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.

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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.

A lot has emerged in my thinking since my July 28th post.  As I note therein, I am beginning to think more concretely about my studio practices, with an eye towards transitioning to more “sustainable” modalities.  It’s a sizable undertaking, to be sure.  Where to begin?  Look at assumptions and underlying values.  Establish some sort of criteria for making well-rounded choices. Before I do any of that though, it makes sense to look at the concept of “sustainability” itself.

Five years ago this month, I submitted a post on the topic of sustainability as it related to my experience processing kudzu fibers for weaving with Artist/Educator, Junco Sato Pollack  (Lessons in Sustainability and a “sidebar” about kudzu processing).  My experience with kudzu and the kudzu process was, and still is, exemplary of a truly environmentally sustainable practice, albeit one which would require a significant reset of what we now think of as productive labor in this society.  Ultimately, my own concerns about the planet’s survival, as well as our declining natural resource base, make obvious the need to filter all choices through a sustainability lens.  Of course this term and concept are applied liberally to describe a wide variety of human activities.  Since the concept of sustainability has come to such overuse, I want to find a definition that is both comprehensive and ultimately uncompromising.  Thus, in building a framework within which to evaluate technologies available to a small textile workshop (with an eye toward evolving my own practices), a clearer understanding of that concept is vital.

As it happens, I recently came across an essay by Post Carbon Institute senior fellow, Richard Heinberg, entitled Five Axioms of Sustainability.    In his essay, Heinberg supplies a brief history of the use of the term “sustainability” and the parameters within which it has been, and continues to be, applied to various aspects of human endeavor.  The history of the term’s use and evolution is illuminating.  With refinements over more recent decades (including Heinberg’s own) providing more granularity, one senses that a sort of “unified” definition of “sustainability” has once and for all been achieved.  After reading the essay, one thing is apparent: When looked at with honesty, there is no negotiating with the term’s embedded implications.  It is difficult for me to go there…yet; but toward the creation of a means by which I can honestly evaluate my own practices, I have started a “sustainability checklist,” borrowing from facets of the Heinberg essay and incorporating as sub-levels the questions listed in last month’s post (duplicated where appropriate).

  • Produces or embodies concentrations of substances extracted from earth
    • Will my product harm the environment?
    • Can I source materials that are recycled or repurposed?
    • What kind of waste does my manufacturing process generate and how can I reduce this?
  • Subjects nature to concentration of substances harmful to the biosphere (pollution, etc.)
    • Will my product harm the environment?
    • What kind of waste does my manufacturing process generate and how can I reduce this?
    • Can I source materials that are recycled or repurposed?
  • Can be built into a local supply chain and local economy
    • How far have the elements of my product traveled to get to the consumer?
    • Once it’s been made my product will have to be transported to the shop. How can I reduce the carbon footprint of my product?
  • Does not result in over harvesting, local displacement or other genetic manipulations
    • Can I use natural materials rather than highly processed ones?
    • Can I source materials that are recycled or repurposed?
  • Does not undermine Human capacity to meet basic needs
    • Will my product be designed in a fair way?
    • Will my product disadvantage or hurt any people?
    • Is the person making the product being paid fairly?
  • Is or significantly embodies a critical resource without viable substitution
    • Can I source materials that are recycled or repurposed?
    • Is my product going to stand the test of time?
    • Is it built to last?
    • Are my materials from an ethical or renewable source?
    • Is my packaging environmentally friendly?
    • How far have the elements of my product traveled to get to the consumer?
    • Once it’s been made my product will have to be transported to the shop. How can I reduce the carbon footprint of my product?
  • If natural resource, rate of use is offset by rate of replenishment
    • Can my product modify the way a user behaves? i.e.:
    • Can it help them carry out an activity or live in a more sustainable way?
  • If non-renewable, its use declines at a rate greater than its depletion
    • Can I source materials that are recycled or repurposed?
    • Is my product going to stand the test of time?
    • Is it built to last?
    • Are my materials from an ethical or renewable source?
    • Is my packaging environmentally friendly?
    • How far have the elements of my product traveled to get to the consumer?
    • Once it’s been made my product will have to be transported to the shop. How can I reduce the carbon footprint of my product?
    • Can my product modify the way a user behaves? i.e.:
    • Can it help them carry out an activity or live in a more sustainable way?

Obviously, these are all a bit abstract right now and subject to further development.  As I progress through future posts, things will become more concrete.

As I review these questions and begin to examine my own assumptions and practices, I wonder if there is a middle way, a way to reconcile less-than-perfect practices with the gravity of true sustainability; a way of honoring both the planet and the preciousness of human birth through engaged and conscious, albeit imperfect, practices?  I know many have formulated viable models and are engaged in conscious practice.  I will look at some examples in future posts.  Meanwhile, can I do the same, and what does that really mean?  This is where you find me right now, ready to take the plunge.  With the small textile/fiber-art studio in mind, where does one begin this undertaking?  Dyes/Colorants seem like a good place to start.  That will be the topic of my next post. 

