Listen to the episode
13. Mindful Fabric Selection, Part 1 – The Asian Sewist Collective Podcast
Patterns & Designers mentioned
Soline Shorts and Culottes Sewing Pattern for Wovens by Staystitch Pattern Co
The Atlas Top by Stitch Witch Patterns
The Bathurst Top by Stitch Witch Patterns
Fabric Stores mentioned
Blackbird Fabrics, based in Canada, great support team following up on the origins of cotton fabric they stock
Ultra-Fast Fashion is Eating the World, The Atlantic
#8: A Quick Fire Round of Sustainable Fashion Mythbusting, Matchpoint Monthly
Guppyfriend Washing Bag, Guppyfriend
Buy 1 Cora Ball!, Cora Ball
Dead White Man’s Clothes, by ABC News Australia
Out of Sight: A Call for Transparency from Field to Fabric, Fashion Revolution
The Cotton Tote Crisis, The New York Times
Global Brands Find it Hard to Untangle Themselves from Xinjiang Cotton, The New York Times
End Uyghur Forced Labour in China Now, Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region
Listen to Coverage From “The Daily” on China’s Crackdown on Uighurs, The New York Times
Please note, we are a Bookshop.org affiliate, so we may make a small commission if you choose to purchase books via these links:
Vanishing Fleece: Adventures in American Wool, by Clara Parkes
Fake Silk: The Lethal History of Viscose Rayon, by Paul David Blanc
Night, by Elie Wiesel
Organisations advocating for change in how the fashion industry is run
Ada: So, we have laptops, we have, like, phones with data on them. Like, to call home, you like, literally like flipped over your phone and you’re to dial your home phone number because you remembered it.
Ada: And, or, like me, it was sewn into the back of all your clothes.
Ada: Welcome to the Asian Sewist Collective podcast. The Asian Sewist Collective is a group of Asian people from around the world brought together by our shared appreciation for fiber and textile arts, and our desire to see more Asian representation in the sewing community. In this podcast, we explore the intersection of our identities and our shared sewing practice as we create a space for Asian sewists and our allies. I’m your co-host, Ada Chen, and I’m recording from Denver, Colorado. Denver is the traditional territory of the Ute, Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples. I’m a Taiwanese-American marketer-turned-entrepreneur and these days you’ll find me running my own all natural skincare business called Chuan Skincare – that’s C-H-U-A-N – and sharing my marketing tips on my blog, The Cultivate Method. Most importantly for this podcast, you can find my sewing @i.hope.so on Instagram.
Nicole: And I’m your co-host Nicole. I’m based out of Chicago, Illinois, the original homelands of the Council of the Three Fires: the Ojibwe, the Potawatomi, and the Odawa people. I’m Filipinx-American, and I’m a woman, and a lawyer by day and a sewing enthusiast the rest of the time. You can find me on Instagram @nicoleangelinesews.
Ada: Before we dive into this week’s episode, Nicole, can you tell us about your current sewing project?
Nicole: I am currently working on very early stages of the Soline short and culotte which was released recently by Stay Stitch Pattern Company; can’t remember when this airs, but it was released in August. It’s drafted for up to a 64 inch hip, which I think is very cool. It is a paper bag, elastic waisted, short or culottes option, and then there’s, like, pockets and drawstrings and other things. There’s a lot of different iterations on the Internet already on Instagram so you can find how everybody has made it differently. I just taped the pattern together – that’s where I am right now – I want to make the shorts but, you know, we are recording in early September, so it’s still summer, but thinking about culottes for the fall. One of the designers – I think her name is Candice, @sewbakemake…
Nicole: …She makes, she made a very amazing pair of black culottes that look really chic with an all black outfit and I’m still not really sure what to make, but that, those black culottes really give me major inspo, so… How about you, Ada, working on anything exciting?
Ada: I am hacking a top with the help of Esther who is also part of the Collective team, so I’m hacking the Atlas top by Stitch Witch Patterns – it’s not the most size-inclusive, I will admit, I think the bust is like, 30 to 50, is where it caps out and the hip measurement caps out at 52, so room for improvement – but, if you haven’t seen this top it’s basically like a backless or, like, crossback tank top, and there’s two pieces to the front bodice piece, and it comes with the darts in the middle of that bottom piece, but for some reason it just, like, didn’t look flattering to me when I did it in kind of some remnant fabric, and so I did it again because Esther showed me how to move the darts to the side, and then that wasn’t great so we’re at moving the darts and like, rotating paper pieces around stage, so similar to you but I’m hoping to nail the fit so that I can make 50 bajillion of these – is the scientific number – like, in linen and in different woven fabrics so I can just have them year round. I’m like a big tank top and cardigan person when it gets cold because I don’t like sleeves a lot of the time! But yeah, it’s… Darts are hard, man!
Nicole: Is this the one that has the crossback…? I’m sorry if you said this already.
