Slow fashion: how to keep your favourite clothes for ever – from laundering to moth-proofing

Unless you plan to wear a suit of armour for the rest of your life, there is no way to make your clothes last for ever. You can get close to for ever – if you are prepared to darn. As a society, though, we have become less inclined to make do and mend because the advent of fast fashion has made clothes so affordable that there is no incentive to repair them. In addition, the acceleration of trends – where once there were just two seasons, autumn/winter and spring/summer, now there are also resort, cruise and pre-fall collections – means consumers are continually enticed to buy new things. It is estimated that, in the UK, the average lifetime for an item of clothing is 2.2 years.

Extending the lifespan of our clothes isn’t just good for our finances, but also benefits the environment: the fashion industry is a major global polluter and human rights abuses are rife in the garment industries of developing nations.

Not so long ago, people learned basic sewing skills. The chances are that, if you ask an older friend or relative, they will be able to show you how to patch things. And there is no doubt that, if you want your clothes to last as long as possible, looking after them is the best place to start. But how do you make your clothes last for ever? We asked some experts.

Check the seams

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It sounds obvious, but if you want your clothes to last, you need to invest in well-made garments in good-quality fabric. Don’t assume that expensive items are best – check for yourself.

“The first thing to do when you’re looking at a piece of clothing is turn it inside out and pull at every piece of string you find,” says Orsola de Castro of Fashion Revolution. “When clothes are cheaply made, the seams are often shabby. If it starts to unravel – don’t buy it.”

She suggests making sure the seam allowance on a pair of trousers or a skirt is enough to allow you to let them out and the hem is such that you could make the garment longer if you need to. She also advises checking that shirts have a spare button sewn in so if one falls off, you have a replacement.

Vintage clothing expert Amy Winston-Hart of Amy’s Vintage says you should hold garments up to the light: “If you can see light coming through the fabric, it’s going to go quickly.”

Know your fabrics

Every garment will eventually wear out after repeated wearing and washing, but the jury is out on which fabrics are the most durable. Some experts prefer the longevity of synthetic fibres such as polyester, while others favour natural fibres such as cotton.

Charles Ross, sustainability expert and lecturer at the Royal College of Art says: “I prefer wearing synthetics because I believe they are more durable fibres. If you have two identical T-shirts in cotton or polyester, the cotton will wear out quicker.”

De Castro, on the other hand, favours natural fibres. She advises buying items made out of single fabric components, such as 100% cotton or 100% merino wool. They may not stand up to repeated washings as well as synthetic fibres but as they are more breathable, you will sweat less so you don’t need to wash them as often. De Castro warns against wearing polyester for environmental reasons – when washed, it sheds microfibres, which have been linked to plastic pollution in our oceans.

Do you need to wash it?

The more you wash clothes, the quicker they wear out. De Castro echoes Stella McCartney’s recent advice that we should refrain from over-cleaning clothes. “If something is made from good-quality wool, such as a man’s suit, it’s designed to be brushed clean and not washed,” she says. If you must wash things in a machine, use a low heat, and put delicate fabrics in a laundry bag to reduce tearing.

There are plenty of ways to refresh clothes without bunging them in the machine: De Castro suggests spot-cleaning tricky stains, or taking whiffy garments into the bathroom while you shower, to steam them. This will not only help to make your clothes last longer, but is also more environmentally friendly. The average washing machine uses 13,500 gallons of water a year, as much as you drink in your lifetime.

Winston-Hart has some nifty tricks for cleaning items without putting them in the machine. “A mixture of lukewarm water and vodka will get rid of smells,” she says. Use three parts vodka and two parts water if something is very stinky, or three parts water and two parts vodka if it only has a light musk. “Stick the mixture in a spray bottle and mist it over. If your clothing still smells bad the next day, give it another spray.” She is also a fan of popping clothes in the freezer, for an overnight refresh. If things are still pongy, hang them out on the line on a breezy day – you will be surprised by how much it can help.

None of the experts I speak to are fans of dry cleaning, although they accept it is sometimes necessary. “Dry cleaning doesn’t always clean stuff that well,” says Winston-Hart. “Sometimes it comes back smelling worse – that chemical smell.” By looking after your clothes as much as possible, you can cut back on dry cleaning.

Man examining his pants
 Illustration: Mark Long/The Guardian

If you must wash things, do it properly

An important caveat: items worn close to your skin, particularly underwear and socks, should be washed at an adequate heat. Don’t fling pants in with your dish towels on a 30C wash. “You really don’t want to put bedding, tea towels, gym kit, underwear and socks in at a low temperature,” says environmental health practitioner Dr Lisa Ackerley. All need to be washed at a minimum of 60C.

If you are worried about ruining your underwear, wash it at a lower temperature, but add an antibacterial cleanser to the wash.

How to store clothes

Katrina Hassan, a professional organiser, recommends periodically decluttering your wardrobe. “Get all your clothing in one space – I call it the power of the pile. A lot of people aren’t aware of all the things they own, until they see it.”

Decide which items to keep, and check them over for damage. Store things properly – Hassan teaches clients how to fold clothes, then stack them in an upright position, so you can see everything you own at once. “When you store things vertically, you’re less tempted to buy things, and more conscious with your consumerism … you know exactly what you own, and where it’s stored.”

Store expensive items in cotton suit bags to prevent moth damage. (If you are on a budget, Winston-Hart suggests using an old single bedsheet, cutting a hole in it for a coathanger to poke through, then sewing up the sides for a DIY suit bag.)

