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Book & Sewing Thoughts: Reflecting on ‘Overdressed’

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Overdressed the BookThis is not a fun, craft book review with a project at the end. “Overdressed – The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion”*(affiliate link) by Elizabeth Cline is sobering. It takes a look at the ‘fast fashion’ retail industry, how peoples’ clothing buying and wearing habits have changed over the years, and the environmental impact of both realities.  Cline does focus at the end on “solutions”, talking about buying from independent designers, purchasing secondhand, and learning how to sew and mend your own clothes.

I feel like I’ve picked up on a few waves of self-congratulation on blogs, message boards, and Facebook groups that imply by sewing or upcycling your clothes, you’re opting out of that whole  low-pay, corporate profit, environment killing cycle that H&M and Forever 21 thrive on. But is it that simple? I have reservations.

So, read on if you want to know more about what surprised me from the book and why I think I don’t get a free pass just because I’ve mostly cut out my casual shopping habit. If you’re interested in the ties between fashion and environmental issues, Cline tweets great links @elizabethlcline and Ecouterre has a great newsletter.

{This post contains affiliate links, indicated by an asterisk*. Please refer to ‘legal stuff’ in the top menu for more info.}

Changes in Clothes Habits

 

Cline highlights an overarching change that is obvious: people have way, way more articles of clothing than they did a few decades ago.  Americans buy an average of 64 pieces of clothes a year, a little more than one piece a week (pg. 5) Compare that to “By one account, in 1929 the average middle-class man owned six work outfits and the average middle-class woman nine” (pg. 21). Retailers have moved away from a seasonal fashion cycle in an effort to bring shoppers in regularly and change shopping from a task into a hobby.

Previously people had few enough clothes that they were mended and worn out; Cline quotes several young women who explicitly expect to only wear something once or twice, and consider clothing as a disposable item. “Only 15 percent of textile waste is currently being recovered for reuse or recycling, and the rest is going into landfills” (pg. 229). I found this statistic seriously startling: every year Americans throw away 12.7 million tons, or 68 pounds of textiles per person EPA (pg. 122).

Part of the problem is that clothes are getting cheaper and cheaper even as housing, food, and living costs all rise. This is reflected in the fact that 2% of the clothes we buy are American made, compared to 50% in 1990 (pg 5). Recent garment district deaths in Bangladesh sparked discussion about how clothes are being produced (refresh your memory on the tragedy here) but I certainly haven’t read any articles about a dramatic shift in buying habits. This article cites increased profits, and points to the irregularities in some of the changes that were championed by retailers and signed agreements with Bangladesh factor owners.

Reflecting on my own history and habits, I used to love shopping clearance racks and thrift stores. I had myself convinced that I needed to buy every pair of jeans that was $10, because otherwise I might end up having to pay full-price when I ran out. That logic was clearly flawed, because I ended up with a closet full of clothes and never actually ran out of anything since I kept cycling other “good deals” in. I do appreciate that my parents gave me a clothing budget and I never developed an attraction to “name brands” or super trendy clothes, but despite spending less money for more clothes I still had way too much.

Slowly, I became more conscious of the people who were making those clearance rack clothes, I moved away from shopping as a hobby. But it wasn’t until I got pregnant and faced with buying or making a whole new wardrobe that I actually put conscious thought into my style, what I actually wear/wore, and put out a concerted effort to only purchase second-hand. When I finally fit back into my pre-pregnancy clothes, I was totally take aback at how many articles of clothing I had! How many I couldn’t remember ever wearing. How many I was keeping because they’d been a great deal, despite not actually loving them. Some of them were things I’d sewn, like the Parisian top (I don’t ever wear floral prints, let alone cutesy collars) and this Modkid top (I love the prints, but my ‘fix’ on the sleeves bugged me).

But What If I Donate to Goodwill/Salvation Army/Etc.?

Every once in a while, when I mention finding something at Goodwill, my Mom will make a comment about how I’m taking good clothes out of the hands who actually need them. This sentiment is echoed in the book: “Most Americans are thoroughly convinced there is another person in their direct vicinity who truly needs and wants all of our unwanted clothes. This couldn’t be further from the truth” (pg. 127). Cline talks about visiting her local Salvation Army, which creates 36 bales (18 tons) of unwanted clothes every three days. Those clothes are then resold overseas to be worn or cut up and used as rags, something that seems to be troublesome for some donors. I found it fascinating that Africans are now going through a similar evolution, and seeing some of their traditional culture and dress disappear as their markets are flooded with American clothes, as this article explores.

