Slow Fashion October: Why I Shop Vintage

This month, I’ve been inspired and challenged by Karen Templer’s #SlowFashionOctober campaign. I’ve loved seeing everyone’s contributions on social media, and hearing the stories behind some beloved, well-cared-for garments. It’s motivated me to spend a little more time on this blog talking about what I do when I don’t knit my clothes, and how I try to shop ethically and conscientiously. Today’s entry topic is vintage: what it is, what’s great about it, and how I wear it.

Besides making them, the best way to get clothes, in my opinion, is to find them secondhand. In many ways, buying used is more earth-friendly than making your own. Today I want to talk specifically about vintage (25 years old or older) clothes, and the benefits of shopping vintage.

Vintage clothes are usually better quality than new.

There are a couple reasons for this. The first is that, if a garment has already survived a few decades and still looks great, it will usually be high-quality. A vintage piece has already been tested. The other reason is that, in general, clothes were simply made better in the past.

Fast fashion has dragged down quality across all price points. Consumers don’t know how to judge factors like stitching, material, care needs, finishing, really anything. This means that all clothing makers, from cheap to expensive, have little incentive to uphold quality standards. All clothing makers are also under pressure to lower their prices, and quality is the first thing to go. Even consumers at the higher end are taught to shop for labels and trends, instead of durability and timelessness.

As recently as just twenty years ago, people shopped less and expected more from the pieces they owned. Today, the early 90’s is considered vintage, and we’re starting to see some good pieces from that era. But the downward trend in quality started long before, somewhere in the 70’s when the USA textile industry really started dying. This means that vintage is in danger. There’s only a finite supply of these items and they’re getting older and older. The new clothes on sale today will be in tatters, choking sea creatures and leaching plastic into landfills everywhere, in a matter of five years, let alone twenty. So buy vintage while you can, and when you do buy (or make) new, think about the life it will have once you’re finished with it.

Vintage shopping helps you cultivate your own style with unique pieces.

A few years ago, in a hostel in Sofia, I had a conversation with a young woman from somewhere in northern Europe (Sweden? Holland? I honestly can’t remember). What I do remember about the exchange was, she lamented that fast fashion had flattened street style, erasing the differences in trends that used to be more evident from one city or country to another. Today, she said, street fashion in Odessa, Sofia, Lisbon, and Glasgow could all look the same.

It’s true, fast fashion outlets produce a staggering variety of garments, and create a very convincing illusion of choice. But that shirt that looks so you at Zara also looks that way to 10,000 other people, otherwise Zara wouldn’t be selling it. 

Not everyone wants, or needs, to have “unique” style. And if it’s not something that’s important to you, you’re under no obligation to think about it. But people who like shopping, or making their clothes, tend to be motivated by a desire to create a style that’s their own: something that looks and feels right for them that will transcend trends. If that sounds like you, vintage is a great option even if you’re more drawn to “modern” trends and silhouettes.

When I say “vintage,” I mean something that’s at least 25 years old. That’s it. Vintage doesn’t have to look vintage, if that’s not your thing. Some vintage shoppers embrace the styles and shapes of another era, and gravitate towards some more than others (for me, loud 80’s sweaters and nipped-in 50’s waists are always intriguing). But as long as you’re looking to cultivate a timeless style, something that will look like you no matter what year it is, you can probably find vintage/secondhand pieces that will work. Often, they’ll be much better quality for the price than something you could buy new.

Example: My New-to-Me Jacket

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This fall, I decided I wanted a new jacket. Often, when I’m looking for the perfect new wardrobe piece, I’ll look back on what I wore in the past and think about items that really made me feel great, and that I wore all the time.

When I was 12, someone (my dad?) bought me a classic Levi’s jacket for Christmas. It didn’t make that big of an impression on me when I opened it. But even my style-challenged-middle-school-self was instinctively drawn to it. I ended up wearing it almost every day for two years. It went with everything, it wasn’t “trendy” (I fancied myself an alternative kid and wanted nothing to do with the Abercrombie shirts and Doc Marten sandals that all the preppy girls were wearing), and I could wear it over sweaters or tank tops, depending on the weather.

The more I thought about, another denim jacket like that one I had in 7th and 8th grade was exactly what I wanted. I already have a heavy winter coat. I needed something lighter that would work for more seasons and climates. It wouldn’t be exactly the same as my old one; I wanted a slightly oversized fit for more layering potential, and a lighter, brighter wash. I wanted extremely heavyweight denim that would last a long time, and I’d like to know the person who made it got a fair wage and ya know, a day off every now and then. Ideally, I didn’t want to spend more than $50-70.

For those quality specs at that price, secondhand was the natural choice. I poked through the Sofia secondhand shops, but couldn’t find exactly the right item. The jacket I ended up buying was in Spain, and happens to also qualify as “vintage.” It’s a classic Lee denim jacket, complete with the “Union Made” tag, from the 1980’s.

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Lee denim jackets have a history. They come from the 20th century’s golden age of USA textile manufacturing, a time when clothes were made domestically, for working people who expected a lot out from their clothes and knew how to recognize quality. From the 1920’s all the way until around when my jacket was made, the Lee “Union Made” logo became iconic. Not only were the jackets made by union workers in the USA, they were sold to many people who were union workers themselves.

