A preface to the series on sustainability and sustainable making:  This inquiry into sustainability is a personal odyssey, although you will likely already find yourself delving into this process.  You may already be compelled by increasingly dire warnings by climate scientists to make adjustments in your practice and, if you have, you will realize the process is not as simple as it may at first appear.  If you are making for yourself only, then it is quite a simple matter to make “sustainably”.  My practice goes a bit beyond that scale but not as far as the industrial model.  Ultimately, we all need to become experts in sustainability in all facets of our lives.  I feel that it is an important undertaking, materially and spiritually.  So, I begin in earnest the search for the “right” sustainability model for my own particular practice and life.  In the process, beliefs, assumptions and expectations will be reexamined.  It may get messy but it will be interesting!  I hope you find the fruits of my labor helpful in your own process.  A note:   At the end of each essay in this series, there is a personal practice component in the form of questions or exercises.  Wherever you are in your process, they can help increase understanding and refine clarity.

I am in the middle of a great flow of production in my studio right now.  It is a good time to resume my look at sustainability, sustainable making, and the small textile workshop.  Health circumstances interrupted the endeavor which I initiated in writing here in late-2016 (see https://kathycolt.com/2016/08/30/a-guiding-light/).  Going forward, these posts will take on more granularity as I dive down the rabbit-hole that is this most complex subject.  In my last writing on this topic, I intended to launch into dyes and other colorants.  However, since there has been such a span of time between now and that last post, I am going to revisit the underlying premise of this series.

A brief introductory recap and some definitions.

Textile (and by extension, apparel) manufacturing on the industrial scale is historically associated with high resource use (primarily energy and water), pollution (primarily of waterways) and labor abuses. The concerns of the small textile workshop in these areas have no equivalent at the industrial scale.  I have noted elsewhere that the scale of my activities necessarily produces a much smaller footprint.  In fact, I take it as a “given” that the micro-scale fabrication of an art or craft object is a sustainable undertaking, when pursued with mindful regard for the concerns outlined below and to be discussed in future posts.  Along the continuum, there are greater or lesser degrees of “sustainable” in all aspects of life, including one’s livelihood and creative practice.  However, since I am a professional and wish to build my livelihood around sustainable textile design, fiber art and making, it is incumbent upon me to 1) examine my assumptions and expectations, habits and patterns of making; and 2) understand the systems on which I depend, and the materials and substances with which I work.

“Sustainability” and “sustainable” are slippery concepts and the words are used in a variety of contexts with variable meanings along the continuum.  It is always important to understand how someone is using these concepts and to what purpose.  For the purpose of this essay series, I am referring broadly to environmental sustainability and specifically to the role which humans play in that equation; i.e., can the planet, its systems and other life on which we depend, sustain the impacts of human endeavor and activity, and to what extent do we humans need to modify our activity to support the planet’s ability to sustain us?  From this standpoint, arguably all human endeavor in the 21st century is up for reёvaluation.  It is a massive project for humanity undertake.  We have a difficult time agreeing on what the priorities are let alone how to, and how we should, get there.  And we still live in an era of relative energy and resource abundance! We continue to enjoy the many by-products of this apparent abundance. How can we practice sustainability within an unsustainable model?  We can start where we are.  For, while we are figuring it out on the large-scale, we can continue working at the small scale.  We can gather information and experience and become experts at evaluating and modifying, as necessary, what we do, the way we do what we do and, along the way, understanding why we do what we do.

Fortunately, if you are a textile or fiber artist/designer/maker like me, you practice within a discipline which has a long off-the-grid history.  Many textile/fiber technologies predate the steam engine.  To be sure, industrial societies have made fabulous use of fossil energy resources to mechanize many textile production processes since the dawn of the industrial revolution.  Household sewing machines are great tools, but most of us can still make a stitch by hand.  We can purchase ready-made cloth and yarn spun in faraway lands but can increasingly source fiber from our own regions, and ply it into yarn, which can then be fabricated by hand into some kind of composite cloth.  Today, we yield amazing hues from the laboratory (via fossil energy), but we can still derive colors and auxiliary chemicals from plants, harvesting them from our gardens, processing them by hand.  There was a time when this was all we had.  How far back can we go? How far back should we go?  I will be looking at all of these topics (“fibershed”, global supply chains, embedded and operational energy, handwork and demechanization, degrowth, and more) in future posts.

The process of answering these questions is complex and involves fusing logic/science and ethics/spirit.  Each level of inquiry requires a long-form response rather than a simple yes or no, keep or toss.  Our responses are almost entirely determined by how we look at the world in which we live, our place in it and the value we place on natural systems as well as human constructs like economies.  So, one person’s responses may not initially look like another’s.  Unless you are already living off the grid (in which case you aren’t reading this essay in its digital format), there is always more (or less) to do from a sustainability standpoint.  Again, the point of the process is to start where you are: the more you investigate, the more you know, the more you understand, and the more flexible you will be at modifying your own practice and lifestyle.  Every conscious act toward a more sustainable model is additive at the individual and societal level.  Life and creative practice merge, signaling a personal paradigm shift, a shift which reverberates throughout the larger framework.

Personal Practice: 
Part I.  Start Where You Are: Taking Stock.
Important Note! This is not meant to be a judgmental (or self-critical) process but a thoughtful examination of the current conditions and context of our creative endeavors. 

  1. What scale of making do you engage in? (e.g., personal edification, fine art or craft for exhibition, fine art or craft for market, micro-design/build for market).
  2. What techniques do you rely on? Remember to include marketing pathways if applicable.
  3. What materials and substances do you typically work with (include those which come from outsourcing but are still embedded in your finished work)?
  4. Do you use machines (include any outsourcing like textile printing services, 3-d printers, computer and desktop printer for marketing, etc) in your practice?
  5. Where do your materials and supplies come from (if you don’t know, identify ways you might find out – we will revisit this later)?
  6. By what means and how far have they traveled to reach you (if you don’t know, identify ways you might find out – we will revisit this later)?
  7. Can you identify all natural resources embodied in your materials, supplies and processes?

References and Resources:

If you haven’t seen this already it will be helpful to you in this inquiry:  This 2013 series by Planet Money may be a few years old but still very relevant. https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2013/12/01/246744370/planet-money-makes-a-t-shirt and click on the link: “follow our journey”.

NEXT UP: We will look at my responses to these questions and start breaking out each question into separate discussions for it and future posts.