Achieving Sustainability

photo credit: Jason Matz of smugmug

As a creative, a maker and a business owner, I aim for my work to address both ethics and sustainability. Both material processes and community relationships need to be considered to develop a well rounded approach. This is the first part of the discussion, with the second part to look at how Silk and Sword can engage with ethics.


I've done a decent amount of research into good fibres and hides for long wear and minimal eco-footprints, and have come to rest on wool, hemp, jute, sisal and linen, kangaroo hide, and the odd vegetable tanned cow hide where the skin was a byproduct from the meat industry. Incidentally, most kangaroo hides are also byproducts with meat being the primary market.

Wool and other shorn fibres - so long as the animals are treated well and not bred into discomfort to increase production - are a renewable resource with good insulation and comfort properties, and no need to kill the animal. Environmental impact comes from field area and maintenance, sheep health with pesticide baths etc, and the fibre cleaning process using a fair amount of water. Modern methods have greatly reduced the amount of water used in washing. For the quality of fibre, personally it feels ok to provide for a happy mob of sheep (or alpacas) in exchange for growing their winter coats and giving them summer haircuts. There may be details I'm unaware of which could make this a more complicated issue than I think.

Hemp, Linen and other textiles made from plant bast fibres are often naturally resistant to pests, require less water to grow than cotton, and only *require* water for retting to extract useful fibre. The remaining processes to create cloth are largely mechanical. Careful introduction of chemicals can reduce retting waste and increase the ease of working with the fibres mechanically, however it may also increase waste and toxic components in favour of reducing processing time. Dew retting in fields is slow but the most environmentally friendly option, with the rotted plant material returning to the ground - whereas water retting if done in natural water bodies can increase nutrient deposits which in turn encourages algae growth and can suffocate the native ecosystem. To find suppliers of cloth made from various bast fibres is not as easy as choosing a processing method and sticking behind it. Choosing a low impact fibre source does help get on the right track, however.

On this note, we move on to choice of hide. Kangaroos are valuable, as I've previously noted, but on continuing to research I was only further reassured that they were a good choice. As a meat source, kangaroos do not produce methane, wihch makes them a more sustainable option than beef, in addition to a more abrasion-resistant source of leather. The Australian government mandates how many may be culled (or harvested) each year. Culls are mandated regardless of commercial use, in order to reduce kangaroos' high grazing pressure on land, which in turn allows a balanced native ecosystem to thrive. Too much grazing can mean some plant species are left at risk. This is part of why kangaroos are given the status of a pest population. The tough part comes next. They must be killed in the wild, by a lethal head shot, administered by a screened and licensed hunter who must then tag the animal. No butcher or tannery in Australia is allowed to accept any kangaroo which has no tag. This process helps verify certified hunting practices and monitoring of tightly controlled kangaroo population numbers. Harvest limits are set by the government each year after accounting for factors such as drought, to ensure the kangaroo population itself remains healthy.

Lastly, I use some acrylic sheet in my work to make hand-stitched rocking boxes. Acrylic is one of the easiest plastics to recycle, is very strong, and interestingly has a good UV filtering capacity. As a design element, it allows me to really contrast the rugged, flexible nature of leather with crisp, transparent and metallic structures. The alternate material of timber does not provide the same crystal transparency and contrast. For my designs, acrylic is laser cut into shape, as is leather. All materials that I put into the laser cutter need to be checked for their composition, to ensure that being burnt does not release toxic off-gasses. Chrome tanned leathers release lethal chlorine gas, so I handcut any chrome-tanned outsorts I work with. To improve this process, my next step is to fit a filter to the exhaust, to collect smoke particles as physical waste rather than releasing it back into the atmosphere.

And so the adventures in sustainability continue!
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Gear Shift: Why I've chosen vegetable tanned leather as a sustainable material

I'm aware that leather use is a contentious issue. Using the hides off critters backs is something I've fluctuated between for a while - as a crafter and consumer - however having done some research with more to come, there is a decent argument towards leather. It all comes down to process.

How an animal is raised to produce leather, how the rest of the animal is used as well as its hide, and how the hide is then processed, all are critical to the ethics behind using animal parts as a material in production of goods.

Where I stand, is that if there is an attitude of consideration for animal quality of life, a minimal waste policy throughout the supply chain, and every effort to use environmentally friendly mechanics and chemistry to turn hides into leather, then we have a winner for ethical material supply.

On the other hand, leather alternatives chasing the same desirable aesthetics pose a number of cons. Largely, unsustainable and toxic production chemistry often involving plastics - secondarily, it lasts nowhere near as long in a product, while being much harder to maintain and break down as waste. The burden of its negatives long outlive the material.

As a product, leather - particularly vegetable tanned - can be maintained and preserved by good stuff with a relatively small eco footprint like beeswax. It's tensile strength means we have many options for construction without needing additional materials for linings, or even stitching and hardware in some cases (part of my own design interests). It's a very practical and minimal material to use for small to moderately sized items with an intent for durability and longevity.

I personally am against using large amounts of leather unneccesarily for items like dresses or floor coverings or wall cladding - only maybe if the animals byproducts are fully used as well - since I feel it starts being wasteful, and becomes harder to care for and preserve the material. I think maintenance is an important part of leathers sustainability, since it can have a longer life at a higher intensity of use compared to other organic materials like cotton. This is also partly why I am against furs and sometimes shearling - the chemistry to preserve them on vintage items can be pretty nasty. Wool, on the other hand, I love - easy to harvest, the animal stays alive and happy (so long as it is not bred into disfigurement just for the sake of its fibres), and technically amzing and comfortable in basically all the uses. I'm a fan of merino and hope to find some good Australian sources in the future.

Back to leather. In favour of my cause, I am additionally lucky enough to live in a country where our local pest and national icon happens to have an amazing capacity for breaking ouf of inhospitable enclosures with its supreme bounciness, and a very strong and flexible quality of hide. Plus, we have been known to eat it - we get a plus for the use of byproducts. I have testing to do (waiting for some offcuts to arrive), and further research into our tanneries processes, but I hope to use locally vegetable tanned kangaroo hides for all my leather goods in the future.

On the matter of tanning - even the vegetable tanning process can include some not-so-great steps, such as methods of preservation before the tanning itself (one tanner I've read about just freezes them - so then all we have to do is wait for renewable energy sources), and other steps to strip and prepare the hide. The tanning itself is great, it uses tannins from barks and vegetation. The end product is amazing to work and craft with, very flexible and malleable as compared with chromium tanned, which uses horrible stuff which is pretty much done once it is tanned. Not much room for the enjoyment and care in handling and finishing on the creatives end. As a less treated material, veg tan does need more maintenance by the consumer - but this also adds to its longevity. If you wreck a chrome tanned or patent leather good for example, it's harder to restore to that particular finish, and usually requires more affronting than eco-friendly chemistry.

Now one part of my process which I have recently discovered and would find hard to let go of, is the dying and beautiful colouring effects you can get due to veg tans porosity. The options which sink in are oil and spirit based dye (rather than surface finishes and paints). For now, I feel that alcohol and spirits are not something the world will let go of any time soon, and I do love a good shot of whisky myself. I find that oil dyes - though leathercrafters prefer the evenness of application, seem to be a bit less tolerable. But again, more research is required, since solvent based and oil based things can both be environmentally unfriendly.

Finally, waterproofing and sealing. Spirit based dye tends to be pretty resilient unless you have at it with acetone - hopefully you wouldn't do this to your wallet or belt. Water and leather conditioner are generally safe as water and natural oils tend not to disturb the colour. This means you are free to keep the leather open to aging with the odd waterspots and handling marks. Alternatively, you can apply a beeswax or carnauba based finish, or an acrylic based sealant. Out of all the other available options, I think these three are reasonably sustainable. I'll have to look further into carnauba solvents (which make it an applicable cream) and acrylics. I've seen no issue with acrylic as an artists medium, even being safe for kiddies. However in my use case I would not be churning out factoryfuls of treated goods. Since each item is handmade I feel this is an ok option just for my workshop. However I can't say if everyone used acrylic sealants, or natural waxes and oils (if blended with other preservatives or solvents) on their leatherwork it would necessarily be a good option. It depends on the ingredient listing, which is frequently not there.

So vegetable tanned leather has ticked a lot of my boxes for a durable, sustainable, attractive and adaptable material to use in accessories, and pairs well with garments made from sustainable wool. I think my material choices are covered! But like I said earlier, it's all about process to make the use of animal hide an ethical and sustainable option. I'll have to do my research into suppliers and tanneries around Australia, both for cow and kangaroo leather, as well as my workshop treatments to ensure I'm holding up my end of the deal.

If any person has a rebuttal or notices a consideration I've missed, please comment below!
  • Current Mood: excited excited

Is the quality of clothing basics going down?

In all my efforts to build specialist skills in working with different materials and techniques, I've noticed that there has been a drastic decline in what is available locally in terms of good basics made from good materials. We have in the last year had a Zara and Topshop open in Perth, plus many of the labels which were once available only at Harbour town - and other labels will open several retail fronts in the same city. Even Pandora has 2 city shops. It seems unnecessary firstly, to have so many of the same options presented to us.

But then those options - they are either extraordinarily cheap ($5 shirts and tanktops), made from extraordinarily poor materials - often non-breathable, hacked and slashed non-raveling fabrics, very thin, pilling or any of many other issues with poorly manufactured synthetics. Or they are extraordinarily expensive ($50-$80 for a t-shirt) and still made from average materials.

And then we have the ridiculously hiked up price of the basic printed cotton T-shirt, which walking around today seemed to be at least $50. What was once considered a basic staple, organic fibres and conservative cuts are becoming an expensive luxury - purely from oversaturation of the opposite, and not so much because there is a lack of these fantastic textiles.

I'm frustrated! And with the rising popularity of so many simple sewing patterns out there, such as the basic tees and pants in good cuts, it seems like this is really a *thing*. Maybe not just in Perth.

I still want to see radical new designs and experiments in shape or texture - but I am in a state of mild panic at what is happening to the range of everyday gear available in Perth. We have great conceptual local designers with fairly costly work, in a range of classy simple styles made with beautiful textiles, however many people don't have the time to go small boutique hunting.

In terms of what I make, I don't think I want to slip into the unaffordable statement, but I would love to make what people need. And right now that need seems so simple. But then I can't really make an American Apparel quality cotton tee by hand for $20 since retail materials alone cost this much. So we'll just have to keep importing?

Anyone want to help me build a "small batch" clothing factory in Perth? Something a bit bigger than our living rooms with their domestic machines on the dining table?

In other segue, how amazing were the drafting pattern books from the early 1900's! Look those up, if you have not. I am *very* into 1930's-40's coats with their amazing beautiful functional seaming ^______^ The mailouts used to tell you how to draft the piece with an included stencil for measuring and tracing curves, then you were expected to fit the mockup to yourself and largely already know or make up your own methods of construction for the final piece. Those ladies were very with it!
  • Current Mood: distressed distressed


An introduction to me. Ashley.

I started this business with the intention of achieving this ambitious image of a collection:

             [Structured and bold elements combine with soft organic textures and colours to create a mixed aesthetic. Casual and formal styles blend through the use of textured textiles, modular construction and statement accessories. Each item may be worn alone, mixed with your wardrobe, or layered for an intense aesthetic.]

So basically, creating art in the form of a line of clothing which represented my design and philosophy ideals.
I've discovered it will take some (long long looong amounts of) time to develop the skills I need to articulate this type of work, and build a portfolio of the style of dress and techniques - particularly with the aim of upholding gender-ambivalence and function.

For now, I am working within my means, making custom orders using patterns drafted and altered to fit the individual.

I'm going to take my time to develop and understand each project. The learning curve so far has been steep but entertaining - working with new materials and construction details, plus drafting my own blocks and hopefully patterns. I'm happily seeing progress as I work through each project. Even walking through factory and indie patterns has been great, providing new opportunities for experimentation.

TAFE short courses have been invaluable as a foundation to practical knowledge and techniques for garment making. I'll be starting a new course on lingerie next fortnight - excited to play with stretch materials, linings, trims, fitting and the unique hardware that goes with foundation garments (though typically naive of myself, a boned bustier with 3piece cups was the first top I attempted to make >.< it took 3 years to get back to and complete once I knew what I was doing).

For a look behind the scenes at my projects and processes while I swim through all this new information, head over to my instagram account (under my LJ links). I have phases of engaging and disengaging with social media - but right now I update IG fairly regularly. Drop me a message!

[One of my current projects: Mixing fabrics! Floral rayon will line this airflow weave in some rad high-waisted 40's pants :p ]


Tailored for the Imagination

< SILK and SWORD > by Ashley Metcalfe
Perth, WA | Australia
Local | Sustainable | Gender Neutral


This LJ account is the news feed for Australian label SILK and SWORD.
Currently I design and construct items by hand, all pieces are one of a kind.

SILK and SWORD aims to enable people to unapologetically express their stories and identity throughout the comfortable and corporate everyday. Structured and bold elements combine with soft organic textures and colours to create a mixed aesthetic. Casual and formal styles blend through the use of textured textiles, modular construction and statement accessories. Each item may be worn alone, mixed with your wardrobe, or layered for an intense aesthetic.

There are duplicities within all of us, between the roles of protected and protector, personal and professional, vulnerable and powerful. Often these duplicities are not in fact in opposition. Often they are viewed through the filter of femininity and masculinity, and the construction of gender. Like other constructs of human classification, genders are merely stereotypes - average of all, true of none.

I currently design to explore the untying of softness and strength from gender roles, with pieces tailored to be worn and interpreted by anyone, under the assertion that we all have the permission to try on any character we choose. I hope to inspire an acceptance of role subversion and play in everyday life, to empower individuals to counteract the stereotype impositions which confine our self-perception.

A Short Spiel about the Brand

The label SILK and SWORD was created with an intent to make the world a nicer place to be.

I aim to encourage people to view each other through a lens of complexity and relativity, rather than through a learned or trendy version of acceptance which comes with local culture and politics. By creating pieces which incite a clash of values in a beautiful or easy way, I hope to resonate with the beauty of the complexity of the person next to you. The idea is to celebrate our ability to be earnestly duplicitous and unexpected, to encourage curiosity about people grown from different traditions, and to normalise everyone's muddy human depth. Muddy from mixing all the paints in the box.

Compounding these intentions into collections, I aim to create a line of easy clothes in smart-casual styling, chosen to help individuals break down some of the walls they struggle with between everyday roles.

One of the strongest inspirations for this concept came from my experience working in an administrative position. As a person with creative interests, I felt limited by the range of acceptable personal expression. I love imaginative subcultures, and imagined fashions such as gothic, cosplay, lolita, cyberpunk, roleplay and others, yet this dimension of my personality did not seem 'work-appropriate'. Somehow my definition of self was automatically informal, and things like my sidecut or wearing all black were at times viewed as controversial, or not accepted as enmeshed with my role and ability for structure, responsibility and professional authority. Appearing niche or "creative" shouldn't be a dramatic statement, and I shouldn't feel dramatic for being uncomfortable with the arbitrary norms of my gender or age.

Everyone combines their interests in a unique way - being a CEO does not mean you can't be a poet or a potter or a compassionate person, wearing a dress doesn't mean you can't be a deep sea diver, or an astrophysicist, or a male. Some people need norms to provide a model for conservative self expression, others need norms as lines not to cross.
With a greater spread of networked technology and increasing exposure to diversity, we need a more nuanced model for perceiving, understanding, forming expectations and building contracts with each other. Eventually, this level of nuance needs to be normalised - giving a greater safe zone to the socially shy, and more lines to acceptably butt up to for the more confident types.

I can't predict such a model - I'm still ironing out all the learned misconceptions I have of myself. (Gender roles are a big one.) But for now - I can suggest that certain traits need not clash with one another. Through clothing, homewares, and other items of self expression. By understanding and visualising our own odd duplicities, and learning not to pitch them against each other, we can represent and spread an awareness of duplicitous normality. One day, we may be able to change the perception from forced false dichotomies to a celebrated and extraordinary diversity of human capacity.

And so here is SILK and SWORD, my little contribution to activism.
Are there any clashes you would like to see addressed in the world?
  • Current Location: Australia, Perth
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