Overdressed: A Book Review

I recently read Overdressed by Elizabeth L. Cline, a book which according to its subtitle is about the shockingly high cost of cheap fashion. From reading reviews beforehand, I knew it was a book about how the West buys its relatively inexpensive clothing, and the global systems which support the industry: about ‘fast fashion’ as the phenomenon now seems to be called. In case you’re interested, I wanted to give a short review here, and also share some reflections on the subject. I’m not really interested in ‘fashion’ per se (defined as trendy things, designer things and such), but I am interested in clothing, its history, its part in culture, and its part in how we all manage our own households and budgets and the related decisions in our personal home economies.

First of all, this book traces the rise of fast fashion from an American standpoint, as manufacturing of clothing moved overseas through the mid-late twentieth century and as prices for clothing dropped. Meanwhile, clothing stores selling cheaper clothing – in contrast to traditional department stores – promoted frequent shopping by replacing their stock at quicker intervals, effectively creating multiple ‘seasons’ per year and meaning that shoppers could return to the same store every single month and see something new. As fashionable shoppers became accustomed to lower prices, they also adjusted their expectations of what clothing ‘should’ cost and became unwilling to spend more than the amounts they would pay at places like H&M, Target, Old Navy, or Walmart. Indeed, the impression for consumers becomes that nicer department stores are simply ‘marking up’ goods far beyond their real value, or else charging more for designer labels when you could have a non-designer equivalent for a tenth of the price.

Cline spends a large portion of the book investigating the overseas factories that have made such low prices possible. In some sense, this information is now becoming more common knowledge – i.e. poor wages and working conditions, and long hours for workers in factories in China, Bangladesh, and South America. These factories don’t always have good waste disposal practices, meaning that air pollution is bad and that farmland is damaged as well. For comparison she investigates some domestic factories in Los Angeles, where manufacturing is still done, most notably for American Apparel, but even there it appears that the ‘good’ factories are perceived by employees as being merely ‘less bad’ than the others. A factory in the Dominican Republic does receive a fairly good report for working conditions and wages, interestingly staying afloat against cheaper factories because it produces college apparel (i.e. t-shirts, hoodies and the like with university branding) for colleges where students staged large-scale demands for ethical clothing.

One particular result of the rise of fast fashion which Cline identifies is the growing gap between cheaper fashion on one end of the price scale, and designer fashion on the other. She paints a picture of two types of consumers. Some, like the people she interviews in the book, have tight budgets – or simply shop frequently – and consider anything over $30 to be expensive. Others chase designer items as status symbols and pay anywhere from $200 to $2,000 for a piece of clothing. She says that designer brands have gotten wise to this and raised prices, realising that people will pay them. Meanwhile, as she points out, there’s a huge gap in the middle for mid-priced, quality, domestically (or ethically) made items which for the most part don’t exist.

But concomitant with fashion’s cheapness is not only its affordability but its ‘cheapness’ in the grander sense – it simply doesn’t last, but because it is inexpensive we don’t mind that it doesn’t last. We may also suffer a misconception that donating our worn-out clothes to charity redeems what would otherwise be wasteful, but as Cline details, charities are overrun with a surplus of clothes; there is no need that is being met by many of our castoffs.

The overall argument of the book is that cheap mass-scale clothing production has often resulted in compromised ethics, the inability of fashion companies to account for how their garments are produced, and a decrease in clothing’s disposability (and hence waste).

Finally, in light of these problems, Cline makes some suggestions for how individuals can adjust the way they buy and care for their clothes. I had a conflicted response to this final section of the book. On the one hand, Cline’s focus throughout is so sweeping and global that her final recommendations seemed a little mundane to me – not really the revolutionary approach I was expecting. She suggests making clothes last longer by altering and repairing them, planning a few thoughtful purchases of good-quality clothes, looking for sustainable fibres like organic cotton, wool, or recycled materials, and avoiding trends (and their coming and going) in favour of a more personalised style with more longevity. In a sense I felt that this was advice I already knew. However, on the other hand, I realise that her concern is to pose practical options for normal people, so in this sense I grant that her recommendations are precisely what is needed.

Personally speaking

I really want to share a few of my own thoughts on this subject, bearing in mind that none of this represents a fully-formed way of thinking; simply some things I’ve pondered in the last few months.

First of all, lately I’ve been thinking about the value of labour and the work involved in production. For those of us who engage in ‘knowledge work’ as our profession – pushing information around, generating it, thinking about it – we can pass through an astonishing amount of our lives surrounded by the results of (physical) labour without ever witnessing or knowing anything about it. Often, the only ‘production’ in which I engage is cooking, taking raw ingredients and processing them as necessary to produce the final result. I think this kind of knowledge-work lifestyle ironically fosters an ignorance about the production of common goods and the relation of labour to the finished product. My home is full of stuff, but for the most part I have little idea how it was made, by whom, how long it took or how much it cost in raw materials, and what wages were paid to the people who physically put it together. I’m not talking about wanting some quasi-spiritual connectedness to others via my physical stuff, but rather simply wondering what human (or other) situations are being funded by my money. What factory, what working methods, what wages am I ‘voting for’ when I spend my money on a given item?

Likewise, a lack of knowledge about production and the labour involved leads to an ignorance about what things are really worth. At the end of her book, Cline asks (and I think it’s a really important question), ‘What should clothes cost?’ She’s not talking about overpriced designer items that ‘should’ cost less than their name-brand markups; she’s talking about it the other way around, normal clothes that probably should cost us more than they do, if they were responsibly manufactured by workers fairly paid and well treated, etc. If we know nothing about how clothes are made, our only system for gauging what something ‘should’ cost is price comparison, yielding conceptions of worth which can be quite skewed from the actual materials and labour involved in a garment.

I’ve been asking myself lately what I think clothes should cost. My own sewing repeatedly makes me realise all that is involved in constructing even a simple garment (and even mass production still relies on people to run individual sewing machines to stitch every seam). Sometimes I calculate the cost, in labour and materials, of what I make, and it’s rare to come in under about £60 for something simple. Now, I realise that if I were involved in clothing production, I’d have cheaper materials bought wholesale and probably faster production with better equipment and less time lost to undoing mistakes (oops). But even so, I’d never be able to make a tee for less than £20, and of course that doesn’t include any business overhead or store markups. For a dress with a lining, I reckon I’d have to sell it for £200, easily, just to make ends meet. Indeed, as I did some looking around online, I saw that Pendleton Woollen Mills in Portland – a US-based and vertically integrated clothing company – charges $200-$300 for some of their basic (albeit nice) skirts. That feels totally out of my price range – but I venture to suggest it’s probably a fair price considering the materials and labour involved.

That brings me to a final thought, a soul-searching one. One possible knee-jerk response to all of the above is this: Okay, that’s all fine for the wealthy, but I can’t afford to spend more on my clothes. Actually, this is my knee-jerk response. And Cline at least touches on how cheap fashion has a certain traction in our culture because its affordability makes it ‘democratic’ in a sense; advocating for clothing to cost more, can, frankly, seem elitist. Firstly, if that’s your thought, don’t let it put you off reading Cline’s book, because I actually found it to be quite down-to-earth in that regard; she doesn’t pose as someone who used to love designer fashion and now spends $10,000 a year on ‘ethical fashion’ instead, but as someone whose closet was full of clothes for which she paid an average of $30 apiece but who now approaches buying differently. In other words, she addresses an audience of people on relatively normal budgets. At least I felt this from her book.

But secondly, I find that knee-jerk responses – like I can’t afford that - are often the ones I need to re-examine; that they can be defensive rather than truthful. Personally speaking, my clothing budget is not huge; it’s kind of moderate, I’d say. But could I, for example, go for a year or even two years without buying anything new? I could; in fact I have done so before just out of necessity. I could save two years’ clothing allowance and in the third year buy a few excellent garments, well-made, that would last. I could also, for example, in a given year buy half the number of new clothes as I normally would and spend twice as much money on each item. I could also have fewer clothes. And those options don’t even take into account making my own clothes (which suddenly seems fantastically affordable), shopping secondhand, or taking care to ensure that things last well.

I don’t want to be guilt-mongering or suggest how you should spend your money. I have come to realise, however, that for my own part there are some ways I need to reexamine how I buy and value clothing.

Sourdough Update

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about making sourdough bread, and promised to update on the results of my attempt. I’m pleased to say that I’ve made several successful loaves of bread since then.

Here is my first one. Its major flaw is the very tentative cut across the top. I was afraid to press too hard and deflate the dough, but I should have made a much deeper cut. The slit, made just before baking, apparently helps the dough rise upwards instead of spreading outwards. And indeed, my second loaf had a better slit and rose much more impressively. But despite its funny appearance, this first loaf was delicious, and as promised by all the proponents of sourdough, it lasted a good three days on the counter while remaining soft.

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This first loaf was all white flour. The next one I used all whole wheat, and it looked beautiful and worked fine, though it was more dense. I do also think that whole wheat flours seem to need more water, so my dough was a bit stiff; next time I would just add more water. The loaves after that one I made with a mix of white and whole wheat flours, which gave a slightly better rise than 100% whole grain. Currently I’m experimenting with a loaf that has a bit of honey and oatmeal added. Although the final results have differed based on the type of flour used, so far none of my loaves using this starter and recipe have been a failure.

This week, interestingly, I also decided to give sourdough tortillas a try. I’ve made tortillas a couple of times before, but in my opinion they were never great. The batch I got ‘right’ tasted and looked fine, but didn’t last well at all; I had a hard time keeping them soft enough to roll up even the day I made them. Of course, that’s why any store bought tortillas are full of dough conditioners that keep them pliable, but these are the ingredients that make me frown and then resolve to make my own tortillas. But the recipe I used promised that the same longevity which sourdough provided to bread would be provided to these tortillas.

Making sourdough tortillas is similar to making sourdough bread, but there’s a lot of fat in the recipe; otherwise the main annoyance is having to cook them one at a time. How did they taste? That was my main concern, because I worried they would taste sour and interfere with the flavour of the fillings they would contain. When I tasted one on its own, it did taste a bit sourdough-y, but not horrifically so. I decided Mike would be my real tester. I told him I’d made the tortillas and asked his opinion of them, but didn’t say they were sourdough. He said they were good, and couldn’t tell they were sour at all, and was unbothered when I told him. For myself, I actually felt that their yeasty savoury flavour contributed something to the burritos, rather than detracting.

Finally, I was pleased to find that these tortillas remained soft a long time. I left them sitting out between the afternoon and dinner, and without being reheated they were still soft enough to roll. Then I covered the leftover ones and we ate them the next day, warmed a little in the oven, and once again they were perfectly soft – no breaking edges. I was so-so about making my own tortillas before, because although I don’t like the artificial ingredients in store-bought ones, I didn’t feel like going to extra trouble to make something that turned out like dry flatbread. However, I think I am a convert to sourdough tortillas!

In any case, my rye flour starter has passed its probationary period and been upgraded from a temporary covered bowl to a Kilner jar in the fridge.

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Apparently there’s a bit of a movement going on advocating ‘real bread’, i.e. traditionally made breads without additives, including (especially) sourdough. I found this out while browsing the bookstore today and finding this. I suppose the Real Bread Campaign is one facet of the slow foods movement. (I’m not affiliated with this organisation, just linking up in case it’s interesting to you.)

What if Good Enough Were Good Enough?

About a month ago, a strange feeling came over me. It was a strange sort of happiness with the idea of my thesis being good enough.

