Natural fibres v polyester

Stack of four folded fabrics: two polyester, two cotton
Top to bottom: polyester crepe de chine, polyester coating, cotton denim and striped cotton jersey

The #sewtallandcreative2017 challenge has taken me out of my comfort zone. Instead of my usual circuit of jersey, cotton, wool and wool coatings, I’m sewing with lightweight silk and crepe instead. To prepare, I’m making a toile in polyester crepe de chine… and discovering that this particlar fabric might be my nemesis.

If I’m honest, I’m not sure I’ve ever had a good sewing experience with woven polyester. I’ve made trousers in imitation cotton drill, half a pair of shorts in polyester crepe, two children’s coats in polyester coating and battled with some polycotton shirting to run up a toile.

The trousers feel scratchy, the shorts were too slippery, the coating wore out my hands and my shears , and the polycotton shirting came out looking a bit like a supermarket school uniform.

The lovely Gillian, over at Crafting a Rainbow, has written a very useful – and persuasive – post in praise of polyester knit fabric, so I thought I’d put the case against woven polyester fabrics.

Let’s get the main reasons we choose polyester out of the way first, shall we?

It’s cheap

It’s cheap for a reason: polyester is a polymer, meaning that the key raw ingredient is crude oil rather than a plant or animal fibre. Oil is undervalued because no one’s currently paying to clean up the damage that digging it up and using it does to the environment. Climate change, and the potential damage to sea life are two of the most disturbing side effects of our love affair with fossil fuels and man-made fibres. If these externalities were priced in, would polyester still be cheap?

It doesn’t crease

If you’re the sort of person who really, really loathes ironing (hello to my Mum and Dad if you’re reading this) then that’s fine. But if it won’t crease then it won’t press. You can’t mould it like wool, or crease it crisply like cotton or linen – and that’s going to cause problems when you’re turning up a hem, shaping a dart or pretty much any other task you’d expect to do when making a woven garment.

But it doesn’t breathe

I’m always amazed by wool. Wool is breathable, waterproof and warm. British sheep live outdoors on wet and windy hillsides, and yet they manage to stay warm and dry – and then their wool can be sheared and made into clothes for me. How is that even possible?

[Someone, somewhere is making a killing on wool, but it’s not the farmers. Wool fabric and yarn are anything up to £50 per kilo, but British farmers receive as little as 30p per kilo, meaning they may even make a loss on shearing their sheep.]

Polyester, on the other hand, can turn a short walk to the shops on a warm day into a clammy, sweaty mess. The static cling on skirts especially is horrendous. Plus it squeaks when I sew it. (Or is that just me?)

There are some great uses for polyester though…

Where polyester and other artificial fibres do win out is in outerwear and sportswear, especially when they’re blended with natural fibres like cotton or bamboo. I can’t imagine my workout gear without spandex, or my waterproof jacket without nylon.

After my experience this week with a polyester crepe de chine that clings so badly it won’t drape, I think I’ve sworn off polyester for a while.

How do you feel about polyester? Do you love all the quirky prints and the low prices, or would you rather sew with linen, cotton and wool?

 

 

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Wardrobe ethics: is handmade better?

Denim border stitch and white jersey drying on the washing line

Clothing can seem like an ethical minefield sometimes. This week’s Fashion Revolution campaign is doing great work highlighting what most people forget – that clothes are made by actual people sitting at sewing machines. And that many of those people work in far-flung places, in very poor conditions.

Sewing gives you control over the manufacture of the garment – you know exactly who made your clothes. But sewing, or refashioning, teaches you something else too. You learn exactly what it takes to make a garment – that even a simple T-shirt requires cutting, stitching, pressing and finishing to get a wearable result. And when you do that, you start to realise that cheap clothing just doesn’t add up.

If I browse H&M’s website, I can see jersey tops priced at £3.99. How can £3.99 possibly cover the fabric (cotton) and thread, a fair rate for the labour, shipping to the UK from the factory and a profit for the retailer? Even accounting for economies of scale and the lower cost of living in the country of production (Bangladesh? China? Cambodia? – the item details don’t say), I think I can still smell a rat. Someone somewhere isn’t making a fair wage for their work.