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heavy duty

According to their website, Lee still sells these jackets. They are cut a bit slimmer, some are made with stretch denim (eww), and their website makes no mention of where they are made or by whom. I’m going to assume that means they’re made overseas, since “made in the USA” is now almost strictly a marketing signal for luxury items, and I can’t imagine Lee would still have American union workers making their clothes without mentioning it all over their site. A new denim jacket would be not only be cheaply-made of lower-quality materials, it would also be costlier (to my wallet, the environment, and workers).

For about the half the price of a new jacket, I got one that’s much better quality, and had consumed the water and labor it needed to be manufactured around 30 years ago. Even though it’s as old as I am, it looks and feels brand new. It’s stiff, heavy denim. Most new denim made today feels flimsy in comparison.

Now, it’s from the 80’s and it looks it, which I happen to love about it. The wash is very light and the armscyes are ginormous. Depending on what I was going for, I could style this super 80’s, or I could tone it down with quieter pieces to bring it into the twenty-teens and beyond.

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playing it cool in black jeans and a secondhand gray t-shirt

Do you wear vintage? Do you have any vintage items you love?

 

Riff #1: Salt Spray Cowl

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snuggling up to the new cowl

I promised more free, easy patterns, and February seems like the perfect month to make good on that. There’s really not much going on, and despite this brief warm spell, real spring is probably still a ways away. Our cold snap ended awhile ago, but outside is muddy and covered in dog poop (seriously, Sofiantsi, clean up after your dogs). Since I work from home, the incentive to go out is at an all-time low.

Which makes this the perfect time for what I like to call “riffing.” Riffing, to me, means creating with an emphasis on quantity over ambition. Instead of devising elaborate, complicated designs, riffing might mean just fixating on one detail, maybe a really fun stitch pattern or a lovely yarn, and not really adding much else. The key to proper riffing is momentum. Bind off one project, and cast on your next project before the needles are cold. I usually find my riffs are enhanced by keeping really odd hours, watching the same movie over and over again, and probably wine.

Riffing is vital to my creative process, because I’m someone who succumbs to creative blocks very easily. Like many people, I’m irrationally afraid of failure. Sometimes I go months without making something original, because I’m afraid I’ll “waste” yarn on something that doesn’t turn out right. So this month has been Fearless February, with my only goal being to keep the momentum. I’m cranking it out, just for fun, without much of a plan.

Riffing, by the way, doesn’t have to mean knitting. You can go on your own riff, by writing, drawing, embroidering, scrapbooking, cleaning behind your appliances, really whatever the wine or coffee or tea or old movies tell you to do. Really, the only rule is to keep it up and have fun.

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Salt Spray Cowl

Since Christmas, gansey motifs have been my main riff fuel. They are trendy right now, maybe because they go so nicely with all the farm yarns that are finally getting the recognition they deserve. I adapted the stitch motif in my new Salt Spray Cowl from one of the many lovely charts in Dutch Traditional Ganseys.

The ripples in the gritty off-white reminded me of the bleakest winter of my existence, in northeastern Bulgaria in 2012. My Peace Corps apartment was on the first floor of a small concrete block, with enormous old windows that whistled at night. Any condensation that gathered inside the apartment froze solid to the inside of the windows. I used to have dreams that snow was falling on me in bed.

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photo by Stefan Vasilev Vasilev

link to photo

That year, a brutal ice storm hit the Black Sea coast, pushing the waves all the way up the beach to the shuttered bars and seafood grills, and freezing them in place. A friend and I took a walk on the Varna beach, admiring trash cans that had morphed into lumpy white stones, and lampposts heavy with salty stalactites.

The only break in the empty, frozen coastline was the Varna mineral springs, a teeming sulfurous haunt of barrel-chested old men. The regular bathers had decided that this, the coldest weekend of the year, was the perfect time for cleaning out the baths. Steam rose out of a break in the frozen seawater and icy rocks. About fifteen grandpas in speedos, wool beanies, and plastic sandals, were scrubbing the concrete pool, which had been drained down to about a foot of hot, slimy water. They were rosy and cheerful, shouting and working briskly, as if the ambient heat from the springs kept them warm but not that warm. I was awestruck by this show of industry, a group riff in its own way, putting those dark times to good use.

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like the hat? it’ll be in a future post!

Salt Spray Cowl

350-400 yds worsted weight yarn. (I used one skein of Green Mountain Green wool/mohair, and about ½ a skein of Abundant Earth Fiber Aviary).

24” circular needles in US #8

stitch marker

tapestry needle for bind off and weaving in ends.

Cowl measures 32″ around and 9 3/4″ deep from cast-on to bind-off.

Gauge: 13 1/2 stitches x 27 1/2 rows= 4″ in gansey stitch pattern

Cowl:

CO 105 stitches using long-tail method. PM and join in the round. Begin gansey stitch pattern at Round 1. Gansey stitch pattern can be worked on any multiple of 7 stitches:

Round 1: [p4, k3], repeat to end of round.

R2: [k4, p1, k1, p1], repeat to end of round.

R3: [k5, p1, k1], repeat to end of round.

Repeat Rounds 1-3 21 more times, or until desired length. Repeat R1 once more. Bind off with EZ’s cast-on-cast-off. Weave in ends and wet block (if you used a fluffy, halo-y yarn like I did, this step is not to be skipped!).

