Sundressed: Natural Fibres and the Future of Fashion, Lucianne Tonti, Black Inc Books, Paperback AUD$32.99 Ebook $14.99
Lucianne Tonti, who has worked in fashion in Australia and overseas, knows her clothes and loves her wardrobe. But she also knows her industry. It’s one that thrives on dissatisfaction and reinvention at the expense of the environment and social justice. Its linear ‘take, pollute, discard’ mode of operation consumes millions of tonnes of non-renewable resources each year, using processes that wreak havoc on the land, air and water. What’s more, recent projections suggest global clothing consumption is set to rise by more than 60 per cent by 2030.
‘If all we needed from our clothes was insulation or reinforcement, we could simply and efficiently meet these needs’, Tonti says, but fashion has ‘captured our imagination’. One might expect her to express cynicism towards the idea it can ‘change something fundamental about our lives, about ourselves’, but when she says, ‘I’m inclined to believe the right outfit can’, Tonti is sincere. She doesn’t think we should dismiss the industry as frivolous and superficial, or love our clothes less. Taking an ecological sensibility, she argues instead that a key to reforming the industry in fact lies in loving them—and the plants, flowers, animals and labourers that made their making possible—more. One question hangs over the book: is emphasising love and connection to nature enough to begin reforming the fashion industry, considering how this industrialised system is woven into large structures of ownership and consumption?
A few summers ago, my grandmother saw me look twice at a linen dress in a department store and made me try it on. It was dusty blue and sleeveless. Its high neck fastened with a button above an open back. One sash wrapped halfway round the waist; one emerged as if by magic from a slit. I tied them in a bow against my hip. From the waist to just below the knee, generous folds of fabric flowed. When I walked, they swished against my skin. I didn’t want to take it off. Last summer, I wore that dress so often that I joked it was my ‘summer uniform’.
It’s not the season for it now, but it’s been on my mind thanks to Tonti’s debut book, Sundressed: Natural Fibres and the Future of Fashion. Just as understanding where our food comes from and what it contains can replace an appetite for junk with a hunger for fresher and less processed fare, Tonti’s descriptions of cotton, wool, silk, flax, cashmere and hemp, in contrast to more synthetic substitutes, attract the reader to clothes made from natural fibres.
While reading Tonti’s description of flax fields, I thought of my linen dress. I thought of it again when she spoke of quality over quantity, of how well-made clothing feels against the skin—and makes us feel—and how well it can last. That dress wasn’t cheap, but already it’s been worth its weight in wear. What’s more, I’m almost certain that if I took the time to iron it, which I never do, it could pass again for new.
I now know that flax, the raw material used to make linen, likes growing near the ocean in loamy soils of clay and sand; that most of the world’s flax grows ‘in the wide coastal band that stretches along the North Sea from Normandy to Amsterdam’; that plants grow to about a metre in about 100 days and, in summer, bloom. ‘[The flowers] only live a single day, but as each stem comes into bloom at different times, the flowering season lasts weeks’, Tonti writes. The flax is then harvested, and retted (‘left lying out on the field, where the elements—sea winds, dew, rain and sunshine soften the stalks’) for up to six weeks. The timing is dependent on the weather, as is the fibre’s colour: more sun, more gold; more rain, more grey.
Tonti interviews fifth-generation producer Raymond Libeert, whose mill, Libeco, dates back to 1858. Libeert is part of a group of farmers trying to grow flax without synthetic fertilisers or pesticides. He has a ‘reverence’ for ecosystems and is committed to upholding ‘a lineage of farm stewardship, natural cultivation, and sustainable production’, Tonti writes. But his business looks to the future, too. It had its emissions measured more than a decade ago, ‘before carbon neutrality and zero emissions were in vogue’, and now uses solar panels and wind to power its factories.
Tonti notes that despite linen’s potential as an environmentally friendly fibre, most linen farming is yet to drive positive outcomes for nature. ‘Very little flax is currently produced using regenerative farming practices. Monocropping and bare soil are still prevalent, and so is the use of chemicals’. Libeert’s mill is unique—less than 1 per cent of Europe’s flax acreage is organic—but he’s not the only producer eager for his venture to bless, not curse, the land. Tonti goes on to profile others who have and are making progress.
