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Mending the Fashion Industry: Three Scandinavian Responses by Jessica Hemmings

Surface Design Journal, fall issue 2016

The fashion industry is in need of repair. Familiar criticisms are easy to level: overproduction of low quality goods manufactured in unacceptable working conditions has driven down quality in favor of volume. Far harder to come by are clear solutions. Consumer apathy, global economics and rapidly disappearing knowledge pose formidable barriers to change. But there are inspiring examples of designers and artists succeeding in their rejection of our present models of textile and fashion production. Time, as the Swedish artist Emelie Röndahl explains, is often their greatest investment capital.
Franz Petter Schmidt’s project Weaving Fabrics for Suits has nurtured a mothballed industrial loom back to life to produce woven cloth again. Toril Johannessen has designed printed cloth based on the wax resist tradition and sourced a production run in Ghana – recently extending the project in collaboration with the Oslo based fashion collective HAiK to include garment manufacture. In neighboring Sweden, Emelie Röndahl hand weaves large- scale tapestries such as Rana Plaza: the Collapse (April 24th 2013) which critique the values we ascribe to clothing and its production.
Franz Petter Schmidt is a men’s tailor, weaver and dyer. As a Research Fellow at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts, his project Weaving Fabrics for Suits tests the harsh realities of reviving Norway’s textile industry. The project has restored a loom out of use since 1948 at the Sjølingstad Woolen Mill, a textile industry museum in southern Norway. Working from original sample books, Franz then wove one of the Mill’s best selling fabrics from the late 1950s named 727, and oversaw the cloth’s final incarnation as a men’s three-piece suit.
Collaboration is a significant component of the project, from the technical support and skills needed to bring a mothballed loom back to working order through to the fashion designers who have responded to the cloth. The design collective HAiK (Siv Støldal, Ida Falck Øien and Harald Lunde Helgesen) were collaborators for their winter 2014/15 collection (inspiring the collective to then manufacture a further textile collection in Norway for their summer 2015). The Savile Row trained tailor Liv Guri Østrem constructed the final three-piece suit made of the 727 fabric to Franz’s measurements, which he jokes represents more hours of labor than he dares to ever add up – or wear.
Industrial production, now almost entirely absent from Norway, is a central focus of this research. But his quest for “uncompromising quality” is intended to “oppose consumer behavior where the norm is to acquire many pieces of lower quality rather than few pieces of high quality.” While the finished suit of 727 fabric is the result of uncountable hours of trial and error, it also has the potential lifespan to justify its lengthy gestation. “Objects can follow the consumer through life, even become a piece in use by several generations,” he suggests. The cut of men’s suiting is far less prone to the whims of fashion
?and here the suit is even designed to allow for expansion if Franz’s slight frame were ever to change in the future.
While Weaving Fabrics for Suits may seem dauntingly technical, the project has shifted from solving manufacturing questions to answers that are both personal and intimate. “Everything that has to do with industrial production, including its historical aspects, has a strong presence in my work,” he explains. “Still, a change of focus [is]... the profound need to understand more about my emotional connection to the places where I have worked, the textiles, the workshops and the methods.”
Ultimately, Weaving Fabrics for Suits asks global questions of production values, but concludes with a particularly individual response. “The motivation for my work,” Franz reflects, “is based on intuition and linked to my biography. It has been about coming to terms with betrayal, loneliness and sorrow. And, about being gay... On the deepest level, this work has been about mending and healing. Healing wounds and sorrow through reaching out, constructing, recreating and sharing. Mending and healing myself, mending and healing the loom and the textile sample book in the archive.”
Fellow Norwegian Toril Johannessen is equally interested in the production cycle of textiles, but looked further afield for solutions to her ongoing project Unlearning Optical Illusions. Toril’s career began as a photojournalist and it is a photographer’s eye that led her to design a series of printed fabrics, initially for digital printing, with stylistic reference to the wax resist tradition popular throughout many of the west and central African nations. Initially exhibited as large-scale photographs of the cloth, the project then rewound to revive what would have been earlier stages in the textile production cycle. Travel to the Ghanaian capital Accra allowed work with a textile factory to print a small run of the collection. Wanting to see the project through to its logical end, she then collaborated – like Franz – with the design collective HAiK. Enthusiastic about Toril’s suggestion, HAiK used the collection theme as their umbrella project this year and spent October and November of 2015 working in Accra. With Toril’s bolts of cloth printed, HAiK sourced a garment factory to assemble a collection they designed in situ.
Norway can no longer provide printed textile or garment production. Ida Falck Øien of HAiK suggests that the high minimum wage in Norway makes it unlikely for garment production to ever return to the country. There is limited knitting production – and the weaving Franz revived makes use of past industrial machinery but now survives in the museum context. “We all need to be part of a bigger change in what clothing is worth,” Ida explains, but also concedes that production which allows for digital solution – such as weaving and knitting – requires less human labor hours and is more viable in a country with high wage costs.
Because of the limited availability of manufacturing within Norway, HAiK have in recent years produced their garments at a factory in Lithuania. But as Ida explains, the idea of sending the Unlearning Optical Illusions fabric printed in
?Ghana to Lithuania for garment production “felt counterintuitive” when Lithuanian culture was not a reference point for the project. Instead Toril’s prints were combined with sport wear fabrics such as mesh sourced locally in Ghana, a solution Ida admits is “not one we would have thought of from Oslo”. For the fashion shoot, HAiK asked many of the individuals who worked in the Ghanaian factory to model the collection – closing the loop in the production chain with the same faces who had helped to cut and sew the collection.
But Toril and HAiK’s approach is an exception to the rule. Far more typical is a sense that the individuals who labor behind the garments we wear are invisible. The 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh is considered the garment industry’s worst industrial accident. Swedish tapestry weaver Emelie Röndahl revisited this grave example in her large-scale tapestry Rana Plaza: the Collapse (April 24th 2013). The project began in the final month of her recent pregnancy during a time when she had growing concerns about the realities of child labor. Emelie is quick to admit that she is not immune to the consumer draw of cheap clothing, nor does she intend for her work to preach. Instead her investment in the time it takes to weave a large-scale tapestry is the currency she trades in. Her decision to return to weaving eight weeks after the birth of her son was a conscious exchange of time: “I took some of the time from my son and gave it to them [child laborers].”
The weft of Rana Plaza incorporates clothing made by the Swedish brand H&M. Rather than a literal critique the clothing is intended as a symbol of ubiquitous cheap fashion familiar to Swedish audiences where H&M originates. Suspended on a scaffold-like tower, the installation acts as a further reminder of the building’s collapse, while the imagery of the tapestry is based on the first picture to appear in a Google search of the term Rana Plaza collapse – the interface through which most of us learn, and tend to turn away from, the facts of textile and fashion manufacturing.
Ironically Emelie admits that she does not like to weave, acknowledging its time demands make the process “boring and lonely”. But she also sees this tedium as an effective means of communication. “My angle is emotional,” she reflects. “My time commitment makes a lot of sense; when I am weaving others are not.” If the garment workers of Rana Plaza received inadequate compensation for the value of their lives and time, Emelie is investing her time in a critique of that imbalance.
How to mend the imbalances of the fashion and textile industries is a fraught question. But what each of these examples show are individuals who do not find the current realities of production acceptable. Their solutions for mending arrive through enormous personal investments of time. Time to nurture a dormant loom back to life; time to travel, design and oversee production far from home; and a “boring and lonely” investment of time as a hand weaver which asks us to reconsider the value of our clothing and the labor that goes into its production.

Professor Jessica Hemmings is Head of the School of Visual Culture at the National College of Art & Design, Dublin.