30 March, 2008

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

For those without a historical timeline in their heads, let me put you in the picture. The 1930s was the decade of the Great Depression that began with the Stock Market Crash of October 1929 and ended with the involvement of the US in World War II in December 1940, a conflict that required everyone to use ration books to purchase essentials like sugar, flour, gasoline, clothing, cooking fats, meat and other daily goods. People who lived in the 1930s survived the whole decade and thensome in the clutches of the worst financial times this country has ever experienced. People lost their jobs, lost their homes. A record number of people were unemployed (I think it was up to 1/3 of all working people, most of whom were the breadwinners in their families). How did they survive?

In a way, the people who survived the Great Depression and WWII were better prepared to "do without" than we are today. Our Western world is a world of abundance. We are never hurting for clothing, furnishings, cleaning items, power sources because we can trot down to the local big W and buy it all cheaply.

The problem is that we buy these things... over and over again. And what do we do with the old ones? They go on the local landfill. Or they float around in barges on the sea to be dumped at the first place where it's allowed (and maybe even where it's not). When you've spent some time out in the open sea, it's shocking the things you see floating in the water and laying on the beaches of the world.

Nowadays waste reduction and recycling is on everyone's minds. We carry our paper waste and cardboard to the local recycling center every week. We don't buy soda so we don't have all those plastic bottles and cans to deal with. We reuse glass bottles whenever we can and we take them to the recycling when they break.

But what about our old clothing? Synthetics are just as un-biodegradable as plastics. Nylon, Lycra, Polyester, Microfibre, and others will sit on a landfill until the human race is extinct and the coakroaches have taken over.

Maybe they'll find a use for it all...

But I'm getting a little far afield. Let me try to steer back to the point. As you know, I'm in love with the clothing of the 1930s. One of my hobbies is collecting sewing books from this time period and the following war years. A recurrent theme of these books is mending your clothing or remaking it to conform to this year's styles -- raising or lowering hemlines, remaking lapels, altering sleeves and adding or removing decoration. During the war years, the mantra "Make Do and Mend" was often heard. Sewing books from that time often included instructions on how to convert a used man's suit into a woman's suit by recutting it and doing away with the worn out areas. This was the act of people who couldn't get new clothing for five years.

It's interesting to me that we never see the people of the 1930s and the war years in rags. I'm sure there are some pictures that don't show people at their best. But of all the family photographs I've seen (and it's my hobby -- I've seen a lot of them), I always see people looking like movie stars. Their hair is done. Their makeup is perfect. Their clothing is clean and pressed and not a thread is out of place.

One day I asked my Mum about this phenomenon. Mum was born in 1930 and was a teenager in the War Years. She told me that because they only had one or two skirts, they took very good care of them. They knew that if they abused this skirt, there wouldn't be a replacement for it. So they treated their clothing well. And it lasted.

The problem is that you have to buy good clothing in order for it to last long enough to be remade. Good clothing costs more. But if a pair of pants lasts through ten years of frequent wear, how much more are they worth than the pair that will fall apart and end up in a landfill after only one?

I am, of course, fixating on the clothing side of this equation. But this can be extended to other things. Many new mothers are considering laundering diapers instead of using disposables, and there are diaper services that cater to them. This I applaud. But the non-maternal of us can do things to. Ever write with a fountain pen? Can you count the amount of pens you've thrown away in your lifetime? Recycling isn't just about aluminium cans and plastic bottles. It's about everything we throw away.

Imagine if there was no dump, no garbage collection and all your garbage had to live in your backyard (that's what the Italians are dealing with). Think about that the next time you buy one of those calculators where you can't change the battery. Think about that when you get a new cell phone every year because your plan gives you one for free.

Those of you who know me know I'm hardly a luddite, and I'm not suggesting a rejection of technology to anyone. I earn my living on a laptop and with two industrial printers. My products are sold around the world with the assistance of FedEx and their fleet of trucks and planes. I travel widely and love my little blue convertible.

But I ask, do we really need disposible pens?


Anne said...

