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The 20-day Sustainable Fashion Challenge

Photo by Karly Santiago on Unsplash

A Single Step

Since beginning my journey from novice knitter through to spinner, dyer and sometime weaver, I’ve started to think differently about the clothes I wear and the materials I use. I never used to be one to think overly about the environment. I knew that I should conserve energy and water where possible, and I recycled, mostly, and worried about global warming a bit, but that was it.

When I was living in Australia, I fell in with a dangerous group of permaculturalists and craftivists. Before long I was thinking about organic gardening, companion planting instead of pesticides and using crocheted vaginas as a way to express my feminist agenda, such as it was (thanks Rayna Fahey!). Those friendships opened my eyes, and I’ve been gradually awakened to the effect that my choices have on the world around me. I’m not perfect, obviously. I haven’t given up plastic, although I do avoid unnecessary packaging. I occasionally buy a plastic bottle full of water or iced tea, and then hate myself for it. I often always forget to take my Keep Cup to the coffee shop.

Perfection is overrated.

In my opinion, it’s better to do anything than to do nothing at all, because doing something, no matter how small, might lead you to doing other, greater things.  I also want to set a good example to my children, who are distressed by sea creatures suffocating on plastic bags and the fact that in 30 years time there will be more people, but fewer areas of the world that can produce food.

Also, my work as a dyer has opened my eyes to the environmental impact of the materials I choose to use and to sell. I’ve been doing a lot of reading around the sustainability and environmental impact of certain fibres, and I want to be able to make informed choices about what I’m putting out there. I need to put my money where my mouth is, and so I’ve decided to learn more, and try to put this learning to practical use by taking part in the 20-day Sustainable Fashion Challenge, started by Summer Edwards in 2015.

The task for day 1 is to rate your sustainable fashion knowledge out of 5.  I’d say I’m a 2. I think I know quite a lot, but it’s very likely much less than I think I know. Such is my experience with just about everything. Let’s see if I can get to a 5 by May.

Join me

I’m going to try to document this challenge as much as possible on Instragram and here on the blog. It won’t be a daily update, because heck, I’m snowed under as it is, and blog post writing is a fairly time-consuming effort for me. I write something thoughtful and then have to check it obsessively for grammatical errors and over-use of commas. However, I think it’ll be quite interesting. Hopefully you will too. I’ll be using the hashtag #20dayssustfash.

See you there!  Pip pip!

Hannah Ryggen – Woven Histories Exhibition

Last month, my friend Stephanie and I drove the 70 miles to Oxford and back to see an exhibition.  I love a good exhibition, but I don’t usually travel quite so far to see something. This one was important to me though, and I didn’t know whether I’d get another chance to see the artist’s work first hand.

Hannah Ryggen – a brief history

Hannah and her family at dinner (part of a much larger work). She is unable to face eating the animals she has raised.

When I first read about Hannah Ryggen’s art, I was so excited. A spinner, dyer and weaver who made all her work from scratch.  Born in Sweden in 1894, she left home to study painting, which she did for six years. After meeting her husband in Dresden in 1922 she moved with him to a remote part of northern Norway surrounded by fjords and ocean. She spent the next decade teaching herself the skills she needed to be able to use tapestry as her medium. She often said that she regarded herself as a painter and that the warp was her canvas.

To create her huge woven works she collected, dyed, spun and wove each piece from scratch on a loom made by her husband.  I’m a spinner, dyer and weaver and have a vague idea of the persistence and patience that must have involved. She used wool from local sheep, which she carded and spun.  She made dyes from local plants, using urine of her family and house guests as a mordant. I guess all artists suffer for their art in some way or another.

When you look at the tapestries that hang on the walls of the exhibition, it’s impossible not to wonder at the time and effort spent in making them. Even before I was able to look at the symbolism in each piece, I was just agog because I could see in every weft thread the many levels on which Hannah Ryggen was an artist.  It’s really extraordinary that she managed to make so many pieces of art. Over the 37 years of her tapestry career, from 1933 to her death in 1970, she created over 100 pieces.  T

hat’s three a year, on average.  Many thousands of yards of wool and linen, gathered, processed, spun, dyed and woven. You can probably tell I’m having trouble processing it. It takes me a month to dye, spin and weave a scarf.

Amazingly, she worked directly on to the tapestry, making no preliminary sketches. Sometimes she incorporated imagery on the fly – something she heard on the radio would make an impression and appear in the tapestry she was working on at the time.

A woven voice

This depicts the day in 1942 when several prominent townspeople in Trondheim were murdered by the Nazis.

The tapestries are very powerful. I wanted so badly to reach out and touch one of them, to feel her work beneath my fingers, and so to feel a physical connection with the artist. The images she created are so alive with meaning.  Shekept in touch with the world from her remote home by listening to the radio and reading communist newspapers, and stitched her passion and outrage into the work, whether it was about the rise of fascism, the creation of NATO, nuclear armament, money lenders, or the the fierce love she felt for her family.

I am always in awe of people who can use their talent for fibre arts to say things that need to be said. Craftivism is a movement that I feel very passionately about – we use what we have to try to change the world for the better.  I felt close to the tapestries in this exhibition because I understand and share the skills used to create it, and I deeply admire the way she used those skills to make powerful statements about the state of the world and how she felt about it.

Art or craft?

Hannah Ryggen’s work really brought home to me the schism between what is considered art and what is considered craft. Rozsika Parker’s book, The Subversive Stitch, examines this in fascinating detail for those who are interested. The gap in perception between art and craft is subtle, insidious and extremely deep rooted.  Parker defines art as ‘a cultural practice involving iconography, style and a social function’, which Hannah Ryggen’s work undoubtedly is. However, the processing, dyeing, spinning and preparation of the yarn required would seem to fall under the craft umbrella.  I felt that Hannah Ryggen’s work does so much more than bridge the gap between the two. It intertwines them to the point where they are no longer two separate things.

I’m not sure when Hannah’s tapestries will be making a return visit. The very nature of them makes them susceptible to damage, so they don’t travel often.  I might have to take a trip to Norway to see some of her work in situ.  Any excuse to travel!