Intentional Living | Slow Clothing with Jane Milburn
Welcome to the June installment of Intentional Living. Each month I interview an individual who is living their life in a mindful manner. This month I speak to author, media advisor and communicator 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 meat Jane Milburn at Perth sustainability event Common Threads last month. She generously agreed for me to interview her as part of the Intentional Living series.
Jane you are an author, agricultural scientist, media advisor with many accolades. Can you explain what you feel your main purpose is?
It’s interesting. I’m kind of empowered and informed by everything that went before. All of my background personally and professionally, and now I feel I’m doing values based leadership as a change maker. The particular area that interests me is textiles and textile re-use and making. So I guess everything to do with thread, fabric and fiber. A key thing 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 use of resources, and particularly natural resources because my focus is on natural fibres rather than petroleum based clothes.
What do you feel like the key message you’re trying to communicate through your work is?
A big thing that I believe is that we’ve got intangible health needs around using our hands and opportunities for creative behaviour. Really, it’s the health and wellbeing of what we wear. In a consumerist society we’re marketed to, and we come to believe that we need to keep up with trends to impress people, and we’ve got to have the latest. We’re made to feel inferior. If we’re not an average shape, 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 around the clothes that we wear everyday for health and wellbeing. 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, so we’re not in our ‘buy and throw’ modes, which is not good. It’s actually not healthy for us, it’s not healthy for the poor workers caught up in that disposable fashion world, and certainly not good for the planet. I guess it’s about more conscious and thoughtful dressing that enables us to feel comfortable and happy with the way that we present ourselves.
How did you come to develop an interest and passion for ‘slow clothing’?
I’ve always been interested in making my own clothes. I haven’t always made everything, but I started making as a child. I can certainly remember making my first dress as a thirteen year old. I grew up in an era before fast fashion, and most of us learnt to make our own clothes. They were more expensive then, so we didn’t have as many, and we looked after them. I’ve always been hands on, I’ve always loved natural fibres from agricultural science study, and I’ve naturally gravitated to them. In about 2011, when I was working full time as a communications manager, I started observing textile waste, also, the fact that the amount of synthetic fibre clothing was growing. I observed that in shops, op-shops, and actually on people in the streets, so I became curious about what was going on. In about 2013, when I did this leadership study, I decided that my future was based around what was going on with clothes. I’m particularly interested in what we wear rather than recycling into other products or bags or things that are separate from us. I find it quite fascinating that people seem to have difficulty owning their own style, I guess.
Fashion is almost like a manufactured series of categories.
Yes, and they’ve got to be right. ‘I bought that because it made me look right’. To actually dress yourself, it’s something that I’ve always done. I’ve wanted to be different and unique. The only way to do that really, is to take charge of your own wardrobe. I buy skivvies, and polos, and tights, and almost everything else I tend to create for myself, and not always in conventional ways, because I guess I’m wearing clothes that are a statement, a walking statement of reuse. My values surround natural fibres. I’ve stepped into my own communication campaign around textile waste, but also about that connection to what we wear and how we can be more engaged, and being satisfied with imperfections somehow. Also, I think mending is such an important thing. When we mend clothes we’re kind of mending ourselves, because we’re accepting that we can fix ourselves. What I’m trying to convince everyone is to use a needle and thread so there is always a future. I’ve come across so many people that say, ‘I can’t sew’, but it starts with a needle and thread, and you can do so much by hand. Particularly add little personal touches and certainly mending. It’s great for covering up stains, you just attach a bit of lace, or a patch or do some stitching over it. Extending the life of existing clothes is the most important thing that 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, we’re donating it on, but actually people would rather have you give money. That’s more useful to people than used clothes, half of which end up in developing nations in the global second hand trade which is polluting other countries. It’s not really welcome, the African countries are moving to ban second hand clothes from third world. I think that’s not a permanent solution. The better solution is to reduce what we’ve got at hand by extending its life, and using up wherever we can.
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.
They actually only arrived in some part of Australia 2014. They’ve only been here for a short amount of time. It’s a business model based on turnover and ongoing consumption of clothes that we really don’t need. I feel it’s up to us as individuals to make different decisions and push back that message about the supply chain and say we don’t need all this stuff. I did a bit of market research myself in Brisbane city, and at H&M, for example, clothing was marked down nearly a third at the front of the shop. There was no great signage saying it was marked down. Even then people weren’t all over it.
No, because they are bored of it by then, they want the new things.
We are. Or we don’t want anything! There is not a huge amount of difference often between one thing and the next. There is a lot of sameness and a lot of the clothes are quickly made to keep the prices affordable. I think it’s changing. If you look at what’s happening in the retail market, it’s cooling. I feel as if people are waking up to think that it’s not really 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 what I call a ‘slow clothing action plan’, and its really about stopping 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 to present yourself. It’s thinking about that and then it’s actually auditing what you’ve already got. Sorting out what you’ve already got and creating piles of ‘keep’, ‘mend’, ‘throw’, ‘pass on’, ‘send to landfill’. Going forward it’s responsible choices. That’s a little action plan. For the everyday develop what I call a ‘slow clothing manifesto’, which is about choices and actions. The first one is thinking before you buy anything. Think about where it fits in your life, how much it’s going to clutter, what you’re going to do when you don’t need it anymore. Think natural because of this problem with plastic fibres polluting our environment and quality because that remains long after the prices have been forgotten. Looking for local product, being able to support local makers an our local supply chain, particularly natural fibres in Australia. We need to be bringing that back, supporting people who are making in an effort to be local. Having few, having a signature style, I know that’s what you do. Then its caring for what you’ve got, making, because until you make something with your own hands, you don’t appreciate the effort and resources that go into the clothes that we buy. Knowing how to make on a simple level is really important. Then it’s about reviving, buying second hand, sharing, swapping, all of that. Adapting clothes, which is what I do, and then it’s salvaging as a last resort. Chopping things up to make rags or making rugs and things like that. I just feel its a circular thing that is more conscious living, it starts with that, being aware, and then making choices that are more appropriate and driven by us centred being rather than being on the search for the purchasing as a way of justifying ourselves. Until we really accept ourselves and our own imperfection and reality, that hollow buy is going to continue, that hollow consumption, even eating and drinking is going to continue. It’s only when we take charge of our own lives that I think we come home to find ourselves and that way we can not be so influenced by popular culture. It’s actually living directly in our world and what our lives are rather than thinking the solution is the next big thing.
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 from Jane. Jane has also generously agreed to donate a copy of her book to a lucky reader. Check out my Instagram account to find out how you can win the Jane Milburn giveaway!