I arrived in Canada with red and swollen eyes, feeling homesick for my ex surrogate home. I expected coming home after 3 years of living in Germany to be a joyous occasion, instead I was depressed. The cold and rainy weather made Montreal even less attractive and intensified my feelings of listlessness. Of course I was happy to see my cousin who picked me up at Pierre Elliott Trudeau airport, but felt ashamed that I could not reciprocate her level of enthusiasm.
After two days of wallowing in self pity I finally started to actually want to do something to get myself out of my funk, the sun was also finally peeking out which helped in lifting my spirits and injecting a little energy back into me. After all, it had been 3 years since I’d last been in Montreal and almost 10 since I’d lived in the city, and I regret to say, that at the time I really took Montreal for granted. I never fully appreciated or took advantage of all that Montreal had to offer. I wanted to change that (as much as possible within my time and budget). I looked to my bucket list for some inspiration.
Number 33 on my bucket list: Learn how to sew. Why not? I Googled it. There were a few choices, but I went with Le Fabrique Ethique because their values tied into what made me want to learn how to sew in the first place.
My desire to learn to sew all started when I was watching the news one night back in June. One of the featured stories was about women in Wales who’d purchased garments from Primark, a big clothing chain in Europe, containing hand sewn tags reading such disturbing messages as: “Degrading sweatshop conditions,” and “Forced to work exhausting hours.” A few days later that news piece was still in my head, so I did what I always do when I can’t get something out of my head; I started Googling. I was led down the familiar rabbit hole that is Google, one article leading to another, and another. It was the recounting of what it was like to be trapped for hours and in some cases days under the concrete and rubble of the toppled Rana Plaza garment factory, in Savar Bangladesh that got to me. Rana Plaza was a garment factory where workers toiled away in deplorable conditions so that us Westerners can have cheap fashion. The building was in violation of pretty much every safety code, the major one that contributed to the eventual fall of the building being that several floors were added onto the building to house more workers but was structurally incapable to handle the extra floors. 1,100 people died. These facts led me to start Googling ethical fashion.
One of the places the Google rabbit hole led me to was: http://refashionista.net. A blog about a woman named Jillian who goes to second hand shops, finds clothing and repurposes them. She makes alterations to suit her size and style. A much cheaper alternative to buying ethical fashion first hand. And that is how learning to sew was born on my bucket list.
Learning to sew right before my trip to Thailand was probably not the best time, because I really won’t have time to practice while I’m over there. Although I toyed with the idea of buying a really cheap sewing machine and working on some pieces in my spare time in my room at the Muay Thai camp, I think that may be a little over ambitious of me. I’ll probably need a refresher course once I return to Montreal (or wherever I end up settling down.)
Le Fabrique Ethique is located in Hochelaga Maisonneuve, a part of the Montreal I didn’t know at all, so it was like I was a stranger in my own city (I loved that). Sonia Paradis, the owner and operator of Le Fabrique Ethique, offers group and one on one sewing lessons, I chose one on one. She met me on time, outside of the building where we would spend the next 15 hours over the course of 3 days. Sonia’s work space is in a long narrow room, with hardwood floors and white walls, one window at the far end of the room let in tons of natural light (as well as a bird on our second day together.) A row of five heavy wood desks each topped with a sewing machine hugged the right wall, on the left were waist height tables for laying out, measuring and cutting fabrics. The space definitely had a nice vibe to it, one that matched Sonia’s down to earth personality. She was always smiling, cracking little jokes, and very patient.
Sonia so graciously agreed to answer a few of my questions of what led her down the path of ethical fashion:
Nicki: When did you first start sewing?
Sonia: My mom had a sewing machine but she hated it because she couldn’t accept the fact that it wasn’t perfect. She was using it only to fix things. I can’t recall exactly at what age I started sewing but sewing has been part of my life since I was a child, starting with hand stitching. I had an older brother which allowed me to ”play” with the machine at a very young age. We were using the machine to create costumes. Sewing was all about creating things to play with.