Nicole: Yeah, okay, I do like Stitch Witch Patterns and I’ve tested for her before. I’ve had a similar issue with, like, darts but she’s got some really beautiful back details on her other patterns.
Nicole: I think it’s the Bathurst Top-
Nicole: The one that I’m thinking of that has the open back but I finished it, but I need to make an adjustment to the back portion because of how my body works – there’s just too much extra fabric in the back but yeah, I’m looking forward to seeing that… I do, I am thinking about picking that one up but when you started talking about the darts, I was like, What is she talking about? And then I took a closer look and there’s like a cross-section in the middle.
Nicole: Never seen or heard about that, but hopefully…
Ada: It’s really cool if you’re really precise at sewing darts, like…
Nicole: I am not, darts are my weakness.
Nicole: I am garbage at darts.
Ada: I’m trying to practice them and like, as you can see behind me I have thrifted a 100% cotton sweater that’s kind of like a crewneck and my plan was to, like, it’s a little bit oversized and baggy on me. So my plan was just to cut it down the middle and turn it into a cardigan with some buttons and to make it cute because I also don’t want to… I don’t ever want to put that type of fabric through my machine for a whole sweater. So if it’s already kind of made for me, I’ll hack it into something that I’ll wear. But yeah, I want to have that and then wear the tank top under it. It’s just, the darts are very interesting and hard to do. So if listeners have any dart sewing tips, we’re all ears.
Nicole: Yeah, bring them because I am not good at darts.
Nicole: Today, we are going to be talking about being mindful when selecting your fabrics for your sewing practice. Now when we say mindful, we’re not really talking about picking the right fabric for a specific sewing project, which you know, mindfulness is inherent to that process as well. But today, when we are talking about mindful, we are talking about taking into consideration the environmental and human rights issues that are involved with our fabric choices. This is undoubtedly an issue that is on many people’s minds. And if you’re not already thinking about this, you probably should be and today we’re going to be talking about why. First, the fashion industry is the second most polluting industry after oil, which was shocking to me when I learned – our wonderful researchers shared this with us. Now for starters, 85% of all textiles are being thrown away, which is the equivalent to one garbage truck full of textiles going into the landfill. So yeah, your big garbage truck – probably wherever you are, your garbage truck is big. But one, yeah, I mean, but one garbage truck full of textiles per second.
Ada: Oh my gosh.
Nicole: Right, I can barely comprehend how much textile waste and garbage that is. By the way, just to set the stage, when we say the word “textiles”, we’re referring to any material made of interlacing fibers. So any sort of woven or knitted fabric is a textile. Products of textile fiber also include yarn or thread, since these are created by processing, weaving or knitting these types of materials. So that’s what we, when we say textiles today, that’s what we’re referring to, not just fabric. Now, clothes specifically that don’t go directly into the landfill often end up being donated to thrift stores. But at least a third of these textiles can’t be sold either due to quality or sheer volume, and so they get shipped abroad. I encourage you, if, you know, I think all of us, as part of our sustainability journey, think about donating clothes as opposed to throwing them away. But, there is an entire cycle that donated items go through and definitely take a look and check that out. We’re not focusing on that today. So, certain amount of textiles gets shipped abroad, now, 15 million used garments are sent to Accra in Ghana, every week, from the United Kingdom, Europe, North America and Australia. Now, 40% of those 15 million used garments are of such poor quality that they are deemed worthless upon arrival, and they end up dumped in a landfill anyway. So, sometimes people don’t donate the nicest things. And you know, they will donate it and expect it to just be out of their system, but it ends up in a landfill, but thousands of miles away instead, and is that really the better way? I’m not.. I think, I think for me, the answer is no, but so if you check out our show notes, we have linked to an article with videos of a 20 meter high landfill on the banks of the Korle Lagoon, which is a body of water in Accra, and that pile is 60% clothing. Now, we also encourage you to read up on the Kpone landfill – spelled K-P-O-N-E – which was a World Bank-funded project designed to solve Accra’s mounting waste crisis. But that landfill filled up within five years and ended up burning for 11 months due to trapped methane under the textiles that couldn’t properly be compacted. So it’s a lot to take in. No, we’re setting the stage here for our discussion today. And something that we do want to address is fast fashion and how it’s undoubtedly one of the key contributors to this type of pollution. So, I’m sure we’re all fairly aware of what fast fashion is. But just a quick recap, we’re referring to cheap, generally low quality clothing that’s produced quickly to respond to changing trends. I didn’t know about this before research for the podcast for this episode. But, brands used to have two fashion seasons a year, but fast fashion brands now have around 52 micro seasons a year. That’s a season a week, roughly, right. So, since garments rapidly go out of style, fast fashion can encourage buyers to buy and discard garments readily in obscene amounts. Now, I do want to note here that fast fashion, you know, can be the only accessible option for some people. And also, people can and do buy fast fashion clothing and they properly care for it in a way that makes it last for many, many years. And on the individual level, that’s a sustainable practice. So we’re not criticizing those who buy fast fashion. I’m sure most people who do buy fast fashion aren’t going on weekly hauls and bringing armfuls of stuff and then discarding them after wearing them once. But, the readily available and ever-changing nature of such garments does contribute to the collective psychology of overbuying, and therefore overproduction and waste.
