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These days, we hear talk about “fast fashion,” where you buy for a “micro” season and then throw the clothing out. I must confess, I have sampled once or twice from the clearance rack in stores like this, but never again. The disposable fashion I bought for such a cheap price was falling apart before I could get even a reasonable amount of use out of it. The fabric would pill, stretch, or wear thin almost immediately.
One estimate has the clothing and footwear spending in the US alone at 1.9 trillion dollars in 2019. I can’t really even imagine how much money that is, but I’m here to talk today about saving money, not spending it.
I’m going to share a few stories about some of my “ancient” clothing and the lessons they offer us Frugalites about long-living fabrics. Fast fashion simply isn’t frugal.
My not so fast fashion t-shirt that lasted more than 30 years
When I was 17 and still in high school, I bought this t-shirt at a local mall. It was a Ralph Lauren brand (no collar!) with horizontal bands of bright colors, including blue and red and black. What truly distinguished this t-shirt was the fabric: it was a noticeably thick 100% cotton with a very dense weave. I had no idea when I bought it that day how long it would be with me!
After keeping it for at least 20 years, I passed it along to my mother, who owned it for another five to seven years. It simply was not aging or wearing. It still looked brand new. I saw her wearing it and remembered how much I liked it and took it back from my mother. I wore it for several more years, and then, because I was no longer wearing it, I donated it to a local thrift shop. (Yes, it still fit!!!) I just wasn’t wearing it and thought that someone would enjoy it in all its multicolor glory.
When I donated it, the t-shirt was over 33 years old. Yes, this is how long it is possible for quality clothing to last. Imagine the savings to the planet and our pocketbooks if all clothing was made to this standard.
What lessons did I learn from my beloved t-shirt? Quality fabrics are everything when it comes to longevity. How did I care for it? First of all, I did not wash it every single time I wore it. This is important. However, it did go in the dryer, at least sometimes. Classic looks with classic colors will age well.
My 34-year-old sweater
I was 18 and leaving home to go to university. As a going-away gift, my younger sister gave me a beautiful sweater she had knit herself. Of course, I had seen her knitting it, but she had told me it was for a friend. It was a Fair Isle sweater that was popular in the eighties, with a rich dark green body and a yoke that mixed the dark green with beige, medium brown, and black.
I always kept this sweater, although I didn’t always wear it, as the style had fallen out of fashion. However, I recently pulled it out of my storage suitcase and started wearing it as a coat in the shoulder season of late fall and early winter. This was recently during COVID. I was often in big box hardware stores (when they weren’t locked down) buying hardware items for my cabin build. I was amazed at the people who would approach me to give me compliments on the sweater. One woman owned a similar sweater years ago. “How I wish I hadn’t gotten rid of mine!” she sighed as she complimented me on mine.
What are the lessons to be learned from my 34-year old sweater? The wool in this sweater is remarkable. It has a thickness and weight to it that you don’t see all the time. When I asked my sister about it, she said that she had bought the highest quality wool she could find and afford. It seemed to her that the wool still had some of the natural oils on it.
OK, here’s the final lesson: I have never washed this sweater in all of the 34 years I have owned it. If you are saying “Ewwwwww!” I can provide support for this choice: If I spilled something on the sweater, I just wiped it off with a damp cloth. The dark green color of the sweater has meant that any minor dirt on it has never shown. It smells fresh as a daisy after all these years. I have never worn it without a shirt or turtleneck underneath it, and I can assure those are washed more often than every 34 years! My own feeling is that, by not washing it, I have maintained those natural oils in the wool and prevented any stretching and pilling that washing may have caused.
My uncle’s insulated coveralls
My uncle ran a successful farm drainage business in the 1980s. As the demand for this service reduced, he and my aunt bought a paint store in their small town and worked at that for over 20 years until they retired. After my uncle passed away, my aunt let me adopt a few of his belongings. One of these was a set of insulated coveralls. I carry them in my car during winter as a safety precaution. If I need to be outside for any length of time with a vehicle problem, they are so large that I can throw them on over my clothing to keep warm.
These coveralls are now almost 40 years old. My aunt recalls that they were likely purchased at the local farm co-op. Not only did my uncle use them for years to work on and run heavy equipment outside in our Canadian winters, but his grandsons also wore them while using his tractor to blow snow.
What are the lessons to be learned from these long-lived coveralls? Quality parts last, for one. The zipper is made of heavy metal and it is large, with huge teeth. It is still running smoothly after all these years without a single snag. When I looked at the tag of these coveralls as part of my research for this article, I was not surprised to see that they were made in Canada! Yes, back in the day when we made our own items and quality was king. While quality made in Canada clothing may be hard to come by these days, it doesn’t hurt to examine the zipper of what you are buying to try and assess its sturdiness.
Forget fast fashion. Some things get better with age!
In a world filled with fast fashion, look for “slow” fashion finds and you could save a lot of cash by getting things that will last and last. Could you see yourself using any of the long-lived clothing lessons shared here to select some of your own high-quality items? Do you have a story of a long-lived clothing item you can share with us? Please tell us in the comments.