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Second hand Fair Isle Jumper

This old thing? Is second hand the new top drawer?

We Brits are not great about singing our own praises.  Even when wearing our only top designer pure silk and cashmere hand embroidered jacket,  a compliment is likely to generate the response “What this old thing, I’ve had it for years”  as we shove the astronomical receipt deeper into our pocket.  We don’t do showing off.  But have we now come into our own?  Is “this old thing” the new designer cashmere?

It’s no secret that most of us not only  have far more clothes than we need but also far more than we actually wear.  According to a report by Barnardos on average an item of clothing is only worn seven times before it’s discarded/donated.  Pretty much everyone I know has a wardrobe full of old regulars so that must mean that there are plenty of people who are tossing clothes after only one or two wears.  That isn’t fast fashion that is the plastic disposable cutlery of fashion.

And sadly plastic disposable cutlery is not such a bad analogy.  I recently spent a few days in the lovely North Yorkshire town of Skipton and took the opportunity to have a browse through the charity shops.  It takes too long for me to source all my stock through charity shops but it’s always worth a peek if I have time.  Sadly, the pickings were predictably poor. Almost all the stock in all the shops was man made fibre and of that which was natural it was mostly cheap cotton.  Whilst this may be down to a level of creaming off of the good stuff to be sold online the main reason is that they sell what they are given and we donate what we find in the shops and most of what we find in the shops is man made.  The trickle down effect has created a seismic shift in high street second hand shopping where there are few genuine discoveries and bargains, just the same rubbish as sold new round the corner just a bit cheaper.

The online experience is a little better.  Having discovered there is a  market for the clothes we no longer want we sell them to other people, often through a platform from the cheap and cheerful Vinted to the more upmarket Vestaire Collective.  The latter recently caused a stir by announcing that it would no longer allow fast fashion to be sold on its site and banned 30 fashion companies including H&M, Gap, Mango, Uniqlo, and Zara.  The sustainable fashion industry had collective indigestion.  Vestaire was making second hand exclusive when it should be widening its brief.  But shopping has always been exclusive, whether buying new or second hand.  If I were to walk into Dior on Bond Street, even assuming I could get past the bouncers I would be excluded by the very price tags.  And even lack of cash doesn’t stop the policing of sales as some Hermes customers have found out.  Back on the second hand front those designer resale shops that popped all over the high streets in the eighties were very snooty about what they would and would take as I found out to my cost on more than one occasion.

But the question is not so much whether Vestaire was being exclusive as whether it was making a stand against fast fashion.  As I pointed out in an earlier post just buying second hand without thinking about what you are buying is not only not the answer but could be part of the problem.  Substituting a new purchase for a second hand one is not helping to solve the overproduction of clothing if you are buying your tenth jumper this month “because it’s a bargain”.  You are just filling your wardrobe with more clothes you won’t wear just for slightly less financial cost.

But there is a second less obvious trap, buying cheap fast fashion second hand is helping to fuel its production in the first place.  Let’s face it the fashion industry might like you to think that it’s a lovey dovey collective striving to clothe us stylishly whilst simultaneously saving the planet (if you watch the Vinted advert you might think that Vinted is saving the planet all on its own) but it’s big business in a capitalist world.  It’s not going to waste time and resources producing stuff we aren’t going to buy, and we buy cheap fast fashion because we know when we are bored of it we can  just “donate it to charity”.  As my sister pointed out when I mused why we were so conscious of food waste but not textile waste, if we had to throw our clothes in the bin in the same way we do with unwanted food we might be a little bit more wary of what we bought in the first place.

So maybe buying second hand isn’t the answer.  Well maybe it isn’t.  But at the moment it is one of the few ways available to most of us to try to minimise the impact of the colossal fashion industry on the planet.

Without a doubt there is more clothing on the planet than we could possibly need.  The vast smoldering clothing mountain in the Atacama desert in Chile is just one tiny example of the unwanted excess we just dump where we can’t see it.  Meanwhile the stuff we bury in landfill is producing methane and CO2 (over a 20 year period methane is 80 times more potent at warming than CO2).

