Exhibition: British Textile Biennial (1)

Yesterday the British Textile Biennial (programme) was kicked off with the opening lecture held at the Blackburn Museum & Art Gallery.

The lecture started off with a brief story about the Penistone cloth on display in the museum. This is a small sample of handspun and handwoven material that was used to create garments for slaves.

After this introduction, Gus Casely-Hayford, director of the V&A East, held his talk discussing his own cultural history as a descendant of Ghanaian migrants and the role textiles have played in this culture and in his own family.

Gus continued by highlighting how the true cost of today’s fashion is rarely quantified, as these days fashion can be bought for very little money despite the industry being a major polluter using extremely-low-paid labour in developing countries. The low cost of fashion results in many of us in developed nations placing little to no value on our garments. A consequence of this is that many of us easily dispose of our ‘old’ clothes.

We might donate our used garments to a textiles collection point or charity shop, thinking we are doing the right thing. However, many of these textiles end up being shipped to Africa where they may end up clogging the local environment through trash heaps on beaches, huge landfills, being burned etc.

I was aware of this issue as I have seen several documentaries on this topic. However, something I didn’t know is that these mountains of (wet) fabrics form a breeding ground for mosquitoes. These are mosquitoes that can carry human illnesses such as malaria.

Gus’ view is that we should buy less, buy locally, wear our garments for longer, and care more. These seem like great ways to improve the current situation, but it might be hard to convince the average person living in a developed country to change their lifestyle/spending habits. Let’s take a look at each of these recommendations:

  • ‘Buy less’ sounds easy enough, right? Just stop buying so many items. Even if you do nothing else, this strategy will end up saving you money. Who doesn’t love that? By buying less, you reduce the demand meaning fewer garments are going to be produced, meaning less waste and less pollution.
  • ‘Buy locally’ is possibly not so easy to do and/or not an option for everyone. Buying garments made nearer to where you live would mean buying garments made by a British or at least European textile worker. Our wages are much higher than those of exploited textile workers in developing nations. This means that garments made nearer to us are going to be more expensive. Not everyone is able to spend more money on their clothes, although I would argue that many of us actually can, it would just mean that you have less money left over for other things. But even if you can’t afford to spend (much) more on fashion, if you combine the strategy of buying locally with buying less, you might find that you do indeed have money for locally-made clothes. If you spend £150 a month on fashion on, say, 10 items from a fast-fashion retailer, you could spend that same £150 on fewer items that are made nearer to you. Especially when you consider your annual budget, of, in this example, £1800. The expectation is that locally-made items are higher in quality, so hopefully the higher cost will pay off in the item looking good for longer and lasting much longer.
  • Wearing items for longer is such a no-brainer. Why do you have to have a new wardrobe twice a year, or perhaps even more often? I never really understood trends because I always just wore whatever I liked because I have developed my own sense of style (or lack thereof, ha!). If you let go of the idea of trends and develop your own style, you will never be ‘last season’ and you can hold on to your garments for years if not decades. If you combine this strategy with buying items made nearer to you (‘buy locally’) that will hopefully be of higher quality, you should love wearing your garments for year after year as the item remains looking good for much, much longer than the cheaply-made items you bought for the same price you paid for a coffee or take-away dinner.
  • Finally, ‘care more’. We should care more about where our garments are made, who made our garments, and under what circumstances our garments were made. We should also care about the environmental effects of the manufacturing of our garments. And we should care more about our garments. If you get a small hole, mend it instead of throwing the whole garment out. If you have a split seam, fix it instead of ‘donating’ the garment to a charity shop or a textile bin. Maybe the hem of your jeans have frayed a lot. You can get a new hem made (or even do this yourself), although the legs will now be shorter. Or you could deliberately make the legs a fair bit shorter to now have a 7/8 or 3/4 pant or even make shorts. Care also applies to how we wash our garments: always read the care label on how to wash and dry the garment. And don’t wash a garment that doesn’t yet need to be washed. If a garment doesn’t yet smell and there are no stains, why throw it in laundry?

Then a question and answer session followed led by Christine Checinska who had some of her own questions as well as guided the audience questions.

Some interesting points raised during this Q&A session:

  • The value of clothing is not in how little we pay but in how much we invest. I took this as: where are we spending our £ when we buy garments? Can we invest in industries that are doing better, or are we happy to keep investing in the current fast-fashion industries?
  • There are narratives for making fashion and for owning fashion and these can be very powerful. In the past we might have gotten items from our family, either hand-me-downs or things made by our (grand) mothers or aunts. Garments were more than just something to keep you warm.
  • The current problem seems to have been relatively recent as the beaches in Ghana that are now covered in mountains of discarded textiles used to be pristine just 20-30 years ago.
  • We need to slow down the trajectories of fashion seasons, this is something fashion houses can work on. Perhaps fashion should focus less on seasons and less on the runway. Their clothes are worthy of much greater time: they deserve more than a fleeting moment of attention. We should all enjoy the skills and craft of the people in the garment industry more.
  • Right now there are whole ranges of garments that were designed to never be washed. I imagine this is because the garment is a micro-trend that will be out of fashion within weeks. Is this a good use of all those resources and labour?
  • Recycling of garments should be a last resort. We should first repair, reuse, and repurpose to extend the life of the garment/materials used.
  • In the past, children (only girls) might have learned to sew a little in school, but these days the focus of many schools is on academic subjects only, so kids don’t learn to sew anymore.
  • The new areas of growth might be some of those old areas the UK excelled at, such as textiles. I found this a really interesting thought, coming from a textile region myself (in the Netherlands). Perhaps we can find ways to make high-quality textiles for local garment workers to create beautiful, long-lasting, and timeless pieces out of.
  • One of the reasons that was suggested as underpinning the lack of respect that we have for our clothes is that most of us don’t know how complex garments are, how difficult it is to design and make a garment. To change this, it might help to give young people an awareness of how clothes are made, who made their clothes, and where the clothes were made.

The British Textile Biennial takes place from September 29 to October 29 in 2023. There are many interesting exhibitions scheduled as well as workshops and events. The next event is in 2025.

By Alex

I have been crafting since early childhood and currently do mostly sewing and illustration. 'Almalauha' is the project I started to showcase my sewing/fashion hobby, at least that was the plan. But because I like a million different arts/crafts things, I'm just going to share most of the creative things I do on this blog.

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