How Closing the Knowledge Gap Can Mend our Relationship with Clothing

Image: Drea Johnson and the Hidden Opulence team work with both fashion brands and individuals, using their sewing skills to upcycle, alter and repair garments and help educate customers about sustainability in fashion, Credit: @hiddenopulence

From the education system right through to the industry, the impact of a systemic knowledge gap between consumers and clothing ripples outward and informs how we engage with fashion for the rest of our lives. Megan Doyle looks at how a revival of sartorial skills and knowledge could be the key to building a more sustainable relationship with our wardrobes for generations to come. 

They say knowledge is power, which is bad news for fashion, as the knowledge gap between us — consumers — and our clothing has been widening for decades. Gone are the days of darning socks, sewing machines in every home and respect for the value of clothing. In its place is fast, cheap fashion that travels more air miles than its makers ever will to arrive in our wardrobes. From the education system right through to the industry, the impact of that knowledge gap ripples outward and informs how we engage with our clothing for the rest of our lives. It’s only when we examine how this gap was created that our relationship with our clothes can mend. 

It starts in schools, where practical lessons about clothing — hand sewing, darning and knitting and basic sewing machine skills — have been squeezed out of curriculums in a generation. Former Labour MP Mary Creagh, who headed up the Environmental Audit Committee that in 2019, published a damning report on the fashion industry, believes that it’s no coincidence that as fast fashion boomed, education fizzled. “The knitting, sewing and mending skills I was taught as a child are not taught systematically in schools, but I think it’s so important for children to learn about the value of clothes,” Creagh says. “If you can’t understand how [your clothing] was made — the skill and labour that went into it — you will be more inclined to treat your clothing as disposable.”

If the last generation to be taught these skills were Gen X, it stands to reason that every generation since has missed out on not only learning but passing on this knowledge to their own children. The responsibility can’t fall on parents of school age children if they themselves were never taught basic sewing techniques. “I think it’s important for these skills to be re-introduced [into schools],” says Creagh. 

One incentive, especially in the current economic climate, is that learning to mend rather than replace could take a little pressure off family finances. “It would help tackle the financial problems which many families are facing and save thousands of tons of clothing from going to landfill each year,” she says. After primary and high school, the knowledge gap ripples into fashion courses around the country and “leads us to a situation where university fashion students are unable to sew buttons on their coats,” says Creagh. 

Image: Embroidery has recently regained popularity on Instagram, Credit: @tickover, and Eco-Age’s talented social media editor Julia!)

When the time comes to enter the industry, fashion graduates are often more creatively and conceptually proficient than technically skilled. Kate Hills, founder of Make it British, a group that connects British brands with domestic manufacturers and suppliers, believes that because of this, the biggest challenge facing domestic manufacturing in the UK is the shortage of skilled craftspeople. “I started sewing at school when I was seven and I got on a sewing machine when I was about 10,” says Hills. “Now, you have people that go into apprenticeships in clothing factories that have never touched a sewing machine before.” As a result, hiring and retaining apprentices is tough. “For every two that take it up, one will not stick with it because it’s not for them,” she says. “If they haven’t necessarily learnt sewing at school, they don’t know what it’s like to sit at a sewing machine all day. You either love it, or you don’t.” 

Domestic manufacturing has been in a state of decline for over 20 years, as brands pivoted to manufacture overseas, where they could take advantage of cheap labour and textiles, while boosting the speed of production and widening their profit margins. Prior to this, the UK had a thriving network of manufacturing hubs. “In Leicester you have high volume jersey, footwear in Northampton, knitwear in the Scottish borders, Birmingham is known for outerwear, Yorkshire for wool, silk in Suffolk and Lancashire does cotton,” lists Hills. It’s certain that a vast amount of knowledge that an aging generation of craftspeople from all over the country possess is at risk of disappearing if it isn’t passed down. 

Luckily, as the importance of sustainability has increased, British manufacturing is experiencing somewhat of a renaissance. “Brands want to lower their carbon footprintand go to their factories to see who is really making the clothes,” Hills says. “That interest in sustainability has really played to the UK manufacturing’s strengths, so it’s slowly increasing.” To address the skills shortage, Hills says it goes back to schools — and importantly, career counsellors — to recognise the opportunities available for young people. “I hear stories of kids being dissuaded from going into any manufacturing job because they’re told it’s a dead end or it’s not growing as an industry,” she says. “That is something we really have to come up against — educating the educators that it’s not a dead-end path at all.”

Image: Hidden Opulence host a skill sharing ‘Mending Mixer’ for likeminded seamstresses, Credit: @styledportland

While it shouldn’t be entirely up to the consumer to close the knowledge gap, brands have been known to further complicate the issue. It’s true that transparency is slowly increasing as brands recognise the value and positive repercussions that sharing information with their audience can bring. However, even well-intentioned brands have been known to “information dump” — a practice where information is publicly available but still inaccessible in the language used and the breadth of content a customer has to sift through.

“Don’t get me wrong, information sharing is great, and it’s what we’re asking for,” says Ilishio Lovejoy, Policy and Research Manager for Fashion Revolution. “But an overload of information makes it more difficult for anybody to understand, let alone the customer.” 

Some brands, Lovejoy says, publish up to 300-page sustainability reports, making it almost impossible for the average consumer to get a clear understanding of whether a brand is addressing sustainability holistically, with measurable goals and traceable outcomes. “A lot of words don’t necessarily equal a lot of information,” she says. “We see brands use words that sound really great, but we’re looking for the substance — what are they actually doing? What are their policies, what are they doing about those policies and really importantly, what’s the outcome?”

This has opened up a market for glossaries that aim to demystify sustainability terms in an effort to close the knowledge gap. In May, Condé Nast and the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion launched the Sustainable Fashion Glossary, a free online resource filled with 250 terms that cover the climate emergency and the environment, as well as the social, cultural and economic impacts of fashion. “What we stand up in, should reflect what we stand up for,” said Dilys Williams, Director of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, when the glossary launched. “It’s time to question whether we are being well represented. We can create a new era of beauty and style borne out of an understanding and intimate connection with our most precious asset; the earth, the greatest designer the world has ever known.” 

While glossaries are useful tools, it’s crucial that we continue to hold brands accountable, especially in periods of crisis, to ensure that progress is made towards a more honest and transparent industry. “Now that the conversation has started, no matter how big or little it is, it’s for us to make sure that it keeps flowing and that we don’t let brands shy away from honest communication,” says Lovejoy.