Don’t get me wrong, I would much rather have someone donate their clothes instead of throwing them out. But the reality is, thrift stores receive way more clothes than they could ever hope to sell. I have posted about Goodwill outlet before – I know there’s an entire group of people who work full-time picking and reselling things from Goodwill and Goodwill outlets. Even with dozens of people picking through for the best things and regular shoppers, the racks are always full. Thinking in your head that “you’ll just donate it” if it doesn’t fit/look right/etc. once you buy something is a much more convoluted reality than taking a tax write-off and picturing an underprivileged neighbor down the street joyfully wearing your castoff.

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Is Sewing The Better Way?

So, what’s a conscientious citizen to do? Cline focuses on two solutions, (and alludes to an obvious third throughout: use/wear/buy less, period) in that everyone could and should either 1. shop retailers who ethically source and make their products and/or 2. learn how to make their own clothes. #1 is a no-brainer if you can afford it. Which is a loaded statement – most people have developed a very low price-point of what clothes “should” cost but if they stopped buying 10 different $20 sweaters that won’t last past a year, they could buy 1 locally made, quality one. However, I 100% acknowledge that there are tons of people living below the poverty line or as working poor who simply do not have the liquid funds to save up for larger purchases like that, nor should they. She has a list of 10 action ideas on her blog that I think are relatable and accessible.

Which brings us to #2. I have long been drawn to the idea of remaking something old into something new, as evidenced by my Mom-assisted first upcycle. Cline says “If more of us picked up the lost art of sewing or reconnected with the seamstresses and tailors in our communities, we could all be our own fashion designers and constantly reinvent, personalize, and perfect the things we own.” (pg. 9). I am thrilled when a friend or family member drops by with a bag of discards that I can dig through and reimagine. But when is enough enough? A blog that people frequently suggest to me is New Dress a Day. Can you imagine having 365 dresses in your closet? Or more? I don’t mean this as a slight on the blogger, and I’m not a regular reader so maybe she’s addressed this, it just again seems like a different (less toxic, more inspiring, less wasteful) version of the ‘more is more’ mentality that fast fashion is pushing.

When I was making my monthly blog goals, I had 1 tutorial, 1 book review, 1 round-up style post, and 1 refashion. But this month, I haven’t found anything I feel like refashioning. Is that a creative challenge? Or should I not shop just to shop? I’m not sure.

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Sewing your own clothes from fresh fabric is a completely different ball game. You’re ultimately in control, of the finishes, the materials, the fit. Cline includes this quote in the book that I find confusing: “Sewing your own clothes can be very inexpensive. The cost depends on the quality of the fabric and the complexity of the garment. … (Refashionista.com, Sarah Beaumont) She usually chooses fabrics that are less than $10 a yard…”(pg. 199). Choosing fabric that is less than $10 a yard typically means a very low thread count or polyester blend. Which is exactly one of the issues brought up with ready to wear clothes. I’ve told you I sew with sheets, and they’ve worn well over the past 1+ years, and perhaps they’d wear better than a store-bought garment made from similar material. But it seems at odds with the rest of the book to advocate buying cheap fabric, and I think it’s disingenuous to promote sewing as “very inexpensive” when it has implicit start-up costs for any beginner that will seem anything but, unless they happen to have a friend or family member who can loan them things as they go.

People also love to show off their fabric stashes, with yards and yards of fabric piled high. Is that any different from racks and racks of clothes? A point made in the book that I’d never thought about was that 40 years ago, most store-bought clothes were finished with a blind hem and french seams. Serged seams can no longer be let out and everything has a straight hem, which looks much worse when let out. (pg 82).

I do like that she points out that each fabric has its own production carbon footprint – sheep farming for wool can cause water pollution and soil erosion, leather tanning involves toxic heavy metals, man-made fibers emit greenhouse gasses, and cotton in the US demands 22 billion pounds of weed-killer. (pg 125). Bottom line is, I have no CLUE where my fabrics are produced, who made them, how those workers were treated. I’ve never seen any mention of the fabric production industry, but I can’t imagine that it’s some glowing beacon of fair-trade and wealth when the bulk of fabrics are produced overseas, next door (I’m guessing) to the same factories making fast fashion. Even if they are printed in the U.S., are the substrates themselves woven or produced here too? I don’t have these answers, and if I’m being frank I’ve never tried to find them. So how is that better than buying off the rack?

