Post #3153: Making jeans (and the trouble with “denim”)

I made my first pair of jeans last week – albeit without all the contrasting stitching and rivets. The Persephone Pants have been on my list, and I decided to make my wearable muslin out of some inexpensive denim in my stash before cutting into the burgundy cotton twill I have envisioned them in.

I’m pretty happy with how they turned out for a first try. Though you can’t see in this picture, they have a button fly, in-line pockets and belt loops! They are also really high-waisted which I think is flattering to my shape since I don’t have an overly-defined natural waist.

I have re-cut the pattern for my next attempt, taking out an inch of length in the crotch, a half inch out of the back waist, and an inch out of the leg width. I’m hoping these small tweaks will give me a better fit. I could have gone down a full size, but worried that might bring the waist in too much for comfort, so I tweaked instead. I’m cutting the fabric for the next pair today, and looking forward to working with a contrasting top-stitch thread and fine-tuning as I go. The Persephone is great in that there is only one piece per leg (no outside seam), and not complicated to put together as a result.

I have gotten interested in making pants lately, jeans in particular, because of the decline in quality in the ready-to-wear market over the past several years. It’s gotten so bad that even my partner Brian, who doesn’t sew or think much about clothes at all, has noticed it! I believe this turn is in large part due to the introduction of elastane (lycra) into almost all denim available to the consumer market. While this was initially driven by the consumer desire for skinny jeans, “stretch” or “flex” (depending on your gender), seems to have made its way into all fit types.

What this means is that a pair of denim jeans no longer lasts more than six months before the fabric puckers, or stretches out in funny ways. I started noticing this about four years ago. First it was a jean skirt, then a pair of everyday jeans – suddenly every denim item I purchased would get strange puckers within only a few months of use.

Recently Brian and I went into a mall in Vancouver, both of us in search of a pair of jeans that did not contain elastane. We went to American Eagle and a couple of other mall stores, and could not find a single pair that did not contain stretchy plastic. At one store we got into a conversation with the clerk about this, and he said “well, your problem isn’t the elastane – it’s because you are putting them in the dryer and the dryer breaks down cotton.”

Clearly, this piece of bullshit was delivered by someone who knows nothing about fabric properties, and was too young to remember having to “break in” a pair of blue jeans through many turns in the washer/dryer cycle. While it’s true that dryers do break down fabric, a good cotton fabric can stand up to many rounds in the dryer without falling apart.

The issue with modern “denim” is the introduction of plastic into the textile which creates many problems:

  • both the spin cycle in washing machines, and the heat in a dryer, breaks down the plastic, destabilizing the fabric
  • even if you never washed, or dried, your elastane-infused jeans, the simple act of wearing them will stretch out the elastane to the point of warping or breaking
  • if you purchase jeans with stretch that have been distressed in the factory, this process of breaking down the elastane has started before you even purchase your new pants
  • fabrics with elastane or lycra release microplastics into the sewer system (and thus the waterways of our world) every time they are washed
  • fabrics with elastane do not fully biodegrade

The upshot? By putting plastic in our denim, companies have ensured that our clothing lasts a very short period of time, and then is not fully disposable when we throw it out after barely wearing it. Honestly, consumers should be appalled at this state of affairs – but because we’re all looking for “comfort” we tend to disregard the fact that we get less and less life out of our garments.

Some jeans manufacturers, such as Levis, and Calvin Klein, are still using standard non-stretch denim (and even selvedge denim in some cases). In case you are looking around and interested in high quality – look for Japanese-made denim. Denim mills in North America have largely been bought out by Japanese manufacturers, so that’s where you look for good quality denim fabric these days.

In general, the state of ready-to-wear clothing is nothing short of deplorable. Fabrics are of poor quality, construction is rushed, and almost everything is made in Bangladesh, a country where workers trying to unionize the textile industry are being imprisoned, beaten, and killed. If you try to go the other way and source ethical fashion, the garments are not affordable, and it’s impossible to know if companies are telling the truth of what’s happening in the factories they outsource to.

