The stories clothes can tell …

Stories my clothes can tell ...

Two years ago, I wrote a short essay about the moment I realized I’d lost all interest in storebought clothes, which was published last year in Hannah Thiessen’s book Slow Knitting. It’s still one of my favorite bits I’ve written about how transformative slow fashion has been for me, so I reached out to the publisher and got permission to republish it here in honor of Slow Fashion October

. . .

Slow Knitting by Hannah ThiessenI’VE BEEN a clothes horse and fashion junkie my entire life, and have always understood fashion as an art form, style as an act of creative expression. I was the typical kid who never properly appreciated all the beautiful clothes my mom made me, and the atypical kid who lived for the Saturday morning runway news on CNN. (Google “Elsa Klensch,” seriously.) I’ve also always understood that clothes could become special to you, souvenirs of a place or time in your life — the outfit you picked out to boost your confidence upon arrival at sleepaway camp for the first time, or the dress you were wearing the night your husband proposed. But I had no idea how many levels of meaning a garment can hold until I began to make my own in earnest.

As every knitter knows, we stitch our lives into our projects. A sweater can take weeks or months to complete, and when you put it on, you’ll always be aware of the trips, waiting rooms, or cross-country moves the sweater accompanied you through. Learning to knit a few years ago led me back to sewing (after years of gradually forgetting most of what my mother had taught me), but before I really dusted off my machine, I enlisted a talented friend to make me two garments that were beyond my skills — a dress for my brother’s wedding and a tunic with a faced yoke and hand-stitched finish, both of them beautiful. And both complete with memories of working with Alyssa on them — going to her house to try on muslins and all of it. Not fancy clothes, but genuinely one-of-a kind. At the same time, I was filling my closet with sweaters made with my own two hands and their respective sets of memories, and slowly falling out of love with storebought.

The more you think about this stuff, the more you tune in to — and it turns out there’s a whole other level beyond the making itself, such as where the yarn and fabric come from, and how they came into your possession. I have a vest, for example, knitted of Hole & Sons wool, from British sheep I followed on Instagram for years before the farmer decided to make yarn from their fleece and I got to have some! Direct from that beautiful farm. I have multiple yarns produced by friends who worked directly with the farmers and mills to make something meaningful and unique for their shops, despite making no profit on it, and those stories and friendships will be part of whatever the yarns become. I have a top sewn from fabric a friend back in California sent me after I’d moved away to Tennessee, that she dyed in the natural indigo vat she worked so long and hard to bring to life. It’s some of the best sewing I’ve ever done, and so represents both of our triumphs. The list goes on. And on.

I remember the moment I realized that my lifelong relationship with clothes had changed irrevocably. My husband and I were in a J.Crew store (long one of my most reliable sources) and I was standing in the sale area, sliding hanger after hanger along the racks, unmoved. Even the lilac cardigan I’d coveted in photos — now more than half off! — stirred not an ounce of want, and not just out of concerns about what sort of faraway factory it might have been made in, and whether the workers were paid a living wage. (Although of course there’s always that.) I just remember feeling so intensely, these are just clothes. I have the power to make treasures.

. . .

On a similar note, I posted on Instagram the other day about how the simple outfit pictured above is actually a walking scrapbook, a post that began with the words “My clothes tell stories, even if only I can hear them… .” I plan to tell these stories more often and would love to hear yours, too — both during and beyond Slotober. Let’s use hashtag #myclothestellstories, shall we?


PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion October: Style Crush x 3

© Karen Templer for Abrams Books/Hannah Thiessen; reprinted with the publisher’s permission

27 thoughts on “The stories clothes can tell …

  1. Great essay. My husband and I were just talking about how, as teenagers, we would go and wander around the mall and want to buy things. Now every time I absolutely must enter a mall I cringe. Or when you mention Rana Plaza to people and they have no idea what you’re taking about. I remember reading that story in the Toronto Star and from that moment on my perspective on clothing changed. I found myself looking at labels to find out where this garment was made. And now my sister does too. People always tell me one person can’t change the system but it’s not only one person when you explain over and over again why you make certain choices. Now its all the people you’ve explained yourself to. If people don’t know they can’t make informed decisions. I couldn’t before I read that article. On a tight budget we’re mostly living in quality, natural fiber, secondhand. I wish I could source absolutely everything from living wage paid artisans who are respected for what they do. Little, by little … every choice counts.

    • Absolutely. If I go anywhere near a mall now, all I can do is picture how many cargo ships worth of merchandise are in there and how much of it will go unsold, or sold and quickly discarded, back onto the cargo ships …

  2. “I have the power to make treasures.” I love this to infinity.

    I haven’t learned to sew, mostly because I don’t have the time to be tethered to a sewing machine (knitting is portable, and it can be frogged if you got distracted and screwed up). You keep inspiring me to learn. In a few years, when my kids are out of the house!