Ada: Now, I’m sure many of us here today are a little more intentional with our clothing. After all, since we are making our own garments and other textile crafts, all the work that we put into it.. Kind of, I think, would hope that it prevents us from discarding our items without a second thought. But, this is where it should get more relevant for us sewists, because the growing, production and processing of fabrics comes with its own bag of environmental and social impacts. So, as many of you already know, trying to pick a so-called green or sustainable fabric for your sewing project is easier said than done. So, for example, cotton is a natural fiber that can biodegrade. But it is also the most environmentally demanding – it is intensely water intensive, or insanely water intensive, to cultivate and process cotton. And many of you listening have probably heard these statistics before – it takes 10,000 to 20,000 gallons of water to create a single pair of jeans and up to 3000 gallons for a T shirt. And there’s a great article out there by Matchpoint Monthly, which we link to in our show notes, that has a chart showing the environmental impact and results over time of the lifecycle of a T-shirt, if you’re interested. And let’s not forget the related news coverage on crimes against the Uyghur (oo-ghoor) people in Xinjiang, China, earlier this year. Please note that you might have heard it pronounced as wee-ghurs before, which is common in the English-speaking community, and, this pronunciation has been said to be a little too close to the Han Chinese word for Uyghurs, which is wei wu er – our research showed that most Uyghurs, or at least the ones who showed up in our search results, prefer the pronunciation that we will be using in the rest of this episode. So we’re going to dive into the details on what’s happening to the Uyghur people later in the episode, but the reason why we’re bringing them up now is because Xinjiang counts for approximately 20% of global cotton production and 85% of Chinese-produced cotton. And out of this, two-thirds of that cotton is handpicked by forced labor in the southern part of Xinjiang where most Uyghurs live. In our research for this episode, it seems that no fabric is perfect.
Nicole: So today, we’re hoping to provide you with some considerations to think through when picking your fabrics for an upcoming project. Then, we’ll start going through various types of fabric out there and their pros and cons. Next week will be Mindful Fabric Selection, Part 2, where we’ll continue our discussion on the pros and cons of mainstream fabric. Also, in Part 2, Ada and I will be sharing some of our personal anecdotes when it comes to sustainability and how that shows up in our sewing practice. Now, personally, the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realized how harmful overconsumption is in general for the planet. But also, for me, as an individual, I get caught up in buying cycles for clothing, shoes, craft supplies, makeup, fabric – of course, fabric. And I’m sure that there’s psychological underpinnings here. And you know, I am so far away from being perfect with regard to implementing sustainability in my life. But of course, no one is perfect. And when I started sewing, I didn’t really think about sustainability. I think, maybe I thought, I’m making my own clothes, so this is a more sustainable practice than going out and buying it, which is, can be true to an extent, but also could be a false narrative we tell ourselves and when we start to sew. I am making a concerted effort to change my habits by learning more about fabric production from a sustainability standpoint, a cultural lens as well as a human rights lens.
Ada: I feel the same, you know, when I was growing up and when I was in college, I definitely shopped fast fashion because it was the only option available to me, like, financially, like, that was all I could afford. When we were little, there were like a few ways that we would get clothing – so it would be hand-me-downs from cousins or family friends, or my mom would shop at the Gap when things were on sale, stocking up on like bigger sizes because she would buy ahead, and then shopping the Macy’s clearance rack – you know, when you go to the Macy’s, and Macy’s is on sale, and there’s long racks in the basement, not on the main floor, but like they’re kind of hidden, but they have the 80% off on them.
Nicole: Oh yeah.