Gone are the days when people spoke proudly about the amount of wear they got from a garment. That talk has been replaced by “what a good deal” was had on a tank top of pair of jeans.

Every time I go into a clothing shop, these realities are staring me in the face, and so I almost always leave empty-handed. Being able to sew for myself is a privilege of time, space, and equipment – which I realize I am lucky to have. This gives me the ability to make some choices about the fabrics I wear, and the kinds of clothing I make for myself. I still have to be careful however, because the consumer fabric market has some of the same issues of poor-quality and adulterated fabric, that the ready-to-wear market has.

After the next pair of Persephone pants, I plan to make the Morgan jeans. My hope is to find a couple of patterns that work for me so I can be free of the poor choices on the rack, and create long-wearing bottoms that can be worn and mended for more than few months.

Want to see a video of the modern jeans-making process? I found this fascinating but stressful to watch because of the volume of material being pumped out into the world every day:

Post #3152: Work days

I just applied for a job very different from my current line of work, and for the first time ever I included both my work and my union history in the “Experience” part of my resume. Usually I parse those out for different types of job applications, but in this case – my relevant experience was divided between both roles. I’ve also realized that I’m at the point where:

  • 90% of my active and important skill set comes from my union role
  • I don’t want to work for an employer I have to hide my union politics from
  • the job I have now is fine, and anything I take has to be on my terms

These three points probably guarantee I won’t get a call back on the job! But it was good to see something that looked interesting and that I am qualified to do. I’ve been doing similar kinds of work for so long (digital communications advising and project management) that I tend to get a bit pigeon-holed in my organization and that makes me question my skills. Add that to the fact I don’t get outside of my work comfort zone very often and I find myself a bit stuck.

That stuckness though is also a kind of freedom in that I work from home, I’m trusted to do my job, and I get to devote a lot of my time to helping people as president of my union local. I know my organization and its people *really* well after all this time and there is a great deal of comfort in that fact as well. It’s really a situation where I feel the two sides (stuck/freedom) in equal measure.

But I do like to believe that I’m valid beyond one existence, that I might step out of my role for even a year to try something different. It’s almost springtime after all.

Post #3151: Do you *need* to sew?

Since my birthday in early February – I’ve been a bit all over the map. First Brian got sick, then I got sick (just with colds) – then my dad ended up in the hospital and had an unexpected major surgery. I’ve been trying to keep my own life on the rails, and attend to my family’s needs, while also maintaining daily writing and yoga practices. It’s been a bit much, really – though I will say that although the daily practices seem like a lot to maintain – they have been the two things saving my sanity!

Trouble is, up until last night I hadn’t had any textile studio time at all in over two weeks. Like, none. And boy, did I suddenly feel it yesterday afternoon. Suddenly, and for no particular reason, I found myself depressed and lethargic in such a way that I couldn’t move myself to go to the gym or do anything else. After my workday finished I went into the house and laid on the couch for awhile, asking myself “what do I really need right now? what would make me feel better?” After about an hour of that and randomly scrolling on my iPad, it was very clear to me that what I needed to do more than anything, was start a new sewing project.

As soon as that became clear I was all energy again. I got up, tidied the kitchen, and prepared an early dinner so I could go back out to my studio and do something. At first I told myself that I would just do a small thing to get re-started – but instead ended up pulling out a pattern and some inexpensive denim to start a (hopefully wearable) muslin of the Persephone pants (I’ve been meaning to make these forever). Those pants are now halfway done, and sitting by the sewing machine waiting for the weekend. I also finished a zippered pencil case for my niece and embroidered a little thing to make a cotton hankie just for the hell of it.

I went from completely drained, to four hours of intent work – all because I realized that what I needed was some focused time at the sewing machine with no other demands. That could have just as easily been four hours of weaving, or working on a new textile piece. Point being that I need time in the studio on a regular basis–without it, I feel a bit lost.