 

Feeding Refugees in Fortress Europe

my latest venture, knitting for refugees. You can help.
my latest venture, knitting for refugees. You can help.

 

This weekend, my husband and I went with Act!on Food to a stopping point for refugees, to provide free food, tea, donations of warm clothes, and basic first aid. You can read Act!on Food’s tumblr post for more info on logistics. The five of us volunteered for two nights shifts in a row, from 10pm to 6am. Here are some things that happened.

photo from Act!on Food
photo from Act!on Food

 

We heard plenty of stories about police violence, and saw ample evidence of same. Most of the refugees were boys aged 16 to 20, from Afghanistan. A nice fellow with nerdy glasses and a big smile showed me his fat lip where he’d taken a stick to the face several days before. Another guy had scabbed-over dog bites on his wrist and ankles. There were lots of crushed purple fingernails, apparently from one particular police force’s special technique for forcibly taking fingerprints.

Afghans do not like oatmeal, and they claim to not like cinnamon in their tea, although if I snuck some in while they weren’t looking they seemed to like it just fine.

I learned that Bulgarian and Pashto share a surprising number of cognates. Conveniently for us, two of them were “soup” and “socks.” The popular hangover cure here in Bulgaria is a thin, tangy, beef tripe soup called shkembe chorba. As I served up vegan lentils on Friday night, a group of guys getting soup were talking in Pashto and I heard them say “shkembe chorba” repeatedly. “Shkembe chorba?” I asked them. They looked at me and laughed. “You mean beef tripe? This?” I motioned to my stomach and mooed like a cow. The guys went absolutely nuts, clapping and laughing.

photo from Act!on Food.

 

A young man was helped to our tent by some friends with worries that his leg was broken. He and a large group had jumped two stories to avoid being captured by police. The red cross tent was closed since it was very late, so I called an ambulance. The dispatcher listened to my request, and then without warning, transferred me to someone who began interrogating me. He asked if I was a journalist, why was I calling, was I with an NGO, what nationality I was. I asked if they were really sending an ambulance and when he confirmed that they were I hung up. The ambulance came surprisingly fast, in about ten minutes. An hour later some police rolled by, asking us questions. I wonder if the person who questioned me was a police officer.

Saturday night, even at a refugee checkpoint, can still be festive. Once they got soup and tea, plenty of young men just stood around by our tent, smoking, sharing stories. A few who spoke English ended up hanging out with us all night, which helped to pass the time and was extremely helpful to us. Lots of them asked us which country they should go to. We didn’t know how to respond but gave them a card with websites and resources on it.

Both nights, we saw one young man who smiled a great deal. He didn’t speak English and had a bandage on his face. Someone told us that he’d gotten his document already, which gave him the right to travel to the next checkpoint. This document can be had quickly, if you have money. Those who can’t pay might wait two or three days, sleeping outside and eating nothing but the lentil soup, bananas, and tea that us grubby leftists are handing out. There were rumors of people in the checkpoint, who were helping other people navigate the system to get their documents faster, in exchange for money. The guy with the bandage, someone told us, was doing it for free. He was free to go but decided to stay a couple extra days to help out other refugees.

The guy with the bandage sat next to our tent for a few hours on Saturday night, playing Afghan pop music from his phone. Some guys bobbed absentmindedly while they talked, a few sang along. A teenager who spoke English jokingly scolded, “This isn’t the time for dancing! It’s the time for crying!” But he smiled as he said it.

One guy we met had been an interpreter for the US Army. He spoke perfect English and told my husband and I that he was “glad to see Americans again!” He was very nice, and stayed for awhile to translate for us. He asked us if we knew which country in Europe would help him. We didn’t know. He told us that he left Afghanistan after someone from the Taliban threatened him. He didn’t go into detail, but the threat was serious enough that he left then and there, without going home to say goodbye to his family. He felt it would be safer if he didn’t.

During one busy period, a man came up to the side of the tent and got my husband’s attention. He handed him a bag of Afghani flatbread. The only bread we had was European-style white bread. We put out the bag of flatbread and it was gone in minutes.

Another refugee pressed a ten euro bill into Lorenzo’s hand, insisting he take it. We donated it to the volunteer group we were collaborating with, who will use it towards rent for their cooking space.

Plenty of people had harsh criticism for the Taliban. Lorenzo met two Kurdish men from Iraq. He overheard one of them say the name of the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, as the two men were talking to each other. Upon mention of his name, both men scowled and stomped their feet on the ground, cursing him.

I learned some basic first aid skills from another volunteer. I watched her rinse someone’s eye, after he was scratched by a tree branch. She washed her hands, put on gloves, and stepped out of the tent with a plastic cup of warm water. She asked the guy to lie in the street, where the streetlight was brightest so she could see what she was doing. The most common ailments were sore legs from running in the mountains, diarrhea from eating too much soup after a few days without a meal, and hands and feet that were cracked and swollen from dry skin and overuse. One person’s foot was particularly bad, after walking a long ways in old tennis shoes with no socks. Another young man translated for him, and washed his foot with warm water and a clean, disposable diaper that we gave him. The diaper gave everyone a laugh. Then the volunteer covered his foot with diaper rash cream, bandaged his toes, and gave him clean new socks.

