Robbie Lawrence

Writer and artist Sofi Thanhauser has spent over a decade researching linen, cotton, silk, wool and synthetic fibres for her book Worn. Investigating the origins of garment-making, Sofi shares her insights into manufacturing processes, craft techniques and traditions. Travelling across the world, she seeks out the annual Woolfest in Cumbria, England, meets cotton farmers in the US state of Texas and visits silk plants in the Yangtze Delta region, China. Sofi’s incisive on-the-ground reporting is paired with historical and personal anecdotes, dissecting not just how items are made and their social, environmental and economic impact, but our feelings towards clothing, too.

When did your fascination with clothes and thrift store shopping begin?

My love of thrift stores began in late high school, just as I became aware of a whole realm of goods that were much higher calibre than those available to me in TJ Maxx. I grew up on Martha's Vineyard, which has a very wealthy summer population. So the “dumptique” — a free store in my town next to the landfill — would be regularly populated with extremely nice old things that summer people had discarded. This was how I realised that thrift store shopping was the only way to get clothes as nice as the ones I wanted. Beginning to get my clothing from thrift stores also corresponded to a moment in my life as a teenager when it suddenly felt possible to dress in a way that demonstrated I had ideas that extended outside of the mainstream ones, without receding into total unintelligibility.

An interest in vintage, which is a close relative to a love of thrifting, is something I would loosely trace to when the Austin Powers film came out: my friends and I suddenly became aware of a very different silhouette. Even that cartoonish, version of ’60s fashion was very exciting to us. The whole idea of referencing and improvising modifications upon past decades is one of the main things thrifting is about.

You began creating Matriarchy Now T-shirts in 2012 and scaling up this production led you to start investigating a lot of what we read in this book. Could you tell us about this journey?

The first Matriarchy Now pieces were second-hand T-shirts from Laramie, Wyoming thrift stores, which were then spray-painted using a stencil. I gave one of the very first ones to the teenage boy who sold me the spray paint at the hardware store.

Spray painting is pretty toxic, and it fades. When I realised that people wanted more shirts (at first friends, and then a store in L.A. called Otherwild wanted to stock them) I started having them screen-printed: still going around each week to all the thrift stores in Laramie to buy up all the plain T-shirts. I did it this way for a while. When I moved to Brooklyn, I tried buying a bale of plain white used T-shirts from a company in New Jersey that ships thrift store cast-offs overseas for resale. I got the 50-pound bale home and realised each T-shirt was slightly stained. So I worked my way through that 50 pounds doing indigo-dye batches in my bathtub; at some point in the middle of one of those I thought maybe I've got to just buy new shirts.

I made one batch with Spiritex shirts: they use organic cotton which is grown, spun and sewn in North Carolina, and one batch with Everybodyworld in California, using recycled cotton. I never made money on it but I didn’t lose money either, so I was ok with it. I just needed those shirts to exist.

Sophie Thanhauser

From the extensive research you have done, what brings you hope for the future of the clothes we wear?

Wool! Small producers. Craftspeople, small clothing brands. The fact that there are many very brave people out there looking to make actual clothing rather than just looking to make the most money possible; those who are actively working to preserve and regenerate soil in the process of producing textile fibres, and who focus on what they can contribute to the lives of the workers making their goods. These people always have a light in their eyes. Even though what they are doing is really hard, they have that light. I want them to succeed.

Since writing Worn, what small acts do you take to be part of the solution to the clothing system?

I am not an activist per se, but I have tried to use journalism to highlight the work being done by NGOs to insist that companies disclose supply chains. A lot of organizations are doing work on Xinjiang cotton right now, which means trying to insist that the inmates of internment camps are not making our clothing. This is an unbelievably low bar, and yet even this has been a hard fight, and isn’t really over. This is a huge structural problem and though consumers play a part, it is companies who are accountable.

Tell me about some of the places you travelled to, and what production methods you found to be the most forward-thinking in terms of impact on people and the planet?

In India I met a man named Kanaan who had developed a suite of machines small enough to fit in a garage that could take raw cotton and turn it into thread. The company was called Microspin, and its goal was to give rural cotton farmers more control over cotton price fluctuations by allowing them to control more of the production process. It also offered an economic activity that could be pursued during the parts of the cotton-growing season when farmers did not need to be in the fields. It was flexible machinery that allowed the types of cotton that were best suited to a wide variety of climates to be processed, rather than requiring farmers to plant cotton seed that would do best in a conventional gin (a machine that separates cotton fibres from seeds). In this way, the machinery served the ecology and not the other way around. He was finding a way to create a product that empowered people to produce on a small scale.

