Hi, guys! I hope you’re all doing well! Today I’m both excited and terrified to tell you about my new adventure! But first, a little background.
Some of you may know that I quit working in film and television about a year ago. I loved the business, but after nearly a decade of working nights, weekends, and everything in between, I was burnt out and looking for a 9-5 instead of the 80+hour weeks that are standard in the movie business. I started taking any non-production gigs that I could find and thinking long and hard about what my next step would be. I’d been taking evening classes at FIT here and there for a few years to learn new skills and industry techniques, but a program caught my eye several months ago and I started to take classes exclusively in the textile development & marketing program.
I think it’s logical for someone interested in the handmade movement to eventually start wondering where their materials come from, and that was something that had started to nag at the back of my mind. But I dismissed these thoughts for a while, thinking that most of the fabrics I bought in the Garment District were mill overruns or cast-offs from the fashion industry, so they can’t be too bad, right? However, as I started to take textile science classes and learn more about the processes and conditions in which textiles are made, wow, it really made me think about what I was consuming. There’s no way around it: the textile industry is a dirty, dirty business. Most of us are already aware that textiles are often manufactured in countries with lax labor laws and safety regulations, so many workers put their lives on the line to make our textiles. But did you further know that textile production was already moving overseas before many other industries since many of the common chemicals used are banned by OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal regulatory system for workplaces) in the United States? Or that cotton uses 3-5x the amount of pesticide that corn does– more than any other crop, actually? I learned that formaldehyde, the stuff you remember if you ever took a high school biology class, and a known carcinogen, is commonly used in textiles made in many parts of the world. It’s often used for wrinkle-resistant finishes, and in commercial leather production. Yuck!
This is certainly depressing, but the good news is that there are changes in the air when it comes to textile and clothing manufacturing. Incidents like the tragedy at Rana Plaza are drawing attention to the plight of garment workers, and growing consumer movements like Fashion Revolution are demanding accountability from brands. E-commerce sites like Zady and Helpsy offer ethically-made fashion to stylish consumers, and traditional brands are responding to environmental concerns by developing new, cleaner processes, like Levi’s Water, which reduce the amount of water used to manufacture a pair of jeans by as much as 96%. Incubators like Manufacture NY and the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator are bring clothing production back to the U.S. and making it easier for designers to create more sustainable fashion. On a personal level, I’m witnessing a huge amount of interest in healthier fashion from my classmates at FIT. It’s really inspiring to see that the next generation of the fashion industry is concerned with the health of workers and the environment! Plus, there are more and more ethical options for knitters concerned about the origins of their yarn– companies like O-Wool and Brooklyn Tweed produce beautiful wools spun in the U.S., and there are countless companies doing this in the U.K. and Europe.
All that said, I still struggled to see how a home sewer like myself or a beginning designer could access healthier textiles. I’ve dug up a handful of American mills, but working with mills usually requires purchasing gigantic quantities of fabric– 5000 yards of a single type in a single color is the norm! So when a classmate told me he could sell me smaller quantities of fabric from the Japanese mill he worked for, I was intrigued. When he told me they are focused on natural fibers and are expanding their line of organic cotton, I was hooked! I did some research into Japanese labor practices and found that factories in Japan are monitored much more carefully than competitors like China, Bangladesh, or Vietnam. And they regulate the use of chemicals like formaldehyde (which, by the way, is not regulated in the U.S.).
Even though I really loved the idea of being able to offer special fabrics to other sewers, I really resisted the idea of starting a sewing business. I haaaaaaaate selling stuff (like, I was the kid that blanched whenever a fundraiser was announced for little league or band or whatever) and I really didn’t want to have to self-promote! Ick! I love interacting with my blog readers and really consider them friends, so I was super uncomfortable with the thought of turning my site into a used car lot where I’m constantly pitching products to an increasingly-exasperated audience! And I have never wanted to turn sewing into my career– I love that it’s such an inspirational hobby and don’t want it to become a chore. I really gave this serious thought (for months!) before deciding to launch a small online store. At the end of the day, I came to believe that I’m not the only one out there who’s interested in finding textiles that aren’t made in a sweatshop, and that maybe this will be helpful to those of you who want more responsible fabrics, but don’t have good access to secondhand shops.
I’m keeping my inspirational and fun day job, where I give old furniture new life and get to meet incredible designers and weavers (you guys, now I want to learn how to use a floor loom SO BADLY!!!), so I’m offering a small and manageable collection of special fabrics over at my new shop, Hell Gate Fabrics. I’ve worked directly with the Japanese mill to bring you fabrics that are manufactured responsibly, and I’m hoping to expand my offerings of organic products as the mill expands theirs. I’ve also worked with a local fabric importer to purchase a limited quantity of overstock wax prints that he was selling to clear out room in his warehouse. These 100% cotton prints are made in his home village in Mali, where he sold them before moving to New York. I’m also having exciting conversations with some folks at the forefront of the ethical textile movement, so hopefully there will be some cool developments in the near future! I’m also hoping to grow and adapt the shop as I continue in my textile studies… I’m sure as I learn more, my vision for the shop will change a bit.
Finally, in case you’re worried, my blog isn’t going to become a place to hock my products. I’m just not interested in that, even if it makes more business sense to do so. I don’t want to lose the community and friendships I’ve made through sewing just to make a few bucks! So all business doings and new product announcements will happen on my new Instagram feed, @hellgatefabrics, and I won’t be at all offended if you don’t follow that account. Also, the cost of buying small quantities of fabric is quite high, and that’s multiplied by the fact that it’s just more expensive when it’s made in a place like Japan instead of China or Bangladesh. So, I won’t be doing blog tours or fabric giveaways because I don’t want to pass along that cost to customers. I’m keeping the margins as low as I can to keep fabric accessible to as many people as possible, and that’s just one of the ways that I’m doing that.
If you’re still reading at the end of this post, thank you for reading! I’m so proud to be part of a group of people that care so deeply about where things come from and the world that we’re leaving for the next generation. It’s so easy to become cynical about these issues or to feel like the baby steps that we’re taking just aren’t good enough, but your optimism and dedication to making the world a better place are a constant source of inspiration to me and are the reason I finally decided to take this plunge!