Now, for years I have ended many a project with the reminder to myself, ‘It doesn’t have to be perfect.’ So I have handed in many an imperfect, but still good, piece of work after convincing myself that it was okay for this to be the case. I have never rationally accepted that something must be perfect to be considered done to an acceptable – or even excellent – level. But this rational acceptance was a sort of ‘official position’. ‘It is our official position that the finished product does not have to be perfect.’ (Meanwhile my perfectionism crouched; imagine the way squirrels dig and munch, shifty shifty, nibble nibble, out of the way but still scuttling about; that is the manner of perfectionism.)

However, this time around, the odd feeling of happiness with imperfection differed, because it was a spontaneously arising belief, an unforced satisfaction. I didn’t have to convince myself that good enough was okay. I already believed it.

I confessed this feeling to Mike one night and said, ‘Is it wrong that I feel that way?!’ As soon as I had verbalised to myself that this feeling was a willingness to call my project ‘finished’ without caring whether it were ‘the best it could be’, a host of imaginary voices criticised me. ‘Clearly you don’t care about your work.’ ‘Clearly you aren’t cut out for this, if you’re happy with something being blandly good.’ ‘Clearly you don’t have any genuine drive.’

Mike said, ‘I don’t think it’s wrong. I think it’s healthy.’

Still feeling a bit renegade, I did recognise that labelling this acceptance of imperfection as a strange, new, unfamiliar feeling suggested what a perfectionist I have always been. I sat with this new feeling and wondered what else in my life would benefit from being simply ‘good enough’.

The things I could do!

If you are a perfectionist, I’d encourage you to reflect a little on what things you don’t do, or don’t finish, because you are afraid they won’t be perfect. The imagine what you’d do if you were free from those stringent standards.

What would I do, or do more often and with more enjoyment, if I accepted that good enough were good enough?

Well, for one thing, I would blog more. I genuinely enjoy sitting down to write a post, and while I know this isn’t a particularly professional blog, writing is enjoyable to me. But I can’t tell you how many drafts I begin and then abandon because I either imagine someone out there would disagree or nitpick (which is always true, by the way), or because I have a standard in my mind of quality, length, or profundity which I think I can’t meet. I’ve written so many posts that might genuinely be interesting ‘tidbits’, certainly to me but probably to a few readers, but I never post them because they aren’t polished enough. What if I just posted them in their imperfect state?

For another thing, I would write more letters and emails to friends. Similarly with blogging, this is an area where I expect more than I can deliver in the course of normal life. Partly this is because I used to have the time and focus to write massive emails to many different friends. When I lived alone, it was an enjoyable way of feeling connected to people. However, gradually, I’ve simply had less of that sort of time – three-hour chunks of evening or weekend. The thing is, what’s really wrong with writing a couple of paragraphs in 20 minutes at lunchtime? Isn’t it better to contact people briefly than not at all? If I could accept that a brief update email was actually good enough, I’d probably keep in better touch with people than if I required myself to write a huge epistle every time.

I would also do more crafty projects. I’m sure you can tell from reading this blog that I enjoy making things, but besides what I finish there’s always a host of projects that I begin but set aside, or avoid altogether, because I can’t meet my own standards.

Case in point: Last year, I decided that I wanted to start making yearly photo books in lieu of getting photos printed or (usually) just keeping everything saved on my computer. I was feeling the nesting instinct, and thinking that as our family (hopefully) grows in the future I would really like to have a good record of its history. I love looking through my family’s photo albums, and occasionally we will sit down together to reminisce, looking at the photos of my parents’ trips before they had kids, our baby photos, and so on. I want to ensure that I can do that with my kids later. I actually kept up, at intervals throughout the year, with a photo book, intending to finish it off with December photos and then print it. Have I printed it? No. Because I always wonder, What if I didn’t include all the photos and missed some by accident? Should I have been more thorough? What if I want to change something later? If good enough were good enough, I would finish that album and print it already!

Let me tell you, when I made this list it was liberating. So here I am. I am writing this blog post without even a satisfying conclusion or any pictures!