Post #3150: Getting prioritized

Every week I have a list of things I want to accomplish, and every week I fall short of those things. That might suggest I should limit my items, or realistically assess what’s possible, but given that I don’t miss my goals by much I figure that an aspirational approach is probably best. This week I’ve set up a Trello board with several categories in order to track progress along some goals:

The categories you can’t read are Home/Personal, Work, Union, Creative, Blog/Social, Spiritual, Physical

Each category has three or less tasks that I intend to complete this week. Some of these tasks are instances (meditate x 4, gym x 3), whereas others have a specific outcome (create small textile collage). The important thing is that they are specific and have a measurable end point so they can be checked off.

I’m not sure if this is the kind of thing I will sustain – but it sure felt good to set up! I have a lot on my plate and I’m aiming to better schedule my time. My problem is that I really want to do *all* the things, and still have time for myself and with Brian. It’s tricky.

On Friday I sent out the second monthly mailing under the banner of my Comfort for the Apocalypse project. I’ve decided to stop calling it a newsletter because people understand that to mean short and snappy. My “monthly mailing” however, leads with a personal essay of variable length, so I think it’s best to frame it differently. I’m figuring out that project as I go, and have so far been grateful to receive some incredible feedback from a few subscribers. If you are interested in checking it out without subscribing just yet – please see the archives page for commitment-free reading.

I’ve got lots more coming over the next little while – more blog posts, projects, and a new personal website that I’m working on. I’d also like to choose a simpler theme for this blog. Part of finding the time is really in organizing each thing into small tasks, and then letting the work take as long as it does. There is no secret to getting things done, except being patient with the time one actually has (and let’s be honest – I’m privileged to only have to work one job which gives me time to pursue projects outside of survival). I’m prioritizing now so that 2019 continues to be a year of delivering on all my interests. Planning is fun! Doing… well, that takes a bit more wrangling.

Post #3149: Radiant light

I spent the weekend at a meditation/study retreat in the city on the topic of Dogen’s Radiant Light – though I didn’t feel radiant or light, bogged down with a cold as I was. In fact, I was *that* person in the zendo. The sniffling, sneezing one. The one that everyone is secretly hating because what if she’s still contagious? But there you go. It was bound to happen at some point in my spiritual life that I would be the thorn in the side of my sangha. I’m sure it will happen more than once in this life of mine.

For the record, I was on the other side of my symptoms, as bad as they sounded – so I had pretty good reason to believe I wasn’t contagious. It’s just hard to convince others of that when you still sound congested.

I had wanted to go to this retreat specifically because my word of the year is “Radiant” and it seemed somehow essential that I engage in some study of the related zen text. A big takeaway from the reading for me had to do with the intimacy we must bring to our practice in order to realize the “light” of all things including ourselves.

“Make sure to endeavor in the practice of the buddha way. Those who practice should not be alienated or distant. Even so, there have been few practitioners of the way who have mastered this radiant light.”

This clearly holds true for more than Zen practice – only by practicing intimacy in relation to the world can we fully know it, and ourselves fully in return.

Though this wasn’t my intention when I chose the word Radiant, I see how anchoring my actions in such an intention has propelled me into greater intimacy. With the goal of putting myself out there (extending in all directions) I have: started a newsletter featuring personal essays, accepted the help of a friend in editing my writing, signed up for monthly “follow through” workshops supporting my creative practice, gotten to know a textile artist I admire, asked my zen teacher for a specific program of study, and offered myself more freely to my family in a time of need than I might have otherwise. Even the act of daily yoga (since January 1st) is a form of engagement with the body that demands intimacy with the self. Each of these things has required that I acknowledge my feelings and fear of rejection – and expose them to others.

It’s been unexpected, a bit freaky – and a lot energizing. So I’m going to stick with it. Coming out of this weekend though, I’m going to meditate a bit more on this intimacy and the light that comes forth from it – and hope it further informs the work I’m putting out in the world in 2019.

Calligraphy of the characters Ko Myo (Light Brightness) by Shinmon Michael Newton who delivered last weekend’s teaching.
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