What does your clothing reveal about you?

Certainly, a love of wool, and a disinclination towards ever being uncomfortable. Knitted skirts and sweaters in winter, oversized linen dresses in summer. I know during this era of working from home, a lot of people have revelled in not having to wear uncomfortable clothing, but I haven’t tolerated uncomfortable clothing for many years; I don't think comfort and beauty should be opposites or even vaguely opposed. My closet also reveals an occasional craving for pink and red in a more general sea of dark blue, black and brown. Some days wearing bright red feels very important to me.

Robbie LawrenceRobbie Lawrence

How did learning to sew help you when writing this book?

Learning to sew has helped me understand the historical components of this project, simply because I am aware of the tremendous amount of time hand sewing takes. This gives me just the tiniest window into the incredibly time-consuming process that was pre-industrial textile and garment manufacture.

Learning machine sewing helped me to understand more about the imperatives of mass manufacturing processes. I know how easy it is to become obsessed with speed and productivity. My friends and I had an underwear making collective one summer. It was fascinating how quickly we started driving ourselves really hard, how we'd stay up so late trying to make a certain quota.

Finally, I think, the fact that I make clothes means that I tend to approach craftspeople with a feeling of comradery, rather than of scholarly or journalistic interest.

Do you repair your own clothes and are there any mending techniques you have learned in recent years to give new life to your well-worn items?

I do mend, replacing buttons or small tears. Zippers I usually have someone else do, as they are so tricky. As for giving them new life, I think good clothes give themselves new life, sometimes they just need to lay fallow for a while. They have this period of dormancy until the light changes and then suddenly they want to be worn again.

Revival of traditional craft may lead us to a sustainable future - could you give me some examples you have discovered that you think will stand the test of time?

The models I'm most excited about use technology to empower people to be artisans. When wool carding was first mechanised, it was a service people purchased: you could bring your wool and have it mechanically carded. It was still your wool, and you could spin and dye and weave it, or sell it, as you liked, but one of the most arduous jobs had been taken care of. Machines aren't inherently bad, but I like it when they are used to allow the artisan and producer to have a creative life. The small mills that process wool for people who have small flocks, allowing them to spin their own wool, and the Microspin model in India: this strikes me as a continuation of that model.

Aside from buying less, what considered choices can we make when purchasing clothing?

I think we should ask: what fibre is it made from? Did the making of that fibre replenish the earth, or harm it? Who made this garment? Were they fairly compensated? How do I know that? I do think consumers' choices matter, but I want to highlight that the onus should not be on the consumer, but on the company, and on the political apparatus that regulates the company.

Robbie Lawrence

With ever more choice across the industry, do you think repair and reuse have a strong enough staying power to eventually become the norm?

I don't think repair and reuse will become the norm unless and until clothes are a significant investment. Clothing used to be at all times in human history up until the very recent past either a major investment of time, or of money. We would all, of course, repair a car or a house because it represents a significant investment. Clothes were once that way. I would argue that they probably need to be that way again in order for the people who make them to be fairly compensated.

In your research, have you noticed certain patterns of behaviour in relation to our clothing that occur during hard times?

I have heard many times about how knitting, spinning and weaving have incredible therapeutic powers. A woman told me that while she was in labour, in order to deal with the pain she visualised balls of yarn in a basket. A weaver told me about weaving a Pieta to deal with a friend's death. I personally have turned to embroidery to endure heartbreak.

What would a just and fair clothing system look like to you?

A just and fair clothing system would mean that the people who make clothing experience the power to express themselves creatively in their work. All of them. It would also be one in which the same soil could be used for generations, in producing the plants or raising the animals used to make fibre.

Are there any textile processes or craft techniques that you feel are in danger of disappearing if they are not kept alive by local communities?

There are so many – hundreds – of highly skilled and ancient textile traditions that are in mortal peril. Quechua backstrap weaving in the Peruvian Andes, Jalq’a weaving in Bolivia, Alindi weaving in Somalia, to name just a few. Closer to home, there are also industrial histories that are threatened with being forgotten. The cast iron machinery used in the US and Britain during the late 19th century and early 20th century: the shuttle looms and spinning frames that transformed fabric making globally, are themselves in danger of being destroyed because museum funding for preserving this type of artefact is absent. This would mean the loss of a huge archive of industrial design.

In Worn, you state that dressing and storytelling are deeply connected could you explain this as it relates to your own personal experience?

I think dressing and storytelling are both ways of shaping a self: of giving definition to a self, and creating a character. When you tell your own story, you become the protagonist. When you dress, you establish yourself thoughtfully or thoughtlessly as an actor on the stage.

