Jane Milburn wants to turn the tide on fast, disposable fashion and spark a conversation about where clothes come from, by getting 40 people from across Australia to create 40 garments in 40 weeks.
Her Slow Clothing Project encourages both beginner and advanced “makers” — her new term for dressmakers — to reuse and rejuvenate old clothing, either from the wardrobe or an op shop, or from fabric that has lurked in the cupboard for years.
Ms Milburn said the project celebrated the creative wellbeing and sustainable benefits of sewing, and encouraged people to think about what they wore, and where it came from.
“When you have sewing skills, you can tweak hemlines, sleeves and necklines to give garments a fresh life,” she said. “It’s only when you understand the skill involved in making something that you really appreciate a garment.”
In order to practise real ethical, sustainable fashion — and not waste money — Ms Milburn said we should aim to buy clothing that we could wear at least 30 times.
“This keeps cost-per-wear down,” she said. With cheap, imported clothing readily available in shops these days, Ms Milburn said a lot of skills had been lost. “There’s a whole generation who missed out on learning to sew,” she said. “We’ve recognised that kids weren’t learning to cook and now there’s a focus on cooking programs. “I see sewing as a similar life skill to cooking.”
Fast fashion a ‘race to the bottom on price’
Particularly with the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, Ms Milburn said the tide was turning against cheap, disposable fashion.
“That was a real window into the world of what fast fashion’s about, which is the race to the bottom on price,” she said. “People are being exploited, and you have to be sure that what you’re buying doesn’t have somebody’s blood on it. “People are on a search for meaning now, and the big word is ‘quality’ and a lot of fast fashion isn’t quality because it’s not really made to last — it’s ephemeral.”
Ms Milburn’s background is in agricultural science and her interest in natural fibres stemmed from that work.
“Two-thirds of all new clothing is now made from synthetic fibres, which is a huge change that’s happened in a decade — and that’s in the decade of fast fashion,” she said. “Research shows synthetic fibres absorb bacteria more, they’re hotter, and they feel awful.”
With a mother who taught home economics and wrote a textbook on the subject, it is no surprise that Ms Milburn grew up making her own clothes.
But she also sees the value in up-cycling — altering clothing to give it a new lease on life — and not wasting money on fashion that does not last beyond a season. “The whole thing [fast fashion] is about trading on our insecurities, and planned obsolescence,” she said.
“There are more sustainable ways of dressing and also ways that give you connection to your garments, and gives you something that’s individual.”
70 million kilograms of cast-off clothing
While some people love a good trawl through op shops, Ms Milburn said a lot of people once considered op shopping for “poor people” but now it was for people who wanted to dress sustainably and thriftily.
But she said there was a down-side to giving clothes away. “Every year Australia exports 70 million kilograms of cast-off clothing to the world, and we’re just one of a number of developed nations who are doing that,” she said.
“People send it off to the op shop and think ‘Oh, that saves my conscience, I’m giving’ but in a way, they’d be better off not buying the clothes in the first place and giving money [to charities].”
Ms Milburn said about 20 per cent of clothing donated to op shops would find a new owner locally, but the rest was used for rags, a lot of it was sent to landfill, and the rest was sold to developing nations for $1 a kilogram.
“The problem is a lot of poor-quality clothing is going to developing countries, which needs to be buried or disposed of in their country, and it’s impacting on traditional textile industries and traditional dress with all the western clothing taking over,” she said.
Slow clothing gathers speed
Ms Milburn has started the ball rolling with the project’s first garment, while Julie Hillier is making the second piece.
“Julie’s making a garment from her own pattern, which she uses a lot to teach people how to sew,” Ms Milburn said. “Then there’s Annabelle Brayley, who’s a writer and former nurse from Morven in south-west Queensland, who used to make wedding dresses. “She lives on a property, so she’s used to being resourceful.”
Sheep producer Cath Jarvis from Tottenham, near Dubbo in central-west NSW, is going to make something from her husband’s King Gee trousers, that wear out at the knees.
She patches most of them but, for the Slow Clothing Project, she’s going to turn one pair of trousers into a skirt. “That’s a real reclaim, re-salvage, re-fashion job,” Ms Milburn said.
The idea for the Slow Clothing Project came about while Ms Milburn was working on another project two years ago. “I wanted something that could involve a lot of people — part of it is re-fashion, also natural fibres, hand-made, and I’m hoping that by the range of people I’ve got involved we can see sewing as accessible,” she said.
“It’s not all that hard; the place to start is in the op shop and reclaiming clothes, change the sleeves, and you haven’t lost a great deal. “There will be someone around who would probably be prepared to teach you — you’ve just got to ask. “If we don’t capture the skills of the older generation, it’s something that’s going to be completely lost — except for the diehards.”
The Slow Clothing Project will culminate in a fashion parade of the 40 garments in November, and Ms Milburn hoped to take the collection on a travelling exhibition around regional Australia.
“Each of the garments will have a story. I just hope it starts a conversation about alternative ways of dressing that aren’t just racing out and buying the next thing,” she said.
Ms Milburn wants makers from all around Australia to get involved by registering for the project.