I whole-heartedly agree with another statement in the book in that “Sewing gives back a feeling of agency and self-sufficiency” (pg. 199). I love being able to opt out of the ‘girls = ruffles & glitter / blue = camo & dinosaurs’ dichotomy that most retail stores uphold (one of my favorites was a plain, grey t-shirt that had a sticker on it declaring it was “BOYS”. Phew. Thank goodness for that clarification). I still enjoy refashioning, when inspiration fits. I obviously love sewing, I love sharing about sewing, I love encouraging other people to sew. BUT I think all of these issues are important to think about, even if you (and I) are sewing your own clothes.

If you sew, I also want to make mention of scraps. I cringe every time I see someone posting about throwing away scraps. 100% cotton can be composted! People regularly have picked up my scraps off Freecycle or Craigslist, using them to make doll clothes, quilts, or practice sewing. I love scrapbusting projects like applique, but if that’s not your thing you can chop them up and use them as stuffing for pillow, softies, or poufs.

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Is Buying Used & Sewing The New Normal? Trend?

I’ve read a few mentions of a sewing resurgence – a local shop opened recently with a younger, ‘cooler’ aesthetic and vibe so I’m curious to see how they fare. Recently, actress Melissa McCarthy wore a dress she sewed herself “from things in her closet” to the Golden Globes. Awareness about fast fashion seems to be growing too. In a People article, actress Shailene Woodley shared that she only shops second-hand outside the red carpet, but actress Perrey Reeves does her one better and recycled her own dress from 20 years ago.

I hope it’s a trend! I know H&M specifically has tried to take steps to  the sustainability of their process and clothes, but I feel under-qualified to evaluate if it’s “legitimate” or just a publicity stunt (but maybe better than nothing?). I can’t speak for other bloggers but I have read a few interesting posts recently that tie in to everything I’ve mused on in this post:

 

 

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What Do You Think?

So, this is a really long post that basically asks more questions. Are these issues on your mind too?

This book has made me think harder about defining my style, buying fabric that I truly love and not just because it’s a “good deal”, being more thoughtful about construction details that will make something last longer, even if the pattern doesn’t mention it (like clear elastic reinforced seams), and continuing to use upcycled clothes as my first source for fabrics when an option. It’s also strengthened my resolve to avoid shopping as a hobby and buy secondhand or make it myself when possible (I draw the line at nursing bras, I’m not interested in investing the time and money to make my own).

If you’ve forgotten, the book I’m referencing and what sparked this novel of a post is “Overdressed“* and I think you should read it! The Internet and news cycle constantly feeds us more things to worry about, and I completely understand that everyone has their own ranking system. I’d love to know what you think though.

Here are some other blog posts on the book, on sewing blogs:

 

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Serena

Saturday 10th of March 2018

Hi, there! I was surfing the web and found your blog and just started reading. I know I'm coming here well after you've posted, but I felt compelled to comment on this most important subject.

First off, I have never been a big fan of shopping, as I was brought up by immigrant parents whose mantra was to always save, save, save. My mom made our clothes to save money until we were in middle/high school. We always saved containers to reuse. My mom and grandmother would even take scrap paper and turn them into journals for us to use when working out math problems in our homework. My parents really instilled in me that money was not something you just "tossed away" without thinking, even if you could afford it, so the need to save has stayed with me my entire life. Given this, my challenge has never been so much about buying things for the sake of acquiring more. It's been more about questioning the human toll it takes to bring that cheap piece of clothing - or any other good - to my local discount/dollar store. I've had to relearn to be more conscientious about buying cheap just to save money and learn to ask what are the unseen and long-term costs of buying cheap? I don't see the working conditions of the laborers who make these items, nor do I see how they live. People like to argue that were it not for companies and manufacturers, these people would not have any jobs or money. But what they (conveniently) fail to realize is that these manufacturers are preying on the desperation of people who have very few options in their lives, and are not providing jobs out of the goodness of their hearts. When faced with poverty and few choices, anything looks good, but is this the humane way to "help" people, by hiring them to work in unsafe conditions and environments, just to increase your bottom line?