Ada: Yeah, right. Like, that is what we shopped, and by the time I was a teenager at a few part time jobs, here and there, but I never made enough to shop brands in the mall until Forever 21 opened in our mall, and I also I wasn’t in the position to be able to ask my parents for money, let alone money for clothing. And so the way that I got my mall brands was at TJ Maxx or Marshall’s, and I remember finding my first American Eagle hoodie, like, being like, ooh, I really want to, like, have that look because it was really in, but not being able to afford it and finding a hoodie at Marshall’s. It must have been like 15 or 16 bucks marked down and there was a big black X through a label because when they sell it to an off price like TJ Maxx or Marshalls, they’ll cross out the labels. But I was so thrilled that I could finally be able to wear something with that stupid little eagle emblem embroidered on it. And in retrospect, it was, like, bubblegum pink polyester, for sure. And I’m just cringing about it because I would never wear that now, but it was, like, my most prized mall brand possession for the longest time. And once I moved out and I was on my own, I remember I was only able, like, my jeans budget was $20 or less, like that’s all I could afford. And I would wait for H&M, like, H&M, where things are, like, $3 to go on sale in order to find enough business formal outfits because I went to an undergrad business program and I had to wear business formal all the time, for interviews and for activities. And you know, over time, I slowly learned how to thrift and I do regret not picking that up earlier into my time in New York, and I learned how to take care of my clothing to make sure that it lasts longer, but for the last, like, few years of college, I had to be in a suit 60 to 80% of the time for events and interviews in work, and I was not dry cleaning that, I was just washing it in my sink if I was washing it… So I was hitting, like, Banana Republic sale racks – again, in the basement, marked down hard – and I was, and I would like to still think that I am, somewhat still the queen of finding a good deal. I even took advantage of some of those deals to resell them on eBay, like, that was a side thing that I did; if I didn’t, if I bought something at a sample sale and I couldn’t didn’t want it anymore, I knew anything I bought, I knew I would be able to resell on eBay. And so, I remember shopping a sample sale for Rent the Runway, they had all these beautiful, like, cocktail dresses and ball gown dresses and I got, like, I waited until the last day at the last hour when they were going to shut down and I got like five of them for 10 or 15 bucks each because I needed them for events. And I didn’t want to be photographed in the same dress between all these different events.
Nicole: It is so funny how our mentality works that way, right? And I can definitely relate to how finding something inexpensive and creating an excuse to buy it, relates to the way that I’ve viewed sustainability; now, like, I think yes, queen of deals – I will still get excited about deals now. Like, if you told me, oh snap, this fabric is 20% off. Do I need it? No. Do I want it? Yes. Like, part of, you know, that is, again, probably tons of psychological underpinnings, apart from, you know, actual necessity. Like, we couldn’t afford the types of things that we needed, like, gosh, I’m a lawyer and I don’t like being in a suit, like, pretty much ever. So I can’t imagine being in college, like, needing to wear suits so that, you know, what were you going to do and was really, sustainability… Like, what the, the work that went into the clothes, the how much they cost, like, really, the cost is what matters the most. And I think that the both of us, as we’ve gotten older, and at least speaking for myself, more privileged in the amount of money and, like, luxury I can buy, and I’m not talking, like, luxury items, but just the options that I have. I like to think that I’ve exercised that privilege to be more mindful about purchases, particularly clothing, but yeah, sorry, I interrupted you.
Ada: No, I mean, as I’ve gotten older and also, like, quite frankly, accumulated wealth, like gotten jobs that pay me more.
Nicole: Yeah, you know, not right now, ideally, this is what we do.
Ada: You know, as you gain that financial privilege, I think I… It becomes easier to understand the impact of your personal purchasing decisions and choices and your consumption. And so, with that, I’ve definitely become more sustainable or green in my practices and I, you know, knowing what I know now, I started to build that into how I run my business, right, with regards to fashion and sewing. You know, I haven’t been sewing garments for that long, but I did try to challenge my own consumption by going on, like, a self-imposed ban in all of 2019 – I spent that entire year only allowing myself to buy clothing that was ethically produced and sustainably made, which meant I was spending hours and doing research on every single brand and fabric that I wanted to buy, that I’d previously not had to do. And so, I, I set the barrier so high for myself that I basically stopped shopping a lot, like, and when I found a brand, I would go hard on that brand. And yeah, I won’t even admit that I was perfect because some of them were… I ended up finding out that they were, like, very greenwashed. But I had started to truly value those aspects in my own purchasing decisions and who I was giving my money to. And so, I ended up going from, like, I used to shop every month and, like, pick up new leggings on my way from work to home, which I know is terrible, like, I know, but then I just went through not shopping at all, or I couldn’t verify a lot of what brands are putting out there. And so, I think from my experience looking into it, there is a gray area where a lot of clothing is called “ethically produced” or “sustainably made”, but isn’t really, like, it would be a stretch or they’re conveniently twisting words or implying something to make you think one thing, but they’re not actually doing it. And basically, that’s greenwashing, which we will cover a bit more later. And I say this a lot at work things, but I’m not a total crunchy granola hippie right now, like, I, I don’t think there’s any possible way to get there tomorrow. I don’t, I’m not ruling it out. But, I will say that being immersed in the sewing world now, I see a lot of overconsumption and unsustainable sewing practices and seeing a lot of fabric come into the secondhand thrift store. Those are people’s stashes – either they stopped sewing, they can’t sew anymore, or maybe they’ve passed and just seeing how much fabric there is, there, it kind of turns me off from buying more because I’m trying to keep my stash and my sewing to be as manageable and sustainable as possible.
