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A master of slow craft: An interview with Jane Milburn OAM

Updated: Mar 1, 2022

The first crafter we speak to for Sustainable Craft Month is Jane Milburn. Jane has worked tirelessly in the space, receiving an Order of Australia for her devotion to raising awareness about the global importance of fashion sustainability.

Congratulations on receiving an OAM for your work on Sustainable Fashion - creating awareness and educating people about the importance of making their clothes last longer. Can you briefly tell us how this journey started?

Looking back, I realise I’ve been a slow fashion practitioner all my life. Growing up on a sheep farm sparked my love of natural fibres. My making skills were learned by osmosis from family members.

While studying agricultural science at university, I wore handmade or thrifted clothes. Some of my favourites were dresses gifted from my Great Aunt Winnie which I took up and in to suit my shape.

My career was in rural journalism and communications; I worked on various advocacy campaigns with farm groups and then had the opportunity to study rural leadership. In 2011, I noticed fashion excess becoming much more prolific, and the overwhelming shift to synthetic fibres. The following year - as our third child finished school - I resolved to bring all my skills and experience together into purposeful, values-based work raising awareness about these issues.

I had reason to drive from Brisbane to Townsville at the end of 2012 and visited every op shop along the way, gathering natural-fibre resources until my car was full, and almost overflowing. This gathering sparked my Sew it Again project when I upcycled and blogged for 365 days in 2014 on a mission to share creative and sustainable ways of dressing that didn’t involve buying new clothes.

We can’t produce more natural fibres because agricultural land is already committed to food production. One of the solutions is to buy less and wear clothes for longer.

My activation in this space coincided with the global Fashion Revolution movement that honours the thousands of workers killed, injured and orphaned in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh which opened our eyes to the exploitative realities of fast fashion. There is much more community awareness about problems within the industry now and it’s good to see some positive changes emerging, although we always need to be on guard for greenwashing.

My independent research and advocacy evolved into my book Slow Clothing: finding meaning in what we wear, which was published in 2017. I was honoured to have support from people such as War on Waste presenter Craig Reucassel who helped launch it in Sydney and Gardening Australia’s Costa Georgiadis in Melbourne. As a result of the hundreds of workshops, talks, media interviews I’ve undertaken during the past decade, I was awarded a Churchill Fellowship. I hope to complete this year after being delayed by the global pandemic. My project is investigating how being hands-on with our clothes (mending and upcycling) can help reduce textile waste and enhance wellbeing. And yes, it is a great honour to be awarded an Order of Australia Medal for service to fashion sustainability and I’m grateful for the opportunity to contribute.

I remember seeing the ABC War on Waste program about textile waste and Australians alone being responsible for 6000kgs for that waste every 10 minutes. It has been one of my single biggest influences for changing my habits and teaching about recycling textiles. For someone just gaining this knowledge and being as shocked as I was - what would you recommend, they do first to change their habits around this issue?

Never in history has there been so many clothes in the world and War on Waste did a tremendous job of visually demonstrating the extent of textile waste. The easy affordability of fast fashion means clothing consumption has risen 2-4 times what we need.

And remember that second-hand is the new organic because it doesn’t add production stress or chemicals to the environment.

The clothes are cheap because of global supply chains and modern-day slavery combined with an abundance of synthetic fibres derived from fossil fuel resources. This creates waste and pollution, and a loss of skills and knowledge about where and how clothes are made.

It’s a huge problem that two-thirds of clothing is made from synthetic fibres which shed microplastic particles when we wash and wear them. The majority of microplastic pollution in oceans is from synthetic clothes, and it is entering the food chain and showing up in our bodies with as-yet-unknown health impacts.

We all have the agency to make a difference in the world through our choices. We need to take stock of our wardrobes, understand what’s going on and notice what choices we are making in our buying behaviours.

There are four steps
~stop buying for a while
~study your style and needs
~sort your existing wardrobe
~then seek out responsible choices when filling any gaps.

And remember that second-hand is the new organic because it doesn’t add production stress or chemicals to the environment.

We can’t produce more natural fibres because agricultural land is already committed to food production. One of the solutions is to buy less and wear clothes for longer. Another solution is the circular economy and reprocessing materials. The fashion industry is slowly moving towards that – but we can also decide to accumulate less so the problems don’t arise in the first place.

My small contribution has been in outlining simple, everyday practices in how we choose, care for and dispose of clothes to minimise our material footprint. My Slow Clothing Manifesto identifies 10 sustainable actions: think more, choose natural, quality, local clothes, have few and care for them, make, revive, adapt and salvage the resources where you can.

You talk about Creative Learning in your book. That is exactly what I try and encourage in my classes. The idea of people experimenting and exploring the crafts, creating their own unique pieces. Can you talk about this a bit more?

Many of us are conditioned to believe we aren’t creative and feel safer when we follow a pattern and do things the ‘right way’ to achieve a certain outcome. My journey into creativity was sparked by learning through play when I began using fabric paints on cloth when our children were little.

I love Albert Einstein’s quote: ‘’Play is the highest form of research’’. Giving ourselves permission to play is fun, and liberating in a world where the pursuit of perfection is glorified. When you take a risk, go off script, do something different to what others are doing, it is freeing.