But what about the production of the textiles in the first place.  Viscose was touted as the new great sustainable textile.  Indeed it does come from cellulose pulp.  It creates a soft fabric perfect for dreamy summer dresses, slinky silky shirts and even velvet.  But if it’s too good to be true then it probably is.  The two issues are the source of the pulp and the method of production.  Viscose is traditionally made from fast growing wood or bamboo pulp.  The destruction of ancient forests in order to make way for pulpwood plantations is of great concern.  Canopy Style estimate that a third of the woodpulp used for viscose production comes from ancient or endangered forests.  Then there is the production method.  Traditional viscose production is  not pleasant and is highly polluting.  It uses carbon disulphide which has been linked to higher levels of coronary heart disease, birth defects, skin conditions, and cancer, not just in textile workers, but also in those who live near viscose factories.  There are alternatives such as Ecovero,  Modal, Refibra, Naia, Infinna   But the collapse of Renewcell which produced a viscose fabric from recycled cotton fibres suggests that the fashion industry is happy to talk the talk but not so willing to put its hand in its pocket and walk the walk.

But what about natural fibres you ask?  Good old cotton for example.  Surely we’re safe with a pure cotton t-shirt.  Sadly not.  Cotton is a bit of a mare to grow.  It requires a ton of water and even more pesticides.  According to the World Bank one pair of jeans requires 3780 litres of water (equivalent to 33.4kg of CO2).  Hemp and linen are more sustainable if you are going down the cellulose fibre route.  But they won’t keep you warm in the northern winters.  So what about wool?

Tricky one.  Mulesing is often quoted as a reason why wool is unsustainable.  Go google it, but it is not pleasant.  However it is illegal in the UK, most of Europe and New Zealand.  It is still legal in the US and Australia – so check the source of your wool.  The methane production (by ruminants such as sheep) is also oft quoted.  However, we (humans) produce infinitely more methane, so if we are going to exterminate the methane producers I suggest we start with us.

Silk requires the death of the silk worm, usually by boiling alive so not really compatible with any humane consideration of other lifeforms.  Stick to second hand wherever possible or consider Peace Silk or Ahimsa tussar.  In this method the moth is allowed to hatch from the cocoon before the silk is harvested.  It doesn’t produce quite such a soft fine thread, but I don’t imagine the moths mind.

Fur, I think it is safe to say that outwith those communities living on the edge of the so called modern world and in harsh conditions without access to the comforts we take for granted and who culturally have a far greater respect for the natural world which supports them, there is no need for fur in fashion.  What to do with the stuff that already exists is an issue.  One I have to contend with as I have inherited several fur coats and jackets all in excellent condition.  I don’t wear them because I just can’t but they do exist and currently are just hanging in my wardrobe, taking up space and not adding any value to anyone.  Suggestions welcome.

Second hand textiles have without doubt a far lower carbon footprint than newly produced ones, at least on the commercial scale.  Hand made textiles justify a whole separate article of their own.  That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to buy purely second hand clothes.  There is a huge market of upcycled clothing  where the final product is far different and in most cases considerably superior to the original.  There is also a growing market of clothing using fabric repurposed from other markets, remember those curtain dresses in the Sound of Music?  There are plenty of people transforming old tableclothes and other homeware into beautiful clothes.  Both of these have the added advantage that you can be fairly confident your item is unique and you will never walk into a room to see somebody else wearing the same as you.  Finally there is the commercial recycling sector producing viscose from pulped fabric.  As I mentioned above, Renewcell has gone under so whether the industry is really ready for true recycled fabric is unclear.

It is unreasonable to expect everyone to buy only second hand.  And would we want to anyway?  There is much beauty and skill in the creation of many garments.  The issue is that there is none in many more.  It is easy to hark back to the old days as if they were always halcyon and perfect.  However, it is true that even when I was a child in the sixties and a teenager in the seventies we had one or two at  most “best dresses” one winter coat, good shoes and play shoes etc.  Clothes lasted, were handed down or reused for dusters and rags (I haven’t bought kitchen paper in over 10 years, I have a basket of cut up t shirts which do the job perfectly well, if not better)

We have started to appreciate the quality of the food we eat.  Even my husband, a staunch meat eater appreciates the value of  farm to table meat and is prepared to eat less meat but better meat and has discovered that he quite likes vegetarian and even the occasional vegan meal.  I think it is time we started to go back to those same principles with our clothing, to appreciate a few quality items rather than a wardrobe full of tat that is only worn a few times.  But that’s just my take on the stress that fashion is putting our planet, our home, under.  What do you think?  Can we change our mindset and buy slower and buy better?  Or is it too late, are we already slaves to fast fashion and toxic fashion that kills the people who make it, and ultimately us if it kills our planet too?

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