January 2008


The question of religious dress is complicated, especially if you don’t live in a cloister. As I said before, it should be practical. It should fit with my values. But “practical” includes “can wear it without it becoming the center of attention”. What often happens when I wear a salwaar kameez to work is that people’s brains stop short at my clothes and they don’t hear anything I say that doesn’t involve the word “India”. As a minister it’s not all about me. But my clothes can make it all about me, which is bad if my goal is to get folks thinking deeply about religion or something.

So okay, it should blend in. What’s out there already?

Of course we have to consider the all-purpose robe. With the right cincture (belt) it might even blend in.
Knowing how practical the salwaar kameez is, that goes on the list of models.
The sari has that infinite-size-changing quality, as does the sarong, and in pants, the dhoti.
Lots of women committed to subtle plain dress are choosing jumpers.
I have to say, overalls are pretty comfy, and I’ve seen some professional-looking ones.
There’s also a thing called “fat pants” or “thai fisherman’s pants“–a kind of stitched wrap pant–and ordinary wrap pants.
For warmth we have the usual: jackets and sweaters, leggings and tights. I’m not dealing with overcoats, socks, or underwear–that’s a whole other headache.

So just in major indoor clothing we have:
1) six yards of undraped fabric
2) robes
3) tunics
4) baggy pants
5) skirt
6) pants or skirt with bib front
7) jackets
8 ) sweaters
9) wrap-around clothing: pants, skirts
10) vests

That’s a good selection of options to start. Really, only shirts are missing. Perhaps a pirate/renaissance shirt? Of what we have, robes, tunics, baggy pants, jumpers, overalls, and wrap clothing can be inherently size-flexible.

To make others size-flexible you’d have to add something subtle: elegant lacing, adjustable buttons, something.
To make them sustainably produced they’d have to be of organic fabrics, sewn probably by one’s self or in a cottage-industry model, preferably fairly locally.
Then to make them affordable, you’d need to have the option of mixing and matching your entire wardrobe–maybe a palette of tans, whites, and blacks to start–so that you only needed maybe 20 garments for a whole three or four season wardrobe. That would also help reduce the overconsumption that tends to come with seventeen different reds in one closet. (Now you need seventeen of any red accessory…)
With natural and unique fabrics I can’t imagine how to make the red from one dye lot match another, so incorporating color would be tricky.

Of course, there’s always a simpler way. One of my rural colleagues has taken to wearing black Carhartts for work. It’s tempting.

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I came. I sewed. I saw that it was pretty neat.

So after my previous adventures in research and development, I’ve been using the three furoshiki I made (one 60″ square, two 45″ square) around the house. I used them for laundry bags. I used them for auxiliary carry bags when my briefcase wasn’t enough. I used them for grocery bags. I used one to carry a couple of jars home in the two-bottle wrap. I even used one to carry the dog down an over-steep set of stairs. She was very cute.

Thus, this may turn out to be a brief dalliance with something sensible, but I rather suspect not.

Pitfalls: (1) remembering to say “I have a bag” before the attentive baggers have everything tucked into plastic.
(2) making sure one is available when I’m leaving the house
(3) remembering to take one with me
(4) remembering the various possible tying methods on the fly.

but yes, I can say that I think it’s a great and useful idea. I can also say that I can see the uses of a 28″ furoshiki. Mine are sometimes overlarge for small jobs. I’m still working on the point of an 18″ one. At any rate, I determined that I liked them.

Intrigued, I went looking for more than the Japanese Ministry of the Environment PDF, figuring that something so versatile with such a long history must have more than a few variations. Not much is out there, but about twelve pages into my Google search results I did find this blog called Watashi to Tokyo in which the author refers us here to the blog of “a geek living in Japan” and here for gift wrapping, a backpack and a center-rosette box wrapping, all in furoshiki. I hear there’s a book about this. If I get my hands on it, I’ll see about doing some English-language explanations. One website notes that they only ever see gaijin (foreigners? my Japanese translation skills aren’t great) using these in Japan, but I have no idea if that’s fair or accurate.

Something didn’t seem right. Here I was spending all this money and time and energy on clothes because some external standard was telling me that I should look in a particular way. Now the tricky part of being a minister is that external standards are part of a public life. It’s costuming, if you will–clothes affect the way people see and respond to all of us, but more so if you hold a public/leadership type role. At the same time, ministry is a profession that’s all about values: finding them, refining them, living them. It’s hard to lead with integrity if you’re not practicing what you (literally!) preach.