I saw plenty of people without warm socks, coats, or hats. Many had blankets wrapped around their shoulders. A 16 year-old boy named Bilal spent lots of time with us at our tent. He was very sweet and spoke good English. He was skinny, and all he had was a thin turtleneck sweater and a peacoat that was much too big for him. He turned down the food we offered, but stayed to talk with us. Finally, one volunteer convinced Bilal to take a coat from our donation box, a sporty ski jacket with a hood. He thanked us, but offered the jacket to a man who was shivering, to drape over his knees. The next morning, though, we saw Bilal in his new jacket, smiling and looking much warmer. A volunteer sat him down in a chair, and despite his objections, forced a cup of soup and a few bread slices into his hands. We all snuck glances and noted that he was eating happily.

If you want to help, I’m knitting warm hats to bring to the checkpoint next time we go. With every purchase of something from my new shop, Balkanite, I’ll knit one item to donate. If you just want to donate a hat, you can do that too.

Toroni: A Super-Quick Shawl Recipe

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Life in Bulgaria has a very seasonal rhythm. Bulgarians love their four distinct seasons, and even in Sofia, there are palpable differences in how people spend their time from one season to the next. Summer is for eating salad and going to the beach.

Last summer, we had a thunderstorm practically every day. It made running errands a real pain, and meant a mediocre year for grapes, tomatoes, and other summer produce. What made the summer even worse is, it was following an unusually mild winter, and many people felt restive and somehow thrown out of balance.

“We used to have four seasons in Bulgaria and it was very nice,” a taxi driver said to me once (Thomas Friedman would be jealous of how many conversations I have with taxi drivers), “Now the climate is changing, so we just have a few months of cold and the rest is warm and wet.”

In the long run, this may bear out to be true. Every snowstorm, every perfect breezy day, every tree full of plums or bush full of rosehips might be our last. This year at least we managed to get our seasons. Winter was respectably cold and snowy, and this summer has been relentless; the days are hot and long. The tomatoes are what Westerners would call “heirloom,” the kind that would raise rents in the surrounding neighborhoods if they were sold in any farmer’s market in the urban USA.

In winter, the question people ask each other is, “What do you heat with?” Answer “electricity,” and you’ll get a groan of sympathy. In Sofia, steam is the most fortunate answer. Everywhere else, it’s wood.

In summer, the question is, “Are you going to the sea?” For two years, I lived within an hour of the Black Sea. There, we never asked each other this question, because everyone was already at the sea. Sofia is several hours inland, though, and trips to the seaside are relished.

summer in Halkidiki
summer in Halkidiki

My husband and I took our beach trip two weeks ago, to a quiet village in Halkidiki, Greece. For this, I needed some instant-gratification knitting. You know the kind. Something small, in a fun yarn. Fingering weight was ideal, because it meant lots of blissfully repetitive stitches. An off-center triangle shawl, started at the narrowest point, requires little shaping and practically no thought at all. The end result shows off hand-dyed and variegated yarns perfectly, without being too busy or overwhelming the rest of your outfit. A project like this is the tomato-soup-and-grilled-cheese-sandwich of knitting.

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Here’s my formula.

Toroni Shawl Recipe

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materials: 100g fingering-weight yarn (sock yarn works great). I used Republic of Wool Twist Fingering in color Thrasher, which I found at Twisted in Portland not too long ago.

US #6 needle; I like 24″ circular

gauge: doesn’t matter!

Abbreviations:

KFB: Knit next stitch through front and back. 1 stitch increased.

Pattern:
Using long-tail method, CO 11 stitches

Row 1 (WS): K2, P to 2 stitches before end, KFB, K1
Row 2 (RS): KFB, K to 3 stitches before end, K2tog, K1

Repeat Rows 1 and 2 until you’re almost out of yarn (leave at least 3 yards for bind-off). Bind off stitches using your favorite method. I recommend a stretchy bind-off like EZ’s Sewn Bind-Off (click for link to tutorial), or this pretty lace bind-off (click for excellent youtube video by Laura Nelkin).

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Note: Repeating these two rows will give you a stockinette-stitch shawl, which might curl at the ends. You might have also noticed in the photos that my shawl has some little purl ridges on the right side. You can achieve these purl ridges by working the wrong-side like this instead:

Row 1 Version 2 (WS): K to 2 stitches before end, KFB, K1

Super-easy! Knit all the wrong-side rows, and your shawl will be in garter stitch instead of stockinette. I love how stockinette shows off the flecks of color in the yarn, so I mostly did that. Just for fun, every time I picked up the work afresh, I would knit the first wrong side row I worked instead of purling. This added a little planned spontaneity to the shawl, and created a little record of how much I worked at a time (the purl ridges got progressively closer together, as the shawl increased in size).

Once the shawl is finished, weave in the ends and don’t be afraid to block aggressively, especially if you’ve worked mostly in stockinette. I wrung mine out and stretched it on my clothesline.

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beach hair, don’t care

Does anyone else have go-to vacation projects? What’s your ideal instant-gratification knitting?

Fashion Revolution Part 2: My Summer İpek Dress Is Ready!

darling little pleats on my custom Fashion Revolution dress
darling little pleats on my custom Fashion Revolution dress

A couple weeks ago (okay, a month ago), I posted about my Fashion Revolution project: a custom dress, in collaboration with Mila Ateva, a local designer. Last week I went in for my first fitting, and yesterday, the dress was ready.

