before his first communion, more than 20 years ago. Justina is a bit capricious (loves the touch of a watchmaker!) but feels just right.

Grandma’s winter scarves. Again, I snatched these some 15 years ago and wore as scarves throughout the Latvian winters of my teenage years. Even though I’ve been wearing other highly valued scarves lately (see below), these are back in Riga waiting for their renaissance.

The blue embroidered peasant blouse. I know that a colleague of my grandma made this for my mother and her sister. I don’t know which one of them wore it mostly and when. It’s a puffy and very cute garment, though shows sweat and adds a lot of volume to shoulders. Last week for the first time I started doubting about holding on to it. But then I wore it and this little blouse is one of those garments that feels better than it looks. It stays in the drawer!

The beaded bag. It is a set of three bags, one big and two small ones. As made for a mother with two daughters, my grandma and her two girls. I “inherited” one of the small ones (see the 1991 pic) and my cousin had the other one (I hope she still has it!)… until I somehow got my hands onto the big one. It’s heavily worn, and velvet + glued-on plastic beads are not the most lasting materials. This is the real vintage and is not going anywhere.

My mom’s blue dress. She made it herself. It was a maxi then, moved so magically and smelled of her. This is my first summer with it, and it feels magical to wear it.

Red wooden beads. I played with them as a child, making necklaces and taking them apart again (and letting somebody else to pick up all those that fell on the floor).

Silver Namēja wristband. This is the real heirloom from my mom.

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And then there are things that are not strictly heirlooms yet but I can see the potential:

Two relatively recent additions to my winter scarf collection are these wool wonders, a Pavlovo Posad shawl and a Cien Colores shawl. My favorite trivia question that everybody fails is asking people to guess where the Cien Colores comes from. Nobody suggests Cáceres, ever. Russians have been very successful in co-opting these kind of patterns in the popular imagination of Europeans.

The weirdest earrings capsule: chocolates and post-modern Lenin (see photo above) are creations of Latvian artists and gifts from my aunt. The virgin earrings – somebody told that that’s the typical depiction of Our Lady of Lourdes – are almost as funny as the Lenin earrings. I found them in a run-down mall of Fuerteventura in January 2008. In a normal accessory store, not one specializing in Catholic paraphernalia. I had newly pierced ears, and found the design + circumstances so ironic that I had to have them. A great conversation starter in inland Spain, too. It still puzzles me that somebody would wear such thing seriously.

The other necklace was a gift from my kindergarten friend Jēkabs when we were still in the kindergarten. He also had a very stylish mom and we were below 7, so I assume that I have to thank her for this very cool piece.

Wooden jewelry from Dana Zēberga, the sad bear earrings (above) and the “Russian” set. I love the “Russian” set very much and hope to keep it forever. Unless I lose it, my chances are good. I’ve had it for three or so years now, and no signs of wearing out.

Swedish army field jacket. Bought second-hand in a military/fishing shop in Riga in summer 2003 preparing for a military-themed summer camp (weird, I know! I did two of these at the ripe ages of 15 and 16, go figure). When I brought it home, together with matching pants and army boots, my haul smelled so bad that my grandma ordered a shortcut from doorstep to washing machine. Those pants and boots have long since disappeared from my wardrobe, but this jacket is probably the most robust garment I have.

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Throughout this post I kept thinking about what makes things potential heirlooms. They have to be unique or at least rare. They have to be aesthetically appealing. The have to be somewhat sturdy and time-resistant.

It’s weird, but I don’t think that my most exuberant adornments – my headbands – will survive for long enough. I’m down to three and… they just don’t feel special enough, despite being carefully crafted by ban.do girls (before they switched to whatever bs it is they are doing now) and Kaley from Little Honey Pies (also before the permanent vacation mood).
The wooden beads I used to play with 25 years ago and my grandpa’s ducky tie will last longer. That’s called selection bias.