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.

May Swap recap

Last Saturday was the highlight of my spring. Our third Clothes’ Swap! It seems preposterous that those events bring me so much joy (more than travel) and meaning (more than the thesis), but that’s how it is. I was doing snack-shopping, cooking, going through check-lists not to forget garbage bags, water filter and lemon slices, packing things and carrying them back and forth… And it felt amazing! It’s a quintuple win of happy organizers, happy un-customers, happy Ateneu, increased supply to Banc Expropriat’s Tienda Gratis and decreased supply to textile charities and landfill. So this will clearly continue, and we’ll see you in September to swap again. Meanwhile, here you have suggestions of how to organize one on your own!

Some of our happy un-customers with their finds.

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On top of my previous observations about our Clothes’ Swaps, here are few additional ones:

1. On abundance. This is not new, but strikes me harder each time. We are drowning in textiles! They just keep coming, and I can’t see the end of this. Not much more to add here… These were the leftovers:

2. On the state of stuff. I did already write about this one after January’s Swap, but it just keeps surprising me. There are stains, holes, piling, shaplesness, wacky seams… Yet the Swaps might be the best option for these damaged garments. My heart breaks every time I see a pile of clothing spread on the sidewalk, usually after somebody has either broken a charity container or explored a bag of garments that somebody else had left by the garbage cans (probably feeling ambivalent about sending them right to the landfill and too ignorant or too lazy to take it to the charity containers). It is such magic (a very black one!) how things turn from “perfectly OK” to “garbage” just by changing location. It was “yours” at home, then “somebody could still wear it” when you deposited it in the orange container, then an actual somebody dived in that container, went through the content, left the unwanted pieces on the sidewalk, and now it’s “yuck, don’t touch the garbage”.

I keep fantasizing about a radical “reclaim the garments” initiative that would pick up all that “garbage” from streets and turn it into “recovered/upcycled textiles”. (For a moment ignoring the fact that, unfortunately, most of those extra thin cotton/elastane mix garments can be downcycled to rags only.) This would require some serious infrastructure for picking them up, sorting, washing and mending (or cutting) but it feels amazing in my imagination. And then accompanying it by a sewing workshop to mend and construct new garments. Oh, well, maybe someday…

3. On doubts. My feeling after three swaps is that the decisions to let go are harder than decisions to incorporate. Makes sense: “mine is mine” feels good and acquisition gives instant gratification. During the swap we actually encourage people to adopt things and bring them back next time if those garments are not working for them (and that has happened).

I have recently developed two strategies to override those mental hang-ups, one to fight the outgoing blues and one to resist the urge to adopt garments. For the bye-bye garments I push myself to admit that if I have doubts about an item that I own, I most probably need to get rid of it. Knowing my strong status-quo bias, it makes sense to assume that the little annoying “no, no, don’t give away the precious” voice in my head is just a mind trick. So I do my best to override that voice by turning it on its head: I have 0 doubts about the real heroes of my wardrobe, hence doubts mean that it’s not a top-of-the-pops garment.

It is hard, though, sometimes. Especially if it’s an old comrade in arms. I have always found it funny that KonMari strategy entails taking each thing in hands. Rather counterproductive… Touch activates the emotional attachment! I got choked when writing the post on my departures for this swap and those garments weren’t even anywhere close. But it all went well on Saturday! I saw 3 of the 6 items I brought finding new wardrobes, and others continue their journeys at Banc Expropriat.

For the incomings, I trust the classic: a shopping list! I have a latent wish list in my wardrobe spreadsheet and I revise that before each swap (and I revise it several times, as you can see at the end of the departures post). My list for this time was as follows:

Sandals
Raincoat
Dark leggings
A simple bodycon dress
Summer jersey Empire dress
A winter layer (a short sweater or caridgan)

Yes, those are very specific but I know the exact feeling and function I am looking for. So here is what I got: a ramie/cotton cardigan from Julie and a jersey mini skirt (exactly the same H&M model I used to have in black between 2011 and 2013). They are not what I was looking for – the hemline of the cardigan is too long (and shortening this design would be stupid) and the skirt is only half of a full bodycon – but they respond to the function I was looking for. So you will see those two a lot starting from October.

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As it is such long time from now till September, we might be able to squeeze another activity in-between. A movie night! How about a chilling documentary on a hot July night? That’s what we are thinking about… We’ll keep you posted!