This isn’t my first item that Mila’s custom-made. She also made my wedding veil:

photo by Vesselina Nikolaeva
photo by Vesselina Nikolaeva

Since I wasn’t the one who made the dress, its creation seems a bit magic to me. In my head, I pictured the mandarin collar, the fitted shoulders, and the pleats above the bust. Mila suggested finishing the pleats with dainty little seams, adding a shirttail hem, and gentle slits along the side of the skirt. And then, there it was, just like I had imagined.

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dream dress!

This was a big contrast from my usual shopping experiences at large retailers, where I set out with a specific idea of what I want, which usually isn’t on the racks. Often, I’m tempted to buy something that only mostly meets my needs, since I can’t find anything that’s 100% perfect.

Don’t get me wrong. I have some fantastic clothes that aren’t custom-made, and that I didn’t even shop carefully for. I recently scored a hand-me-down buttercream silk blouse, from my friend Vesi, that’s turned out to be the piece I never realized I had to have in my closet. One of my all-time favorite shirts was a flannel button-down that I found on the ground in Portland, and wore into shreds (which, in turn, was a replacement for the hand-me-down flannel from my mom, which she was wearing when she delivered me).

My summer dress is neither mass-market, or an accident of fate. It is 100% perfect, because I chose every detail, and because it was made to fit me, and me only, exactly the way I specified. The sensation of wearing it is hard to describe without sounding melodramatic. From the beginning, I wanted this project to be accessible, and to show bespoke clothing as something other than elitist and fussy. So I was careful to pick a durable fabric, and design something practical. Still, the feeling of luxury when I first put on the dress was inescapable. It fit. Not just in the sense that I could get it over my head and button it. It fit the way my most successful sweaters have fit, like little singing Disney birds had flown through the window and dressed me in it.

perfect back pleats. Slightly wrinkled after a day of wear; I hung it up and the wrinkles faded overnight.
perfect back pleats. Slightly wrinkled after a day of wear; I hung it up and the wrinkles faded overnight.

Experiencing the miracle of a perfectly fitted garment had another, unexpected consequence. My body looked great in it, which made me like my body better. Usually, a ready-made shift dress that fits in the shoulders will be tight and squirmy around my hips. Consequently, a dress that fits my hips will droop gloomily off my shoulders. When this happens, it’s easy to blame my body for being “wrong” or “weird.” “If my butt were just smaller, or my legs were longer, or my bust were bustier…” I’d wager that almost everyone’s had similar thoughts when shopping.

But seeing myself in my new dress, I wasn’t just “okay” with how I looked in it. I felt awesome. The front placket hugged my shoulders perfectly, while the body of the dress draped in all the right places.

Taking charge of our relationship with clothes, instead of being passive consumers, isn’t just smart or moral. It’s also an act of feminist rebellion. No really! Stick with me. Renouncing fast fashion, and demanding a transparent supply chain, is a crucial step towards ensuring that garment workers get the pay and treatment that honors their humanity, and their skills. Most of those garment workers are women. On the other side of the chain, women in the industrialized world can revolt against consumerism, which, by design, poisons people against themselves by enforcing rigid and unattainable definitions of beauty.

Whether it means making your own clothes, ordering a custom piece, or just taking your current wardrobe to a local tailor for alterations, I hope I’ve shown that there are alternatives to just meekly accepting what’s on the rack. I feel very lucky that I had the time and resources to commission this dress, rather than settling for something shoddy. Unfortunately, most people aren’t so lucky, and quality clothing has become a luxury, the same way healthy food has.

On an individual level, I felt it was important to show what I can do to challenge consumerism. Any effort helps, whether it’s replacing a button, or even washing your clothes less frequently (check out the fantastic #10WEARS1WASH project for more information).

Ultimately, I don’t think we can find a solution to the current crisis without dismantling the entire capitalist, neo-liberal framework that exists worldwide, and, increasingly, in our minds. For me, this project was one step towards creating the world I want to live in, but only a step. The real question remains, how can we shift the paradigm that is alienating us from the things we need to survive, and devalues human beings?

In the meantime, I don’t plan on buying another dress anytime soon. I have all that I need.

Fashion Revolution Day: Who Made My Clothes?

Spring is typically when New Year’s resolutions go down the drain. Unsurprisingly, the first one to be ignored was my resolution to blog regularly. But the great thing about life is, it isn’t all or nothing, so there’s no reason I can’t recommit to blogging after a two month hiatus.

It isn’t that there wasn’t anything to blog about. I went to Turkey, and Spain, finished a pile of projects and started a pile more. I also got involved with an awesome group of textile artists, and generally conscious, creative people who are leading the campaign for Fashion Revolution Day in Bulgaria.

Who made your clothes?
Who made your clothes?

If you want to know what Fashion Revolution Day is, and why it’s so important, there are already some fantastic resources for you to peruse. For me, it was imperative to use my blog as platform for this movement. Many people in this part of the world are employed as garment workers. As it has everywhere, capitalism has devalued the skills of these crafters and left them subject to exploitation, poverty wages and unsafe working conditions.

Being a knitter, for me, can’t be separated from my role as a community member and a citizen, or as some would say “a consumer.” As I’ve written before, having gone through the process of making garments has changed my entire perspective on all textiles and garment-making. I’m a classic only child; preferring to work on my own rather than in a team. Knitting satisfies all my weird solitary daydreaming needs. However, every knitting project is still a collaboration, between farmers, yarn makers, designers; everyone who contributes to a long and winding supply chain.