N: What formal sewing and fashion training do you have?
S: I graduated from Marie-Victorin in 2001 and worked in the industry as a Fashion designer / production manager for 4 years. Doing production overseas didn’t allow me to have real contact with fabrics or people. Communication was done mostly via email and sketches so it wasn’t satisfying for me. I went back to Univerity in Studio Arts where I studied in fibers and painting, while still working in the industry and trying to figure out how I could be a designer while contributing to a better way of making things. It was only after the end of my studies and a long trip to Asia that I started getting more involved in local and ethical fashion.
N: Was it during your trip to Asia that you saw first hand how bad the conditions were and from there you decided to make ethical fashion a priority?
S: I was in Asia as a traveller so I didn’t visit sweatshops, I knew enough already. I was interested in learning more about local craftmanship and traditional skills. I was amazed at the diversity and cultural meaning of each of the techniques that I saw. The environment is an issue and pollution in developing and emerging countries have always been a concern of mine but I was there for 14 months so I kind of got accustomed to it. The real shock came when I returned to Canada. I was facing an industry in decline, where young people had never learned how to sew or had no appreciation for all the labor and love that has to be put into making a garment. I felt that Western culture had lost something important.
Also, my designer friends were having a hard time competing with the amazingly low price of fast fashion and people were buying more and more cheap and badly assembled garments in order to wear them once or twice. As a designer, I knew why those garments were so cheap; costs are externalized and it is the workers around the world that are paying for us, either through bad working conditions or having their environment polluted with contaminated discharge water, fabric scraps, etc. I couldn’t accept that so I decided to use my creativity to find solutions to the many, many, different problems caused by the overconsumption of fashion products.
N: Is “fair trade” clothing and “ethical fashion” different?
S: Fair trade is only one aspect of ethical fashion and it is related mostly to fair working conditions. Fair trade usually also involves organisations where decisions are made in a democratic way. Also, the organisation should have a fund which should be invested in building structures or services that serve the community. Fair trade is also often related with preserving traditional skills and empowering more vulnerable workers.
Ethical Fashion implies fashion that is made with an engagement to respect workers or the environment. It is related to sourcing eco friendly materials; like using recycled materials or organic/ eco friendly fibers and using dyeing and printing methods that are less harmful to the environment. It can also be a way of approaching design; making quality garments, often based on the aesthetic of the brand and not on ephemeral trends that last longer (slow wear). It also includes fashion made with love locally and much more!
N: Besides teaching sewing what else do you do for a living?
S: I teach sewing to consumers who want to make meaningful fashion, fix their clothes, and be creative with their wardrobe. As a social entrepreneur I am also involved in different social projects that aim to create a new generation of conscious designers and consumers. I give conferences in high schools about the solutions we can include in our everyday lives to make the industry better! I also give conferences in textile and fashion schools to allow students to include those values within their practice. Right now, I work mostly in the province of Quebec because my goal is to promote a more sustainable and local fashion industry. Someday I might work on a broader scale but there is already a lot that needs to be done here.
N: So, you wrote a book called Porter Le Chagement, does your book specifically address solutions to having an ethical, profitable and sustainable fashion industry?
S: The book examines the solutions used by ecodesigners in Quebec to address environmental and social issues related to overconsumption of fashion products. Supported by 28 interviews of successful creators, organizations and influential actors in the ethical fashion sector, the book demonstrates how sourcing eco friendly fabrics, eco friendly processes, recycling, innovative design strategies, local production or conscious and creative consumption habits can create a local and sustainable industry capable of having a positive influence on our environment and our community.
All in all I feel this activity was a huge success. I learned so much about ethical fashion, I learned how to sew and I got to see a part of Montreal that I’d never been to before. Stay tuned for the article about the lunch I had at Touski, a really granola, yet cozy restaurant right near Le Fabrique Ethique.
How important is buying ethical fashion to you? Would you consider taking a sewing lesson to alter second hand clothes, rather than over consuming, cheap and poorly made garments?