I’m not convinced that expensive designer clothing is any better –  a high price doesn’t tell you what the producer receives, or whether something is good quality – although you’re more justified in being disappointed if it’s shoddily made. Good value clothing is about quality, not just price.

Sewists value clothing differently. We began to sew because ready-to-wear clothing didn’t fit, or because we couldn’t find what we wanted in the shops, so we’re picky by nature. But the slow pace of sewing teaches you to value quality over quantity. Sewists obsess over fabric, fit and finishes. It’s that thought process, and the fixation with quality that produces a more sustainable wardrobe. Handmade garments have been chosen and altered to suit and fit the wearer, they’re made carefully, and they last longer and get more wear than a knock-off of the latest fad. And that’s why you won’t usually find us in fast-fashion stores loading up with armfuls of the latest trends.

It’s not a perfect world. I’d like to see a better selection of sustainable fabrics available for sewers. And I’ll confess that until this week I hadn’t even considered who makes the thread, zips and trims I use. So perhaps instead of smugly proclaiming #imademyclothes, we should be asking ‘Who made my fabric?’

I’m not suggesting that everyone should make every garment they wear, or that we can travel back in time to an age when there were talented local seamstresses in every town. But the next time you find yourself in a clothes shop, look carefully at what you’re holding as you make for the till. Does it really fit you? How well is it constructed? Will you wear it out?

Don’t settle for mediocre. If it doesn’t fit properly, could you get it altered? If the buttons are falling off, could you replace them? Over time, would you swap a large, poor-quality wardrobe for a smaller, better-quality one? The only way to step off the fast-fashion treadmill is to buy less, but buy better – better for you, and better for the garment workers.

If you want to get involved, you can:

Visit fashionrevolution.org to tackle your favourite clothing retailer on their supply chain

Read Overdressed by Elizabeth L. Cline, the subject of last month’s Colette book club

Check out fashion blogger Man Repeller’s thoughts on slow fashion

Follow US Style and sewing blogger Birds of a Thread, who writes about ethical and socially responsible fashion

Gen up with English Girl at Home who’s been researching where different companies make and print their fabric.

Being brave

This was the week I took the plunge and started on my first pair of Thurlow trousers. It’s a pattern that crops up over and over again in sew-land, and as a pear-shaped person, it’s been on my to-sew list for a while.

I’d been putting it off for three reasons:

  1. I was scared of its welt pockets and fly-front zip placket
  2. I was a bit intimidated by all the awesome versions I’d seen around the web, like this and this
  3. I didn’t have enough calico to make a toile (muslin), and I was loathe to buy anything I knew I wouldn’t wear.

But earlier this summer, my lovely best friend sent my son a birthday present from Amazon, which came wrapped up in one of their brown gift bags. Five minutes with the seam ripper later, and I had just enough fabric to run up a pair of shorts – for free!

Gift wrapped presents in paper and bags.
I’ve used one of the large brown gift bags to toile a pair of Thurlow shorts.

So that was excuse number 3 out of the window. It was time to be brave and get over numbers 1 and 2 as well. I did say I was going to challenge myself this year and learn some new techniques… Lauren’s Lladybird blog has a great sewalong for the Thurlow, so I dived in on Monday, cutting it all out. I decided to aim for a wearable toile – and grab the chance to practise those welts and the fly-front – so I cut out all the pieces and dived in.

I haven’t quite got the waistband on yet, so I’ve not been able to assess the fit yet, but I’m very pleased with my first attempt at welt pockets. The sewalong instructions really helped, as the pattern instructions are a bit sparse in places, and Lauren’s included photos of every step which helps you distinguish which pieces are which much more easily than black and white drawings.

Welt pocket in brown linen trousers
Welt pleased with these!

The fly-front zip didn’t go quite as smoothly – I’ll confess there was a fair bit of unpicking involved. Seriously, how do I get the zipper foot past the zip pull without veering off course? Am I stitching too close to the zip, or is there some trick I’m missing that everyone else knows?! But still, it’s in, and I’ll take that for a first try.

Not bad for a first attempt?
Not bad for a first attempt?
Partially made shorts with waistband still to attach and hems to finish
Next step? Attach that waistband

Fingers crossed I’ll get the waistband on this week and then the fitting fun can begin.

Have you made the Thurlow trouser pattern? How clear did you find the instructions?