For Fashion Revolution Day, I wanted to branch away from knitting and focus on the collaborative aspect of making clothes, by shopping for, co-designing, and commissioning a custom garment. Having something custom-made takes more time and money than buying whatever’s hanging from the rack. However, it doesn’t have to be frivolous or elitist. It can also be an excellent opportunity to connect with crafters and designers in your community.

What I wanted was a summer dress, something I can throw over a bathing suit, but still nice enough to wear to a restaurant. The first thing I noticed is that, when planning the dress, my tastes changed in correspondence to the amount of effort I put into it. I’m not interested in buying two or three cheap dresses, so I need one dress to serve lots of functions. Immediately, my eye went away from trendy prints and fussy details, towards something simple with maximum versatility.

The first step was choosing fabric. I’m pretty picky about the materials I choose. I read somewhere, I think in the Merchant & Mills book, a great piece of advice. To paraphrase: a project is just as much work no matter what you make it out of, so it’s better not to waste your work on something that won’t stand the test of time. Use high-quality materials, and all that work goes into something that will be satisfying to wear forever. I also wanted the fabric to be part of the collaborative process, so I wanted something that I could trace back to its origins, and that was made by people who aren’t exploited.

Öz, camera-shy but super-helpful, at Refik İpekçilik in Beyoğlu
Öz, camera-shy but super-helpful, at Refik İpekçilik in Beyoğlu

In Istanbul I found a rugged, woven silk that was still easy enough to care for. It came from Refik İpekçilik, a textile store that is supplied exclusively by weavers in the far southeastern corner of Turkey.  I originally planned on cotton or linen, but then I saw the grey silk and thought about my materials mantra. It will be the same amount of work regardless of the fabric, so I picked the one I really wanted.

a street kitty snuggles up to the window display
a street kitty snuggles up to the window display

Sourcing the fabric from Turkey also meant that I could keep this project somewhat local, since I’m in Sofia. The next step was to take my fabric to my friend Mila to design my dress.

future sundress...
future sundress…

We sat down and Mila sketched out a design. She understood perfectly when I said I wanted something versatile and simply constructed, and added her own ideas for details that would make the piece really special.

Since I’m all about transparency on this blog, I don’t mind sharing the cost of this project. For two and a half meters of handwoven silk I paid about US$75. For a custom design and pattern, made to my exact measurements, and finished dress, I’m paying Mila another US$115. $190 is a lot more than I’d pay for a knee-length sleeveless dress at H&M. But, it’s a bargain when I consider that I’m getting a unique couture item, one that will fit me perfectly, and that will be an indispensable, all-seasons wardrobe piece for years and years to come. In that time, I could buy nine or ten flimsy dresses that will fall apart or look dated within a few months. More importantly, my dress was made by passionate craftspeople who are being compensated for their hard work. Those people, weavers, dyers, sewists and designers, are sharing their talent and skill set with me.

I’ll post again when the dress is finished, and include more reflections on Fashion Revolution Day and what this little project has done for me. The second installment probably won’t be ready by Friday, so it’ll be posted after April 24th has come and gone. But, to make a real impact on the clothing supply chain, and to change our relationship to what we wear (and most importantly, the people who make what we wear), Fashion Revolution shouldn’t just be one day a year.

There are lots of ways you, too, can be part of the Fashion Revolution. The first step is to ask, #WhoMadeMyClothes? Turn your clothes inside out, and post photos on social media, tagging clothing manufacturers and asking where your clothes came from. If you want to know more about how to get involved, check the site for events in your country.

Fiber Find: A stash of crochet and Bulgarian embroidery

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To bolster his Bulgarian skills, my husband volunteers at a charity center that helps single mothers. He makes needle felted crafts with the other volunteers, mostly older women, listens to their stories and pushes himself to tell his own stories.

The ladies know I’m into knitting, and invited me to join Lorenzo one day, and to paw through a bag of scraps. Someone’s grandmother had passed, leaving behind her craft stash, and anything I didn’t want would end up in the trash.

There’s something very intimate about going through a stranger’s unfinished crafts after they’re dead. The bag contained sharply creased linens, half-embroidered with pixellated traditional designs. One corner of the linen might be completely filled in, the motif fading outwards into a single thread.

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Besides embroidery, this person also crocheted breathtaking little bits out of stiff cotton thread.

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When she was tired of one, she’d stuff it into an empty candy box (which, post-Communism, are now artifacts in their own right) and start a new one.

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There’s also an unbelievably exact little handkerchief with samples of different hand-stitched patches, which, according to the tag, might have been stitched by a third grader.

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"V. Noshkova 3a class No. 14"
“V. Noshkova
3a class No. 14″

Sifting through this treasure trove has inspired me to blog more examples of local textiles. I’ll be carrying my camera around, so stay tuned for more fiber finds.

I look for crafts
I look for crafts
Emi looks for pigeons
Emi looks for pigeons

Inspiration Everywhere: The Rugs of Chiprovtsi in HAND/EYE

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my favorite of Yulka’s rugs

Last weekend Lorenzo and I went to Chiprovtsi, a little town in the Balkan Mountains famous for its handwoven rugs. The trip happily came just before this piece I wrote about Chiprovtsi carpets was published on HAND/EYE Magazine‘s website.

