Enjoy Sustainable Fashion All the Way Down to the Skin
If you’re on a quest to build a truly beautiful sustainable wardrobe, sooner or later you’re bound to run up against a big stumbling block: where to find underpants that fit your ethos. And that’s not just because no one wants to wear a pair of recycled-fabric panties. In the world of femme undergarments, we’re all but forced to choose between basic comfort and style, perpetual wedgie or a baggy cotton mess. And if you want to avoid giving your dollars to fast-fashion companies that exploit their workers and pollute waterways with toxic synthetic dyes? Forget it.
Until you meet the stupendous underwear of Ms. Amy Taylor.
Founded and exclusively made by a Chicago-based textile artist of the same name, Ms. Amy Taylor is breaking the ugly-or-uncomfy underwear binary, one pair of gorgeous hand-dyed, -cut and -sewn panties at a time. And her boldly colorful vision for the fashion industry on the whole will have you excited to rethink your wardrobe all the way down to the skin.
We spoke with Taylor about her witchy and wonderful studio practice (hint: vats of crushed beetle shells and flowers) and why our bodies deserve so much better than the intimates delivered by the mainstream fashion industry.
ALIVE: Why underwear?
Well, part of it is I just really like making underpants! But another part is that there’s a real lack of comfortable garments out there for people who wear femme undergarments. I started my business because I was tired of living in a perpetual wedgie. I didn’t like that my only two options were a wedgie or granny panties, when there was really no reason for that. And I didn’t know how uncomfortable all my underwear really was until the first time I wore a pair that I had made, and I was like, why isn’t all underwear like this?
Also, we have so many fast fashion and pre-made clothes available. I’m a big, big proponent of skipping those and going straight to secondhand stores and thrift stores and wearing things until they absolutely fall apart, but at the same time—well, I do not want to wear second-hand underpants. [Laughs.] So if I’m going to contribute to the textile world and if I’m going to make new garments, I want them to be sustainable and I want to do what I can to not contribute to the mess.
ALIVE: What does a typical day in your studio look like?
So every day looks a little bit different depending on where I am in production and what color combinations I’m doing. But in a single color batch of production, I’ll usually start by cooking all my fabric in a mordant called alum, which is an aluminum-based mineral salt. Pretty much what happens, chemically, is that the mordant bites the fabric and the dye bites the mordant, so by cooking the fabric in the mordant, you’re going to ensure saturated colors and color fastness that will endure a lot of washing—which, for underwear, we wash them a lot, so I need the color to be able to last.
Then I let that dry completely, and the next day I’m in the studio, I’ll start making my dye concentrate. What this means is I’m essentially making a giant vat of dye tea. So I’ll take, say, a bunch of dried cochineal beetles, and I’ll grind them into a powder in a coffee grinder, and then I’ll mix them up with ground marigold flowers, and put that powder into coffee makers and run hot water through the dye materials multiple times to make a liquid concentrate. I’ll fill my pot with this concentrate, and then I’ll cook my fabric in this beetle-flower tea until I achieve the color that I want.
After I wash and dry the fabric, I hand cut every single piece of the pattern—the front, the back, the liner, the leg, the waistband—and hand screen-print the label into it so there are no itchy tags. And then on a sewing machine, I hand-sew every single pair of underwear. That’s a really big thing that I think a lot of people forget: There’s a human being behind every single garment that’s sewn. It is not a fully automated process. Like, we’re using sewing machines, but no garment is made without a human being behind it.
ALIVE: How can a consumer educate themselves about sustainable clothing production, if they want to go a step beyond just supporting earth-friendly l fashion companies like yours?
The biggest thing that people can do to promote sustainable fashion is just to keep in mind that a sustainable wardrobe is built one piece at a time. Sustainable makers are very aware that it’s a higher price point, and transitioning to a sustainable wardrobe isn’t going to happen overnight—we don’t expect it to!
So besides just buying a single piece you love, one thing you can do is just to take a single dyeing class. Take a single sewing class. Practice the media that you want to understand, especially for something as constant as textiles. We are almost always in contact with a piece of fabric, maybe outside of the shower. But even in the restroom, we’re standing on a bathmat; in bed we’re lying in sheets, when we’re walking around outside we’re wearing clothes. Let’s understand what feels good for our bodies, what feels good for our skin, what is nice to the Earth.
ALIVE: Why should conscious consumers be thinking about how their fabrics are dyed, not just sewn?
So I love natural dyes for a lot of reasons, and the history and the chemistry of them are particularly beautiful and fascinating to me. Synthetic dyes, on the other hand, have a less-cool history and chemical story; they weren’t discovered until 1856, and in their powder form, they’re still really, really toxic. When I’ve work with them at home I need to wear a respirator, because they’re full of super toxic materials like lead, cadmium and mercury. And when the excess of that gets dumped into our water ways, which it often is, that’s terrible for everyone.
But even if it’s not polluting our rivers, you’ve still got to remember that our skin absorbs a lot. I, for one, would rather my skin be absorbing marigold flowers than cadmium dyes.
ALIVE: So what’s next for Ms. Amy Taylor after you revolutionize the underwear market?
A million things, of course, but I’m a one-woman operation and there are only so many hours in the day! But as far as the business goes, I really want to do a gender-neutral boxer brief with a functioning front fly. And I want to start expanding into more garments as well, because it’s not just underpants that are uncomfortable.
My long-term goal, and really what I want to see fashion become, is beautiful pajamas that we can wear in the real world. I want clothing that is sustainably made, that looks beautiful, that we need fewer pieces of so we can wear it more places, for longer, and over-dye it when it starts to fade. And that can fluctuate with our weird, lovely bodies.
Images courtesy of Kate Bek Photography.