Something “Old” is “New” Again

I read recently that the newest fashion “In” thing is “upcycling,” i.e., recycling parts of existing clothes or fabric ends to create new clothes, preferable more expensive clothes.

I hate to break it to the fashion gurus but so-called “upcycling” has been around for-EVER!

But first, some background.

I have to credit upcyclers with combating “fast fashion” – clothes that are cheap, trendy and disposable. Wander through the clothing department of any store, especially big box stores, and you’ll see fast fashion everywhere.

Why is it so cheap? Take a close look at where it’s made. Bangladesh. Indonesia. India. Thailand. Vietnam. The list goes on. Cheap labour and horrible working conditions that have long been outlawed in Canada, the USA, New Zealand, Australia and Europe.

Remember the Rana Plaza clothing factory that collapsed in Bangladesh in April, 2013, killing over 1100 people and injured more than 2500? Or the Tazreen Fashions factory that burned in November, 2012, killing at least 117 people and injuring more than 200? The reasons so many died: faulty wiring and barred or even non-existent emergency exits.

Those people work under horrible conditions – very few, if any, breaks to eat or use the bathroom (assuming there is one); meager pay (the Rana Plaza workers earned 35 cents a day), blocked exits, unsafe working conditions, long hours, the constant fear of losing their jobs if they object, poor light, poor air circulation, and so on. They continue to work under those conditions because they have no choice, because their families depend upon that meager income, because if they objected (and were then fired) there would be thousands of others battling to take their place. If severely injured to the point of not being able to work, they receive no compensation from the factory, no workers’ compensation, no unemployment benefits, no long-term disability payments. Nothing.

And all because we’re too “cheap” to pay the price for clothes (and other products) made locally by well-paid employees in safe workplaces (this article speaks to the situation in the USA but Canada can learn from it, too.)

So where does “upcycling” fit in this, you ask? Consider this: how long will you wear that piece of clothing and what will you do with it once a) it wears out, or b) you get tired of wearing it?

Some discarded clothing goes to thrift stores, about 15% according to this web site, and some is burned for energy recovery, but most ends up in the garbage. In 2014, just over 10 million tons (TONS!) of discarded clothing were sent to landfills in the USA alone.

Thus, upcycling – a way to turn clothing that would be otherwise discarded into something “new” that is desirable and fashionable and green. But upcycling is nothing new.

During the Depression of the 1930s, upcycling was born out of necessity, not out of choice. My mother grew up with it. She told stories of her mother making underclothes and boys’ shirts out of cotton flour sacks and remaking hand-me-down clothing received in relief shipments. Fortunately, my grandmother had received extensive training in all the fibre arts, including pattern-making, when she attended the Practicing School for Girls in Truro, Cornwall, England, in the late 1890s. She put that training to good use during the Depression, not only (re)making clothes for her family but also training other women how to do the same. My mother told how Grandma could look at a picture of a dress, then draft the pattern for it using newspaper and make the dress on her treadle sewing machine.

Mom in her “upcycled” suit

In 1941, Mom was hired fresh out of high school to clerk at the Bank of Toronto. She had no suitable work clothes, only the dress she wore to school and the dress she wore at home (imagine, only two dresses!), and there was no money to buy her a suit. Grandma created one by taking apart one of Grandpa’s old suits, turning the fabric and recutting it. Mom wore that suit until she earned enough to buy herself a store-bought one.

So the next time you contemplate buying that inexpensive (cheap) clothing article, look where it’s made and think of the underpaid workers labouring in conditions you wouldn’t even put your dog in. Think of the tons of waste clothing already in landfills. Think of my mother with only two dresses to her name. Think of my grandmother clothing her family during desperate times by “upcycling.”

Just think.

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