100 mile clothing

The latest sustainability meme circulating is sourcing your needs within 100 miles. This gained popularity after publication of The 100 mile diet, the latest book to explain why people’s dietary habits are the greatest cause of environmental degradation. As can be expected, it hasn’t taken long for this concept to spread to apparel. Accordingly, Wired magazine recently published an article describing a 100 miles sustainable clothing project from theater professor Kelly Cobb at Drexel University. While the goals of the project are worthwhile, the result were controversial.

This could have a dampening effect on encouraging consumers to embrace sustainability (more photos). Why is sustainability so often the visual equivalent of twigs and berries? Beyond the myriad criticisms leveled, I think the issue is more a testament to the need of project oversight than anything to do with sustainability. Minimally, sourcing is a problem. Within 100 miles of Philadelphia are legions of textile weavers, among them the Amish. While they’re not known for being fashionably hip, no one in their right mind could doubt the quality and integrity of their work. Why weren’t goods acquired from them? Half of sustainability means using existing resources rather than duplicating efforts and ending up with an inferior result. I don’t understand why a professional shoe maker was hired to make the shoes but equivalent professionals were not to make the rest of it. The shoes looked good. Other than the choice of fabrication, using a professional pattern maker to fit the model to measure could have improved the result considerably.

It’s my feeling the project failed to demonstrate what a 100 mile piece of clothing could really look like. I think a more apt description of the effort was a class project (which sounds like buckets of fun) but the results shouldn’t be promoted to represent a typical example of what consumers can expect; that sustainability will always have limited aesthetic appeal -that’s not true. I readily understand getting one’s students involved but existing resources to include both raw materials and personnel would have been more representative of a real world example. In real life, a designer (project manager) must know how to source and be able to gauge the quality of those sources. If it’s a fun class project then fine, but people shouldn’t get the idea these results are typical unless they are also doing all of the work themselves.

In real life, if conditions were so extreme that we were limited to resources within a 100 mile radius, we’d be sufficiently clever or tight-fisted enough to employ the age-old division of labor, hiring local professionals skilled at such work. Assuming such society would be more labor intensive, we’d also hire someone who could get their portion of the job done in a couple of hours because even with manually powered technology, that’s about all it would take a professional to do it. That means spinning, weaving, cutting, patterning, sewing, -each task in a matter of hours, not the 18 months that Cobb said. Assuming the society would be a market based economy, why would we hire someone who couldn’t get the work done in a reasonable amount of time according to prevailing standards? Sustainability doesn’t just mean using materials wisely, but time and talent too.

Artisan craftsmanship used to mean something; sustainability doesn’t have to mean ugly. Thankfully, there still exists today endless international examples of 100 mile clothes of amazing beauty. There is beauty in sustainability.

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  1. Ms. T says:

    Good Lord that is heinous!!! I am merely a hobbyist home sewer and I think I could have tailored a better suit than that. I am also perplexed as to why it had to be all knitted. Its called weaving people. I knew a nice lady from my grandmother’s neighborhood who made her own suits out of fabrics she wove herself and she looked sharp. There is no excuse for this kind of sloppiness. It’s so over the top crunchy and granola–it’ll have people running to their gas guzzlers and buying up the latest in cheap chinese merchandise. Love the blog and love the book Kathleen.

  2. mac says:

    You’ve just insulted a number of artisans – spinners, weavers, knitters, etc. You’re certainly entitled to your opinion about the various pieces, but to suggest that everyone involved at every level [with the exception of the shoemaker] is crap at what they do is wrong.

    Perhaps I’m a bit defensive as I spun the yarn for the socks on this project. Maybe my spinning technique is as bad as you intimate, simply by virtue of being involved in the 100 Mile Suit project.

  3. BenO says:

    I think it was a worth while experiment, all except for the wool undies.
    I didn’t notice any mention of hemp here. I’d assume college students would have access to that (at least the kind used for cloth).

  4. Vespabelle says:

    I can deal with the pants. They’ve got that sexy Amish/Mountain main look (needs suspenders!) but the tie confuses me. What’s the point of the tie? You do not wear a tie with a t-shirt!

