Writer and artist Sofi Thanhauser has spent over a decade researching linen, cotton, silk, wool and synthetic fibres for her book Worn. Investigating the origins of garment-making, Sofi shares her insights into manufacturing processes, craft techniques and traditions. Travelling across the world, she seeks out the annual Woolfest in Cumbria, England, meets cotton farmers in the US state of Texas and visits silk plants in the Yangtze Delta region, China. Sofi’s incisive on-the-ground reporting is paired with historical and personal anecdotes, dissecting not just how items are made and their social, environmental and economic impact, but our feelings towards clothing, too.
When did your fascination with clothes and thrift store shopping begin?
My love of thrift stores began in late high school, just as I became aware of a whole realm of goods that were much higher calibre than those available to me in TJ Maxx. I grew up on Martha's Vineyard, which has a very wealthy summer population. So the “dumptique” — a free store in my town next to the landfill — would be regularly populated with extremely nice old things that summer people had discarded. This was how I realised that thrift store shopping was the only way to get clothes as nice as the ones I wanted. Beginning to get my clothing from thrift stores also corresponded to a moment in my life as a teenager when it suddenly felt possible to dress in a way that demonstrated I had ideas that extended outside of the mainstream ones, without receding into total unintelligibility.
An interest in vintage, which is a close relative to a love of thrifting, is something I would loosely trace to when the Austin Powers film came out: my friends and I suddenly became aware of a very different silhouette. Even that cartoonish, version of ’60s fashion was very exciting to us. The whole idea of referencing and improvising modifications upon past decades is one of the main things thrifting is about.
You began creating Matriarchy Now T-shirts in 2012 and scaling up this production led you to start investigating a lot of what we read in this book. Could you tell us about this journey?
The first Matriarchy Now pieces were second-hand T-shirts from Laramie, Wyoming thrift stores, which were then spray-painted using a stencil. I gave one of the very first ones to the teenage boy who sold me the spray paint at the hardware store.
Spray painting is pretty toxic, and it fades. When I realised that people wanted more shirts (at first friends, and then a store in L.A. called Otherwild wanted to stock them) I started having them screen-printed: still going around each week to all the thrift stores in Laramie to buy up all the plain T-shirts. I did it this way for a while. When I moved to Brooklyn, I tried buying a bale of plain white used T-shirts from a company in New Jersey that ships thrift store cast-offs overseas for resale. I got the 50-pound bale home and realised each T-shirt was slightly stained. So I worked my way through that 50 pounds doing indigo-dye batches in my bathtub; at some point in the middle of one of those I thought maybe I've got to just buy new shirts.
I made one batch with Spiritex shirts: they use organic cotton which is grown, spun and sewn in North Carolina, and one batch with Everybodyworld in California, using recycled cotton. I never made money on it but I didn’t lose money either, so I was ok with it. I just needed those shirts to exist.
From the extensive research you have done, what brings you hope for the future of the clothes we wear?
Wool! Small producers. Craftspeople, small clothing brands. The fact that there are many very brave people out there looking to make actual clothing rather than just looking to make the most money possible; those who are actively working to preserve and regenerate soil in the process of producing textile fibres, and who focus on what they can contribute to the lives of the workers making their goods. These people always have a light in their eyes. Even though what they are doing is really hard, they have that light. I want them to succeed.
Since writing Worn, what small acts do you take to be part of the solution to the clothing system?
I am not an activist per se, but I have tried to use journalism to highlight the work being done by NGOs to insist that companies disclose supply chains. A lot of organizations are doing work on Xinjiang cotton right now, which means trying to insist that the inmates of internment camps are not making our clothing. This is an unbelievably low bar, and yet even this has been a hard fight, and isn’t really over. This is a huge structural problem and though consumers play a part, it is companies who are accountable.
Tell me about some of the places you travelled to, and what production methods you found to be the most forward-thinking in terms of impact on people and the planet?
In India I met a man named Kanaan who had developed a suite of machines small enough to fit in a garage that could take raw cotton and turn it into thread. The company was called Microspin, and its goal was to give rural cotton farmers more control over cotton price fluctuations by allowing them to control more of the production process. It also offered an economic activity that could be pursued during the parts of the cotton-growing season when farmers did not need to be in the fields. It was flexible machinery that allowed the types of cotton that were best suited to a wide variety of climates to be processed, rather than requiring farmers to plant cotton seed that would do best in a conventional gin (a machine that separates cotton fibres from seeds). In this way, the machinery served the ecology and not the other way around. He was finding a way to create a product that empowered people to produce on a small scale.
What does your clothing reveal about you?
