Fast fashion, sustainability, and home sewing: A Q&A with Jessica Patterson

The pitfalls of Fast Fashion is a topic that has been getting a lot more attention lately, and I’ve been wanting for quite some time to highlight some of the ethical issues around fashion more on this blog. To that end, I was glad to have the chance to profile a good friend of mine, Jessica Patterson (@stuffjessicamakes) for this blog.

Jessica has been sewing her own clothes and doing home sewing, embroidery and design projects for basically her whole life. She made me these super-cute face masks at the start of COVID, for instance. She’s taken a keen interest in the ethical side of the fashion world, in particular, the terrible human and environmental costs of the fast fashion garments that most of us buy.

Recently, Jess made this video on the fast fashion industry, in which she attempted to recreate a blouse from a fast fashion retailer at home from scratch. The catch was, she did it only using sewing and embroidery techniques from the 1910s (or reasonable approximations thereof), in order to replicate as closely as possible how clothing was made during the era of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911.

In the course of this project, Jess dealt with sewing machine issues, painstakingly slow hand embroidery work, and nearly stabbed herself to death. (Okay, that last bit is an exaggeration). She layered her project progress with a chronicle of the history of fast fashion, from the early 20th century to today, shedding light on the many ethical issues inherent in every choice of clothing we make.

The full length video is here, and I urge you to give it a watch (it’s only 8 minutes long, and really well done):

Jessica graciously agreed to do this Q&A chat session for the blog. While at 5’5″, Jess isn’t petite herself, she’s been home sewing long enough to understand that almost everyone has fit issues of some sort that need to be accommodated.

Here, she shares her insights about the fashion industry, sustainability, home projects, and some advice and tips for women of all shapes and sizes who are looking to make smarter and more ethical choices.

Q: What did you learn by doing this project?

A: I learned quite a few technical things about my machine and how to use it. I also learned that comparatively, modern sewists have it easy! I don’t own a fancy computerized machine, but I have used them before and it’s amazing to be able to just program something to sew a shape or design for you rather than do it by hand.

So, for better or worse, the labour I did in the video doesn’t really approximate what goes on in a factory. Not least because they have computerized machines that can automatically do things like embroidery or buttonholes, but also because the garment isn’t necessarily made by one person. It’s all done assembly-line style, and I can tell you from experience in the airline sector (which I talked about in the video) that doing the same thing hundreds of times over in a day is pretty mind-numbing. I wish I had had audiobooks or podcasts back when I worked for my dad!

Q: What about brands that advertise themselves as “ethical” or “sustainable”? What are some of the traps to watch for when shopping?

A: I think the biggest trap is not doing your research. It’s very easy to use unregulated words like “green” and “eco-friendly” to sell clothes, but you should know going in that there is no perfect way to produce most fabrics, there are only better or worse ways. To give you an example, all semi-synthetics like rayon, viscose or modal are made from plant fibres, but the process to make them always involves dangerous chemicals. So when a company says that those fabrics are sustainable, you should look into what they mean by that; is it just that they’re biodegradable and plant based? Or are they actually taking steps to prevent those chemicals from making their way into the environment?

Q: As you know, most of my readers are, like me, petite, as in, shorter than average. What would you say to petites who want to make more ethical shopping choices, but feel limited by the lack of options in our size and proportion?

A: It’s less about what you buy and more about how much you buy. Take care of your clothes, buy with intent to keep things for a long time, search out quality. Don’t worry so much if you have to get something from a particular company because they’re the only one with clothes that fit. It is what it is!

Q: What about thrifting or buying secondhand?

A: I’m a huge proponent of thrifting, especially for things I know won’t last like t-shirts. I cannot for the life of me keep a t-shirt from getting stained for more than a few months. I also love it for things like sweatpants, sweaters for around the house, and to save on expensive items like blazers.

People sometimes argue against middle class or wealthy people thrifting, because they feel this creates a dearth of items for the poor, especially in terms of plus-sized or petite clothes. I disagree with the idea that you shouldn’t thrift if you have the money to buy new, mostly on the basis of the sheer volume of second hand clothes being sold in North America. We have so much that we export the unsellable pieces to Africa in such large numbers that it has a significant impact on the African textile industry, which is of large cultural importance in many countries there. Some countries have even tried to ban these exports and been pressured out of it via trade treaties. So while I don’t personally do things like buy very large items to turn into different things, I don’t think the idea that there’s a huge shortage really holds water.

Q: Do you have any advice for petites who want to sew at home, but struggle to alter or scale down patterns to fit their shorter vertical proportions?

A: I don’t have specific advice for petites, because the adaptations I have to make to my own patterns to scale them to my body are different. But literally everyone has to adapt patterns, since nobody has the exact proportions of the pattern books. I have honestly found YouTube and books are your best friends for anyone doing home sewing. Find a book that is tailored (ha!) toward your particular needs, or a YouTube channel that focuses on alterations. There are so many crafters out there working to educate people essentially for free.

Q: For people just learning to sew at home, what are your top pieces of advice?

A: Start small and work your way up. Learn how your machine works and start by sewing straight lines. Practice sewing curves or zigzag lines. This kind of thing can feel like a waste of time but it’s about developing a skill. When you’re comfortable enough with your machine, start with a small project. A tote bag or pillow sham is a good place to start.

Especially for garments, DO press as you go, it makes for a much better finished project. And for fitting patterns, especially commercial patterns from the Big Four pattern companies, don’t rely only on the measurements in the size chart. Take a look at the finished garment measurements, which are usually printed on the pattern itself, and compare to existing garments that fit you well.

And in terms of the machine itself, learning to troubleshoot will help you a lot. Learning the basics of tension, oiling and threading goes a long way. Replacing your needle regularly, using the right kind of needle for your project, and paying attention to the various settings like stitch length and foot pressure all make a difference. People forget that a sewing machine needs maintenance, just like your car, and you can do most of that at home with the manual as your friend.

Q: What about alterations? Most petites need to bring their clothes to a tailor. Any hacks or tips for easy alterations for petites to do at home?

A: I’m not petite myself, but I do have to hem things sometimes, and sometimes the best way is to just have a friend or partner pin the hem in the correct place while you stand there like a lug in whatever you’re hemming. For any thrift flips, look at the inside of the garment and really think about what you’ll need to change and whether it matches your skills and the amount of time you have. Sometimes something is in a beautiful fabric, but it would take so much altering that it’s not worth it. (I’m thinking of the top that’s on my dressform right now, which has taken me months to get to because it’s chiffon and lace and I had to alter the shoulders and remove and restitch the sleeves.) Some alterations are more straightforward to do than others, so consider the time investment before you buy.

Q: Overall, what do you think the way forward is for the fashion industry?

A: The real solutions have to come through regulation and through pressure on companies to really do better. People want the solution to be about their individual consumer choices, and I don’t think those are pointless, but the problems are so systemic and it’s easy to mislead well-meaning consumers into thinking something is more sustainable than it is.

So it has to be about hitting companies with true responsibility. We need to stop importing things without checking on labour conditions and environmental conditions. We need to find ways to make companies responsible for textile waste. We need to tell our governments that we do not want the developing world to be the dumping ground for stuff we don’t want. And we need to invest in better recycling. At this point, we just don’t have the technology to recycle most textiles in an affordable or profitable way.

Jessica Patterson is a Montrealer who’s a stitcher, writer, and vintage fashion nerd. Follow her on Instagram @stuffjessmakes.

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