Clothing is a dish best served slow according to textile activist Jane Milburn, recipient of the 2019 Churchill Fellowship, whose pioneering work in upcycling and mending has firmly reset the fashion agenda.
Jane, you’ve had a diverse career in agricultural science, journalism and communications and now as a Slow Clothing activist. Were you always passionate about what we wear?
Natural fibres are the recurring theme for me, because I grew up on a sheep farm in New Zealand, then went on to graduate in agricultural science from The University of Queensland. My rural journalism work kept me connected with Australia’s fibre industries – wool and cotton – and, of course, these fibres (as well as linen and silk) are mainstays in my wardrobe. As a student, many moons ago, I was making my own clothes, op shopping and adapting dresses inherited from my great aunt – and that’s pretty much been my practice throughout my life. The only new purchase that remains in my wardrobe is a classic wool suit from Veronika Maine.
What’s your Slow Clothing philosophy? What does it mean to you? Through earlier work with the Rural Press Club and farm group AgForce, I was sharing stories about where food comes from and loved Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food (and his new one, Cooked). It made sense to think about clothes in the same way as food. Slow clothing is about dressing for health and wellbeing. It’s about making independent and individual choices rather than following trends. It’s based on actions and choices; think natural, quality, local, few, care, make, revive, adapt and salvage. The first five actions are straightforward, while the next five are more hands-on – if you have the time and inclination.
What inspired you to take action and become a leader in the movement?Leadership is an action you take, not a position you hold. In 2011, I went to a preloved fashion fundraiser and bought 30 shirts for $60,which got me thinking. I’d noticed the increase in synthetic fibres and became curious. I was doing postgraduate leadership study in 2013 when the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh collapsed. All these things contributed to me stepping up to create more conversation about ways of dressing that reduce our social and ecological impact. The case for change has become more compelling ever since. I feel honoured to have won a 2019 Churchill Fellowship to travel overseas, gather information and further enhance my slow clothing philosophy.
Tell us about Textile Beat. What’s its mission?
Textile Beat is a purposeful leadership initiative that enables me to speak out and influence change. It’s grounded in my values of authenticity, creativity, autonomy and purpose, and is particularly focused on natural fibres, upcycling and slow clothing philosophy.
Fast fashion has caused enormous problems for our environment: there’s the pollution, the waste and, of course, the terrible treatment of the factory workers who make these clothes. Why do you think it became so enticing? When did we stop caring about the quality of our clothes and why?
Such a big question… When we outsource our needs to industrial supply chains, we lose sight of where and how things are made, and from what [materials]. Slavery combined with increasing use of synthetic/plastic fibres, has led people to buy two to four times what we used to, resulting in waste and pollution, and a loss of skills and knowledge about clothes. Over the past two decades, globalisation and production efficiencies have meant it is cheaper to buy clothes than make them. We’ve got used to affordable, ever-changing styles. Shopping is addictive and we’re encouraged to buy quantity over quality for the good of the economy. It’s only when we stop and think about why clothes are so cheap that we come to understand they’re not properly costed, that exploitation of people and resources exists in the system.
Australians are the world’s second-largest consumers of new textiles. The amount of clothes we send to landfill each year per person is astounding… We buy 27kg of clothing and send around 23kg to landfill, per person, every year. How can we change the cycle?
These are figures I pulled together in 2017 from a couple of different sources and they highlight the need for change. We’ve become more conscious of reducing food waste now we know that up to a third is wasted. The same applies for clothing and textile waste. We are the solution. We can make different choices.
Fast fashion has also stripped us of some very useful skills, hasn’t it? Which skills should we relearn?
Mending! We all need to know how to sew on a button, mend a hem, a tear or a popped seam. It’s a simple life skill. When we mend our clothes, we mend ourselves too, because the process gives us a sense of care, agency and autonomy, and we save money and resources. Just extending the life of a garment by nine months reduces its carbon and water footprint by up to 30 per cent. Once you start mending you become more confident and this leads to upcycling and making – for those with the time and inclination to create for themselves.
Can you tell us a bit about the workshops you’ve run?
I do workshops by invitation and that range from beginner to advanced sessions in mending and upcycling. I’m self-taught in making. I’ve learned by doing. It’s good to see community events I’ve helped initiate – including Revive and WornOUT? – thriving and influencing change.
Natural fibres are beautiful, there’s no doubt about it, but often the cost of them is much greater than the synthetic alternatives. How do we could solve this market problem?
Everything we do has an ecological impact. Synthetics are plastic, harbour bacteria, need more washing (and shed microplastics) and they never breakdown. Yes, natural fibres have impact, but that’s why we need to wear them until they wear out and then cycle them back into nutrients by composting or an industrial recycling process.
What are some of the greatest challenges you see the fashion industry facing, looking down the barrel of Climate Change?
We, the wearers, can influence the future of industry through our buying choices. We need fewer clothes of better quality, which we look after and wear for longer. The Ellen Macarthur Foundation has summarised four industry recommendations as a way forward:
1. Phase out substances of concern and microfibre release
2. Transform the way clothes are designed, sold, and used to break free from their increasingly disposable nature
3. Radically improve recycling by transforming clothing design, collection, and reprocessing
4. Make effective use of resources and move to renewable inputs.
Do you think your philosophy of dressing for health and wellbeing rather than status and looks is at odds with the nature of fashion? Is the term Slow Fashion an oxymoron?
Yes, it may well be at odds with the conventional narrative of fashion. But in the rush to own things for reasons of status and looks, we lose the opportunity to be mindful and resourceful through the act of making and creating. I’ve never followed fashion hemlines, colours or other dictates because I’m more interested in what works for me, what’s comfortable, convenient and healthful. Yes, Slow Fashion does seem an oxymoron because fashion by definition is ever changing, so how can it be slow or sustainable? That’s why I talk about Slow Clothing instead. It makes more sense to me.
Do we need a ‘Fashion Revolution’ then to get back on track? What would this revolution look like and how can we make it happen? Or has it already begun?
Yes, there is a Fashion Revolution happening and it was sparked by Rana Plaza, which exposed the slavery and exploitation in fashion supply chains that continues to this day. While I’m part of Fashion Revolution Australia, my key interest is empowering people to make different choices and be more hands-on. Until we make something with our own hands, we can’t appreciate the resources, time and skills that go into the clothes we buy.
How can we encourage big brands to become more ethical? Or is it a matter of refusing to buy anything new?
Ask questions and look beyond the marketing spiel. Pay more for quality items, because quality remains long after price is forgotten. Sometimes we just have to choose the least-worst option. Buying preloved and upcycling is always a good option, if you can find what you need.
Jane Milburn is the author of Slow Clothing: Finding Meaning In What We Wear, an exploration of sustainable ways of dressing and reducing our material footprint. It includes how-to-mend illustrations, upcycling ideas and patterns, and profiles on clothing makers. It’s available at local libraries, online bookshops and on her website textilebeat.com
Main featured image courtesy and copyright Robin McConchie
Watch Jane Milburn talking about Slow Clothing on YouTube: