Friday, 18 March 2016

Wardrobe Planning IIIc: Discardia

 Previously, on Writing in a Bafflingly Long-Winded Way About Wardrobe Planning:
Wardrobe Planning I: In which I talk about the reason I am interested in planning my wardrobe
Wardrobe Planning II: In which I digress into discussion of the role of sewing in my wardrobe plan
Wardrobe Planning IIIa: In which I ponder what the 'right' size of wardrobe should be
Wardrobe Planning IIIb: In which I count up all my clothes

Discarded clothes in bales (source)
The flip side of the enjoyment of acquiring clothes is, of course, the less entertaining task of discarding them. There are many fairly horrifying numbers thrown around about this topic: the numbers of football fields worth of clothing discarded per year, the tonnes of textiles dumped in landfill per year, the half-life of polyester and the amount of damage it causes as it decays etc etc. The one specific number that stuck in my mind though is the estimate in Overdressed that on average an American woman discards 65 items of clothing per year. I am in the UK rather than the US, but I can think of no compelling reason to believe that a similar number would not apply here.

When I first saw that number, I immediately imagined I would be in the virtuous low side of average. I struggled to think that I could throw away 65 items of clothing in a single year, more than 5 items per month. However, never let it be said that I am not thorough in my collection of data: at the start of 2015 I decided to track my discards as well as my purchases/makes. Every time I discarded an item of clothing, I moved it from my main wardrobe inventory spreadsheet to somewhere I could count it, and added a reason why I had discarded it. I included all garments, from coats to PJs, but not e.g. socks or underwear. By 'discard' I mean: putting in charity boxes for donation; disposal in fabric recycling for items of insufficient quality for charity collection; and selling via eBay (though this was limited to a small number of originally expensive but extremely painful shoes).

It turns out that last year at least I was most certainly not on the virtuous side of the average. I discarded 89 items of clothing and 9 pairs of shoes in 2015. So far in 2016, it doesn't look like I'm likely to do much better. I've already discarded 18 garments and 1 pair of shoes. I should aspire to be average, apparently.

In defense of what seems to me like a staggering amount of waste, 2015 was a year of deliberate shedding of excess for me, and I did an additional, planned purge right at the start of the New Year. Much of what I have discarded since January 2015 came from dusty corners of my clothing storage, rather than my every day wardrobe. Still, it's a lot to have thrown away.
What was I throwing away, and why? Overall, discards fell into three categories:

1. Discards due to size and fit

Of the 89 items of clothing I discarded in 2015, 40 of them came out of storage and/or were unwearable because they were the wrong size, fit so badly I found them unbearable to wear, or were otherwise so uncomfortable that I rarely took them off the hanger. Six of the nine pairs of shoes went for the same reason. In 2016 so far, 15 of the 18 items came from storage. 

By far the largest proportion of the clothes were the wrong size. Like many women, my weight and therefore size does fluctuate, a tendency presently much worsened by the many and varied side effects of the medications I take. Most of the clothes I own, make and buy are in styles that are deliberately more forgiving of moderate weight change rather than closely fitted.

However, I also had quite a lot in storage from the extreme ends of the weight range I have experienced over the last ten years. Wearing these clothes would involve a fairly dramatic change in weight and size. It is quite likely that this will happen to me, so I am reluctant to discard everything, as is often recommended. However, in some cases the clothes I had were several years old and this showed: these were clothes that I wouldn't choose to buy or wear if I were that size again tomorrow. In the end, though I did it in stages as I became more critical about what I was keeping, I found I shed almost everything that wasn't a good quality basic. This turned out, in fact, to be a very small number of items.

When it comes to fit for reasons other than size, the problem is a little more complicated. My initial purge of ill fitting clothes was easy, because I knew exactly what garments just didn't fit at all and discarded them with relief. Most of the time though, the fit is just a little bit off. For example, I rarely wear the two Carme blouses I made in 2014 because (a) I am still working on fitting now and back then I was in the very early stages of making woven tops, and so the sleeves are a little short and the fit isn't quite right across the back and so on and so forth -- a litany of small fitting problems; and (b) by strange coincidence, both of them shrank in length in the wash (despite pre-shrinking), the black version more than the white. As a consequence, the fit of both of them isn't terrible but it isn't good either.

It has taken me a long time to come to the conclusion that if I don't wear something because the fit is just wrong enough to be uncomfortable, it has the same net effect as it having HORRIBLE fit. I'll almost always choose something more comfortable and my limited wardrobe is still large enough that I am never forced to wear something -- it is never a case of "wear it because you've no other clean clothes". In other words, a miss is as good as a mile when it comes to fit bad enough to cause a garment to be uncomfortable.

2. Discards due to condition

The next category of discards (in 2015: 45 items of clothing, the 3 remaining pairs of shoes; in 2016: 2 garments, 1 pair of shoes) were things that wore out or otherwise deteriorated: jumpers that pilled, t-shirts that stretched out of shape, some things that shrank horribly in the wash, a few items that acquired a stain or mark I couldn't shift, shoes that developed irreparable wear damage.

This sounds fairly straightforward -- and when it comes to a giant indelible grubby mark on a white tee, it is straightforward -- but in lesser cases I actually find determining whether something is worn out very difficult. In particular, I sometimes find it tricky to tell if a garment is actually worn out or if it has just worn out its welcome in my wardrobe. More recently I've found that taking a break from the garment for a while helps me to figure out if it I am genuinely concerned about the condition it is in, or just filled with ennui at the thought of wearing it again. I don't think of myself as enormously novelty seeking when it comes to clothes, but apparently it's more of a thing for me than I suspected.

I have written before about the problem of longevity as it applies to sewing our own clothes. The reality is, sewn or RTW, there are some things that are just not going to last very long when subjected to my normal wear/wash/dry regime. There is always going to be considerable churn in short-lived, frequently-laundered categories like t-shirts, and some churn in every other category too. My "condition" discards are never going to be zero, but I find I don't mind this so much as long as I feel I got a decent amount of wear from a garment.

The one thing I take comfort in is that among relatively recently sewn items that I have discarded, it has almost always been because the fabric deteriorated and not the sewing. Some of my early sewn garments did not hold up to wear and wash but nothing I've made in the last couple of years has ever fallen apart. This may sound obvious, but it was something I really worried about when I first started sewing, that I would be walking around and my clothes would suddenly drop into pieces!

3. Discards due to being unworn

The final group of items, a mere 4 items in 2015, could best be described as "why do I own this?" -- clothes that are unloved and unworn. I am glad this number is small, but I would much rather it were zero, especially when it comes to clothes I have made myself. To be clear, these are not garments that are gathering dust because I just don't have occasion to wear it (as with my handful of evening wear and currently irrelevant work wardrobe). These are things that could be in every day rotation in the right season, but aren't for some reason. I haven't made any of this type of discard so far in 2016, though I am likely to do so when I put away my winter wardrobe.

In order to spot which items of clothing fall into this category I actually needed to know what I wear and how often. Halfway through 2015 I therefore started to track what I wear every day because I found I couldn't reliably estimate how often I wore the garments I own. This sounds like a ridiculously high maintenance thing to do, but in fact because I have a numbered inventory in a spreadsheet, it was very easy to set up and takes about 10 seconds a day to fill in. (I number crunched in Excel for a living for several years, so this sort of thing is very straightfoward for me.)

Now that I've kept track of what I've worn for a respectable period of time (9 months and counting) I've got enough data that I can see patterns in what I wear. I have to say that there is a Hawthorne Effect going on: the act of tracking what I wear has made me much more aware of what I am wearing and has increased the variety of my choices overall. I have definitely made an effort sometimes to wear less-worn items rather than following my natural inclination to reach for the same favourites over and over. It skews the data, of course, because even my least loved items have a few wears as a result, but I don't regret it overall. However, Hawthorne Effect notwithstanding, I can now also see at a glance what I've worn and in the case of rarely worn items, this has prompted me to think about why I don't wear it, what would make me start wearing it, and whether it is time to get rid of something.

I've already moved one or two things into more active use by realizing that a garment was essentially a wardrobe orphan, and by making or buying something that made an outfit I have successfully started wearing those items more. However, I still have a couple of orphans that I haven't really been able to integrate into my wardrobe, in both cases because the colour is just not quite right. Since I am not necessarily in love with these pieces, I'm starting to think it would be more efficient to dispose of them rather than create a whole outfit around something I don't care that much about to begin with.

Other items are trickier. I've worn this striped shirt I made almost exactly a year ago only four times, and then only in a grudging "I should really wear that more" kind of way. On the surface, this is baffling. I did a good job with the construction, it fits comfortably, it's a multi-season garment and it's in colours that are a staple in my wardrobe. I actually quite like it... on the hanger. Why don't I wear it? Well, because it's made of a polycotton with a high percentage of polyester, and every time I've worn it I spent the day feeling too hot and revoltingly sweaty. There's no way to fix that or work around it. It turns out the main purpose of this shirt has been to be an object lesson: polyester is not for me. (Luckily, my fabric stash is very light on pure polyester and polycotton anyway, and I am being very careful now to buy only cotton or viscose shirting, which I much prefer for their breathability.)

