Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Zen of Organic Panty Manufacturing

Last August, I announced that Faerie's Dance would start manufacturing their own line of organic cotton panties.  By October, we'd put a down payment on our fabric and had our first patterns. At the time, I posted that we'd launch those first few designs in late January or February.

It's April, and many of you (including myself) are wondering, where the heck are these panties?! Good question.  Let's recap.

When we left the deposit on the fabric, the manufacturer (a small, family-run, GOTS certified manufacturer in India) told me it would be about 60 days to completion.  So I lined up our Stayton, Oregon based seamstress for end of December and our Portland based printer for early January.  And for about 2 or 3 weeks, we were on schedule.

Once we were ready to get our low-impact dyed colors done, I learned I needed the Pantone color numbers to proceed.  I'd already picked the colors to match the latex-free elastic trims.  Unfortunately, the elastic seller wasn't able to tell me what the Pantone numbers were.   And it turns out, buying what I thought would be a swatch card is actually a reference encyclopedia running about $900.  After a bit of a confusion and scramble, I mailed pieces of elastic to India and they were able to match the colors that way. 

This small glitch put us 2 weeks behind.

Being a small business owner, I'm aware that things can occasionally (read: regularly) go wrong.  So when a machinery part broke down at the fabric manufacturer and they told us (very apologetically) that there would be another two week delay, there really wasn't much I could do.  (Other than lament that the Hearts A'flutter panties wouldn't be ready in time for Valentine's Day.)

At this point, we were 4 weeks behind.

Now, we do a lot of importing.  Our best-selling bra line is from Italy.  When you ship small, lightweight items, they generally need to go by air because there's not enough weight and/or volume to justify hiring all or part of a sea shipping container.  So I really (really!) should have known better.  But in my excitement of getting our first custom made fabric, I did not account for the time delay of shipping sea versus air.  Air usually takes a week, two tops.  Well for 1300 lbs of fabric, you really can't ship by air.  (Unless you want to pay a ridiculous amount of money and waste a lot of jet fuel, neither of which are high on my priority list.)  So my allotted "shipping week" was taken over with special forms required for sea shipments.  Then the actual shipping time took an additional 4 weeks.

Suddenly, we were 2 months behind.

Ok, but February 27th is the big day fabric is arriving!!  I figured a few days for customs clearance, and I would be able to get the fabric to the seamstress first week in March.  I make calls. I schedule.  The fabric arrives!  And I am the lucky winner of a special Vehicle and Cargo Inspection System (VACIS) exam.  If you just clicked that link, yes, the winner of a VACIS exam also wins the right to pay extra for the exam even if the cargo is deemed legal and no contraband is found.  To make a way-too-long-story short, customs finally released my fabric on the afternoon of April 4th.  They held it more than 5 weeks. My business was required to pay nearly $400 in additional exam fees, and no contraband was found.

Et voilĂ , we were now 3 months behind.

So I call the seamstress, and guess what?  She's in the middle of someone else's project.  This was not at all unexpected, and I was really grateful that she (a small business owner herself) was still willing to work my project in.  I'm sure some of my delays had her scrambling to find other projects.  She worked in all of the sample sewing and fittings (which are now done! yay!); and is able to start full production April 28th.

And just like that, we are 4 months behind.

Jaime, our Patternmaker, verifies the measurements of the first samples

I'd love to offer you all a list of the lessons I've learned during this experience, but it's a blog post, not a novel, and room is limited.  And for the sake of all the issues I still haven't run into and the fact that I haven't even called the printer back yet, let's just call it 5 months behind and hope for a July launch.  Just in case.

That said, the single biggest, most overwhelming, really smack-in-head, light bulb on, ah-ha lesson that I've come away with is... humility. 

I am humbled by the efforts of the fabric maker, customs broker, seamstress and patternmaker in support of my project. 

I am grateful to the many customers who've asked about the panty status, and who've not only been understanding about the delays, but even outraged on my behalf over the extra customs costs.

I am overwhelmed by the vast effort that goes into bringing the simplest of items to market.

And most of all, I am embarrassed by all the times I've been frustrated with manufacturers over delays they've had.

I'm going to go a little easier on folks from now on, including myself.  How many of you are harder on yourselves than you need to be?

