Welcome to the June instalment of Intentional Living. Each month I interview an individual who is living their life in a mindful manner. This month I speak to writer and sustainability consultant Jane Milburn.
Jane Milburn is the accomplished author of Slow Clothing: finding meaning in what we wear. She is the founder of Textile Beat, a unique enterprise that aims to cultivate an interest in ethical and sustainable clothing. Jane also refashions her own beautiful garment creations from well-loved favourites, heirlooms and recycled materials.
I was lucky enough to meet Jane Milburn at the Perth Hills sustainability event Common Threads last month. Jane generously agreed for me to interview her as part of the Intentional Living series.
Jane you are an author, agricultural scientist and media advisor with many accolades. Can you explain what you feel your main purpose is?
I feel empowered and informed by everything that went before. All of my background personally and professionally is now applied to my values-based leadership work as a change maker. The particular area that interests me is clothing and textile re-use and creating a more sustainable clothing culture. So I guess that’s everything to do with how we dress, as well as fabric and fibres. A key purpose is changing the culture around disposable fashion.
What do you define as ‘slow fashion’?
It’s interesting to think about fashion because by definition, fashion is ever changing. It can be what we wear, it can be hairstyles, it can be food. I tend to use ‘slow clothing’ rather than ‘slow fashion’ for that reason. I guess by slow, I mean it’s a slow making process, as well as a slow consumption process, as well as a slow waste process. It’s really about ethical, sustainable and effective use of resources. My focus is on natural fibres rather than petroleum-based fibres which I simply do not wear (swimmers being the exception).
What do you feel like the key message you’re trying to communicate through your work is?
I’m really interested in the health and wellbeing aspects of what we wear, and the potential for being more engaged with our wardrobe by making something for ourselves. There are intangible health benefits in using our hands to make things and opportunities for creative behaviour. In a consumerist society where everything is designed for us, we’re marketed to at every level and come to believe that we need to keep up with trends to impress people. We’re sometimes made to feel inferior if we don’t. If we’re not an average size, or a ‘normal’ shape then we’re always searching for something to make us look and feel good. Really, for me, it’s about connection and agency, investing your own energy and character into what you wear by applying your own hands to it. Obviously, we need a few special occasion dresses, but we should be keeping most of our clothes for a long time and looking after them in a way that extends their lifespan. A ‘buy and throw’ mode of disposable fashion is not good for anyone. It’s actually not healthy for us, it’s not healthy for the workers caught up in that disposable fashion world, and certainly not good for the planet. My message is about more conscious and thoughtful dressing that enables us to feel comfortable and happy with the way we present ourselves.
How did you come to develop an interest and passion for ‘slow clothing’?
I’ve always made some of my own clothes. I grew up in an era before fast fashion, and most of us learned to sew. Clothes were more expensive then, so we didn’t have as many, and we looked after them. I’ve always been hands on, always loved natural fibres from growing up on a sheep farm and my agricultural science degree. In about 2011, when I was working full time as a communications manager, I started noticing textile waste and the fact that the amount of synthetic fibre clothing was growing. I observed that in new shops, op shops, and on the streets, so I became curious about what was going on. In 2013, I did leadership study and decided my future was based around our clothing story, I set up Textile Beat and that story has been evolving ever since.
Fashion is almost like a manufactured series of categories.
Yes, and it is ever-changing. People often buy it because they want to ‘look right’. To dress for yourself, in your own style, is something I’ve always done. I want to be different and unique. The only way to do that is to take charge of your own wardrobe. I buy skivvies and tights but almost everything else I create for myself, and not always in conventional ways. I’m wearing clothes that are a walking statement of reuse. I’ve stepped into my own communication campaign around textile waste, I feel connected to what we wear because I created it myself, and that makes me feel engaged and satisfied. I think mending is a great place to start and is such an important thing. When we mend clothes we are actually mending ourselves. I come across a lot of people who say, ‘I can’t sew’. I say if you can use a needle and thread, you can sew. You can do a lot by hand, adding personal touches and mending. It’s a great way to cover up stains or holes, attach a bit of lace or a patch, or stitching a pattern over them. Extending the life of existing clothes is the most important thing we can do to reduce our material footprint.