A Course in Sourdough Bread

My thesis has been consuming most of my time for the last few weeks, so housekeeping has been minimal. However, now that I am in quite a final stage (yikes!) of my thesis, I felt relaxed enough to catch up on things today, including laundry and some potted plants and getting my sewing machine fixed.

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Now that my rosemary is happy, I am addressing one of those ‘skills I’d like to acquire’ projects: making sourdough bread.

I never even thought about this until last autumn, when a few things I’d been reading about diet touted the advantages of sourdough bread (more on that below). The rise in sourdough comes not from the usual baker’s yeast but from natural yeasts which occur in grain and are cultivated by fermentation of a ‘starter’. This bubbly flour-and-water mixture is added in small amounts to water, flour and salt to leaven the whole loaf. Now, this appealed to my love of DIY – homemade yeast! But it also made me remember what I know of early American cooking, when sourdough was used for bread and biscuits, and feeling the urge for some ‘living history’ I really wanted to try it out myself.

Short story to tell, I eventually gave up. Here’s what happened. I read multiple sources on how to make your own starter, and followed the directions, mixing small amounts of flour and water, adding to the mixture each day, and watching it become bubbly as the yeasts became active. This part did genuinely work, and nothing got mouldy. I even put it in a nice glass jar and had visions of myself, Homemaker Extraordinaire, whipping up tangy homemade breads every week from now on and forever, living a life of vitality and handcrafted goodness.

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The first sourdough loaf I baked did rise a little, but not much. It smelled like strong cheese when it was baking, really a bizarre smell from bread, but I chalked it up to the whole ‘fermentation’ thing. In fairness, it was edible, but very sour and not particularly nice in texture. I ended up slicing it thin, into little rectangles (the loaf was half the height it should have been, so no squares), and toasting it well. It was something akin to melba toast, okay with cheese but pretty tough on the teeth.

After this, I did notice that my starter (which I kept dutifully feeding with more flour and water) changed in smell, turning from sour to pleasantly malty. Taking this cue, I made another loaf of bread. You know what? This one was amazing. It rose, was golden in colour, had a nice soft crumb and a beautiful multilayered crust, and tasted a little tangy but definitely like bread (not strong cheese).

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After that, though, a few other loaves turned out very much like the first: sour, acidic, dense. I put my starter in the fridge while we were gone over Christmas, having read that this would slow it down and enable it to survive without feeding for a while, and when we returned home after the break I started feeding it again. But with one thing and another, I forgot about it, it got pinkly mouldy and dry, and I eventually threw it out and decided to start over later. Mike was very glad to see that ‘the evil flour’ was gone; I think its silent, pale, gaseous life of fermentation over by the boiler always creeped him out a little.

Why bother with sourdough?

This brings me to the implicit question – other than historical interest or idle curiosity, why is it worth bothering to make sourdough bread?

There are certain ‘traditional diet’ advocates who say that sourdough bread is not only the most traditional form of bread making, but is the only type you should eat, because the fermentation process breaks down certain ‘anti-nutrients’ in the grains which inhibit your body’s ability to absorb nutrients. This beneficial activity doesn’t happen with modern baker’s yeast because it thrives at a different pH than naturally occurring yeasts in grain, and the right pH is crucial for these anti-nutrients to be broken down. Sourdough bread, the claim goes, is easier to digest and more nutritious because more vitamins are available for your body to absorb.

I actually did some investigation on this at the British Library, and although I’m not aware of any extensive scientific studies, I found two that were interesting. In one pilot study, Celiac’s patients (who can’t eat gluten) were given sourdough wheat bread every day for 60 days. None of them showed any adverse reaction, and the researchers postulated that the sourdough fermentation process rendered the gluten tolerable to their systems.* Obviously this is interesting for those who are gluten intolerant, but it strikes me as particularly interesting given that gluten and grains in general are getting a pretty bad rap these days, some people suggesting that nobody should be eating grains and whatnot. I sort of wonder whether perhaps it’s a problem of needing to prepare the grains properly, rather than avoiding them altogether. Just a thought.

