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Thursday, 14 August 2014

Indra's Net: The Ethics of Fashion and Textiles, A Book Review of Greta Eagan's "Wear No Evil" was passed on in wills,...or used in political power plays between rival rulers.
Living as we do in a post-industrialized world, fabric has become ubiquitous and inexpensive. Most of us are very distant from its production, and the magic of cloth-making has thus for the most part become invisible; few who have not witnessed the laborious processes and multiple steps that go into making even the simplest cloth realize what treasures they be wearing or hold in their hands. ("Why Textiles Matter," in Textiles: The Whole Story, by Beverly Gordon, preface, p. 6)

One of the joys in my yoga practice is discovering ways to take that practice out into the world.  (That's how this blog came into being-as an exploration in combining the things I love into a cohesive, if somewhat inconsistent, way of living.)  One of the joys in practising at my yoga studio is that there is a focus on teaching and practising yoga as more than asana/poses and exercise.  This philosophy and the connections it brings pop up in unexpected, often delightful ways. You might think that it would be quite a leap to connect my love of textiles and yoga, but yoga philosophy is full of textile imagery.  We speak of the sutras, literally, threads, most familiar to us in Patanjali's works of yoga philosophy. In Vedic traditions, there is the metaphor of Indra's Net which expresses the interconnection of the universe.

The other evening, as I was wrapping myself up in my stay-away-from-the-sun garb, Scott, a teacher at Bodhi Tree Yoga, and I discovered that we shared some common interests in textiles, namely, a love for the master of draped design in fashion, Mariano Fortuny, and the artist/fashion designer, Erte. We chatted a bit about Fortuny's passion for pleats and the Erte paper doll books we both had, but had never had the heart to cut out of the books.

Those who know me now may be surprised (and very amused) about my hidden passion for fashion.  My current style is, ahem, casual, bordering on sloppy a good part of the time. People sometimes comment on my clothing, but it's usually to point out that my skirt is tucked up in my underwear or that I seem a bit overdressed when the weather's hot.  (The sun and I have an agreement.  He can shine as intensely as he wishes; I will either stay inside or cover up in a tent when I go walk about during the days he feels like displaying his glory.)  Once upon a time, being fashionable mattered to me.  Now, not so much.

A few things happened to bring this about: I had children.  It was somehow sadder to scrape poop and baby puke off silk clothing than it is to launder cotton T-shirts. I switched jobs to work in an art centre, where dressing up was not only not necessary, it could be downright hazardous. One should not wear long, flowing outfits when working around hot stoves and with moving equipment. Keeping up to date costs money; as a stay-at-home mom working as an artist, I had lots of creative opportunities, but no money.  I was making cloth or string every day and the more I delved into the history of the textiles I was shaping and decorating, the more my conscience began to poke at me about the way we undervalue and waste the fabrics we wear and use.

Because of the intense labour required to produce them, textiles have always had an ugly underbelly lurking below their glorious surfaces.  Textile production has supplied employment for much of humanity. While in many cases, such as tapestry weaving, the technical and design skills required to make cloth were honoured and respected and a skilled weaver could command decent compensation, unfortunately, so many people were needed to spin and weave in order to keep the world supplied with the materials required for every facet of life from clothing to sails, that yarn and cloth production did and does rely heavily on slave and child labour, low wages and hazardous working conditions. The demand for cheap cloth has resulted in a loss of land for food production and the heavy use of pesticides and water.  (Cotton requires some of the most voluminous use of pesticides and water known to humankind.)  We have to wear clothing, especially in climates like mine, so what do we do when our consciences, our yoga practice, conflicts with our desire to look stylish, or if not stylish, at least presentable?

Greta Eagan thinks she has found part of the answer to that question.  Her 2014 book, Wear No Evil: How to Change the World with Your Wardrobe, provides a guide to ethical practice in buying clothing.  By using the ethical guidelines most important to the reader, Eagan helps you to set up what she calls the Diamond System of choosing fabrics and clothing to transform you from an unmindful clothing consumer to an "Eco-Citizen" to an "Eco-Warrior," into an "Eco-Guru." The book is basic, written in that familiar self-help style found in bookstores everywhere; if you're looking for a place to start practising ethical fashion, Eagan's system can help.

What I like about this guide:

  • The first chapters in which Eagan discusses the shift from cloth and fashion as luxury for the rich into mass production of cheap, disposable fabrics provide a lot of information on how the clothing and fashion industry exploits labour for profit. She also provides statistics on pesticide use and water waste in textile production.  
  • Eagan's Integrity Index compares fibres and processes in order to help the reader develop an understanding of the various factors competing for our attention in choosing ethical clothing.  She isn't afraid to challenge assumptions-her discussion of animal leather versus vegan leather/pleather is in itself worth a read.
  • Her applied system for buying clothing ethically can be personalized to the buyer's priorities.  The system is simple enough to apply as you buy.  There's no need to flip through pages of choices when something catches your eye in a shop or online. 
There are a few problems with the information presented in Wear No Evil, including the implication that textiles made from bamboo, soy, corn and milk are "natural" products. While these products may have originated from plants or animals, the chemicals and processes used to transform them into cloth leave them with no resemblance to their original sources. The textile industry played so fast and loose with labelling bamboo products as green and natural that many countries now require labels specifying that bamboo cloth is "rayon/viscose produced from bamboo."  There is much debate about the ethics of moving products which supply much of the world's population with food into clothing and fuel production.  Currently, soy, corn and milk "fibres" don't make particularly good fabrics; corn dissolves under fairly low heat and both soy and milk products break down quickly, which may help out in landfills, but which encourages more waste.

Eagan's statement about Ahimsa/ethical silk is downright silly: " Regular silk production kills the silkworms in the process. Look for Peace Silk to ensure that the garment you are purchasing is made without harming the silkworms so they can go on producing more gorgeous fabric for you (p. 52)."  While it's true that the chrysalis inside a silk cocoon is stifled to prevent the moth from breaking the silk filaments, only some of the hatching moths go on to mate before they starve to death because they have reduced or no mouth parts and do not feed. It's also debatable whether or not the ethical silk you're buying is actually that; as is sometimes the case with "Green" labelled products, some manufacturers have been known to call their silk "ethically produced" when what they're selling is regular silk with value added by the addition of that ethical description. 

As a natural dyer, one of my pet peeves is the use of some food products for dyeing. Eagan does a good job of explaining the processes involved in using natural products as colouring agents; however, she promotes designers who use such things as berries for colour on their textiles.  Berries produce stains, not dyes which bond to the fabrics; as such, they are better used as food.

Aside from these issues, Eagan's book gives great advice, listing forward thinking designers and fashion brands working towards ethical practices and style advice for both men and women.  Eagan also has a website: Wear No Evil, with updated newsletters.

Yoga teaches us that everything is linked, that the choices we make affect all that is in this world and beyond.  It can be a daunting, if not impossible task, to take the steps which allow us to move our yoga into the world, to mindfully choose the threads which bind us to each other and the universe. We don't have to do it all at once; our thoughtful choices, woven together one by one, can work to weave a beautiful cloth of harmony and ethical practice. Through our practice,  Indra's Net links us all; Wear No Evil can help us get there.   

Eagan's book is available in bookstores or at your local public library.

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