Finding joy in recycled fashion

RECYCLED: Jane Milburn in her ‘history skirt’, made with fabric remnants her mother had saved. Picture: Fiona Lake
RECYCLED: Jane Milburn in her ‘history skirt’, made with fabric remnants her mother had saved. Picture: Fiona Lake

“THE reason $2 shirts are so cheap is that resources and people are being exploited.”

For Jane Milburn, this harsh fact is only part of a global problem. Milburn, a former agricultural scientist and journalist, is an advocate of the slow clothing movement. Slow clothing, she says, is the antithesis of industrial fast fashion.

Slow clothing embraces our relationship with garments, the big picture of what we buy and wear, how it is made, what happens when we stop wearing it, and the true costs of cheap, mass-produced clothing.  And it’s about finding joy and meaning in making, repairing and treasuring clothes that reflect our individuality.

Milburn will be a key speaker at Transition Newcastle’s Fair Share Festival on November 12-13, hosting workshops on upcycling old clothing into unique garments, and other ways to reduce our clothing footprint. The festival will include an upcycled clothing parade and sustainability discussions.

“Australians buy an average of 27 kilograms of new textiles each year - we run second to North Americans who buy 37 kilograms each - and then we discard 23 kilograms into landfill,” Milburn says.

Dedicated: Jane Milburn in her Brisbane studio. Picture: Patria Jannides.

Dedicated: Jane Milburn in her Brisbane studio. Picture: Patria Jannides.

“Two-thirds of new clothing are from man-made fibres which shed microplastic particles into the environment and take decades to rot in landfill. In a finite world, we can’t keep pretending this doesn’t matter. We are accountable, through the everyday clothing decisions we make.”

Awareness of the appalling conditions in fast fashion sweatshops has risen after incidents such as the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, but many people still stuff their cupboards with cheap clothes they hardly ever wear.

Part of the reason for this, Milburn believes, is that commercial designs are for standard shapes that don’t suit everyone and people tend to wear what’s “in fashion” rather than determining what suits them individually.   

“It’s sad, this industrial fashion,” she says. “It’s similar to industrial processed food, which is not good for us, but it’s cheap and readily available in the form business decides is best.”  

“When we make something, we take charge, and put our own skills and emotion and energy into it. We value it in a way we can’t when we go to a shop and hand over our credit card. There’s no meaning or unique value in that, it leaves us empty after the initial buying buzz.

“We are searching for meaning in this fast world we live in, and meaning can come from connecting our hands, head and heart by making things of our very own.  

“When we make something ourselves we are more likely to treasure the effort and resources that go into it. We can wear it forever - add width or length as we need it. When it gets holes, we can find a way to repair or embellish it, to add to its story and memories. This attachment is lost in fast fashion churn.”

Milburn always made her own clothes and stepped up in 2014 to upcycle every day with the Sew It Again project. This led to sharing ways to develop a more sustainable clothing culture in Australia through the slow clothing manifesto.

“Clothes do for us on the outside what food does inside, so we might as well make good choices that enable us to survive and thrive - even if we choose not to sew and upcycle.”

Slow Clothing Manifesto

10 ways to thrive and dress smartly in our modern material world

THINK: Make thoughtful, ethical, informed choices

NATURAL: Treasure fibres from nature and limit synthetics

QUALITY: Buy well once, quality remains after price is forgotten

LOCAL:  Support local makers, those with good stories and fair trade

CARE: Mend, patch, sort, sponge, wash less, use cold water, line dry

FEW: Live with less, capsule wardrobe, have one best style, unfollow

MAKE: Embrace home sewing as a life skill, value DIY and handmade

ADAPT: Refashion, eco-dye, create new from old to suit yourself

REVIVE: Enjoy vintage, exchange, op-shop and swap

SALVAGE:  Donate, pass on, rag weave, recycle or compost

Transition Newcastle’s Fair Share Festival will be held at Hamilton Primary School on November 12-13.

Find our more about the festival at