Nicole: Yeah, and we’re going to talk about, what, you know, about stashes, a little bit later. And I think that I have certainly, similarly, have felt like… So, I definitely have a stash that’s bigger than it needs to be. And I know I’ve gone through cycles of buying, but I also understand why people do it and why they feel like they need to do it. So today’s episode isn’t, we’re not wagging our fingers at anyone, you know, like, this is just talking about some of the facts about the things that we buy, so that you can maybe think about how it influences what you do in the future. And we’ll talk about how it was more, later, about how Ada and I, in our own sewing practices are starting to think about this. But, before we dive into the effects of intentional sewing and fabric selection, I do want to share some thoughts from our researcher, Eileen, researcher for this episode, that resonated with us and we wanted to share. So, she says, conscious consumerism is well-intentioned and good, but it shouldn’t fall solely on us consumers to make sure that slave labor didn’t produce our fabric and that the mills which produced our fabric are poisoning the environment surrounding them. We as consumers don’t have full visibility into the conditions under which a fabric was made. The supply chain has many stages and is intentionally opaque. So, you cannot expect each consumer to do research each and every time they make a purchase or fly to the factory and take a look at what’s going around before you buy something. Instead, Eileen suggests that there should be structures in place which would offer transparency about where exactly these products are coming from, and provide regulations that prevent these harmful practices from being performed in the first place. So, Eileen concludes that stating perhaps a more productive way of effecting change isn’t to mull over the origins of each purchase, but instead to focus on advocating for more stringent regulations in the fashion industry.
Ada: Now, I’ve heard that some companies aren’t being transparent because they don’t want to lose their competitive edge. And personally, I just don’t think that companies will change without consumers actually changing their buying habits first, because capitalism speaks, right, to hold companies accountable and change the system. I think we should spend our dollars wisely and do our own due diligence. So, anyways, if you’re interested in reading more about supply chain transparency, we have a great report from Fashion Revolution on their research into 62 major fashion brands and retailers in our show notes.
Nicole: We’ve also linked to some organizations that are doing this type of advocacy work in our show notes and encourage listeners to check them out. So, have a look through their websites and understand what they’re advocating for. You can also help them further their work, whether it’s making a donation, spreading the word or taking actions as outlined in their websites. We encourage you to find ways to support their work. So, another effective way people can individually have a positive impact on the planet is to choose fabrics that are sustainable. But what does quote-unquote “sustainable” really mean in this context, like, what does that even mean? Especially since knowing what to buy can be so complicated. The Five Goods is an aspirational framework that we can apply when determining which fabrics we use in our sewing practices. It was created by William McDonough, who is a globally recognized leader in sustainable development and design. And his Five Goods concept has been amplified by Fashion For Good, which is a global platform for sustainable fashion innovation. So, the Five Goods are: one, Good Materials; two, Good Economy; three, Good Energy; four, Good Water; and five, Good Lives. What this means in the context of fabrics is that they are safe, healthy and designed for reuse and recycling. They also benefit everyone as its production creates a growing, circular and shared economy. The fabrics are made with renewable and clean energy, consume less waste water and consume less water to make and are made with clean water that is available to everyone. And lastly, the living and working conditions for people working in the industry are just safe and dignified. So, we will try to refer back to these Five Goods as we walk through the fabric choices that most of us have available to us.
Ada: So, let’s start with the obvious – synthetics, including polyester, nylon, acrylic, they’re not so great. They don’t need agricultural land or a lot of water to produce and process, but they do depend on fossil fuel extraction for their raw material which goes against Good Energy. Basically, polyester is plastic. So, if you must use synthetics, recycled synthetics use half as much energy to make and it saves plastic from landfill, and using existing synthetics like vintage or thrifted synthetics, or synthetic blends are better than contributing to the production and consumption of net new synthetic fabric. So, we should also note that recycled or not, they will still shed microfibers in the wash which goes against Good Materials. So, on the topic of microfibers – microfibers are teeny tiny fibers that synthetic fabrics shed every time you wash them. These microfibers end up in our water systems and our waterways and eventually in our food system is because fish and other sea creatures end up eating them in the water. Now, there are a few ways that you can reduce your own microfiber creation and shedding – there are filters on the market that can be installed on your washing machine to catch microfibers. And then there are tools like the Guppyfriend Washing Bag and Cora Ball that will catch those microfibers and allow you to dispose of them in the trash – still not great – versus in the water coming out of your washing machine. And in fact, for my birthday, my college best friend asked me what I wanted, and I told her, a fellow sustainably minded individual, that I wanted one of those. So no, this is not sponsored by Guppy Bag or Cora Ball, but we will link to both in our show notes. For me, I already, like, buying all those leggings on my way home from work – I already own a lot of synthetics. And it’s mostly in my athletic wear that I purchased before knowing all of this about fabric and its production and consumption. And I think, instead of getting rid of it all, the most sustainable thing I can do is to wear them out until they are literally unwearable, like, I need to turn them into rags or mops or whatever, instead of trying to pawn them off to someone secondhand who might not wear them to that extent. The Guppy Bag that I got from my birthday will help me catch the microfibers when I need to wash this athletic wear as I try to extend its life for as long as possible. So, for example, I don’t dry them, because that significantly shortens the amount of time you’ll have with them.
