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sustainable fashion books of the Kate Fletcher circle (1, 2, and especially 3) which – while much more prone to being out of date as fashion industry practices are a moving target, especially when it comes to sustainability claims and attempts in last ten years or so – give a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

Share it with a friend!

Luīze

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