What does ‘better’ clothing mean to you?

Better clothing is clothing that demonstrates by its material choices, construction, design, feel, that it was made by someone trying to keep you warm, or buttress your dignity, or enhance your elegance, and not exclusively to realise profit. It actively strengthens you, like a good friend.

Worn: A People’s History of Clothing by Sofi Thanhauser is published by Penguin.

Interview by Andie Cusick.

Author portrait by Sean Fitzpatrick and book cover, both courtesy of Penguin.

Photographs by Robbie Lawrence.

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What an interesting interview?! The books sounds absolutely fascinating and the author expresses herself in such an eloquent way. I love learning about how clothes used to be made and how people prized them so much. My grandpa’s recount in his memoirs of being measured for his first suit is something that seems so far removed right now, but I’m just embarking on my own self-made project and I’m rapidly recognising how little value the current model of fashion places on the maker. It’s so sad.

Charlotte 2 years ago

I read about this artist/book today in the Sunday Observer magazine and was inspired. This interview has provided more insight and information about the work. I have always loved clothes and have spent many hours making them. I have lost that habit over the years but still love mending and rummaging in Thrift stores. Now I can afford to carefully buy clothes from trusted retailers, for example, Toast.

Pamela 2 years ago

Thank you

Min 2 years ago

This sounds an immersing book. Women are worn by duties, the clothes worn tell of stories lived. Passed down, patched and repaired, a single thread can hold a life.

Andrea 2 years ago

I really enjoyed this article, and the book sounds fascinating. It gives me hope to hear about people engaged in more sustainable making.

Rach 2 years ago

I’m so interested in this book, I heard the interview on radio 6 Cerys Matthews program which piqued my interest so it is doubly on the want list after reading this article thank you. Love the resolve to only wear comfortable clothes.

Hayley 2 years ago

So very informative, organic and simply lovely. Thank you and good luck. Maria

Maria 2 years ago

I would definitely like to read this book. My Dad had an oiled wool jumper which was still looking and feeling fantastic after 20 years, at which point I pinched it! For a few years I wore a cashmere/silk jumper, one of my Mum’s ex-jumpers, which also goes on and on. My daughter has it now. It has never pilled. I wonder if this is to do with longer cashmere fibres than usual, or maybe just because it is combined with silk in the spinning? I am far more likely to consider buying an investment piece like this if I know it will go on and on, especially if it doesn’t pill. Guernseys are great for this but I’m not keen on the style of the traditional ones. I would like to see more information about yarns and fabrics and what makes them good quality and long lasting. A few years ago I bought my first Toast jumper. It was made in Romania and the wool seems to be very good quality. It washes incredibly well and doesn’t pill. I’ve recently bought another wonderfully toasty Toast jumper which I noted was also made in Romania. This seems to be the same fantastic quality and washes very well. I wash woollens on a wool wash cycle then wrap in a towel and stick on top of a double radiator for a while, then spread the towel and jumper out on the radiator, maintaining the shape as much as possible. Because a lot of the moisture is already in the towel, it means that the jumper isn’t dragged down and out of shape by its wet weight. Drying flat for most of the year isn’t a practical option as I don’t have the drying space. Nancy Birtwhistle’s method for removing grease stains worked on my new jumper. It’s a bicarb and Ecover paste left on the stain for 15-30 minutes and then washed in the usual way.

Nicki 2 years ago

This was such an interesting interview. I love the idea of clothing and storytelling being linked – the way you tell the world who you are through your outfits is powerful. I hope we can continue working towards more sustainable ways of manufacturing and making garments.

Lexi 2 years ago

Such a great resurrection of repair and often improve old and useable garments

Sylvia 2 years ago

What an inspirational article. I do so agree about the therapeutic value of clothes. My favourite ‘comfort wear’ is a beautiful warm traditionally woven padded Hanten my son sent me from Japan. I wrap it around myself and it reminds me of him. I don’t miss him and the grandson I have never seen quite so much. Covid has separated us but I carefully choose natural wool jumpers for the little boy and cuddle them before I posting to his home 4000 miles away.

Chris 2 years ago

I loved this interview, and can’t wait to read the book! I especially connected to Sofi’s point that repair and mending won’t become common until clothes have the sort of significant value they had in the past. I think this is a key link when it comes to small scale production – knowing where and how your clothes are grown helps explain and increase their value, and not only in the financial sense.

Amanda 2 years ago

I love everything about this book! Sustainability, fashion, philosophy — what more could one want? Btw: The photos are gorgeous. Are they from the book itself?

Cathy 2 years ago

Such a great resurrection of repair and often improve old and useable garments

Sylvia 2 years ago