Get to know your fibers (and stop cutting the tags)

Without any previous planning last week became the fiber week in my little queendom. I finished Sandy Black’s Eco-chic: The Fashion Paradox which is a dated and sometimes confusing book (and for unknown reasons contains too much love for M&S chain), yet it has a little chart on fiber types which sparked my interest. So I spent half-day on Saturday (while watching code run in R) exploring the internets to organize the existing types of textile fibers in my head. And then I found that also Lucy Siegle at Guardian has been thinking about fibers…

I am far from being confident enough about it to make a complete overview, but I suggest these three blog posts at Eco Fashion Sewing to start with: (1) natural fibers, (2) regenerated fibers, and (3) synthetic fibres (those are the basic categories that author uses, Wikipedia does it differently, so go figure). I will share, however, the most fun pop quiz items I learnt and then a brief “get to know your fibers” exercise I did with my spring capsule.

The Wiki classification of fibers

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My current favorite random facts about fibers are the following (it’s internet, though, so I just cross my fingers that this is truth):
Dog hair was the main fiber spun on the Northern American continent before the Spaniards introduced sheep.
– People have been making smooth, silky textiles (for kimonos, for example) from banana fibers for centuries.
– Long time ago somebody diving in Mediterranean saw the long silky filaments secreted by a gland in the foot of pen shells and decided to make textiles out of that. Apparently, with amazing result and great success.

And an extra bonus points for wry humor to Wikipedia for including asbestos cloth as “fire-resistant, light weight, carcinogenic” natural fiber.

My first way of expressing rage to fast fashion while I was still buying it (yeah, cognitive dissonance for the win!) was to cut off all the tags, hence symbolically making the garment anonymous. And size-less which helped with my mild case of body dysmorphia. I know that many other people cut the tags, be it for reasons similar to mine or comfort due to the fact that sometimes tags seem to be strategically made and placed to cause the most discomfort to the wearer. And Black suggests that many producers remove their tags when passing the garments to outlets. So many items that you can obtain pre-loved (or deadstocked) won’t have the tag information.

Or you just wear your things for so long that they lose all the info.

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As I develop more curiosity about the production (and recycling) side of the garments, tags gain importance. I already talked about care information that tags contain, and this week I’m on to fibers. So I gathered my spring capsule and took a look at fibres I’m wearing this season. That was a disheartening (so much synthetics and weird mixes!) but also surprising process. This is what I found:

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Pure synthetics:

No surprises and petroleum-based, but at least these things *could* be fully (and ad infinitum) recycled into similar garments when their life is over.

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Obvious synthetic mixes:

OK, so my stretchy leggings have elastane added to make them stretchy, but still mostly a nicer-feeling material than all-out plastic. 0 surprises. Unrecyclable.

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Unexpected synthetic mixes:

These ones do not have enough elastane to really stretch, so it’s still a mystery to me. My guess is that this additional micro-stretch might help people to get in the garments, yet it is not the case for all of this things. The 1% dress and 3% skirt certainly have no give to them. So I have no idea… Also, unrecyclable.

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A fiber mix I now understand:

So they wanted to make a linen-feeling dress that would crumple less. Viscose to rescue! Both materials are biodegradable on their own, though I’m not sure about the mix… Should be, in principle.

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Random mixes I don’t yet understand:

I really don’t know what’s going on here and why would somebody do this. I’ll let you know if that day comes. Also, “keep away from fire” warnings do not help to inspire confidence in the material

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Pure regenerated/semi-synthetic:

I’m still trying to grasp the eco potential of the regenerated fibers. They seem a bit like Batman Two-Face: the primary source is plant based but then it goes through a whole lot of processing. However, that processing could be less damaging than the conventional cotton industry, so… I’m still reading up on them. What I know for sure is that the touch is very nice, and certainly wins in summer.

The funny part of this exercise came with the little H&M shorts, part of their Conscious Denim line (it’s a hand-me-down, don’t worry!). The *conscious* trick is that it is not denim, at least not in the common “a firm durable twilled usually cotton fabric” way. Hi there, lyocell!

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Pure naturals:

Despite the supposed ubiquity of cotton, there was only one 100% conventional cotton item in my lot. And manufacturers have thought it appropriate to point it out that trimmings are not necessarily cotton. Just to be on the safe side.

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Pure organic naturals:

Yes, from all the heap – and I think that from all the outerwear in general (only my knickers is an exception) – this is the only organic garment. My commitment to adopting pre-loved garments basically precludes buying, and I’m not in social circles where people give away organic cotton items, not yet.

However, the organic credentials of this tshirt on top of the feminist message are due to the creators of the crowdfunding who did the extra research when sourcing their basic tshirts for silkscreening. Thank you so much for that, Red Federica Montseny!