August 10, 2015

Make it Last: 6 Eco-Friendly Tips for Extending the Life of our Clothing.

Geneva Vanderzeil/Flickr

Two years ago, I wrote about my decision to forego fast fashion in favor of ethically-made, sustainable clothing. It was actually pretty easy to do—or rather, much easier than I originally thought it would be.

However, it was just the first step in my journey. Just buying “green” wasn’t enough. In order to be truly green, I needed to make sure that my clothing would last.

Whether a garment is produced in an eco-friendly matter or if it a so-called disposable fashion item, it’s not doing the environment any favors if it ends up in a landfill, which is, sadly, where most unwanted clothing ends up. (In her excellent book, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, Elizabeth Cline reports that most charity shops are so inundated with clothing donations, that most of it ends up being thrown away.)

Also, I tend to get attached to my clothes. Many items of clothing are associated with memories. For instance, I have a little black dress from my college days that still serves me well. Each time I put it on, I think of the past events I wore it to.

Plus, on a practical note, it’s often a lot cheaper to preserve the clothing we have than buy new stuff. (This is true even when it comes to cheap, fast fashion. Better to have one garment that lasts for awhile than go out and buy ones that keep having to be replaced every few months.)

Therefore, we should be doing all we can to extend the life of our clothing.

Below are my favorite eco-friendly tips:

1. Whenever possible, wash in cold water and air dry.

For the past decade, I have washed nearly all my clothing in cold water and let it dry on drying racks. For most day-to-day clothing made of cotton, cotton-blends, nylon, polyester and the like, this works fine.

2. Hand wash 100 percent wool, cashmere and silk.

Most people think “dry clean only” when they see these labels, but the truth is, it’s actually best to hand wash, and they actually will last longer. Overtime, dry cleaning can break down the fibers and in the case of cashmere and wool, leave an unattractive sheen.

The best way to hand wash wool and cashmere items is by washing them in the bathtub with a couple of caps of mild, non-conditioning shampoo. Rinse in cold water and gently place on a towel. Then roll up the towel and gently squeeze the water from the garment. Lay flat to dry.

Even most silk items can be washed in this manner, although it is always best to carefully wash a small area of silk—especially if patterned—to make sure that the colors don’t run or it doesn’t fade. (Try to choose an area where any running or fading won’t be noticeable.) Unless it is heavy jersey fabric, most silks will wrinkle. The key to getting out the wrinkles is to iron on low while the garment is still damp.

3. Treat stains as soon as possible.

Stains can be the kiss of death for clothing. In most cases, the sooner a stain is treated, the better chance it has of coming out.

Thanks to the internet and Pinterest, there are dozens of tips on how to remove various stains. However, it seems like Murphy’s Law that most stains occur when we are nowhere near home and will not be able to attend to them until some time later. In this case, the one thing not to do is to apply soap directly to a fresh stain, because in many cases, it increases the chances of setting it in. Instead, dabbing it with plain water works best in most cases until you can get home.

4. Store clothing carefully, and never store away stained, smelly clothing.

Many of us have certain seasonal items of clothing. How we store these items when we aren’t wearing them on a regular basis has a big impact on how long they last. For instance, storing stained clothing can invite moths, silverfish and other pests that feed on clothing fibers. Also, stashing a stained, smelly item away for several months can set in stains and smells to the point that no amount of cleaning can get them out.

Therefore, it’s important to make sure our garments are clean when we put them away, but it also pays to store them properly. For instance, I like to put my wool and cashmere items in a cedar chest I inherited from my grandmother. If you don’t have one, clear lidded plastic boxes with little bags of cedar shavings work just as well. Suitcases can also work for storing most cotton and cotton-blend clothing, but try to avoid storing them in damp place like a basement where mold and mildew may be an issue.

5. Try to alter a garment before getting rid of it.

Sometimes, just cutting off the sleeves, taking in the sides of a too-boxy top or shortening a dress or skirt can give an existing garment a whole new look and life. If you happen to have a sewing machine, it’s likely you can do minor alternations yourself. (YouTube has great DIY tutorials.)

If you don’t have access to a sewing machine or rather would not do it yourself, seek out a local tailor. Even if it costs you , usually the cost of getting a garment altered is far less than buying a new one.

6. Invest in a good raincoat and rain boots or shoes.

It never ceases to amaze me how many people will spend a ton of money on various items of clothing, yet will not buy these items. In many places and cases, an umbrella is not enough to keep one’s clothing protected from the rain.

Think of them, especially the rain boots or shoes, as insurance.

Many materials like suede or some silks can become completely ruined if wet. Even if they aren’t ruined, a drenching can dramatically reduce their life expectancy. (This is especially true in the case of shoes.)

I taught at a Waldorf school were all the students were required to have proper rain gear, and needless to say, this made a huge difference in the life of their shoes.

If you happen to live in an area that gets a lot of snow, invest in proper snow boots, too. In addition to the water from the snow, the chemicals used to salt the streets and sidewalks can do a number on shoe materials.

In conclusion, spending a little time and effort to extend the life of our clothing is well worth it.

For those who feel that it’s too time-consuming, one way to get over that is to think of clothing as an investment and something that should last years rather than months.

Then, when we are ready to finally donate or discard an item of clothing, we can be sure that we got as much service out of it as possible.

Both our wallets and the earth will thank us.


Relephant Reads:

6 Things You Didn’t Know About Fast Fashion.

The 30-Year-Old Sweatshirt: Why Fashion should be Made to Last.


Author: Kimberly Lo

Editor: Emily Bartran

Photo: Geneva Vanderzeil/Flickr

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