Combining this with the experience of getting judgmental e-mails, I'm going to make an extra effort to be a bit more empathetic all around.

And just like that, I found a little peace through adversity.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Just Because We Don't Have What You Want, Doesn't Mean I Don't Care

As owner of an eco-fashion store, I get a lot of great emails, but every once in a while I get a crazy, nasty e-mail.  Most often, it's because I don't carry someone's size, but several other varieties of nasties also wind up in my inbox. 

We're getting a little more exposure lately, and with it, an up-tick in nasty e-mails.  Last week I received three; two were variations of size-related issues and the last was a rant that I'm a fake vegan because we carry 5 items (out of 951 currently in stock) that are made using free-range, hand-sheared alpaca.  One actually ended in "you disgust me."  No, I've never met this person nor interacted with them in any way prior to receiving the e-mail.

Admittedly, our Plus Size selection isn't as extensive as I might like.  With my strict criteria about fabric, finishes, dyes and human rights, plus sizes are just not that easy to come by.  I was very excited to find a new plus size eco-fashion source recently, and am happy to be expanding our plus selections this summer. 

Accusations are Unhelpful
Most of the women in my family are heavy, and it's always been important to me that I carry items that my family could wear and enjoy.  So please don't write to tell me, "You hate fat people," "You can't relate to larger women," or "You're not a real environmentalist," just because I don't carry or have something you like in your size. 

On the other hand, if you know of a brand that carries what you want, let me know.  We've looked into many overseas brands by request of our customers.  Some don't export to the USA, some are very expensive or have high minimum orders that we were unable to meet.  But a few have been matches, and we've added several brands based on customer suggestions that are hard to find in the USA.

Show Some Compassion
I struggled with carrying alpaca, but started because several (eco-conscious but not necessarily vegan) customers explicitly asked me to find warmer coats that were truly eco.  The amazing folks at Indigenous Designs took a written stand against mulesing when approached by PETA, and really do care about the welfare of the animals that are sheared.  From their website:
"Indigenous sources the majority of our alpaca fiber from outside of Arequipa, Peru in the Puno and Cusco areas, close to many artisan work groups. These alpacas are free range roaming animals with pasture rotation. The alpacas are not fed hormones and do not receive chemical dippings for ticks or parasites. There are no chemical ingredients allowed on the land or animals."

The thing is, these are just this week's criticisms.  Every decision I make for this business is made thoughtfully. And while I would certainly not expect everyone to agree with all of them, it would be really nice if folks could avoid accusations and name calling and perhaps ask me why things are a certain way. 

Ok, in all fairness, the vast majority of e-mails and calls we get do exactly that.  So I ought to be able to just shake off this vocal minority who sends nasty notes.  But it's hard. 

Remember People Have Feelings
This business is my passion and it means a lot to me.  It particularly stings when someone accuses me of being solely profit-driven since I earn half my previous salary running my own business, and work twice the number of hours.  (I wish that were an exaggeration, but it's not.)

Earlier this week, I saw another small business owner noting how badly they felt when they were openly criticized. So I'm writing this post for three reasons.
  1. I know the majority of my customers and readers are fantastic, understanding, socially conscious, super stars and after a week of hurtful comments, I'm reaching out to offer up some love to the good guys! :-)
  2. To share my experience with other solopreneurs and small-business owners so they can step back, like I'm trying to do, and realize that it really is impossible to please everyone and that we shouldn't let one person ruin our mood or our business.  It truly is impossible to please 100% of the people.  Just do your best.
  3. To provide a useful quick-link response to future e-mailers. If I sent you this link as a response to an e-mail, try e-mailing me back with a bit more civility. I'd be happy to answer your question, help you find something, or even explain my decisions as long as your remember that I'm a real, live person, not a corporate entity.  And I have feelings that can be hurt.  So please show a little respect and kindness and I'll do everything I can to do the same.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Come See Us at Portland's Better Living Show March 29-30

We're going "live"!  If you live around the Portland, OR area, come visit Faerie's Dance - along with other sustainable companies - at the Better Living Show on March 29 and 30 at the Portland Expo Center.  Admission is FREE.  Take a moment to touch and feel some of the wonderful fabrics we've been writing about lately.

We'll be part of the Semper Fashion Eco-Fashion Show and you'll have the opportunity to see several of our styles on the runway.  There's a changing room, so you can try things on, too.

