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sustainable fashion books of the Kate Fletcher circle (1, 2, and especially 3) which – while much more prone to being out of date as fashion industry practices are a moving target, especially when it comes to sustainability claims and attempts in last ten years or so – give a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?

The reading matter: part 2 – Save and sustain

The first part = The reading matter: part 1 – Art and inspo

My information diet is almost as lean as my closet: I have unfollowed everybody except my mother, my partner and some pages on Facebook, I don’t read press, I don’t use Twitter as a source of reading matter… I watch a Spanish late-night comedy show to keep up with the local news, Stephen Colbert to keep up with the American news and have my feeds to keep me warm. C did a search for a new RSS feed organizer when Google killed it’s Reader and found Feedly. It’s not perfect (very few things are, ugh), but does its job of bringing my news to me instead of me having to go after them. I really don’t get the ‘check my latest post’ logic on Instagram – if I like your content, I already have it in my reader, thank you very much!

So I’ll show you my reading lists… only the fashion and sustainability related folders, though, if you want recommendations for recipe blogs, illustrated sex toy reviews or my favorite academic journals, just ask.

Folder 2: Save + sustain
Eco-fashion, zero waste, financial independence, etc…

I’ve postponed this post for a long time due descriptions I wanted to write, as done is better than perfect, here you have them in descriptive categories.

Sustainability in general:

Ethical and green living with Lucy Siegle

Sustainable America

Fashion as Business:

The Fashion Law

Sustainable fashion / Fashion as Business:

Elizabeth Suzann

Sustainable fashion / Garment Stories:

Patagonia’s Worn Wear

Sustainable fashion / Conscious Dressing:

Kate Fletcher

Style Bee

Un-Fancy

Good on You

Sustainable fashion / Conscious Dressing / Minimalism:

Anuschka Rees

To Universe, With Love

Sewing / Upcycling:

Refashionista

Zero Waste:

Zero Waste Home

Paris to Go

Wasteland Rebel

Zero Waste / Whole Foods Plants Based:

Mama Eats Plants

Plastic Free:

(In Spanish) Vivir sin plástico

Zero Waste / Minimalism:

(In Latvian) Seek the Simple

Tidying:

(In Spanish) Orden y Limpieza en Casa

Spark Joy Podcast

Financial Independence:

J.L. Collins

Mr. Money Mustache

Miscellaneous:

Bonzai Aphrodite

Madame Manumus

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What are your favorite feeds for sustainability inspiration? Is there anyone out there in the blogosphere that changed your life? Bea Johnson of Zero Waste Home is often the answer to this one, i know. Whom am I missing in my list? Suggestions are more than welcome!

The reading matter: part 1 – Art and inspo

The second part = The reading matter: part 2 – Save and sustain

My information diet is almost as lean as my closet: I have unfollowed everybody except my mother, my partner and some pages on Facebook, I don’t read press, I don’t use Twitter as a source of reading matter… I watch a Spanish late-night comedy show to keep up with the local news, Stephen Colbert to keep up with the American news and have my feeds to keep me warm. C did a search for a new RSS feed organizer when Google killed it’s Reader and found Feedly. It’s not perfect (very few things are, ugh), but does its job of bringing my news to me instead of me having to go after them. I really don’t get the ‘check my latest post’ logic on Instagram – if I like your content, I already have it in my reader, thank you very much!

So I’ll show you my reading lists… only the fashion and sustainability related folders, though, if you want recommendations for recipe blogs, illustrated sex toy reviews or my favorite academic journals, just ask. Keep in mind that while I might be critical (see the ‘nothing’s perfect’ note above), this is the content I enjoy.

Folder 1 – Art + inspo:
These are the pretty picture blogs that don’t care about sustainability or minimalism.
Also, a lot of illustration.

A Clothes Horse: breathtaking photography, orange hair, great style. I think I re-pin Rebecca’s photos the most. While she is neither into sustainability nor minimalism and a lot of content is sponsored, this is real style inspo for me.

A Curious Fancy: Indian, plus size, into all things cute. Think lace tights, thoughtful accessorizing, and very nice photography + an occasional essay on bodies, like this one.

A Robot Heart: Polish, sews some garments, occasional post-soviet anthropological references. Lately a lot of sponsored content, but time by time a styling gem like this session appears there.

African Prints in Fashion: I really tried to find some African fashion blogs with an aesthetic that resonated with me after I came back from Cape Town in late 2017 (oh, the amount of ’10 African fashion bloggers that are slaying it’ articles with broken links that I went through). This is one of the few satisfactory ones I found.

All You Need is a Wall: illustrations by Alexandra Dvornikova. If Clarissa Pinkola Estés would have been born Russian and more recently, this is what she’d be doing.

Edits All the Way: the classiest moodboards on Tumblr.

Cupcake’s Clothes (defunct): I’m so sad Georgina stopped curating her blog! It was the perfect over-the-top sweet plus size hybrid. And when C thought that the cat ear headband was too much, I threatened him with getting one of Georgina’s antler creations from her Etsy shop.

Gemma Correll’s illustrations on her Blogspot, Tumblr and Facebook page. She is great, dedicated to feminism, introverts and animals, so I find her merch so hard to resist.

Annya Marttinen’s Tumblr – her work is a lighter, more childish version of Dvornikova’s ‘she lives in a dark forest and runs with the wolves‘ vibe.

Taryn Knight’s work: What can I do, I love me some nice drawings… and hers are excellent.

Johanna Öst’s art and occasional dark pin-up outfit – Oh, when people live their art!

Kate Tokley’s blog: I came across this via #FashRev, I think. She crochets, she deals with anxiety, tries out capsule wardrobes. It resonates, I don’t know why.

Pauline aka Punziella who went viral with her casual Disney princesses. So much talent, so cute!

Madison Ross: again, a lot of wild women art I find hard not to buy.

Martha Anne illustrations. Defined borders, clear colors, female characters, and food! What’s not to love?

Miss Pandora: Oh, Louise! Elaborated editorials, background in art history and all that in French only. Rarely truly my aesthetic (too much heels and make-up to start with), but so undeniably cool.

Nancy Zhang: or when fashion blog meets illustration. Move over, Garance, this is the real deal!

Olga Valeska: Her photos, paintings, collages, etc. etc. are so stunning I don’t even care for her religiosity, and that’s rare! Truly breathtaking and makes my 19th century Russian-aesthetics-loving heart rejoice.

Pagnifik: another source of ‘wax hollandais‘ magic.

Serina Kitazono’s illustrations.

Zuzana Èupová’s aka Suwi’s illustrations.

Third local: a Ugandan now in France, urban, mostly pants and very cool. And a side of beautiful photography to go with it.

And just for fun in the same folder also Pusheen and Heart & Brain live.

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What are your favorite feeds for pretty pictures? Whom am I missing in my list? Suggestions more than welcome.

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?