She does this for every natural fibre she spotlights: explains how it grows and is processed, and how those processes have changed over time, and then looks to the future. A recurring theme is the havoc techniques that prioritise mass production can wreak on delicate ecosystems. Trailblazing a better way often involves a willingness to look to, and learn from, the ways of the past.
A do-no-harm approach results in products that cost more to produce and to buy, but that also don’t engage in hyper-exploitation—they cost the environment less and can do the land and its inhabitants immense good. This doesn’t rule out farming at scale. At first glance, Tonti’s account of nomadic herders in Mongolia who have been raising goats using traditions dating back 4000 years might give that impression. In the last two decades, herders have doubled the size of their flocks in response to rising demand for cashmere, and the rangelands have suffered.‘The grass is patchy and scarce, the land is dry and the wildlife is hurting as weather patterns continually change’. A recent report estimates that as much as 90 per cent of Mongolia is now at risk of desertification. But while reducing herd sizes might offer some benefit to the environment, managing the flocks differently might offer more. Tonti draws attention to the work of Allan Savoury, who began his career as a research biologist and game warden in what is now Zambia, and who started questioning the assumption that desertification is caused by too many animals when he came across historical records that suggested the land once sustained enormous herds and stayed fertile. A possible explanation is that animals bunching together in one area to ward off predators defecate and urinate there in such high concentration that afterwards, they deliberately avoid that area for some time. This buys an area time to recover and benefit from the nutrient-rich compost left behind, in contrast to land scattered with animals grazing peacefully. I wonder how many of us would be surprised that a book about fashion could also be a book about excrement and compost? But on reflection, it makes sense.
‘Fashion is inextricably bound to nature, and this shouldn’t be lost on us’, Tonti says. Readers might also be surprised to find that Tonti’s descriptions of nature are just as plentiful and glowing as descriptions of her favourite fabrics and garments. This is no accident. ‘Appreciating the beauty of the natural world offers hope for the fashion industry’, she writes. ‘We become more attached to our clothing when we remember the precious resources from which they are made—the goat or the paddock or the ecosystem that produced them’. It’s her hope that readers will reorient their understanding of each garment they buy and wear, ‘and wonder at the ability of a flower in a plant to become a shirt, or the fluffy fleece of a sheep to be cleaned and spun into a turtleneck’.
Such formulations can de-emphasise the role that workers play in the process, distinguishing her critique of the industry from those of authors who focus on sweatshop exploitation. Tonti is hopeful that ‘this shift in understanding will mean we take better care of our clothes and enjoy wearing them for longer so we can reduce our appetite for newness’, but even if a shift in consumer understanding prompts a shift in demand, the scale and strength of change required for an industry that thrives on dictating what’s in style, what’s trending and what’s desirable, to instead take its cue from consumers, is almost unimaginable.
Wearing clothes longer, buying new items less often and owning fewer garments overall makes environmental and financial sense, especially in light of research that suggests we no longer wear at least half the clothes we own. And while some quality garments are undeniably expensive, others sell for a song. I think of a green high-waisted woollen skirt I found at an op shop recently. Unlike the linen dress, it cost just five dollars. The only way I knew it had been worn before—worn many times, in fact—was the condition of a tag, sewn out of sight, which boasted that it was pure wool. Its first owner surely paid much more for it than me, many years ago, and got her money’s worth as well. These days, we are reluctant to wear the same outfit two days in a row, we rarely bother to repair garments when we can replace them and we wash some more often than we need to. But if we appreciate their value and their cost, this might change.
Tonti speaks of repairing a pair of woollen pants she found at a thrift store and proceeded to wear ‘everywhere and to everything’. ‘Had these pants meant less to me, I might not have repaired them. Had they been made with less skill, had the fabric been cheaper, had the zip broke, I might not have repaired them. But they were made to last, and I was determined to make them last’. She accepts that buying clothes for a ten-year time frame is usually expensive, that calling it ‘a prerogative only available to the middle class and above’ is a fair criticism and that determining the quality and ecological impact of a garment is easier said than done. The path to an accessible sustainable fashion system is ‘a long and winding (sometimes treacherous) road’. But it is her hope that ‘two forces—a love of clothes and a love of nature—could subvert the take-waste-make model that is driving fashion’s enormous environmental footprint’. The world of fashion undoubtably requires radical reinvention. But if we can appreciate the beauty of both the natural world and natural fibres enough to change the way we make, market and use clothes, we might do less harm. We might even do good.