  3. When reading essays such as this, I am reminded that our forebears did not have a closet full of clothing – they often had only two or three outfits: one or two for every day and one for special occasions. Their clothing was always “locally sourced” and made by hand: often with fabric woven from yarns spun at home, made from fibers grown or harvested by hand. They cared well for their clothing and made it last as long as it could. When worn beyond its ability to be repaired, the scraps would be re-purposed into quilts – or at fabric’s life end, cleaning rags. And then used until the fibers were no more.
    Perhaps this is the goal we should have for our slow-fashion October: Make it a slow-fashion Life.

    • Yeah, I mean even in the 60s, it was like if you had a big night out, would you wear your red dress or your blue dress? Everything changed so drastically with the rise of fast fashion, our mindsets just need a major reset!

  4. Like a sweater from yarn I’ll buy on a trip. My own handmade personal souvenir. I bought some in Sedona, AZ and that knitted piece brings back the red rocks everytime I wear it.

  5. I think this is lovely, and I do enjoy the idea of clothing as souvenirs or reminders of different times or places in one’s life. I think this can become problematic, however, when it prevents us from letting go of things that are no longer useful to us. I’m thinking of myself here: after I had my first child, my body changed enough that I could no longer wear most of the clothes I had treasured from my childless days. (I lost the weight but my rib cage and hips changed so much that my very tailored wardrobe no longer fit.) I could remember every place I’d been in a certain dress, or the skirt I had worn on my first date with my husband, or the cardigan my mother had given me for my 30th birthday…essentially I had a closet full of beautiful clothes that I could not wear, and it really hurt my self-image to look at them every day and know that I could not wear them again. At some point I had to accept that they were “just clothes” to finally consign and donate them and give myself the space to acquire new clothes that actually fit. My point is: I really appreciate the intent of the slow fashion movement, and it has helped me to be much more conscious about what I make and buy, but I think it is possible to assign too much emotional weight to clothes in a way that is actually harmful to one’s mental health.

    • Perhaps save one item that evokes a fond memory. My mom passed over 25 years ago and I saved one of her old shirts. It was not fancy or expensive, just one I can still see her in wearing while doing everyday stuff. It is small and takes one hanger’s worth of room.

    • I’ve struggled with similar difficulty in parting with meaningful things that didn’t fit me and held on to them for years. Eventually I decided to pass those clothes along and sold them through a consignment shop. Now I imagine that they can be the perfect thing for someone else’s first date, job interview or special event— which feels even more powerful! Good clothes can have many lives.

    • Dianne, you’re right — it is a fine line between the two. I love what Vanessa said below: “Now I imagine that they can be the perfect thing for someone else’s first date, job interview or special event— which feels even more powerful!”

  6. I have my Dad’s Viyella Black Watch Housecoat from 40 years ago with his stub of a pencil used only for Saturday crosswords still in the pocket. It lives in the back of my closet and I will never get rid of it. I see it and perhaps give it a squeeze once or twice a year and enjoy, sometimes, tearfully, the memories that it brings back. I sometimes even wear it and give the stubby pencil a rub.

    • I have the dress my aunt was wearing on the day I was born. It happened to be her 22nd birthday. I will never be able to wear it, but it hangs in the closet and reminds me of her, and makes me think of my own nieces and nephew who brought me such joy just by being born.

  7. The simple jumper in natural brown wool spun by my mother in law (with a strand of black mohair to suddenly lift it to a luxe fabric) that taught me how to knit in the round, the sleeves knitted while standing in yards and paddocks watching my teenage daughter horse ride. I would use a small handbag worn cross-body style to hold the yarn at my hip. I think of this every time I wear it.

  8. I love this idea of creating treasures and being mindful about our wardrobe. So glad October rolls around every year to bring this back up to the forefront.

    We never had much money for clothes when I was young, so when I got a job and could buy my own things, I DID! oh, the shoes I had! Now I have settled back down to a more basic wardrobe, and the check book appreciates it, as does the part of my brain that is in charge of getting me dressed and out the door in the morning. That is above and beyond all of the social and global economic impacts.

  9. Love the Instagram post and love this essay! Truly, your blog has been a real highlight in my reading life for the past three or even four years, now. It’s a rare week that goes by without me checking this site at least once.

  10. Love your post. I’ve just bought some Daruma yarn whilst on holiday here on Japan, destined to be made into a sweater that will instantly remind me of my trip here every time I wear it (the best kind of souvenir, I reckon!). PS – bought it at the Walnut Kyoto store, home of amirisu magazine which was a “bucket list” place to visit for me.

  11. I watched Elsa Klensch as a teenager + just tried to make a mental note of each + every little detail as it seemed to whiz by faster than any other time in the week. I never met anyone else who watched that show until I met my husband, who said he watched it too…but for the music!

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