If I hadn’t freaked out about the state of the planet, I might never have made my underpants out of nettles.
But I did freak out. I had read more than was sensible about how wasteful we have all become. So I set about re-engineering my life. I got an allotment, and switched to Abel & Cole for local, seasonal deliveries of whatever food I couldn’t grow myself. I bought an electric car, and switched my tariff to wind-power. And then I started to think about clothes.
Clothes raise all the same issues as food, but tend to be overlooked. (You can raise a sheep to eat it, or for its wool. You can grow plants to eat, or to extract their fibre. You can fly apples around the world, or cotton.) If you eat “for the planet”, you might want to dress that way too.
So I did some “extreme mending” on jeans with holes in them. I bought some baggy shirts in a charity shop, and took them in using a treadle-powered sewing machine I bought on ebay for £5. Then somebody said something that provoked me: “It’s difficult to make shirts if you have not been properly trained.” I’m one of those irritating people who thinks he can do anything. (Not superlatively, mind you, but I can have a go. I may not win an Olympic gold, if you see what I mean, but I can run for a bus.) So just to show them, I copied a shirt I already owned onto paper, used that pattern to cut some fabric, and made my first shirt. It took about a day, and involved lots of advice from my wife’s great-aunt, Peggy Parker.
Soon after, I made a pair of jeans while my wife was out at work. Then I went to Prick Your Finger, a haberdashery in Bethnal Green, and told the proprietor, Rachael Matthews, that I was thinking of knitting a jumper. Good idea, said Rachael. And that was all I needed: “permission” to do something I was planning to do anyway. I made socks. I sent off to the US for a kit to make your own shoes.
For the final item, I wanted to claim clothes-making as a legitimate activity for men – because let’s face it, most people still think it’s a woman’s game. I decided to make the only garment I could think of uniquely designed for men: Y-fronts. And instead of using cotton, I would use a sustainable fibre that grows locally, without any special care and attention: the nettle.
Nettles have been clothing people in this part of the world for millennia. The Germans wore a lot of nettle during World War One, when Britain controlled 90 per cent of the world’s cotton. If it was good enough for them, it was good enough for me. I won’t go into detail here about how I got the fibre, but suffice to say that I crocheted my pants while my wife watched TV. Then I put on my whole outfit, and went outside for a walk. It felt great.
It might not have happened without all the hand-wringing angst, but it soon became an entirely delightful process. I became genuinely hooked on making clothes – a creative discipline more challenging in its way than the painting or drawing that I did already. In short, I was “treading more lightly” but also having fun. If you don’t believe me, why don’t you give it a try?