So much of it goes to landfill now.
Yes and even if we think we’re doing the right thing by donating, it is actually more useful to donate money then used clothes. A portion (up to 25%) of donated clothes go to landfill and about half ends up in the global second hand trade which is polluting developing nations. They don’t necessarily want our old clothes and African countries are moving to ban them. The better solution is to reduce what we’ve got at hand by wearing clothes for longer wherever we can.
Jane and Craig Reucassel from ABC’s War on Waste at her book launch in Sydney
It’s interesting that you mention the generational thing. I was a teenager in the 90s and that was before the arrival of fast fashion. I remember distinctly shopping second hand, upcycling and making my own stuff because options were limited. I understand those values completely. Things have really taken a turn in the last decade, with the arrival of fast fashion giants in Australia.
Fast fashion stores like H&M only arrived in Australia in 2014 and their business model is based on turnover and ongoing consumption of clothes, so it is hard be see how that’s sustainable. There take-back policy is a nice try, but really it is just greenwashing. It is actually up to us, as individuals, to make different decisions and push that message back up the supply chain by saying we don’t need or want all this stuff. There are simply too many clothes in the world already. I did some market research in Brisbane recently and found some new clothing was marked down to about a third of the original price and still it wasn’t selling.
No, because we are bored of it by then, we want the new things.
We are. Or we don’t want anything! There is not a huge amount of difference between one thing and the next. There is a lot of sameness and most clothes are quickly made to keep the prices affordable. But I think things are changing. The retail market is cooling, and we are more interested in locally and ethically made things – having less of better quality. I feel people are waking up and realising it is not ethical to go shopping for entertainment when you already have all you need. I think change is really upon us.
What are some practical first steps that people can take to become more mindful with their wardrobes?
I have developed a ‘slow clothing action plan’, with the first step being to stop buying for a while. Then study your style needs, what you want, the kind of work you do, the sort of wardrobe that you need. Then audit what you’ve already got. Sort these into piles of ‘keep’, ‘mend’, ‘throw’, ‘pass on’, ‘send to landfill’. Then going forward, it is about making responsible choices, not buying on a whim or on sale.
Responsible choices and actions are part of the slow clothing manifesto. The first action is think before you buy anything. Think about where it fits in your life, how much it’s going to clutter, how many wears it will provide, what you’re going to do with it when you don’t need it anymore. Choosing natural fibres is also important because microplastic shedding from synthetic fibre clothes is polluting our environment. Seek out quality, because that remains long after the price has been forgotten. Look for local product, because local makers and local supply chains are of known provenance and we need to support people who are making the effort to produce locally. Have just a few, a signature style, I know that’s what you do. Then we need to care for what you’ve got, wash less and hang on the line to dry. It is also useful to make something, because until we make something with your own hands, we don’t appreciate the effort and resources that go into the clothes that we buy. We can revive clothes by buying second-hand, sharing, swapping, all of that. Then we can adapt clothes, by chopping and changing or eco-dying, which is what I do. Finallysalvage as a last resort, by turning into bags or rugs or cleaning rags. We can wait for industry to get better at recycling, or we can develop our own systems through more conscious living. Change starts with being aware, and then making choices that are more appropriate – driven by us being centred and calm, rather than buying things as a way of filling ourselves up. Until we accept our real selves and our imperfections, hollow buying (like over eating and drinking) is going to continue. It’s only when we take charge of our lives that we come home to ourselves and are not so easily influenced by the dictates of popular culture. Living directly in the world, experiencing nature and making simple choices is what makes us feel good. We don’t need all the stuff.
A big thank you to Jane for taking time out of her schedule to sit down with me.
Check out Textile Beat to order Slow Clothing: finding meaning in what we wear and to read more. Jane has kindly donated a copy of her book to one lucky reader. Visit my Instagram account to find out how you can win the Jane Milburn giveaway!
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