    The less said about the jacket, the better!

    Linen and hemp would have improved this outfit (along with a good dose of tailoring or even basic seamstressing!)

  5. Karen C says:

    First, love the concept. Second, is that the Unabomber? Manson? LOL. Sorry, but that was my first reaction. I certainly agree that if you want to really attract people to your concept, ideas and products, must make it attractive in the first place. It could’ve been done here. I don’t think it’s anything against artisans, just healthy feedback to help improve the next go-round.

  6. Mary says:

    OMG! That is one ugly suit. The model could have used a shearing, too.

    It galls me that they used such coarse materials. Handspun wool does not have to look like that – and I speak as a spinner.

    You’re wrong about the spinning taking only hours, assuming you’re using hand-operated equipment. More like a few days. Weaving would have been much faster than knitting, even on a hand loom. There are plenty of professionals out there who could have vastly improved the quality of this little exercise.

    Obviously they didn’t take wearability into account. It gives fiber artists a very bad name, and I hope that other artisans around the country take on a similar project just to prove that sustainability doesn’t have to be ugly. Simple adjustments in materials and techniques would have made this project much more appealing to a wider audience.

  7. Katherine R says:

    Boy, those clothes are pathetic. I am a spinner, weaver and knitter, and I wasn’t insulted by Kathleen’s criticism. There is no excuse for making clothing that looks like troglodytes created it. No one who sees that outfit will be inspired to search out local craftspeople like myself, who create hand dyed, handspun, handwoven fine clothing and accessories. Hand spinners and weavers have been able to make fine fabric and fashionable clothing for thousands of years, with plant and animal fibers that they have close by. I’d like to see the project done well, with the clothing given the same care the shoes were.

  8. BenO says:

    Wait a minuet!!
    I totally recognize this outfit.
    Grateful Dead show, ’93, Las Vegas, Sting was the opening act.
    This outfit was worn by the guy selling “the kind” brownies right next to the Hare Krishnas!!!
    True fashion never dies.

  9. Marie-Christine says:

    Oy veh!! OK, I should confess up front that I’m capable of wearing a vest a bit like this :-). In the right circumstances, just because it’s so weird it’s fun. But there’s no excuse for pants that corkscrew and flies that torque, not if you’re actually making and using fabric halfway correctly. And I make much better handspun socks than that (although it takes me months Kathleen, honestly, and I’m not that slow). Nobody wants to see anything that 70s to make the point of this project, it’s not intellectually sustainable.
    And don’t get me started about how in France organic wool is all -very- scratchy. That’s how you can tell it’s organic, apparently… Sheesh.

  10. Katja says:

    Was that supposed to be a jacket?! It looks like some kind of weird crop top. The underwear is just poorly thought out, the necktie fabric isn’t appropriate to the tie, and the pants are poorly cut. And don’t get me started on the “vest,” which is an abomination.

    As for the socks (in response to the lady above) the yarn looks very nice and even, the knitting also looks good, and they look like they would be comfortable socks. But they don’t look like socks for a man, or at least not socks most men in northern climates would wear with a suit.

    But the shoes are fine.

  11. Lisa NYC says:

    don’t think they’ll have that lad on the GQ cover anytime soon…LOL

    Sorry, but the outfit is scary…however, those are some NICE shoes! The model looks like a NYC homeless man who stole a rich man’s shoes.

  12. Sandra B says:

    This is bizzare. I think it really disadvantages the eco movement to have an image associated with it that is so far removed from what the average person finds appealling. The wine skin dress from a couple of weeks ago was also appalling. The (full page) image on the front of our newspaper was a swampwoman emerging from the sea (http://www.abc.net.au/science/news/stories/2007/1872191.htm?tech ) Why do clever scientists and earnest eco folk not think this through?

  13. Alison Cummins says:

    At first sight, this looks like one of my old bugaboos: people imagining that good intentions (low environmental impact clothing) absolve them of responsibility for poor outcomes (unsaleable clothing).