What is great about your workshops Ruth, is that you are teaching the basic skills for people to take on their own creative explorations., to just believe there is no right or wrong way to make stuff. They’re able to turn mistakes into opportunities to move in a different direction. You have to keep going though, keep working by adding or adapting until you are satisfied with the result.

I believe in the power of adaption – in nature, in careers, in clothes and crafts. When we accept imperfection, a world of opportunity arises. I had a lesson in that after a chunk of my right breast was removed due to early-stage breast cancer and deciding to accept the imperfection rather than having restorative surgery and an implant. I think that life-changing experience helped me relax into the idea of working with what you’ve got rather than buying this or that to feel whole and successful.

Creativity enables you to tell a story. What I now think of as my protest clothes – my geometric dresses, my history skirts and denim pinnies made from chopped up op-shop finds – are a creative reinterpretation of ‘making do’ that originally emerged from a lack of resources but now reflects this time of great excess.

You talk about buying clothes made from natural fibres - what happens to the clothes that are synthetic? (Some people don’t realise they are plastic!)

There are three types of fibres available to us: natural fibres (such as linen, cotton, wool); person-made natural fibres (reconstituted plant fibres such as viscose, rayon, bamboo, tencel); and synthetic fibres (such as polyester, nylon) derived from fossil fuels.

I prefer natural fibres because they breathe, absorb moisture and feel good against our skin. They’re also biodegradable and regenerative – they can go into the compost and break down into components of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen (and nitrogen if they’re animal fibres). I also enjoy person-made naturals despite the niggling concern about the chemicals (carbon disulphide) used to break down the plant fibres.

Synthetic fibres, on the other hand, are plastic and known to be shedding microplastic fibres into the ecosystem as we wear and wash them. Ecologist Dr Mark Browne’s research showed that each fleecy fibre garment sheds nearly 2000 microplastic particles with every wash.

Knowledge about caring for clothes used to be passed down through families or taught in schools, but we lost our way as consumer culture and endless variety became available with globalisation.

The other thing about synthetics is they don’t allow our skin to breathe, they harbour bacteria and smell bad. Modern fabrics are often blended fibres, such as linen and nylon, and the problem with blends is recycling them is complicated and the technology to separate the fibres is still not readily available.

Always remember the most sustainable fibres are those that you already own, so keep wearing them until they’re worn out.

How do you see the future in regard to fast fashion? Do you think we can change habits on a global scale?

The biggest problem continues to be the sheer volume of clothes in the market. Production is still growing exponentially because that’s the business model. This is despite increasing awareness of the environmental impacts of clothes and vision of castoffs from western countries polluting ecosystems in developing nations. Our consumer culture, in which we are encouraged to buy for a dopamine hit ‘because it makes us feel good, because we deserve it’, is perpetuated by business marketing and only some of us swim against that tide.

The Pollyanna in me wants to believe everyone is more aware and they’ll make more ethical choices and take more sustainable actions in a climate-changing world. Yet I’m not sure of that because life is busy and complicated, time and money can be short, and everyone wants the quick fix. The wastage caused by the growth in online shopping, with associated misfits and returns often discarded, is also a problem that isn’t going away.

There are a lot of good people trying to make a difference, including many small local businesses, and that is always a reason to be hopeful.

I think the Slow Clothing Manifesto really captures everything you are educating people about and shifting habits. How did you start writing it?

Knowledge about caring for clothes used to be passed down through families or taught in schools, but we lost our way as consumer culture and endless variety became available with globalisation. There’s no right way to be sustainable, but being more mindful in our choices and actions is a good place to start. Everyone makes dud choices and as long as we’re trying to do better it makes a difference.

Think ~ make thoughtful, ethical, informed choices
Natural ~ treasure fibres from nature and limit synthetics
Quality ~ buy well once, quality remains after the 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, have a signature style, minimal wardrobe, unfollow
Make ~ learn how to sew as a life skill, value DIY and handmade
Revive ~ re-wear, re-love, vintage, exchange, op shop, rent and swap
Adapt ~ upcycle, refashion, eco-dye, create new from old
Salvage ~ donate, pass on, rag, weave, recycle and compost

If you haven't started your sustainable clothes journey, now is a better time than any to start!

Follow Jane: @textilebeat

Visit Jane's Website:

Check out Jane's book: Slow Clothing by Jane Milburn

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A fabulous and inspirational interview, you have given me pause for thought regarding my creative path.

Replying to

That's great to hear Kylie. It's good to think about and see what we can do to reduce our waste even in craft. Ruth


Zora Verona
Zora Verona
Feb 28, 2022

Thank you Ruth and Jane for sharing this incredible wealth of knowledge, an in depth reflection on our relationship with textiles. From the truly concerning to a pathway towards inspiration and hope, count me in, I am on the journey, and proud to join your Pollyanna army. Thank you Jane for bravely and boldly treading this path for others to follow.

Replying to

Thanks Lori, yes it's worth treading this path and really important. I look forward to sharing more. Ruth

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