Some of my colleagues hold very strong opinions about appropriate dress for ministers, coming, it seems to me, from a place that’s very aware of the impact clothing has on people’s perception of us. It’s a valid concern, and very real. My experience, though, is that I’m not particularly well-suited to the world of suits and ties. Not just because I’m not at ease in a suit, but because the minister that I am in a suit isn’t the minister I want to be. And being the minister I believe in is far more central to my ability to serve than being seen as the kind of minister who wears suits. In addition, my personal faith has values attached that make it hard to buy suits, especially on a budget. Non-sweatshop, fairly-traded manufacture and materials, comfort, attractiveness…I couldn’t afford to have my clothes hand-sewn, but it started to seem like I’d need to.

Because this was about a religious context of dress, I immediately started thinking about monks and nuns and other vowed religious from an assortment of faiths. What do they wear? Robes, basically. They are religious all the time. Who else dresses according to their faith? Some Muslims, some Jews, some Hindus, some conservative Christians of various stripes, The Amish, some Mennonites, a few Quakers…

Of course, as I started thinking about this, I started researching it.

What I have found in my wanderings around the internet is very revealing. I am (thank goodness!) not the only one thinking about this. For those following Timothy and Paul, there are entire online stores devoted to selling clothes and patterns, generally under the heading “modest clothing”. They have dresses (usually 19th century designs) and leggings and bloomers and old-fashioned aprons and skirts and slips; for the men they have broadfall pants and high-buttoned vests; for both they have headcoverings ranging from caps to slat bonnets and heavy outerwear.

Fair enough. But I’m less interested in Biblical definitions of modesty than I am in my own definitions of elegance, practicality, professionalism, and faith-based. Many, many years ago someone asked me (I had ordered a plain bagel with plain cream cheese) if I had taken vows of simplicity. I hadn’t, but the thought has stuck and stuck and stuck. Blended as I am, I don’t feel called to fulltime vows of simplicity–the bright colors and rich variety of my Indian side would be entirely shafted–but having a usual work wardrobe that I can do everything in and to: wash, dry, put on in any combination, play with children, preach to adults, shovel snow, wield mops, write, counsel, go home and walk the dog…

yes, that would make sense.

And that would not be a suit.

I am grateful to be serving where I am; Ellsworth is a practical place before it is a fashionable one, and the fashions that hold sway here have been shaped as much by weather and good sense as anything. So now that I have a workplace that will allow for it and an idea of what it should do, what should this theoretical wardrobe look like, and where am I going to find it?

I’ve been thinking for some time about the trouble that clothing causes in our culture. I always thought fashion was a bit of a nuisance, but my time in India really expanded my thinking. I don’t mean to say that those who like fashion should not enjoy it–of course they should! Self-expression is varied. But if our clothes arean expression of ourselves, then I think we need more options.

Some days I like to dress up–it feels right. But most days, especially when I’m working, clothing feels like a tool. I need it to serve me, not the other way around. To that end, I’m developing some standards to work with:
it should keep me warm and dry and covered to meet basic modesty standards of our society;
it should be comfortable and easy to work in;
it should have a sustainable supply-chain life from fiber to manufacture to sale;
and I shouldn’t have to spend a lot of time or energy or money on it. It takes time and energy from other things that I think are more important. I get frustrated when dealing with clothing becomes an obstruction in my day.

In addition, I have a medical condition which causes significant weight fluctuation, and I want my clothes to accommodate that without my having to maintain wardrobes for every size my body can be.

Before my trip to India that wouldn’t have occurred to me. But Indian women’s clothes, notably the sari, dhoti, and lungi but also the salwaar kameez and kurta pajama, are designed to be flexible.

Saris are six to nine yards of unstitched fabric, wrapped around one’s body in a variety of ways. They are always custom-fitted because in essence the garment is created anew each time you put it on. The catch is the choli, a short and tight blouse usually worn underneath. Those become tight very easily. The men’s equivalent, the dhoti, is also a long length of unstitched fabric, usually 5 or 6 yards. Here is a good dhoti-wearing guide, if you’re good at following words with no illustrations. Lungis are like sarongs, a shorter length of fabric knotted around the waist for casual wear; salwaar kameez and kurta pajama describe essentially the same outfit: a pair of baggy pants, a long tunic, and (for women) a long, light scarf. The baggy pants (salwaar or pajama) are big enough to accommodate a pregnant belly, with a yoke at the top and drawstring for fitting. The tunic (kameez–related to the French chemise–or kurta) is loose and long, often with slits from the hem to the hip for easier movement. In any of these clothes, an extra inch or two at the waist does not mean a trip to the store, just a slight adjustment when you put them on. They are elegant, and in the case of the salwaar kameez, easy to learn to wear.

Observation: the easier it is to put on, the less flexible it is about fit and size.