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back in September, learning how Yulka’s loom works (and wearing my featherweight)

Our first visit was in September, with my in-laws, to see Chiprovtsi’s famous carpets and meet some of the people who still make them. Going back this weekend was a little poetic. Back in September, it was warm and green. Everyone’s red peppers were hung out to dry and the farmers took their goats out to graze every morning. Lorenzo and I weren’t even planning on getting married that year, and I was writing a piece on Chiprovtsi in the hopes that HAND/EYE would publish it. Yulka and Yordanka, the women we met there, were anxiously waiting to hear from UNESCO about whether Chiprovtsi’s carpets had won the intangible heritage award they applied for.

This time, we arrived to a layer of fresh snow. The goats were snuggled in their stables with their new babies, and instead of fresh salad we ate pickles, sausage and potatoes. Chiprovtsi had won its UNESCO status, and we were there to pick out a carpet, handwoven by Yulka, a present from my mother-in-law in honor of our hasty wedding in November.

wintertime goat snuggles
wintertime goat snuggles

You can read more about Chiprovtsi, and see more photos of their beautiful traditional rugs here on HAND/EYE. Here’s our perfect kitty enjoying our new kilim.emiChiprovtsi

Knitting Is a Right, Not a Privilege

my inspiration
my inspiration

An article has been circulating that has fueled a lot of discussion among knitters, entitled “Never Say This To a Knitter. Really, Just Don’t Do It.” What exactly are you never supposed to say to a knitter? You might think it’s a remark about him/her having too much time on their hands, or an ageist joke about who, stereotypically, is “supposed” to knit. It’s neither of those. The author, Anne Miller, argues—and many knitters agree—that the comment she least wants to hear (and does hear, often) is “You should sell your knitting!”

The first thing I noticed is that the article was published by Yahoo! Makers, which is apparently a thing that exists (neat, I guess). The headline is classic clickbait, designed to compel and stir up discussion. But the article’s thesis, that knitters are tired of hearing well-intentioned randos insist that they should commodify their craft, is familiar and resonant. I’ve heard, and felt, the same sentiment many times.

When someone tells me I should sell my handknits, I take that for what it is: a compliment. But sometimes the complimenter persists, and wants to know why I haven’t pursued this brilliant business plan already. This might be someone who, earlier, told me they never spend more than a few dollars on a t-shirt, or that they think $100 is way too much to pay for a pair of jeans. Since textiles have become one of the cheapest commodities on earth, and the people who make our clothing are increasingly denied living wages or safe working conditions, I don’t know where someone would get the idea that making clothes, by hand, is a smart moneymaking venture. That’s when it veers into uncomfortable territory, when I have to explain how much money and time actually goes into a handknit item, and how much such a thing would have to cost in order to bring in even a small profit. When I explain that I do sell patterns for my designs, and that I’m happy to teach anyone to knit who wants to learn and will pay for my time, that’s usually where the conversation ends.

So I very much relate to this piece, as did plenty of people on the WEBS Facebook page, where I first saw the article posted. Most people who comment on my knitting are not interested in having a conversation about their role, and moral responsibility, within the garment supply chain. Knitting, like any textile art, draws you closer to the beginning of that chain. Making a garment changes your perspective on clothing, and about how much of yourself you’re willing to invest in something you love.
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My 2015 Crafting Resolutions

photo by George Chelebiev. Check back in a few days for the hat pattern!!
photo by George Chelebiev. Check back in a few days for the hat pattern!!

I don’t always make New Year’s resolutions (and I almost never stick to them if I do). In 2014, I made a point of not making a single resolution. After about a year of living in the USA again, I was disillusioned with America’s achievement-centered culture. Bulgarians don’t generally define themselves by their jobs, or their exercise routines, or how often they floss their teeth. Americans, on the other hand, are supposed to be always striving to do more, to be better, thinner, richer, more successful. Life was not a series of moments, to be enjoyed as much as possible with others, but instead a competition, to be won. So, in preparation for starting a new life in Sofia, I decided that no resolution at all was the most appropriate choice.

However, resolutions can be a great thing. I appreciate the American tendency to be proactive, and that Americans like to feel in charge of their own lives. That mentality has definitely served me well.

I didn’t make a New Year’s resolution last year. Still, I managed to move to Europe with my sweetheart, find an apartment and a great group of friends in my new home, get a job, quit the job to be a freelance writer, get married, and knit six sweaters. 2015 is the first year of my adult life that I don’t have an imminent job change, location change, or relationship change on the horizon. So it seems like a great year to focus on what I really want and go for it.

Because themes are fun, I’ve decided my New Year’s resolutions will all be knitting-related. It’s been 2015 for a whole week, so I’ve had some time to really think about these. Here they are:

1. Stick to a yarn budget.

Unless I have a steady supply of store credit (shout-out to my WEBS days), I’m a careful yarn shopper by necessity. My resources are limited, and living in Bulgaria means that I can either choose Bulgarian or Turkish wool, or pay for shipping and customs to import the yarn I want. My stash is fairly modest, and for the most part all my yarn purchases turn into finished products eventually.