Nicole: Yeah, the interesting thing about, something to think about with sustainability as well is that one of the core tenets, and we’ll talk about this more in a fashion later, but, like, I have all this stuff already, like, what’s the most sustainable thing to do with it, it’s to use it, it’s always going to be to use it and also preserve it so that you can continue to use it. So I’m the same way with athletic wear. I worked from home pre-pandemic, like, for several years, several years ago, so there was a time where I was working from home and I was really into athleisure or however you want to pronounce it – I still am pretty much into it. But I have leggings that are approaching a decade old, and the reason why they are is because I have so many that I will (???). And it’s hard for me not to look online and see all the new athletic stuff and it’s the way that the fashion industry works. And the same way that, like, fabric shops, you know, when everything works is that, we… All… Most of us have what we need, but the way that marketing and everything works makes us want more, so I feel you on that, like, trying to use everything that I have. And I’ll talk about this a little bit later, just, but sometimes keeping the bolt, like, living with the… What you’ve accumulated in the past is sometimes harmful to the individual as well. So for me, it’s like finding a balance, but just wanted to throw that in there.
Ada: Yeah, it’s hard especially when you see, like, the shiny new thing – you’re like, I want it.
Nicole: Oh yeah, I still do, like, I’m not… When I see it, it’s not that I don’t want it, it’s when I had to stop myself, that’s why I have to like, be more mindful.
Ada: Yeah, and some folks will recommend, like, animal derived fabrics instead. So like wool, leather, fur, because those can be safely biodegraded, right, they will eventually go back to the earth. But the livestock that is raised to produce these materials is responsible for about 14.5% of global greenhouse emissions. And they’re producing methane which is 20 times worse than CO2, which is another common greenhouse gas. And then the chemicals that are involved with processing the fabrics isn’t great, like, 85% of the world’s leather is still tanned with chromium, which is extremely toxic, and it leaves tannery workers with cancer and skin conditions, and wool and fur aren’t exempt either, because they are also treated with toxic chemicals to preserve quality. And these chemicals often pollute waterways and affect the communities that live nearby. So, if you’re looking for more information about the production of wool, and especially in the US, like, how it goes from literally a sheep to yarn, and a sweater, I would recommend reading the book Vanishing Fleece, which traces the production of wool from animal to thread and yarn. And, you know, we’ve gone over, that’s a few dings against Good Energy and Good Materials and Good Water. We’re not even going to dive into the social impact of the workers who are in this industry because that’s beyond the scope of this podcast, but that would be a pretty, pretty big ding against Good Lives.
Nicole: I used to think that if It comes from nature that it’s automatically better – like, I did, I mean, like, whatever. I think maybe some people still think that, but it does make sense that even raising the livestock to produce the animal-derived fabric, and even if you’re using other parts of the animal for things, like, that does have a detrimental environmental impact. So, just again, something to think about. Some people will tout the benefits of pleather – you know, shorthand for plastic leather – fake fur, also made out of plastic, but similar to the various issues with synthetic materials, producing them producing these synthetics is really dependent on petrochemical industries, like, once they’re, and once you are finished with them, whether you wear them down to the bone, or you’re just done with having them in your closet, they’ll take forever to break down. So, taking a look at a different type of fabric. Now, there is another type of fabric that many of us have used that can be better for the environment, both socially and the actual environment itself, and that’s man-made cellulose. So, for example, rayon, viscose and lyocell, very popularly known as tencel. These are examples of man made cellulose products. I actually talked about what these fabrics were and their pros and cons and our episode on silk from last season, and we will link to that episode in our show notes. And I encourage you to assess the information shared in Episode 8 of Season 1 against the Five Goods that we’re talking about today. So, let’s talk about what a lot of people’s favorite fabric is: cotton. So, we all know that cotton is a natural fiber that can biodegrade and is often very comfortable, but it does require overwhelmingly huge amounts of water, pesticides, and toxic chemicals to cultivate and process. Since we’re a podcast focusing on the intersectionality of our identities and sewing practice, I want to shift the focus onto the Uyghurs and their involvement with the production of Chinese-produced cotton. Cotton history is intertwined with slavery, I mean, especially, you know, in the United States, but, because cotton is vital to the production of textiles and is dependent on large numbers of people to harvest and refine the cotton in a grueling manner. In fact, China has leaned on the textile and apparel industry to transform itself into the world’s second-largest economy. The Uyghurs are an ethnic group who are mostly Muslim and live in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, also known as Xinjiang. They speak their own language which is similar to Turkish and see themselves as culturally and ethnically closer to Central Asian nations. Approximately 12 million of them live in Xinjiang at the moment, which means they take up less than half of Xinjiang’s population, but this is due to a mass migration of Han Chinese into Xinjiang in recent decades – the Han Chinese are China’s ethnic majority.