Man getting his clothes out of a freezer
 Illustration: Mark Long/The Guardian

Death to moths

Clothes moths seem to be becoming more prevalent in UK homes, with figures from pest control firm Rentokil showing that moth-related callouts increased 60% from May 2014 to May 2018. Winston-Hart admits to hating moths. She doesn’t have much time for conventional solutions such as mothballs or paper discs. “I think they’re rubbish. Visit your local tree surgeon and ask them for a lump of cedarwood, stick it in your wardrobe, and the moths won’t go near it.” She also recommends lining your drawers with lavender-scented paper. If you have unearthed a vintage find, but are worried that it may have moth eggs in it, put it in a plastic bag and stick it in the freezer for several days to kill eggs or larvae.

Use treatments to protect shoes and clothes

To get the most out of your footwear, ensure you look after the leather. “I tend to wear Timberland boots,” Ross tells me, “and every six weeks I wash off the dirt and put on a leather conditioner to keep them going for longer.” (He favours a brand called Nikwax.)

It is not just footwear that you can treat to make it last longer: brands such as Polygiene use silver chloride technology, which is antimicrobial, to put a finish on fabrics. “If you have the finish on a polyester T-shirt, you can wear it for five years before it starts smelling,” claims Ross.

Support your local tailor and cobbler

“I have a deep relationship with my local tailor,” says De Castro. Once a year, she sorts through all her items, and then takes them in for repairs. “They’ll fix niggly things such as dropped hems, change the zips on evening gowns, or take things in and let them out.”

When a pair of shoes starts to wear out, consider whether they can be resoled. Ross has worn the same pair of outdoor boots since 1985: the soles have been replaced six times.

Woman smelling armpit of a man in a suit
 Illustration: Mark Long/The Guardian

Have a go yourself

It is easy to do basic repairs yourself. “If you want to start repairing things and you’re not sure how to go about it, try out on some scrap fabric first,” says repairs expect Tom van Deijnen of the Visible Mending Programme. He recommends watching YouTube videos to learn basic skills, and asking family and friends for help. “In my experience, mothers and grandmothers always come up trumps,” he says.

With worn-out jeans, Van Deijnen recommends sewing on patches. “Use a similar colour fabric, in the same weight as the original material – if it’s a woven fabric, patch it with a woven fabric, and if it’s a jersey fabric, use a jersey patch.”

A common mistake people make when darning knitwear is to do it too tightly. “It doesn’t leave room for shrinking – sometimes threads can shrink when they are new. And if you pull the hole too tight, it can also cause a pucker, which creates tension in the fabric, meaning it will rip again.”

Van Deijnen explains the best way to sew on a button. “Thread the needle, make some stitches in the fabric, then attach the button and sew it on. Do it a good few times. When you’ve finished, tug on the thread. If it comes loose, you didn’t do a good job.”

Know when to admit defeat

Not every item can be repaired. “I’m quite adventurous and I’ll always give things ago, but sometimes things can be completely beyond repair,” says Van Deijnen. He recently had to bin a knitted tie that was riddled with moth eggs. The fabric disintegrated in his hands when he touched it, so he had no choice.

When something can’t be fixed, think of alternate uses for it. “Everything can have another function at the end of its life,” says De Castro. She cuts up old swimsuits to use as hair ties (old tights are also good for this). And old T-shirts make the best cleaning rags.

Donate intelligently. “Charity shops are brimming with our clothes,” says De Castro, “so you should only donate to charity what you think will sell. Otherwise, you’re dumping your problem on another organisation.” If you know it won’t sell – perhaps because it is old gym kit – take it to a textile-recycling bank where it can be turned into a new item. (Trainers can be recycled at branches of Runners Need.) The Love Your Clothes campaign has a textile bank locator, along with other resources, on its website.

When it comes to vintage, beware

If you want your clothes to last, it can make sense to buy vintage: things made before 1980 tend to be made to a higher standard than modern items. “Even cheaply made 1970s trousers, if you turn them inside out, will resemble couture now,” says De Castro. But there is also a lot of factory-made fake vintage out there. How to tell? Look at details such as zips – is there a hook and eye to keep the zip in place? If not, it may be a fake. Other signs include 40s-style dresses with elasticated fabric – stretchy material wasn’t around then.

Look after your vintage. “Armpit shields are really good,” says Winston-Hart. “They’re just cotton half-moons you attach with safety pins to your clothing under the armpits. You remove the pins and wash the pads themselves – which saves you having to wash the garment all the time.”

Wearing a slip under a skirt means you don’t have to clean the skirt as often, as it is not touching your skin, cutting down on dry cleaning costs and reducing wear. If the slip is made out of silk, it will also help to regulate your body temperature.

There are so many places to find secondhand treasures, whether it is a clothes swap with friends, charity shops or car boot sales. If you are a vintage aficionado, Winston-Hart recommends her favourite stores: Apple Tree Vintage1940s Style For YouScarlet Rage VintageBlackout Vintage Fashion and Hunky Dory Vintage. (Many have online stores.) If vintage isn’t your thing, find more contemporary secondhand pieces on eBay or Depop. Sometimes, buying new clothes can be a sustainable choice – Hiut Denim will do free repairs on your jeans for life.

It is not just about buying vintage or secondhand clothes. Ross talks about “emotional durability,” or the attachment to our most beloved clothes, because the most sustainable item in your wardrobe isn’t always the one that is ethically produced from non-polluting fabrics. It is the one you love, and will wear your whole life.

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