It's funny when I look at American culture and society, how we've been brainwashed into thinking that more and bigger is better. The question should be "for whom"? We are such a consumer-driven society, that only in America have we turned shopping into a hobby. The act of acquiring "new" things, even if we are shopping secondhand, is so ingrained into our lifestyle, that one needs to start questioning what are we trying to accomplish with this need to constantly acquire more things? It all brings up some deep-seated issues about our spiritual values, that we need to fill some void within us by consuming and acquiring. Shopping has become just another salve we use to put a bandage over our problems. At the end of the day, it has created its own set of problems instead of helping us solve ours.

The book and your post really show what a challenge it is to try to be ethical and responsible in our choices in a consumerist society. Everywhere we turn we see the negative domino effect of our consuming ways and companies' insatiable need to turn ever greater profits. We need to really start living by the mantra, "live simply so that others may simply live."

Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

Stephanie - Swoodson Says

Tuesday 13th of March 2018

Glad you enjoyed reading it, and thanks for sharing your thoughts! It is truly a challenge - and I certainly don't hold myself up as an example of how to do it, moreso just trying to ask questions and challenge myself:)

abby @ thingsforboys

Tuesday 3rd of March 2015

I read the book a while ago and it is very much food for thought. I've always wondered about the conditions of the workers in textile factories and I assume it's just as bad as the sweat shops. I try not to buy fabric unless I have a planned and immediate use for it. I use stash fabrics or upcycle when I can. Not to try and be better than anyone else, but I think in general there is so much waste in life that I try to minimise it. I do wonder a lot about what the world will be like for my boys in 50 years and I think that motivates me a lot. I still find it hard to pass up bargains, but I do think hard about whether I actually like/need/will wear them.

Shelly

Sunday 1st of March 2015

Great article. I have been thinking about this for awhile. ilI've been trying to decrease my stash and upcycle quite a bit more. Additionally i have been trying not to over make for my kids or the sake of blogging. Awhile back I read a book on the high price of luxury items such as Chanel and hiw these items are no longer handcrafted but simply mass produced. It was an interesting read and related to the book you reviewed. Thanks for bringing this up, I hope it will continue to be a subject more and more people are aware of.

Stephanie - Swoodson Says

Sunday 1st of March 2015

Not over-making for the sake of blogging is a great point - although I haven't run into that with my son because he grows so fast! I also tend to make a lot of the same pattern, upcycled, so it never even makes it to the blog. Thanks for reading & commenting Shelly!

Mariana

Friday 27th of February 2015

Thank you so much for sharing this information. My focus during my last year of college was ethical and sustainable fashion. It's so important to get the word out and educate Americans on where their clothes come from. If you would like I can send you some links for more information and also ethical companies that are doing it right (I would explain this further via email), versus the ever popular band-aid companies. There is no excuse in today's world for the modern day slavery to exist.

Stephanie - Swoodson Says

Friday 27th of February 2015

Hey Mariana! Thanks for reading & responding. I'd love to hear what else to say, feel free to email at swoodsonsays @ gmail dot com (or hit reply to this email notification).

Jennifer Lachman

Thursday 26th of February 2015

Great review and points. For the longest time I drove my family crazy with the giant stash of fabric I thought I needed in order to be ethical and sustainable. Looking back it's strange how that made sense at the time. I've whittled down the stash quite a bit and am proud to say I've only bought two yards of fabric in the past year. I've also stopped blogging about sewing temporarily because I find that I am more likely to sew things I don't need just so I have something to post about. I avoid most of the quick and easy sewing projects these days and pick ones that will help improve my skills. I focus more on getting a perfect fit and less on trying to appeal to a large group of readers. One day I will start blogging about sewing again, but first I have to find my own groove.

I love what you mentioned about the capsule wardrobe. I've followed a couple of blog series on it and there was something that always bothered me. You helped me identify it. You have to break your addiction to acquiring before you can even think about taking on a project like creating a capsule wardrobe. I can see myself "needing" a new capsule wardrobe every season if I'm not careful. That's something I'm still working on.

Stephanie - Swoodson Says

Friday 27th of February 2015

Hi Jennifer! Thanks so much for the thoughtful response. I completely agree that blogging can create a 'need' to sew that might not otherwise exist.. that's where the line gets blurry for me though. I like trying new things - it is very much a hobby - but obviously don't need everything I make. But I'm not sure I'm willing to change that quite yet, or ever. I admire the pursuit of a perfect fit though! Glad I'm not the only one who feels that way about a 'capsule wardrobe' - I'm looking forward to filtering through my stuff again once I"m back out of maternity clothes for the last time in a few months.

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