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Sew your own

Zofia Walczak

22nd June, 2010

Sewing is activism, says John Paul Flintoff, as he takes us through the politics and pleasures of this long lost skill

We all know the benefits of growing our own food, but sewing our own clothes? Journalist John Paul Flintoff makes the case for the misleadingly humble needle and thread by placing sewing in a broad environmental, economic and philosophical context.

His journey from DIY cluelessness to environmentally sound self-sufficiency is told in a collection of experiences and encounters, with humour, without preaching and with some surprisingly radical insights.

Sewing, the multi-disciplinary way

This is neither a step-by-step guide to sewing nor a groundbreaking critique of the fashion industry. Nor is Flintoff a lifelong environmentalist. His point is that in Britain we should once again be learning to repair and make our own clothes, and growing more of our own fibres. This would save us money, lessen our reliance on sweatshops, cut carbon emissions and make us more skilled and fulfilled individuals.

One of Flintoff's biggest inspirations is Gandhi. Gandhi carried his spinning wheel as a symbol of protest, a sign that India could regain independence by taking back its cotton industry from British colonisers. Flintoff on the other hand, with more enthusiasm than expertise, ends up learning to sew his own fitted shirts and jeans, teaching a workshop in his nephew's school, crocheting dresses for his daughter's teddy bears, stitching his own shoes, and knitting a pair of boxers. He grows hemp illegally to make it into fibre (read his article about the wonders of nettle as fibre here), and muses with craftivist Betty Greer about whether a man can knit in public.

In a series of warmly written and often hilarious anecdotes, he spends time with seamstresses, environmental activists, artists, sweatshop workers and ‘anti-greens' for inspiration. He works as a bin man, highlighting how without them we'd be drowning in rubbish. He even manages to get gas-guzzling Jeremy Clarkson to concede that we will all, at some point soon, have to subscribe to the views of the environmental activists who throw custard pies at him.

He questions our dependence on political parties to solve our problems, awkwardly ‘tries out' a variety of religions, and ponders Buddhism and the implications of living in the present moment. Can sewing get more multi-disciplinary than this?

Knitting for peak oil

Most of us have no control over how our clothes are made and the effect they have on the planet, and this is part of a wider problem, says Flintoff. ‘Can you imagine somebody saying, before oil was discovered - or indeed after it has run out- that it's a sensible idea to get British clothes made in India, or China?' he asks, as he explores climate change, peak oil and green economics.

Flintoff questions whether making our own clothes and getting back into craft, rather than dedicating our time to full blown political campaigning, is akin to ignoring the bigger global problems and getting distracted by minutiae. He decides that if we aren't willing to be a creative part of the solution then we are part of the problem.

For the uninitiated, Sew Your Own is a thought provoking stepping-stone to shopping less - or differently - and creating more. For the already creatively inclined, it is a polite but potent kick up the backside to do it more, and in public. Most of all Sew Your Own is accessible, funny, well researched, and an inspiring pleasure to read.

 

Zofia Walczak is a freelance journalist

 

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