Certainly, a love of wool, and a disinclination towards ever being uncomfortable. Knitted skirts and sweaters in winter, oversized linen dresses in summer. I know during this era of working from home, a lot of people have revelled in not having to wear uncomfortable clothing, but I haven’t tolerated uncomfortable clothing for many years; I don't think comfort and beauty should be opposites or even vaguely opposed. My closet also reveals an occasional craving for pink and red in a more general sea of dark blue, black and brown. Some days wearing bright red feels very important to me.
How did learning to sew help you when writing this book?
Learning to sew has helped me understand the historical components of this project, simply because I am aware of the tremendous amount of time hand sewing takes. This gives me just the tiniest window into the incredibly time-consuming process that was pre-industrial textile and garment manufacture.
Learning machine sewing helped me to understand more about the imperatives of mass manufacturing processes. I know how easy it is to become obsessed with speed and productivity. My friends and I had an underwear making collective one summer. It was fascinating how quickly we started driving ourselves really hard, how we'd stay up so late trying to make a certain quota.
Finally, I think, the fact that I make clothes means that I tend to approach craftspeople with a feeling of comradery, rather than of scholarly or journalistic interest.
Do you repair your own clothes and are there any mending techniques you have learned in recent years to give new life to your well-worn items?
I do mend, replacing buttons or small tears. Zippers I usually have someone else do, as they are so tricky. As for giving them new life, I think good clothes give themselves new life, sometimes they just need to lay fallow for a while. They have this period of dormancy until the light changes and then suddenly they want to be worn again.
Revival of traditional craft may lead us to a sustainable future - could you give me some examples you have discovered that you think will stand the test of time?
The models I'm most excited about use technology to empower people to be artisans. When wool carding was first mechanised, it was a service people purchased: you could bring your wool and have it mechanically carded. It was still your wool, and you could spin and dye and weave it, or sell it, as you liked, but one of the most arduous jobs had been taken care of. Machines aren't inherently bad, but I like it when they are used to allow the artisan and producer to have a creative life. The small mills that process wool for people who have small flocks, allowing them to spin their own wool, and the Microspin model in India: this strikes me as a continuation of that model.
Aside from buying less, what considered choices can we make when purchasing clothing?
I think we should ask: what fibre is it made from? Did the making of that fibre replenish the earth, or harm it? Who made this garment? Were they fairly compensated? How do I know that? I do think consumers' choices matter, but I want to highlight that the onus should not be on the consumer, but on the company, and on the political apparatus that regulates the company.
With ever more choice across the industry, do you think repair and reuse have a strong enough staying power to eventually become the norm?
I don't think repair and reuse will become the norm unless and until clothes are a significant investment. Clothing used to be – at all times in human history up until the very recent past – either a major investment of time, or of money. We would all, of course, repair a car or a house because it represents a significant investment. Clothes were once that way. I would argue that they probably need to be that way again in order for the people who make them to be fairly compensated.
In your research, have you noticed certain patterns of behaviour in relation to our clothing that occur during hard times?
I have heard many times about how knitting, spinning and weaving have incredible therapeutic powers. A woman told me that while she was in labour, in order to deal with the pain she visualised balls of yarn in a basket. A weaver told me about weaving a Pieta to deal with a friend's death. I personally have turned to embroidery to endure heartbreak.
What would a just and fair clothing system look like to you?
A just and fair clothing system would mean that the people who make clothing experience the power to express themselves creatively in their work. All of them. It would also be one in which the same soil could be used for generations, in producing the plants or raising the animals used to make fibre.
Are there any textile processes or craft techniques that you feel are in danger of disappearing if they are not kept alive by local communities?
There are so many – hundreds – of highly skilled and ancient textile traditions that are in mortal peril. Quechua backstrap weaving in the Peruvian Andes, Jalq’a weaving in Bolivia, Alindi weaving in Somalia, to name just a few. Closer to home, there are also industrial histories that are threatened with being forgotten. The cast iron machinery used in the US and Britain during the late 19th century and early 20th century: the shuttle looms and spinning frames that transformed fabric making globally, are themselves in danger of being destroyed because museum funding for preserving this type of artefact is absent. This would mean the loss of a huge archive of industrial design.
In Worn, you state that dressing and storytelling are deeply connected – could you explain this as it relates to your own personal experience?
I think dressing and storytelling are both ways of shaping a self: of giving definition to a self, and creating a character. When you tell your own story, you become the protagonist. When you dress, you establish yourself –thoughtfully or thoughtlessly – as an actor on the stage.
What does ‘better’ clothing mean to you?
Better clothing is clothing that demonstrates by its material choices, construction, design, feel, that it was made by someone trying to keep you warm, or buttress your dignity, or enhance your elegance, and not exclusively to realise profit. It actively strengthens you, like a good friend.
Worn: A People’s History of Clothing by Sofi Thanhauser is published by Penguin.
Author portrait by Sean Fitzpatrick and book cover, both courtesy of Penguin.
Photographs by Robbie Lawrence.
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