I am in the early stages of fully reёvaluating and re-purposing my blog in the face of a fundamental shift in values underlying my studio practice.  What follows is the first of many posts focusing on what it means to me to be a designer/ maker in the early 21st century – a time when a recognition of the Earth’s limits necessitates redefining how we work, how we engage with each other, and how we preserve the planet’s finite resources (and honor its complex systems).

A point of beginning.  I am a one-person show, manufacturing on a micro scale.  Arguably, my scale of production has negligible environmental impact, as compared with industrial textile and apparel manufacturing.  However, as I do produce textiles and apparel, I participate in some aspects of that supply chain, and feel it necessary to look more closely at my own studio activities and choices.  Why now?  Why didn’t I just start out with sustainability in mind?  I will address that at length in some future post, but the short answer would be that for many years, I was held sway by the “psychology of prior investment;” i.e., that it is difficult to break away from something to which one has invested copious amounts of time, money and energy.  Alas, things are getting spooky on Planet Earth and I think it’s time for a thorough examination of my life, including my creative practice and output.  My ultimate hope, I suppose, is that through this process, I might join a positive and constructive sea-change in response to the likely environmental (as well as social and economic) crises ahead (in the event we are unlikely to avert them).  Perhaps this is wishful thinking, but better to start somewhere than to continue living with my head in the sand.  If not now, when?

Laying the groundwork.  I had been trying to write about this inner shift as it relates to my studio practice and work-product for a while.  With so many possible entry points though, I felt overwhelmed and muddled.  In turn, every attempt I made to put any of it into words was incoherent and disjointed.  Then, I recently ran across this Design Museum “Design Ventura Toolkit” short (http://www.vimeo.com/170177851 ) which offered the perfect starting point.  While the questions posed in this video (and listed below) are specifically concerned with evaluating sustainability in product design and development, I instantly recognized them as an ideal framework for my task, so I decided to adopt them as a working outline and a foundation for future inquiry.  My appreciation goes out to the creators of the film.

Here’s the list:

  • Overarching/Environmental Sustainability: Will my product harm the environment?
  • Overarching/Ethical Sustainability: Will my product be designed in a fair way?
  • Will my product disadvantage or hurt any people?
  • Can I source materials that are recycled or repurposed?
  • Can I use natural materials rather than highly processed ones?
  • Are my materials from an ethical or renewable source?
  • Is my product going to stand the test of time?
  • Is it built to last?
  • Can it be reused, repaired or recycled when it comes to the end of its life?
  • Can my product modify the way a user behaves? i.e.:
  • Can it help them carry out an activity or live in a more sustainable way?
  • What kind of waste does my manufacturing process generate and how can I reduce this?
  • If I am making my product from a sheet material, for example, have I used a cutting method that will minimize left over material?
  • Have I considered the cost of labor in my budget?
  • Is the person making the product being paid fairly?
  • Is my packaging environmentally friendly?
  • How much packaging do I need?
  • Can I keep packaging to a minimum?
  • How far have the elements of my product traveled to get to the consumer?
  • Once it’s been made my product will have to be transported to the shop. How can I reduce the carbon footprint of my product?
  • Can I make it lighter or flat-pack it so it can be transported more efficiently?

Going Forward:  There are a number of practitioners who have dedicated their resources to addressing these concerns and I am grateful for their continued work and inspiration.  There are also many individuals looking at these interlocking ideas and issues from a variety of perspectives and I will necessarily rely on their research and analysis as I undertake this process.  In addition to my own experience, I will be drawing on the work and practices of craft/artists, craftivists, designers, makers, sustainability experts and commentators in industry, institutions and incubation centers, as well as academicians who are working at the intersection of textile/apparel design/ manufacture and social, economic and environmental sustainability.  Along the way, topics as diverse as technology, labor, economics, craft, fashion, personal expression, spirituality, doing “good” and living truly sustainably in the early 21st century will find their way onto these “pages”.  I hope you will join me!

Visit the Design Museum’s Website: www.designmuseum.org

I am just beginning to “unpack” the content and experiences I had last week at Arrowmont in Catharine Ellis’ Natural Dye workshop.  The volume of information we were introduced to, along with the actual practices we were absorbing, was tremendous and overwhelming – towards the end of the week it was almost as if a bomb had exploded in my brain – an indigo-cochineal-weld-ferrous bomb – shaken, stirred, dissolved, precipitated…I feel like the cloth we worked with – now primed to soak up as much as I can following this most intensive week of learning!  I am so grateful to Catharine for making the space and providing the energy for this experience…I am also indebted to the fabulous workshop participants whose individual contributions to the body of understanding were, for me, an essential part of the process.  I am overflowing with joy and an urgent desire to get to work!!  First up: my organic indigo vat.  Meanwhile, here are some images from the week (click on a thumbnail to open the gallery).  Many thanks to Jane Cooper for supplying a few of these images.

I have been experimenting with botanical extracts and I am completely hooked….I have already fabricated some wearables from these goods (images soon) and I feel so energized!  Full circle and returning to my plant roots!  (Addendum 8.8.2013:  My enthusiasm for these early encounters with natural dyes have been tempered slightly following the recent workshop at Arrowmont with Catharine Ellis but I feel no less energized!)