If there's something you've been wanting to check out, let us know in advance and we'll be sure to bring it.

This is our first expo in Portland, and I'm pretty excited about it.  I look forward to meeting some of you in person.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Which Fabrics are the Most Eco-Friendly?

You want to be eco-friendly, but you've read bad things about bamboo, you've never heard of Modal® and you have no idea where linen fits into all of this.  No worries, has you covered.

There are 3 factors considered when determining the most eco-friendly fabrics:

  • The sustainability of the input materials,
  • The harshness/toxicity of any chemicals required for processing,
  • Production waste.
With that in mind, here's our well-reasoned and researched (but not scientifically tested), Most Eco-Friendly Fabrics list.

1. Hemp
Marijuana's non-psychotropic cousin leads the list in eco-friendly fabrics.  It is indeed a weed, growing prolifically without the need for pesticides, herbicides or extensive amounts of fertilizer.  It uses very little water compared to other fabric crops.  Hemp stalks can be directly spun into yarn without any chemical inputs and there is essentially no production waste from yarn to fabric.  Hemp was used extensively in the USA up until 1937 when it was included in the Marijuana Tax Act. Since industrial hemp cannot be used as a stimulant, there is some speculation that it was included in the Act as a way to minimize competition for timber-based paper and nylon fabrics. The first USA flag was made from hemp.

2. Organic Linen
The Flax plant is moderately easy to grow, and when grown organically without chemical pesticides or herbicides, is very eco-friendly.  The outer layers must be retted to get to the inner core which can be directly spun into yarn.  Retting of organically grown flax can be done with water alone; no chemicals are required.  Only natural, biodegradable waste products are produced.

3. Organic Cotton
Cotton is a very water-intensive crop.  So even organically grown cotton, which can be spun directly into yarn, falls lower on the eco-scale than hemp or linen; while conventionally grown cotton is off the eco-chart completely.  Organic cotton is the most commonly used eco-fabric as it's softer than hemp and doesn't wrinkle like linen does.  It's readily available, reasonably priced, and one of the most versatile fabrics on the list.

4. Tencel® / Modal®
There's a tie at the number 4 spot between two Lenzing developed fabrics, Tencel® and Modal®.  Both fabrics are man-made from tree cellulose using Lenzing's eco-award winning processes which include low-toxicity chemicals along with closed-loop, very low waste, production systems.  The resulting fabrics drape beautifully.  Tencel® has been shown to have moisture management and bacterial resistance properties, while Modal® has unparalleled softness.  Seriously, even cotton seems rough next to Modal's liquid silk feel.

5. Bamboo / Soy
Spot 5 results in another tie, this time between Bamboo and Soy fabrics.  Both of these have fantastic input materials.  Bamboo is the fastest growing woody plant on the planet. (It's actually a member of the grass family.)  Soy is created using the discarded, inedible outer casing of soybeans, essentially reclaiming a waste product.  While 89% of USA grown soy is now GMO, most soy fabric is made in China using non-GMO soy.  Unfortunately, in 2013, China approved the import of GMO soy seeds.  So this will be something to watch in the future.  The reason these two near-perfect input materials are way down at number 5 is that both require a fair amount of chemicals to process into fabric.  So they fall lower in the chemical and production waste categories.

6. Recycled PET
This video is the best one we've seen on the details of how to turn plastic bottles into polyester fleece clothing.  In truth, putting this at number 6 versus number 5 is fairly arbitrary.  This is a very energy-intensive process, but requires fewer chemicals than in bamboo or soy fabric production.  So it's a little hard to judge which is better.  Polyester is very beneficial in some applications like swimwear, and keeping all that non-biodegradable plastic out of our oceans and landfills is a very good thing.

Choosing any of these fabrics over conventional cotton, polyester, nylon or rayon is a big step in the eco direction.  However, fabric is only one piece of the eco-friendly puzzle.  The very cleanest hemp fabric that is conventionally dyed and doused with chemical finishes will fall lower on the sustainability scale than a low-impact dyed bamboo with no finishing agents.  If you choose something certified under Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS) or OEKO-TEX 100 standards, you can be certain the dyes and finishes are non-toxic and free of harsh chemicals.

