Still Ethical

A friend bought an ‘ethical’, hand-embroidered top at a festival earlier this year. I was intrigued and decided to find out more from Still Ethical founder, Sophie Mason.

wscf: Tell me something about you . . .

Sophie:  My great-grandmother was a seamstress for Queen Victoria. My personal passion is antique textiles, and I’m particularly fascinated by old Indian textiles.

How did ‘Still Ethical’ come about?

I’m a self-taught designer. I sold vintage clothes in a shop on Portobello Road for fourteen years. Then I set up Still Ethical to sell ethical, handmade clothes (alongside vintage clothing). At the time a lot of specialist craftspeople in India and Nepal were still spinning with handlooms and making textiles using natural dyes and traditional techniques. I decided to go on a ‘pilgrimage’ to find people I could liaise with to produce my ethical clothes range.

My first step was to find a farm growing organic cotton. One of my customers put me in touch with a farm in Karnataka, India which grows cotton and also indigo (a natural dye) using environmentally-friendly methods. For example, companion plants are used to control pests, avoiding the need for pesticides, and biodynamic techniques inform planting and harvesting.

I like the fact that a complete cycle takes place on the farm: from planting and growing the cotton and indigo used to manufacture the cloth, to processing raw cotton (using a Victorian ginning machine imported from the UK!), to preparing indigo dyes for use, to making the fabric. The raw cotton is taken to local weavers to be spun and turned into yarn. But it comes back to the farm for weaving and dying.

Dying fabric can be very polluting using conventional techniques. But with indigo as a natural dye, jaggery (Indian cane sugar) used to feed the live indigo vat, and natural ash waters made from burnt pomegranate rinds and banana skins to fix the colour, the environmental impact is considerably reduced, and a greater purity of colour can be achieved. In fact, indigo has been used as a natural dye in various cultures around the world. This farm uses a traditional Japanese dying technique known as shibori, which they taught themselves from books and examples.

Why ‘Still Ethical’? What does the name mean to you?

I like the sound of the word ‘still’; it resonates. Also it implies calm, and continuity – values which are important to the way I work. The ‘ethical’ component evolved as I developed the brand. It was my love of textiles which first motivated me to go to India, so finding people using traditional techniques was my initial priority.

But the ethics of the process and supply chain became increasingly important to me in a country where so many struggle to survive financially. Many people have very little money but they still take immense pride in their textile manufacturing skills and beautiful clothes, both of which deserve appreciation.

What do you think are the worst effects of fast, cheap fashion?

Fast, cheap fashion has become an addiction. Our desire for more of everything now drives the economy, making it hard to extricate ourselves from this situation.

We’re being encouraged to blindly pursue an unsustainable model which must implode sooner or later. Fast, cheap fashion results in a clothes mountain, overwork and underpay, unsafe working conditions and deaths, not to mention the environmental impact.

People have been brainwashed; clearly it’s impossible to manufacture a t-shirt for £2. It’s essential that there’s wider understanding of this basic fact.

How is the way you work with artisan makers in India and Nepal different from the supply chains of global high street brands? Global brands are driven by profit to a large extent. What motivates how you work?

For me, being independent allows me greater creativity than I would have working for a high street brand. And it gives me the opportunity to build meaningful, long-term relationships with my suppliers. Over the past ten years; I’ve seen people have families, mature and turn grey.

I travel to India and Nepal two or three times a year, and I do a couple of different ‘stories’  or projects on each trip (maybe focusing on, say, indigo, embroidery or wool). Whereas global fast fashion relies on trends, I tend to use the same basic shapes over successive years. Good design doesn’t age.

I have a direct rapport with my suppliers. I know specifically who I’m working with, and they take a key role in determining what they’re paid. My wages for skilled spinners, weavers, dyers, knitters, tailors and embroiderers reflect the considerable technique, effort and time they bring to the work.

My approach is more expensive than high street brands; it’s labour intensive. But it generates valuable income in economically poor regions. I pay a fair price for craftsmanship, but sustaining traditional aspects of culture to do with textiles is equally important to me.

Huge global firms don’t necessarily have any direct engagement with the individuals who make their clothes. Garment workers become faceless and voiceless to those companies, and to the customers who buy their products. It’s important to give a face and voice to garment makers.

Lack of interest in traditional techniques is an issue for British designers and makers as well. In fact, it’s a global issue related to the increasing demand for cheap, fast fashion nurtured by high street global brands.

Can you tell me more about the people you work with.

I mainly work with a co-operative of female embroiderers and quilters based in Lucknow, India.  Many of these women are from very conservative Muslim communities, where women traditionally spend their lives hidden away in private quarters. The collective energy in the women’s co-operative is incredible. The women increase their self-esteem by being part of a healthy, supportive working environment and earning money to support their families in what is generally a very poor region. Even women with faming or childcare responsibilities can pick up work to embroider at home. One of the embroiderers has severe physical disabilities, but this doesn’t prevent her from taking an active role in the co-operative. Everyone has a role, and the co-operative supports its members; for instance, by paying for healthcare.

My quilting is done by a group of women quilters in a village in West Bengal, India.

Tailoring, on the other hand, is an exclusively male preserve. My cutting, stitching and making up is done by four or five male tailors in New Delhi, India.

Let’s talk money . . . 

I work on a very different scale from global high street brands. Still Ethical produces hundreds, not thousands or millions, of items each year. My output depends partly on financial practicalities; for example, what does my cash flow look like?

Affordability is one reason techniques are dying out in India. Nylon is popular, cheap and affordable; so people might embroider their nylon now instead of embroidering traditional textiles. The region where my embroiderers are based used to have thirty-two different embroidery stitches and now there are only twelve; it’s a dying art.

Money helps to give people control over their lives and choices. Or it should do. Overseas garment workers often earn too little to live on and aren’t in a position to negotiate. In huge industrial complexes workers often have no choice and no voice; it’s simply a case of in or out, and they can’t afford to lose their jobs.

My way of working isn’t a perfect model either. One designer can’t make enough of a difference in isolation. I provide some, but not all, of the income my suppliers need for financial security.

Do you think the way forward is to encourage people to buy from independent ethical designers? Or is it more important to campaign for high street brands to provide better pay and conditions?

If independent designers can encourage people to think about issues in the fashion industry and lobby for changes on the high street then that’s really positive. So there’s an important role in encouraging conversation and debate.

Who are your customers, and where can people buy your clothes?

The age range of my customers spans twenties to eighties, though most people are somewhere in the middle! The Still Ethical range attracts people who appreciate craft fabric rather than disposable fashion; who want to invest in a beautiful piece of clothing rather than buy something cheap and throw it away soon afterwards. Prices reflect the artisanship and time which goes into each piece, but I try and keep my designs affordable. For example, I sell an indigo shirt for £65, but I’d charge perhaps £285 for a hand-embroidered silk georgette dress.

I sell at festivals, exhibitions, and at one-to-one sessions with customers.

 

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Sue Written by:

I'm a finance professional who's interested in whether we're accounting for the right things in the right ways.

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