    On the other hand, this is an academic project, a proof-of-principle. It’s not clear from the article what the class was: probably not theatrical costume design. Anyway, it’s pretty clear that the course was not specifically in textile design.

    If we take it from the other end, how long do we give a DE to develop an idea from scratch, source materials and contractors, design a final product (limiting the scope at first to one or two closely related products) and prototype? More than three months. This project involved sourcing the raw materials for the fabrics, sourcing specialists who could create the fabrics (free, apparently), and then sourcing specialists who could produce the final garments. To get a really nice-looking complete outfit I would guess that you would need a two-year project with a clothing design class cooperating with a textile design class. That’s not what this was.

    Traditional hand-loomed clothes are not designed like modern tailored garments. They flow and wrap and use pieced triangles and rectangles to get the most use of the fabric. The fabric may even be woven to spec, with a body and arms so as to not have to waste precious fibre and time weaving fabric that will ultimately be cut away. (See Cut My Cote.) If hand-looming is the only way to ensure that the fabric is made entirely of locally-sourced fibres, the clothing designers and textile designers will need to work closely together from the beginning to ensure that exactly the right fabric is produced for the desired garment.

    If factory-milled fabric is what is wanted, considerable effort will need to be invested into sourcing, requiring probably at least a five-year project to ensure minimums can be met.

    I don’t see how any of these conditions could have been available to a class. That they were able to take these garments from concept to (poorly-finished) product within one or two semesters I actually consider pretty impressive. If you consider the garments to be the final product, clearly the results are disappointing. If you consider the final product of this particular project to be the proof that the 100-mile suit exists, then the project is a wild success. (It’s so easy that non-specialist students can do it within the timeframe of a single class! Just think of what professionals could accomplish! No excuses!)

    That said, I have yet to buy any hemp clothing in a boutique. I always look and it’s always poorly designed and executed. (Well, I’ve seen nicely made hemp clothing once but it was in horrible unwearable colours.) These designers aren’t operating with the same restrictions as the 100-mile suit class was, but their products are not much nicer. That, I see no excuse for.

  14. Deanna says:

    I remember attending “sheep to shawl” or “sheep to suit” competitions at agricultural fairs when I was young. Inside of a day a team of skilled people were producing a good looking sport coat or a woman’s shawl. Which, in my mind proves that hand done doesn’t have to look haphazard. On the other hand, the sheep section of the fair has all but disappeared in the last 30 years. People aren’t eating lamb, or wearing wool. At least not Canadian wool. So I guess that proves the “100-miler’s” point that we have developed a taste for things not from here.

  15. dawn says:

    The suit is instructive and makes a point. Perhaps the materials could’ve been used in a wholly different way, different types of clothing, more appropriate for the textures. A kilt and tunic?

    In any case, I wonder what an experiment would yield if the rules were a bit different…say, any materials could be used regardless of where they came from originally, but you could go no farther than you could WALK from home to get them?

    I’d be interested to see what people would make of tablecloths, rugs, or dishtowels…whatever they could get “downtown.” (If your downtown is NYC you don’t count!)

  16. Tom Willmon says:

    “… get the buttons placed on the correct side of the garment…”

    Huh? They match my shirts’ placement.

    Pants’ fly/crotch: beyond camel toe. More like elephant’s vulva.
    [Some day they might board up my mouth.]

    But I’d sure lika a pair of those shoes!

    Best from mid- New Mexico.


  17. Kathleen says:

    good eye Tom, good thing they didn’t hire me! I’ll blame it on Eric, he brought it up but I obviously didn’t look closely.

    elephant’s vulva, lol. I was halfway tempted to do a pattern analysis of that.

