The Thimble Theory: The Politics of Making Your Own Clothing

by Kendra Cooper

The Circle Asheville

We live with fashion like we live with the things we say, the art we create, the books we read, and the places we visit. It is part of our story. Even though it’s part of the web of things that make us who we are, it’s often cast aside as trivial. Fashion is considered unimportant on the list of things we’re told we should care about. Is it really as shallow as we’re told? Why is it considered unimportant when there are countless magazines, shows, and blogs dedicated to it? Fashion influences identity, and our identities influence it. We don’t live in a vacuum as individuals, so anything that influences our identities has a ripple effect socially. With the power fashion has, however limited it may be, there are opportunities it offers us. The most important opportunity is right at our thimble-covered finger tips: upcycling old clothing is political.

If someone were to ask you how to change the world, fashion would probably not be the first thing that came to mind. This is for good reason because it definitely cannot change anything on its own. With a little creativity and bravery, what we do with what we wear can have a major impact.

Making clothing from scratch can be expensive and time-consuming, so many underground designers, talented makers, and out-of-the-box teens started upcycling old clothing. The surface result of this is some cool fashion, with every piece being unique due to how it’s made. Upcycled clothing is doing something revolutionary behind the scenes. Making clothing is having true control over what we wear. Fashion is becoming less about consumption and more about artistic expression.

Example of upcycling via Cut Out and Keep

The internet has made it easier for us to be both producers and consumers. We make art and share it online, while at the same time we admire other art blogs. We make our own music and upload it on SoundCloud, while at the same time creating playlists of songs we love. It is the same with fashion. The internet is full of upcycling advice, and Instagram has thousands of indie designers showcasing their amazing work. On the internet we see, we like, and then we make. This is a massive change in terms of consumption.

Of course, upcycling clothing takes a bit of consumption. One has to purchase second-hand clothing in order to re-make it. This is another way to recycle. According to an article in the Atlantic, Americans buy five times as much clothing as they did in 1980, and 10.5 million tons a year end up in landfills. Hopefully, this shift in fashion can help change that. Buying second-hand clothes is, in a small way, good for the environment.

Sweatshops have been a topic in fashion and labor-based social justice over the past twenty years. Laborers in the global south are paid very small wages to make most of the clothing we wear, and big brands have been caught exploiting the poor. There are groups like United Students Against Sweatshops and Labour Behind the Label that work in solidarity with sweatshop workers, helping them make fair wages and confront the companies that abuse them. What we wear has history behind it, and we’re often separated from it. Buying second-hand clothing doesn’t send the market signals that say it’s ok to use sweatshops because it is not new. Every purchase we make has an effect.

Example of upcycling via Keep Calm and Do it Yourself

With all of these things in mind, making clothing isn’t only about personal expression, it is also about intent. Fashion is a form of communication, and it speaks while we’re silent. Think of your outfit as part of your story, and be conscious about what it says. Upcycling your own clothing means taking part in a larger conversation about production, consumption, exploitation, and justice.

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