Reasons a small wardrobe is an act of clever ecofrugalism

Clothes and the keeping of them has quickly become an important theme on this blog. The clothes shopping ban, the darning of socks, the patching of clothes and the adding of pockets to improve clothes you already have, it all boils down to the simple concept of using what you already have and reusing it until it is no longer functional (and then it can be turned into rags).

I have become skeptical of donating my clothes to make room for new-to-me second-hand clothes. Much like with recycling, the story is usually not as rosy pink as we are being told or like to believe. No matter how conscientiously we recycle or donate in order to relieve our guilt before buying new stuff, we are still participating in a problematic cycle of consumption and disposal.

We own more clothing per person than ever before, and yet we spend significantly less on those clothes compared to previous generations. It is an oxymoron that really encapsulates the material wealth of the petroleum age, but do we have to succumb to it?

The problem with a large wardrobe

For one it obviously takes up a lot of space and resources to make. Just one pair of jeans can use up to 1 800 gallons of water just to grow the cotton required. If you try to go through your wardrobe to figure out just how much water was required to make all of it, it’s easy to get overwhelmed real fast.

It is also difficult and expensive to change style or size when we consider a large wardrobe the normal. And what do we do with all those clothes that no longer fit or that we never wore? See issues with donating above.

If you have a large wardrobe it is also easier to not repair something once it is broken or worn to the point where it needs repairing. Why not just grab another item, after all? Even a well-intended mending pile can grow to intimidating proportions where it seems easier to just give up and donate the load after a while.

Another irony is of course, that even with a large wardrobe, there are usually items that sees very little use, while others get worn almost to pieces. Of course it makes sense to donate clothes we don’t use and never see ourselves using, but I think only in so far as we try to not replace them straight away. Do we really need a bedroom-sized room in our house just for clothes?

The slow path to a smaller wardrobe

As I have very slowly reduced the size of my wardrobe over the years, I have also noticed something else. I am a whole lot pickier about the clothes I do invite into my life. Usually it’s not the right size, fabric content or cut, and I just leave it on the rack. Even my intention of trying to buy more fairtrade, organic clothes when I do replace something get thwarted by this new sense of “if I don’t love it, I ain’t spending money on it” attitude. So where have my new clothes been coming from?

There short of it is that they don’t. I have in large parts been wearing the same clothes excepting a few additions in the last ten years. Clothing has always been something not terribly high on my list of priorities, so I have just kept the same fairly boring neutral style that goes with most things for years.

But then, after years of mending, darning, patching and the occasional viking age/medieval historical reenactment garment, something clicked. Since I could not find what I really wanted in second-hand shops most of the time, what if I could… say… make my own clothes?

Oh dear, now there’s a pandora’s box.

Old blouse I had been wearing to rags on the left, new blouse made in an attempt to copy the pattern of the former to the left. Also, self-made woolen skirt (with pockets, obviously).

But once the seed had been sown, it could not be un-sown. Now, I will admit that I have always enjoyed sewing, and fully realize that not everyone will have this interest. But to me, once I’ve cut the pattern and pinned the pieces, sitting on the couch with my needle and thread is a great way to spend the evening while watching or listening to something. I actually enjoy the task of hand-sewing even though it takes forever, so it doubles as both a hobby I enjoy and a slow way to replenish and further minimize my wardrobe. The few items I’ve made so far I really love, and I can get exactly the fiber content and look I want (you know, within current skill levels).

Much like eschewing processed food once you learn how cheap and quick it is to cook at home when you have some basic cooking skills, it is becoming less and less appealing to me to shop for clothes, even in second-hand shops, when I know I can make something that will last and that fits me. Added bonus, since I know exactly how it is made, it is also easy for me to repair anything that breaks! In addition to that, between work and friends and chores and all the other things everyone knows all too well, I just can’t knock out a lot of new garments in a year. So I have to really think and prioritize what the next project is going to be.

Again, I fully realize that not everyone is going to find making your own clothes enjoyable. And that is perfectly okay! I still think the lessons I’ve learned from slowing down and minimizing my wardrobe can be applied to other situations too. We spend so much money and effort that often we don’t even have the time to think about what might happen if we step outside the norm all together.

What if I just refused to participate in this strange cycle of new clothes I’ll wear for a few months and then they’ll break and I’ll need more new, poor quality clothes because that is all I can afford? A small wardrobe is easier to maintain, uses less resources, and I do think we’re more likely to choose items we really love and are not just “meh” about.

Or as Terry Pratchett put it:

The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

This was the Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socioeconomic unfairness.

Let’s work together to reduce our consumption, and especially, these numbers.

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