  18. Megan says:

    Yikes! Even if the clothes were good looking, using that model would immediately make me cringe and not look at the clothing. Scary! I don’t see why natural (sustainable) clothing has to be ugly. I’ve seen some AMAZING natural work done by hand from local designers, in wonderful and beautiful colors. Maybe this is what academics think of when they think of fashion. I think my uncle (a college professor) kind of dresses like that! lol

  19. Eddie says:

    Kathleen, those other examples are not being cited because they are not sustainable in the 100 mile geographical sense. it seems to me that the geographical barrier is the hardest one in sustainability: even NAU has product manufactured in China.

    while i agree that the pictures are scary, the result of this project is to be taken as a PROTOTYPE. she is a theater professor, not an artisan, and is probably the FIRST person in the past century to try to build (note i didnt say sew or design) clothing sourced from within 100 miles. she has no intention of making a fashion statement, nor does wired magazine cater to the fashion conscious – they are about innovation – and this project, no matter how ugly, IS innovative.

    given the readership of your (wonderful) blog, i don’t expect too many people to agree with me, but please give professor Kelly Cobb a break. she doesn’t have a team of experienced artists and a sustainable factory floor at her disposal

  20. carissa says:

    I know people struggle to be honest about their own work, but c’mon. Can’t you stand back and say, “This is nothing short of ugly”?

    A video clip of this guy standing at the mall would be so funny! The camera man could get secret shots of passers-bys reactions!

  21. La BellaDonna says:

    I’m also struggling with the execution of this particular project, because while I understand, intellectually, the participants wanted to produce the materials from scratch, my visceral reaction was just horror, because Philadelphia is one of the few cities that still has a fabric district! All kinds of fabulous materials and supplies were available to them, within that 100-mile radius, as well as numerous skilled artisans upon whose abilities they could have called.

    Even our founding fathers and mothers would have found it difficult to stick so literally to Professor Cobb’s restrictions; it was generally cheaper for them to import fabric than for them to produce it locally.

  22. Katja says:

    Eddie writes: …and is probably the FIRST person in the past century to try to build (note i didnt say sew or design) clothing sourced from within 100 miles

    I assume you mean “in the US,” but even so, I highly doubt it. It’s just that most people who do aren’t making a political statement.

    Note this sheep-to-shawl competition (they aren’t uncommon), it is hard to get much more local than that:
    Yes, they had the loom warped in advance, but the 100 mile suit also used a warp from a non-local source

    And I’ve known historical reenactors who have personally spun, dyed, and woven the fabric they then sewed into a reproduction garment.

    Furthermore, speaking of handwoven garments, my husband has a shirt made by these folks and it is a lovely thing:

    All the weaving and sewing of Frittelli & Lockwood clothes takes place in Glens Falls NY. I don’t know where the warp comes from, but I would wager that if they wanted to do a “100 mile suit” it would look a lot better than the one shown on the Wired website.

  23. La BellaDonna says:

    In addition, I’m peeved that I’m chasing ’round and ’round trying to find information on the shoemaker. The various other persons who worked on this epic appear to have been credited, but not the person who actually made something I’d like to buy. And it would be within the 100-mile radius for me.

    If anybody else has done a better job of searching than I have [entirely probable], and has come up with the name and/or website of the shoemaker, I’d appreciate its being posted!

    I searched properly, and the cobbler was Marie Wigglesworth.

  24. Marguerite says:

    I too am a hand spinner, knitter, and weaver. I’m insulted by this project. There are really no excuses for making something so ugly. I think it would be the equivalent of eating grass and pine cones in order to fall within the “The 100 mile diet” rule. UGH.

  25. anne says:

    I agree with most of the posts on 100 mile clothing.

    I’d just like to add that:

    All those gorgeous lush brocaded velvets in Italian Renaissance portraits? Handspun, and handwoven; and much of the spinning was probably done on handspindles. Nothing twigs-and-pinecones about those clothes!

    Handloomed? Where does that come from? The verb does not have to be the same as the noun, people. You weave on a loom, just like you drive a car.

  26. SB says:

    What is going on here?? Are you all so fragile that the fact that this model doesn’t look like a magazine ad freaks you out?! I can’t believe that so many people who claim to care about the environment enough to pay attention to a 100 mile clothing experiment are so sheep-like, TV-brainwashed, and low-self-esteem that all you can talk about is how “ugly” the clothes are and how hairy the model is. As a human being, I am offended.

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