Even still, I only have a vague idea of what I spend on yarn each year. And, since I’m generally concerned with consumption, and more philosophical questions surrounding materialism and ownership, I could always benefit from reflection and awareness of my buying habits. So this year I’m putting myself on a yarn budget of $35/month. That might sound extravagant, or painfully strict, depending on who’s reading this. Budgeting is very personal, and based on my own knitting habits and income, I’ve decided that’s a decent amount for me. It’s certainly less than I spent in 2014, because part of this exercise is to push myself to be creative and deliberate in my choices, and to work from my stash when possible.

I’m not counting tools or books in this number, just yarn. I almost never buy tools anyway, once I have them, and the only tool on my list for 2015 is a good pair of fabric scissors. Books we’ll get to in a minute. This gives me about $100 every three months, which is usually more than enough for a sweater quantity.

And, since I’m an open book, I’ll be tallying my budget and my purchases right here on my blog for all the world to see (click on the little burger icon at the top of my homepage).

2. Blog more.

Which brings me to my next resolution. My goal for 2014 was to start a knitting blog, so, mission accomplished. But, my updates have been sporadic, and for 2015, I’m reflecting on why I started blogging in the first place, and how to motivate myself to update regularly.

At some point around 2011, I started wanting more out of my knitting, and myself, than just a pile of FO’s. I wanted to learn, and grow, as a crafter, incorporating fiber arts into every aspect of my life, and pushing myself to learn more about the supply chain that feeds my addiction, instead of being a passive consumer. This blog should be a record of that growth process, not just a place to show off what I make, but to collect things that inspire me and bring all my disparate beliefs, tastes and desires together.

Concretely, this means blogging at the very least once per week, although 2-3 times is better. I’ll also be taking care to organize my updates into categories, including inspiration/wants, projects, techniques, environment, etc. Most importantly, I won’t limit my writing to strictly about knitting, although knitting will surely work its way into every post. Instead, I’ll try to integrate more inspiration from the rest of life into my posts.

3. Define my color palette.

As a yarn store clerk, the type of customer I encountered most often was the color-cautious knitter (and by extension, the color-cautious dresser). I’d often spend several minutes assuring a customer that she would look gorgeous in teal or burgundy. She might look longingly at the brighter color, before finally insisting that she needed navy because she’d “wear it more.”

This was a baffling new perspective for me, since I’m afraid of lots of things, but color isn’t one of them. I’ve always gravitated towards bright pinks, reds and oranges. Particularly as a knitter, my first instinct is to pick the color that will be the most vibrant and fun to look at while I’m knitting it. Learning to knit was a dangerous and liberating new outlet for my color cravings, since I could knit garments in colors I couldn’t find in stores.

Like many things that seem like a great idea when you’re 20, my color choices didn’t always stand the test of time. Plenty of projects I stripped for parts before they were finished, as their impracticality became more apparent. As I get older I’m trying to streamline my entire wardrobe, not just my knits, into a collection of pieces I absolutely love and wear all the time. I’ll never be someone who wears head-to-toe neutral, and I don’t think I’ll ever like the way black looks against my skin. But, I no longer dismiss neutrals out of hand.

I’ll be asking a lot of my clothes, and my knits, in 2015. I used to be susceptible to impulse buys in wacky prints and colors, either second-hand or (gasp!) fast fashion. But there’s nothing like moving to Europe, then moving back to the USA, and then moving back to Europe, to make you think really, really hard about the things you buy. Now I’ve resolved to add to my wardrobe only items that I love enough to hypothetically bring across an ocean. I want colors that flatter me, that coalesce with my entire wardrobe, and that typify my style. Whenever possible, I’d also like to favor naturally-dyed yarns, and for neutral pieces I’ll look for un-dyed wool.

4. Grow my library.

Besides Knitter’s Almanac, which I’ve bought, lent out, and bought again at least twice, I’ve never been motivated to buy books on craft. With my favorite novels, I’m the same way, carrying the story in my head, but picking up and giving away ragged paperbacks willy-nilly. It was mostly out of necessity, since I did so much moving around in my twenties. But I’ve missed out on quite a bit by neglecting my reading list, and I’m ready to start building a library that will serve me for the rest of my knitting, and reading, life.

This is part of why I’m adhering to a strict yarn budget this year, because I want to prioritize great books instead. As much as I love making, I want 2015 to be just as much about learning. At the end of the year, I don’t need another pile of sweaters (although I’m sure I’ll have one). What I need is to grow my own understanding of craft, and what kind of crafter I want to be, and that means growing my library.

My Christmas list included no yarn, and three beautiful books. First, Clara Parkes’ The Knitter’s Book of Yarn, which I’ve thumbed through in yarn stores and libraries countless times and wanted to own. Then, Cirilia Rose’s gorgeous new book Magpies, Homebodies and Nomads, and finally, a re-print from Schoolhouse Press of Anatolian Knitting Designs, by Betsey Harrell. A classic stand-by, a new masterpiece, and a nearly-forgotten little gem. In shopping for books, I’m inspired by my grandmother back in Portland. Her craft room held a library of knitting reference books, old volumes of traditional regional knits, and stacks of dog-eared back issues of Vogue Knitting. In addition, Gramma collected handsome art volumes, and beloved children’s stories, which all felt right at home among the knitting books. It might take more than a year, but someday I’d like a library as indispensable and eclectic as hers.

So, for 2015: Less yarn, more writing, more reading, and prettier colors. Do you have any knitting resolutions this year?