Ada: Right. So if you’re wondering what the Uyghurs have to do with cotton, Xinjiang is China’s largest region in the northwest of China, and it’s supposed to be like Tibet, as in autonomous, so it should have some degree of self governance. But we know that’s not the case in practice, because both regions are heavily restricted by the central government. Now, Xinjiang is a rugged expanse more than twice the size of Texas with abundant land and sunshine, which makes it fertile ground for cotton, and Xinjiang produces 20% of the world’s cotton, and it’s also a region rich in oil and natural gas. So, as you may have been reading in the news, China has detained more than 1 million Uyghurs against their will in what they call “re-education camps”. And there is evidence that in these camps, several crimes against humanity have been inflicted against the Uyghur people.
Nicole: Now, the Chinese government does deny all allegations of human rights abuses against the Uyghurs, saying that everyone was released from the re-education camps back in 2019. They’ve also stated that the crackdown in Xinjiang is necessary to prevent terrorism and root out Islamic extremism. They claim that the camps are an effective tool for re-educating inmates in this fight against terrorism. They’ve also dismissed claims that they’re reducing the Uyghur population through mass sterilizations, or that forced labor is actually even taking place. However, former camp detainees have alleged that they were indeed tortured and sexually abused. Testimony from Xinjiang suggests that many people are still detained and others were even transferred from camps into formal prisons. There’s a great episode of The New York Times Daily Podcast that came out in about February 2020 that our listeners can have a look at, or have a listen to, to better understand China’s crackdown against the Uyghurs – we will link to this episode in our show notes, so please check it out when you can. Now the Chinese government has also been accused of exaggerating the threat of Uyghur militants waging a violent campaign for an independent state to justify their repression of Uyghurs.
Ada: Now, there is a ton of documented evidence of forced labor in Xinjiang. There are photos, videos and testimonials from Uyghurs who have lived through forced labor and re-education camps. And a few weeks ago, in the US State Department’s annual report to Congress on genocide, a report it provides per the 2018 Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act to the US, reiterated that, quote: the People’s Republic of China is committing genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghurs who are predominantly Muslim, and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang. The crimes against humanity include imprisonment, torture, and forced sterilization and persecution, end quote. Sidebar: Elie Wiesel, if you don’t know, was a Romanian-born American writer, activist, Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor. His most famous book is Night, which was written based off his own experience as a Jewish prisoner in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. The 2018 Act that was named after him is meant to prevent future, quote, mass atrocities by providing additional training for American Foreign Service officers in creating this annual report, as well as some measure of accountability on actions taken between each year’s report. Now, despite all of this evidence, there are still people who don’t believe this is happening. And there are also people who are spouting propaganda across the internet. And a common claim that seems to surface a lot is that all of the news around crimes against Uyghurs are simply part of the larger scheme to drag China’s name in the mud. And so, while the genocide and crimes against Uyghurs aren’t our main focus today, I do want to urge everyone to do more research and educate yourself – we will have plenty of links in the show notes. I… Just being part of the larger diaspora and seeing how there are so many denialists and propagandists just saying this kind of stuff, really, really bothers me. It really irks me, right, because I will say that being Taiwanese I’m probably biased for sure. But there’s like an existential threat to my heritage, and the country where my parents came from, by the same government that is oppressing, and sterilizing and torturing all these people. And I think similar feelings have come up when I’ve discussed it with friends who have ties to Hong Kong. And so for anybody who’s in the diaspora who’s hurting right now, I would just urge you to keep speaking out about it and to keep educating people, there will not be a change until there is enough international momentum and honestly, a spotlight brought upon what is going on here.
Nicole: Well, I think what’s interesting is that I suspect that many of our listeners may have not heard of the Uyghurs, or maybe just very tangentially heard of them. And, I am a student of international human rights law, and I had not heard of what was happening until probably right around 2019, and, you know, the incarceration of Uyghur people have started happening before that and someone who – I’m not tooting my own horn, but this is what I study, this is what I do, international human rights laws is part of my being.
Ada: You are a badass lawyer.