I actually learned about remaking clothes from Louisa May Alcott "An Old fashioned Girl" not one of the better known of her books, discusses the reversal of fortune of the family: one of the things they do is go through the girls' wardrobes,, rip apart the gowns, and remake them inside out to use the unstained/unfaded side of the fabric ('turning one's gowns')They also cut one that was too badly stained down for a younger child, and used scraps to trim their hats. This was one of the first things I remembered when I started getting into discussions with Ren Faire folks about making kid's clothes: and of course the research I'd been doing pointed out how often trims or detail work was on things in order to extend it's life.

Marie said...

It kind of disappoints me how much we DON'T NEED to reuse because it makes reusing too much of a chore with little gain. These things people did were creative and clever, which is attractive to start with, and they had less clutter and their possessions had more value, which is also an attractive prospect. However, is it worth a modern person to go to this kind of effort when we can just buy more?
This is not an argument against your point, but an expression of regret in a way that we don't NEED to value what we have. It's all just cheap, throwaway, replaceable. Obviously this is good in some ways - it's good to have abundance.
I wonder why, though, we don't use our abundance and technology to make things that are BETTER; why do we mostly produce just more and more crappy rubbish?!
Hopefully though we can implement "reduce, reuse, recycle" in appropriate ways that fit in with our modern lifestyle - for example, disposable pens are ugly, surely we deserve better than that!

Good blog post :) If you wish to write more on this issue with respects to fabric and clothing, it would be fascinating reading. (hint, hint, feel free to write more!)

Kate said...

Doing my part to reduce the amount of stuff in landfills by collecting old torn-up jeans and turning them into dog toys. :)

That said, great post and I agree with it all. Trying to declutter but tough to do when starting a business. I'm getting rid of stuff but more comes in. Ah well, people will buy things and then I'll have less again. :)

Tempted to go neo-luddite and start writing things with dip pens...

Anonymous said...

Good post. I've been mending a few favorite cardigans for years, and also a vest -- wool that got mildly attacked some years ago, but I seem to have contained the problem to three articles of clothing, where every now and then one of them gets a small hole. The mends on L's old work pants are quite obvious, since he tends to rip them in inconvenient places for a logical-looking patch. Then again, he had me do the patches in a contrasting fabric, simply because they are for doing dirty work around the farm in and he thinks more people ought to be less worried about a perfect appearance if all they're doing is mucking out the barn. Eventually though, those sorry pants will fail despite patching, at which point I hope to replace them with linen pants (homemade, of course). And then, the raggedy pants will likely be cut into strips to make rugs.

I've thought about doing some more tailored clothing, but since I actually seem to be finally succeeding at losing weight again... well, I'll practice on simpler clothing first, and work my way up to the nicer stuff when I'm a bit lighter.

I have a rather nice collection of linens and wools to work with too!

On other things, L used to have a fountain pen, until it failed one day... he hasn't had to buy a disposable pen in many years though -- they keep showing up. He has a box of them at this point... I do still use Pigma pens for artwork (until they die, of course, which takes a while). I tried a technical pen and it died faster than the disposables, despite my best care in cleaning it. But maybe I should look into getting L a new fountain pen...

Anonymous said...

Good post.
We try to recycle as much as possible, but in the most obvious places we have no choice. Milk used to be available in glass bottles, but nowadays there's only 2 liter plastic bottles or 1.5 liter cartons - both of which are not easy to recycle. In the Netherlands, there is no seperate system for collecting plastic (yet, they are supposedly working on a system).
And if I look at our trashcan, there's a lot of plastic and foodremains in there. Maybe just because we recycle the rest and there's no seperate reclamation for food scraps. I wish for a garden, so I can do my own compost.

maricelt said...

Hi there K. Nope, I'm not Marie, I'm Maricelt. Looks like I have a few posts to catch up on . More later.

Oogie McGuire said...

One problem is that you can't even *find* well made good stuff to buy.

I'm currently looking for 2 clothing items. A really nice "posh frock" so I have one really good dress for the rare occasions when I need one. I have a 2 piece black velvet outfit that I bought almost 15 years ago. It's still stylish but I look deathly ill in black, I'm a more spring color type and I really need something not so somber for around here. All I can find that fits is crap in man-made fibers sewn like junk. I want a nice wool or linen dress, but they are not to be found.

The other thing I'm looking for is a very nice tailored 1 or 2 button blazer and pants set in a really good wool in either a bright clear navy blue or a nice cream color. Not only can't I find anything that's tailored but I can't even find anything in good wool.

