About 8 years ago, I was sitting in the library on campus, furiously studying in preparation for final examinations. I chose a seat at a table on one of the quiet floors of the library, a space which seemed to frown at those who dared to type with excessive force or flick the pages of a book. A few minutes after I arrived, one of my friends joined me. As he slipped into the seat next to mine, he winced as his bag hit the floor with a quiet plop. He slid a brown paper Kroger bag to me. In the most strained of whispers, he told me that he had outgrown a few of his sweaters, so he had packed them up for me. I nodded thanks to him, and we both turned our attention to the piles of academic work which awaited us.
Hours later, as we groggily emerged from the library, we paused at one of the benches in the entryway so I could examine my new hand me downs. A couple of solid color cardigans and then a beautiful black and cream sweater featuring a complex print of interlocking triangles. I thanked my friend for the company and the sweaters and made my trudge back to my apartment. At this phase in my life, I was surrounded by friends who loved to swap and hand down clothes, so I passed along a few items from my own closet to make room for my new acquisitions. This black and cream sweater has become one my most enduring garments. It is something I love to wear.
In the intervening years, that sweater and I have moved from Indiana to Ohio, Connecticut, New York, back to Connecticut, and finally to Kentucky. We have pursued two degree programs. We have seen relationships and friendships come and go. We’ve taken road trips; we’ve squeezed in for lengthy plane flights. We’ve gotten engaged and married. We’ve adopted two dogs. We’ve learned new skills. We’ve weathered nearly two years of a global pandemic. We’ve worked a variety of jobs. We’ve experienced loss. This sweater has been in my life longer than the person I married a few months ago. This is a piece of clothing which has served me well in so many ways. It provides a specific comfort and familiarity, as well as really being a beautiful piece.
A black label stitched to the back of the neck identifies this sweater as a size M from the brand Top Man. The crew neck sweater sags on my frame, just the right kind of oversized fit. The sleeves are ever so slightly too long, but are the perfect length with the contrast cuffs folded over once. The worn care tag tucked along a side seam reveals that this garment is 100% cotton and advertises in bold red capital letters “KEEP AWAY FROM FIRE,” which is my goal for all of my clothing. This sweater is made of more than fiber. It is woven with memories, which stress, with joy, and with the energy which has carried me through nearly a decade of life.
Made in Turkey, the sweater undoubtedly came with a sizable human and environmental footprint, between unethical labor practices and rampant waste in the textile industry. Like most pieces of clothing available for purchase, this initial impact is sizable. The longer we are able to wear and enjoy clothing, the lower the overall demand for new clothes.
While I do treasure this sweater, this piece of clothing is but one small example of the ways in which clothing can become significant to us. Clothes have the possibility to live many full lives with different owners. Fast fashion spends millions of dollars a year on advertising campaigns which encourage consumers to buy buy buy. These ads obscure an undeniable truth- some people already have enough clothes. Rather than cycle through what they own, donate or hand down what they no longer use, and enjoy what is left, supplementing with the occasional purchase of new or secondhand clothing, many people fall prey to the relentless roar of the sales, seasonal trends, and other mechanisms which the fast fashion industry employs.
I don’t share this to make an example of this specific garment, but rather to provide an alternative framework with which to think about and conceive of the clothes we own and wear. Instead of seeing clothes as bits of cloth that hold our physical selves, we can embrace them as extensions of our style and personality, which quite literally walk with us through our lives. Especially given the preponderance of synthetic fiber in circulation, most of these clothes aren’t going anywhere, so this is an opportunity for us to make peace with these garments, to find new homes for them, and to appreciate the many ways in which they serve us.
As an exercise, consider these questions. What is one of your favorite items? How did it come into your life? How long have you had it? What changes have occurred in your life since you acquired this piece of clothing? What memories do you have tied to this garment? Has anything specific happened to you when you are wearing it? What do you like about it? How do you feel when you are wearing it?
When we imbue clothes with this significance and reverence, we honor the waste which went into the production. Such garments cannot merely be tossed into the trash, to be trucked to a landfill and sit patiently for a millennia among white plastic bags of slowly decaying and denaturing materials. They demand to be cared for, mended, and handed down to another person who can give the garment another full life.
As you examine the contents of your closet this season, I hope you consider the story of each piece. How it came to you, what it means to you, and where it will be going next. I hope you shop with intentionality, finding pieces which will work for you in a sustainable way. I hope that when you are ready to let go of a garment, you help it find its way to its next home.
Eleni Georgiadis is a classically trained horn player currently residing in Kentucky. Outside of music, she enjoys knitting, sewing, composting, kombucha brewing, and spending time outdoors. She is thrilled to have the opportunity to share her thoughts about sustainability and inclusivity in fashion, weaving together her technical knowledge, passion, and research.