Nicole: I am… I am trying, but, you know, even in that sphere, I remember sitting in a class and half of the people who consider themselves cosmopolitan or whatever, you know, aware of what’s happening in the world didn’t hadn’t heard of the Uyghurs either. So if you haven’t heard about it, it doesn’t surprise me. But that’s why we’re here today. And we hope that this is a doorway to at least one issue that may impact the fabric choices that we make. So as we said, we know that a lot of the cotton that we use is coming out of Xinjiang and it’s handpicked by forced labor. Now we also know that many Uyghurs have been subjected to forced labor in Xinjiang, much of which is related to cotton fabric production. So, it’s estimated that about half a million people are affected. And we have a great resource in the show notes if you want more information on forced labor in the Uyghur region. It’s logical to think based on what we just shared, like, I’ll just avoid Chinese cotton then. In fact, there are some big brands like Nike, Burberry and PVH, the parent company of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, who have issued statements that they’ve ceased buying cotton from sources in this region. Now unfortunately, like most things, it just isn’t that simple. China also exports unprocessed cotton to 14 countries, including Vietnam, Cambodia, and Bangladesh. And I bet if you go into your closet, if you aren’t fully #memade, you’ll probably see tags from these countries where your clothes have been made from. China also exports yarn to 190 countries and that’s literally nearly everybody, all the countries. And then the supply chain itself is long and opaque, like, cotton’s journey from field to shelf involves cotton gins, mills, weaving and knitting, dyeing and finishing. And these are all steps that could take place in different parts of China or even in other countries. So, it’s difficult to rule out links to Xinjiang cotton, especially because the Chinese government also severely restricts access across the supply chain, and brands just are not very rigorous in their audits. Now, we’ve heard some, that some cotton coming out of Xinjiang is supposedly Fair Trade, quote unquote. Fair Trade is a term that you may have heard of, but it is a blanket term for alternative methods of commerce. It began as early as the 1950s, when Europeans and Americans traveling to different countries observed that local artisans and farmers were struggling to cover the costs of their own businesses – these travelers then purchased some of their products, sold them back home for a higher price, and then brought the profits directly back to artisans and farmers. Now listeners may already be shaking their heads. And that’s, I get it, because it’s difficult to prove whether profits actually go back to artisans and farmers, and if they were fully and fairly compensated. There are definitely certifications out there that hold companies to certain standards, but none of them are widespread and or enforced to a point where you can really say with conviction that your fabric didn’t exploit anyone on its way to your sewing table.
Ada: Right. Personally, seeing all of this news, I realized that some of the fabrics I had purchased last holiday season were made in China. And so I had a mini panic. And I reached out to Blackbird Fabrics in Canada about the fabrics and my order, specifically the organic cotton knit jersey and the cotton modal blend jersey, and I asked them if they knew where their suppliers were sourcing from fully expecting that they might not have the answer to that. So shout out to Paige and Laura on the Blackbird team who were so patient and so kind with my questions. We were on email for a few days. And the response I got back was that according to their suppliers, the organic cotton knit jersey I purchased was fabric that was knit in China, but made from organic certified yarn from India. So, it goes back to what you were saying, Nicole, about yarns and things being shipped back and forth. Like, we live in a global economy. And the cotton modal jersey that I had purchased was made in China with cotton yarn from the US. Now, this conversation happened in December 2020, and I’m not sure if anything has changed since then, but not gonna lie, like, having this email come back from them definitely helped me feel a little bit more comfortable with my purchases and almost, like, honestly assuaged my guilt a little. And it’s worth pointing out here that where fabric’s made doesn’t necessarily guarantee if it was ethically or sustainably produced, or even its quality, right? Like, there are plenty of sweatshops in the LA garment district that barely pay their workers and slap a “made in the USA” label on their garments, and likewise, “made in China” or made in any country really doesn’t guarantee quality or lack thereof.
Nicole: And I think that something that we said earlier was, yes, it’s like, consumers, like, we should try to do our best to be conscious consumers. But also remember that the responsibility isn’t all on us. So we cannot, as individuals, change the way that these supply chains are being hidden or run. But we can look to other organizations that are making a concerted effort to change the way that the industry is working. So definitely go and check out those organizations in our show notes. It’s great that you contacted Blackbird Fabrics to really find out where that cotton knit jersey was from and I’m glad to hear that it was made with organic certified cotton yarn from the United States. I don’t know what I would have done if I were in your position, and it turned out that the jersey was made by forced labor… I mean, I wouldn’t want to throw it in the trash for the reasons we’ve already covered in this episode, but there would be definitely a bit of guilt involved. So anyway, we still have a lot to talk about on Mindful Fabric Selection, but this episode is getting a little long, so it seems like a great place to stop. Next week, as we also said earlier, we will continue exploring the good and bad and mainstream fabric, then move on to sharing our personal anecdotes when it comes to sustainability and how that shows up in our sewing practices.
Ada: If you like our show, please consider supporting us on Ko-Fi. Your financial support helps us with overhead expenses and will allow us to give back to our currently all-volunteer team who work so hard to provide you with new content every week. The link to our Ko-Fi page is ko-fi.com/AsianSewistCollective, and you can also find the link in our show notes on our website and on our Instagram account. Check us out on Instagram @AsianSewistCollective – that’s one word, AsianSewistCollective. And you can also help us out by spreading the word and telling your friends. We would love it if you could rate, review and subscribe to this podcast on Apple Podcasts, Pocketcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. All of the links and resources mentioned in today’s episode will be in the show notes on our website – that’s asiansewistcollective.com. And we’d love to hear from you. Email us with your questions, comments or even voice messages if you’d like to be featured on a future episode at email@example.com.
Nicole: This episode was researched by Erica Y and Eileen Leung, and produced by Mariko Abe, and edited by Henry Wong. Thank you so much to the other members of our Collective who made this week’s episode a reality. This is the Asian Sewist Collective podcast, and we’ll see you next week.