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A Tale of Two Fabric Store Ladies

“Oh, honey. Live a little.”

The lady at the trendy fabric store in Toronto’s garment district had been friendly and helpful up until that point, but now she was exasperated. And why not? I’d been trying to find the right fabric to line the bodice of a dress (a Colette Truffle) and anxiously inquiring about fibre content every two seconds. I’d finally found a smooth weave that felt like cotton but had a slight, suspicious sheen and no fibre content marked on the bolt. Did she think it had anything synthetic in the mix, I asked?

She sighed deeply.

“Probably a little bit? Oh, honey. Live a little.”

Part of me was really annoyed by the whole scenario. After all, if I went to the butcher encountered a pile of unmarked ground meat, I probably wouldn’t buy it. And if I asked “hey is that 100% ground beef, or does it contain some human fingers?” I wouldn’t be satisfied with “Probably a little bit? Live a little!”

But I get it. It’s a huge store with thousands of bolts that get shipped in from who-knows-where. She didn’t know the answer, and no amount of obsessing or complaining would change that.

I was about to leave empty-handed when suddenly a second fabric shop lady appeared. She was much older, much tinier, and she came out of nowhere. I mean NOWHERE. I think she was hiding under the cutting table.

“Wait,” she cried, “I burn for you!”

And before I could work out why this shop assistant was declaring her passion for me she whipped out her lighter and torched the corner of the fabric. Like, she just set it on fire in the middle of the shop like it was no big thing.

Fabric shop lady #1 drifted away to help someone less exhausting while Fabric shop lady #2 stared intently at the glowing edge of of the cloth. Every few seconds she took a deep whiff of the smoke. It was like watching the Oracle of Delphi. After a long, inscrutable moment she snuffed the flame with the palm of her hand and threw the bolt on the table.

“A little something in that cotton,” she declared. “I don’t know what. This is not for you. I get you 100 percent linen, yes?”

And that’s exactly what she did.

Now THAT’s customer service.

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What Are Microplastic Fibers? And why should you care?

I’ll keep this fairly short, as there are already a lot of excellent articles about this topic on the web, and I’d much rather be sewing 🙂 But since microplastic fibers inspired this blog, I thought I should lay out the basics of this huge environmental issue and how it has affected my sewing hobby.

Basically, microplastic fibers are tiny shreds of plastic that enter the water supply every time a piece of synthetic fabric is machine washed. If you want to get a sense of what they look like, take a peek at your sewing machine. The dust that accumulates around your thread spool and inside your machine is made up of teeny fibers that break off from the thread. And if you’re sewing with polyester thread, as most of us do, those fibers are microplastics. Make sense?

The trouble is that these tiny bits of plastic are washed into our water systems every time we do the laundry, where they’re accumulating at an alarming rate. A 2011 study found that of 85% of human-generated waste on shorelines is composed of microplastic fibers. Even more worryingly, the fibers are turning up in the bodies of fish and shellfish all over the world, in oceans and fresh water alike. In the terrifying words of one ecologist, the fibers seem to be “weaving themselves into the gastrointestinal tract” of fish. Ick. Research on microplastics is still a young field, but scientists’ concerns are growing. Health experts warn that they may even be entering the air we breathe.

As a seamstress, this all got me thinking. At first glance it seems like there’s a simple solution: buy natural fiber clothing. Easy, right? Except that anyone who sews knows there’s more to a garment than just the fabric. Every piece is put together using thread, which is most typically made of 100% polyester. Polyester thread also encases the overlocked seams of most garments to keep them from fraying. Interfacings are typically made of synthetics, and so are zipper tapes and even clothing care labels. In fact, I started to wonder: in the 21st century is it even possible to buy clothing made of 100% natural fibers?

If I was a fashion blogger I might try to find a retailer who could answer that question. But as someone who sews for fun, I became interested in exploring it myself. There’s a reason plastic is everywhere in the modern world – it’s inexpensive and practical. If you take synthetic fibers out of garment construction, what are you left with? This blog is an attempt to answer that question.

If you want to know more about microplastic fibers I suggest checking out the Global Microplastics Initiative and the gross-yet-hilariously-named Plastic Soup.