For the moment, I am still wrestling with the idea of discarding a perfectly good shirt for the trivial seeming reason that it makes me hot. This is where the sticking point of the wardrobe plan occurs. In the accumulative wardrobe, i.e. the one I used to have, I'd have been oblivious to the problem of this shirt. It just would have been pushed to the back of my closet and forgotten until some future epic aaargh, I have too much stuff wardrobe purge.

However, I'm trying to work with a generously sized but still restricted wardrobe (as I said in the numbers post, about 40-50 seasonally appropriate garments seems to work for me at the moment). Therefore I look at a shirt I like in the abstract but don't actually like wearing and think: this shirt is taking up a space in my wardrobe that could contain something I actively like and choose to wear. A part of wardrobe planning I hadn't really anticipated is this ongoing editing. It turns out this editing will sometimes include admitting that something you added was a mistake for some reason and discarding it.

Overall, what did I learn from tracking my discards? Well, first, that discarding 65 items of clothing is an embarrassingly easy number to achieve. Looking at my wardrobe plan, I know I want to make quite a few things over the remainder of 2016, and although I am filling in holes in my wardrobe in some places, more often I'm planning to take an item out and discard it as I add another in. Given I'm already at 18 garments this year it's more than likely that I'll hit 65+ again in 2016. I've actually started to wonder who the women on the lower end of the bell curve were, and what their wardrobe looks like -- are they all minimalists? never-throw-anything-away hoarders? Thrifty people who refashion, sell on or otherwise avoid straightforward discards? I also wonder at the validity of the 65 item number to begin with. I deliberately tracked what I discarded and I was still shocked and surprised by how many clothes I discarded in total in 2015. If I'd been asked for a guess at my total by a researcher, I would have sworn up and down that I had discarded maybe half my actual number, and I doubt I'd be alone in that underestimate.

The remedies for my particular corner of discardia are quite obvious. True, I can't do anything about my weight fluctuations and the effect they have on my wardrobe -- believe me, if I could hit a stable weight and size and stay there over five or more years, I would! However, I can definitely work to avoid making clothes that don't fit in ways that are uncomfortable, which is more than I ever managed when I was 100% dependent on RTW. I'm not talking here about "wrinkle-free" levels of fitting prowess, but like, "can I raise my arms comfortably to drive my car while wearing my coat". You wouldn't think that would be a problem, but it's a level of fit I was apparently unable to achieve when I bought my last RTW formal winter coat.

I can also try to improve the longevity of some of my clothes by how I sew them, the quality of fabrics I use and/or the quality of RTW I buy for those categories of things I don't plan to make myself. And I should be able to gradually refine and edit my wardrobe so that I don't have too many items hanging in the closet that I like in theory but in practice never wear, though that trial and error process is likely to be on-going for some time. Over the last 9 months or so I've definitely been making a big effort to ensure I don't make or buy orphans or near-orphans, which in practice means I only make/buy things if I can think of at least four separate outfits I can wear that include it. I won't achieve perfection and mistakes are inevitable, but it would be nice to keep them to a minimum!

My next post on this topic is the last about numbers, and it is about the variables that go into my wardrobe equations for lo, I am determined to out nerd the world on this topic.


  1. I wish I hadn't already gotten rid of clothing this year, because now I really want to count how many items of clothing I get rid of in a year. I suspect it's a lot less than 65 because I hold onto things forever, just because, and because I've been roughly the same size since I was 17 (about 13 years ago).

    1. You could always start 1 April and count 12 months from then!

  2. Last year I had a major purge - I think it probably just about reached the American average. My life was turned upside down by a traumatising event . The majority of clothes were old, ugly , stained or holey. I told myself I deserved better and should value myself so chucked out heaps. I do not regret or miss any of the clothes and can not believe I wore them . ( I still have a decent pile of old stained holey clothes for gardening ). Since age 14 my weight has only gradually increased by 6 kgs so I have clothes well and truly over a decade that fit and are in good condition and I wear. So I don't live a fast fashion life and don't feel guilty about my discards. Hoping your clean out gives you a positive boost. It did for me.

    1. I think it has been a positive boost so far! I still have a bit more to do but I should really be through the major part of my purging at this point.