Several years after returning from India I found myself needing a new wardrobe for a new career. I went shopping, but not with much enthusiasm. I got some good, serviceable work clothes. But it didn’t feel right wearing them. On top of that, they didn’t quite fit right because my weight kept changing. I had never spent so much time worrying over my clothes as I did that first year out of school. At the same time, I was trying to live according to my values. Something wasn’t matching up.

Often, in my world, one thing leads ever-so-sneakily into another. So with my interest in furoshiki. From research and interest and admiration springs the desire to try it. Trying it means needing to have one. But, coming from a long, long line of do-it-yourselfers, do I just go buy one? No.

Considering the possibilities, I decide to make one. It’s essentially a square of cloth. It helps if the square is of fairly fine fabric, so that it knots without much bulk. In Japan they often use crepe of one kind or another. Crepe, however, is hard to find cheaply and hard to sew. In Japan they sometimes also use cotton. So okay, cotton.

Having practice at DIY projects, I know that I should use something I don’t mind throwing away in disgust, but it should be something I wouldn’t mind keeping if it works. Off to Mardens to find cheap fabric.

Having located some attractive-but-not-too-girly fabrics, withstood the perplexed look of the very nice Mardens clerk when I asked for “a square of each, please”, and gotten home, I sit down at the sewing machine.

The first one I hem in my usual way: roll the hem, pin the heck out of it, sew. It comes out just fine.
On the second one, I get cheeky. Hmm, think I. there is somewhere a hemming foot. (rummage rummage) Ah hah! I have heard these are hard to use, but what better practice than hemming a square of cotton? I read the internet. I read the instructions. I try it.

The third time ripping out the tiny stitches, I get frustrated and slice off the edge.
All said and done, I slice about four inches off the edge on successive attempts. I have had three inches of successful hemming. The fabric is 45″ square.

I get out the pins. Pin, pin, pin. Sew. It comes out just fine.

Bedtime.

The next morning I go on to the third one.

Do I learn my lesson and use the pinpinpinsew method?
No.

I noticed something interesting while slicing off the edges of the last one: as long as I ignored the directions, it worked really well.

So here, without further ado, are the things I have learned which I have not seen in any set of directions anywhere.

1) Your fabric needs support, people! Let’s say you’re just sewing along, everything is fine, and about halfway through your piece, something goes terribly wrong. You have no idea what just happened, but suddenly your machine and your project are in cahoots and the seam is crooked, the hem is off, the buttonhole was designed for a button by Salvador Dali. What did you do?

In all likelihood you are sewing near the edge of a table. Your fabric has mass. It pulls ever-so-slightly (unless you are sewing a cape out of boiled wool, in which case it pulls like a St. Bernard after a rabbit) and as you begin sewing, you adjust for the added tension. But when the mass moves, the tension moves. And when the tension moves and you don’t adjust, whoops! There goes your seam, your hem, your buttonhole. The ideal solution: a bigger table. If that’s not realistic, keep piling the fabric on what table you have so that it’s supported and the only tension you have to adjust for is in your shoulders.

2) Sometimes the technology will tell you how it wants to be used. After some observation I discovered that even 1/8″ hemming feet can be used to good advantage if you ignore the directions. Turn a hem of, say, half an inch. Let it run across both sets of feed dogs, under the whole presser foot. Keep the left edge running into the scroll. The foot will roll the edge under. I hear that bigger hemming feet can be used the way they were designed to work; I don’t know. I hear that starching the edge helps. I have to admit I didn’t try that. This time. But my half inch hems are tidily turned under.

3) Even cotton has a lot of stretch across the grain. Ignore this at your peril.

4) If you are frustrated, and this is important: get up and walk away. Really. If you fight when you are angry, your project will look like the enemy and it will win.

* Bonus lesson: if your front loading washing machine is acting unbalanced for no good reason (i.e., it’s level), try putting more clothes in it.

So it goes in pursuit of a more environmental life.

In my web wanderings I stumbled across this instructables entry and got seduced. Essentially, furoshiki is fabric-based origami (work with a square or almost-square, no cutting or sewing, although there is knotting) with the object of creating wrappings and bags that can be untied and tied again around something different. incredibly simple. totally customizable. very environmental. and apparently, rather fashionable. I know next-to-nothing about Japanese culture, but this seems like a reasonably-borrowable technology. Apparently there’s a Korean form, too. I wonder if South Asia has a history of something like this? Seems like if we’ve got unstitched clothing we must have unstitched carryalls…

In the interest of simplifying and environmentalizing this seems like a good direction to go.

Edit: more furoshiki links:
Furoshiki.com which includes videos here
Wikipedia’s page
the Japanese Ministry of the Environment guide
ecoshikis.com, with words to go with the diagrams
and one particularly good video from YouTube (included in the furoshiki.com website)