My sewing skills are not up to doing it myself but I was tempted so I looked for fabric, no decent worsted wool yet in 2 fabric stores over the last several months.

It's hard to buy good well made clothing and there are no tailors locally that are listed in the phone book. (Local is within 100 miles of here.)

Anne said...

"can't even find a tailor..." That's interesting. I recently moved and went from knowing of at least 4 people who did alterations and custom work, (that was in Frederick MD) to here (Coral Springs, FL) where there seems to be yet another tailor every other block. And every laundry/dry cleaner has a sign that they do custom sewing as well.

When it comes to buying good cloth (I sew too) I rely on the internet: There's faddy stuff at JoAnn's but I can't seem to get good plain wool, linen or silk anywhere anymore.

Of course, if one's in the DC area, there's G Street fabrics, and when I travel to NYC for vacations or such, I always visit the fashion district.

Oogie McGuire said...

The dry cleaners does not do any sewing at all, there is only one in the whole county. We have 2 retail clothing stores in our area and neither has anything other than Carhartt and jeans type stuff. I've even asked around. There are a couple ladies who are known for altering prom dresses but they have never done a garment from scratch and won't attempt a tailored jacket.

I've looked in the yellow pages under tailors, custom sewing, clothing, sewing and haven't found anything. What am I missing? or is it just one of the hazards of living in a very rural area.....

I've never even made it to Denver Fabric, that's a 6 hour drive away and it's probably the nearest store with real fabrics.

Kass McGann said...

I don't know if it was the case where you are, Oogie, but in some rural areas, itinerant tailors would visit clients and live in their out buildings or guest rooms while doing their tailoring for the year. Cloth would be bought in advance and the tailors would sew it up in the client's home. So it is possible that your area of the country never had a tailoring trade.

Of course even in areas where there were tailors there aren't anymore. Anne is talking about the DC area and Coral Gables, both are highly-populated and wealthy areas. I'm not surprised she has no trouble finding a tailor.

But take heart! Since the idea of having clothing made/fit by a tailor goes hand-in-hand with having better-made clothing that lasts longer, it really *is* worth the trip to the big city to have your clothing made.

Anne said...

Oh "heck" hon, I wasn't trying to 'one up' you or anything... I just thought that perhaps there was an alternative resource/venue you could try. Where do you live? I haven't a clue.. and it makes a huge difference. I still say, the internet makes anyplace alocal resource.

Oogie McGuire said...

No problem. The internet makes everything seem local but then reality sets in...

I'm not sure what the local history in clothing is. This area was settled in the late 1800s to early 1900s so fairly recently. Our farm was settled in 1903 and our orchard was planted in 1905. Our ditch decree is from 1884 and is one of the earliest in the valley. It was only legal for white settlement since 1880.

When I was a kid we had a nice clothing store in town but they went belly-up between when I left and when I came back. I think about the same time as the shopping mall went in at the city 75 miles away.

I am trying to learn sewing, but it's frustrating with no one to ask for help when I get stuck and I'm timid in trying things. I can get lots of help quilting, we have a thriving quilt business, enough local quilters to keep 6+ long arm quilters fully booked a year or more in advance finishing tops local folks make.

And our own farm shop is developing into a resource for local knitters and weavers with locally produced yarns and we've started some limited classes (held a naalbinding one last fall and some informal spinning and tatting ones this winter) but no one does much sewing as such.

I should ask the Mennonite ladies, they sew all their own stuff, it's simple styles but perhaps they would give lessons.

I'll persevere but it may take a while, esp. now, we're going to be lambing in less than 3 weeks.

Corbie said...

Funny you should mention that... I was just reading a blog post called "Shopping Strategies of Millionaires: Buy Used or Buy Quality".

I've also been reading the Tightwad Gazette (borrowed from my library); she recommends buying used, high-quality items from thrift stores. Unfortunately the thrift stores near me are full of cheap crap from WalMart, so eBay is my thrift store. Yes, I pay for shipping, but I'm still ahead buying a good wool blazer, linen skirt, or quality shoes even factoring shipping into the cost, since these items cost the same as or less than full retail for a cheaper, lower-quality equivalent in regular stores.

Plus I figure eBay is a form of recycling :)