Workers rights and Fair Trade practices should figure into your evaluation of eco-friendly.  One can argue whether a fair-trade, conventional cotton shirt is better or worse than an organically-grown cotton shirt made under unsustainable working conditions such as those in the recent Bangladesh incident.  Happily, GOTS certification also includes some reasonable working condition requirements for employees.

Intentionally missing from this list are controversial animal-derived fabrics such as wool and silk.  Hand-sheared, free range wool can be very high on the eco-scale (perhaps second or third), providing a synergistic (and often caring) relationship between the sheep and the farmer.  However, mass-produced wool using mulesing and factory-farming techniques has no business in eco-fashion. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

What are "Natural Fabrics"?

Some companies use the term "natural fabric" for apparel or linens as a means of green-washing products that may be laden with pesticides, chemicals or other yucky stuff that is by no means sustainable or eco-friendly.  There's no legal definition of a natural fabric, the way there is of a certified organic fabric, so it's important to understand what the term implies.  People also toss out phrases such as "man-made fabrics" or "synthetic fabrics."  Does that make them bad?  And what's the difference?

Since there's no legal definition, the following are the most common interpretations of the terms.  More importantly, though, understanding what goes into each fabric will help you make a more informed decision about what you choose to put on your body regardless of what it's called.

Natural Fabrics
There is a set of input materials found in nature that can be directly woven, knit or cured into fabric with no or at most minimal processing.  That is, the final fabric looks and feels very similar to the original source material.  By that definition, cotton, hemp, flax (linen), jute, ramie, wool, silk and even leather are considered natural fabrics.

It is important to note here that "natural" doesn't necessarily mean eco-friendly; nor does it imply vegan or even chemical-free.  It's simply that the input material is found in nature (as a plant or animal) and can be directly turned into fabric.

Man-made Fabrics
Man-made is a particularly odd term since really all fabric is made by humans.  Cotton doesn't go weaving itself while we aren't looking.  But ok, we can move past the misnomer.  There are a set of fabrics that start with natural inputs, but require so much processing that the final fabric doesn't look or feel anything like the original material.  These fabrics are derived from natural materials. Bamboo is an excellent example.  Most bamboo textiles are created using a viscose process similar to rayon production.  Since the fabric is derived from bamboo versus being directly woven or knit from the bamboo plant itself, it's considered man-made, not natural. 

Man-made fabrics derived from natural materials include rayon, tencel, modal and pine tree fabrics, all of which are derived from various wood pulps, as well as bamboo, biophyl (derived from corn) and rubber (derived from the Hevea brasiliensis tree).

Synthetic Fabrics
There is another class of man-made fabrics that are derived from manufactured materials.  So the input material has itself already been processed or manufactured from something else. One way to think of it is that fabrics derived from natural materials are "once removed" and fabrics derived from manufactured materials are "twice removed" from their natural source material.  Those terms have no real meaning, but they can be helpful in keeping track.  These are the fabrics most commonly referred to as synthetic fabrics, and include nylon, polyester, acrylic, Spandex, elastane, Lycra and polypropylene.

One caveat is that there are a few cross-over materials.  Unprocessed hemp makes a somewhat coarse fabric that stands up extremely well to washing and wear.  That makes it fantastic for khakis and jeans.  However, it's a little rough when it comes to shirts.  While hemp blended with other materials like cotton or tencel mostly resolves the softness issue, there is also a class of hemp textiles that are processed as a viscose to provide a truly silky finished fabric.  Therefore, while natural hemp fabric is more common, there is a hemp viscose fabric which is actually man-made.

There's also a bamboo linen, which is a linen-like material woven from the leaves of the bamboo tree, which is a natural fabric.  It's much less common than man-made bamboo viscose, though.

An initial reaction might be that natural fabrics are more sustainable than man-made fabrics which are more sustainable than synthetic fabrics.  Alas, that is simply not the case. 

Conventional cotton requires enormous amounts of water to grow and accounts for more than 10% of total pesticide use and nearly 25% of insecticide use worldwide. 

There are some completely synthetic fabrics that are eco-friendly.  For example, recycled PET is a polyester fleece made from recycled plastic bottles which minimizes land-fill waste and avoids the use of virgin petroleum.

This leads to the next logical question; "Which fabrics are the most eco-friendly?"  Stay tuned, because that's our topic for next week.