Another study found that certain nutrient levels in grains were elevated after sourdough fermentation, including zinc and B vitamins. (I think I have notes from this article but I’ve lost them, so am not sure of the reference.) Once again, it’s interesting to me that a simple process can render the same food more nutritious.

One other advantage of sourdough bread is its keeping ability. One frustration of homemade bread is how quickly it goes stale and dry; of course commercial breads include additives to help prevent this. Most sources I’ve read remark that sourdough bread stays soft naturally for 3 days, and will last a whole week at room temperature without going mouldy.

You can actually buy proper sourdough breads, though often not at the cheaper supermarkets. I’ve found a couple of varieties at Waitrose that are very tasty, but…usually around £2 a loaf. I have never been fussed about making homemade bread all the time simply because you can buy a cheap loaf (even wholemeal) for about the cost of making it. However, in the case of sourdough, that doesn’t appear to be true. Hence, I decided to try again to make it myself.

Another attempt

I really recommend this book, which I got at the library. The author won my heart when she started the book with sourdough as the most traditional type of bread, and placed ‘modern [yeast] breads’ in the second section; not that I hate ‘modern breads’, simply that you don’t always find cookbooks with a sense of history.

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I made a fresh starter with her detailed instructions, and my first experimental loaf is rising as I type. My ultimate goal is to use wholemeal flour, but I decided to work my way through the book sequentially, beginning with the basic recipe, as a way of giving myself a proper ‘course’ on the subject.

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[See this post for an update.]

Getting Things Done on a Thesis (Coffee Break)

IMG_0804Here I am, taking a coffee break in the midst of my first round of thesis proofreading. I wanted to discuss something I mentioned a long time ago, namely how I’ve been trying to implement some new strategies for organising my PhD work, based on the book Getting Things Done. I’ve discussed this book at length already in relation to managing general household projects, but not in relation to my thesis. So, since I am in the midst of working using this method today, I thought I would share the day’s work as a case study.

The project and the problem

Right now, I have a printed copy of my entire thesis and I’ve already read through it and made annotations on the paper copy. Those annotations obviously represent lots of tasks, but they’re jumbled together in no logical order: small edits of typos, citations needed, information to double-check at the library, or whole sections that need rethinking.

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I’ll tell you what would happen if I sat down to work my way through making these changes on a 200-page document. I’d breeze through a couple of easy edits, get stuck on a whole paragraph that needed rewriting and sink into an indecisive depression, decide to fix it later and move onto checking a reference against some notes in my files, meanwhile discover an article I’d photocopied that I realised I needed to re-read, randomly remember to ask my supervisor what an ‘Author’s Declaration’ is and whether I need one…

Not that this wouldn’t work, but it’s hard to complete so many different tasks in the same chunk of time. My fear, when going through the document, would be that if I didn’t tackle an edit immediately, I’d forget to come back and change it. So I would comb through the whole thesis multiple times, each time looking for changes of a certain type, invariably missing some, etc.

Inbox and Processing

What I’ve been doing today is treating the whole document, with my annotations, like an inbox. As I go through it, I’m ‘processing’ items from an inbox, not editing the document. 

This means that as I process each annotation, I observe the following rules:

  • If the change is a quick one requiring less than 2 minutes of time (which also means no serious decisions) - I do it then
  • But if the change will take me longer than that, involving hunting for something, asking a question to someone, finding a reference, rewriting a section or simply thinking and deciding what change to make - I transfer the item onto a list to ensure it is recorded as a task

For example, I find this annotation:

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Immediately, in less than 2 minutes, I delete the word ‘specifically’

But on the same page, I find this:

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This is a two-pronged note. I need to change the ‘s’ in brackets, which I can quickly do immediately. However, finding this mistake also reminded me that my supervisor had told me about this specific issue (changing capitalisation in quotes) and I need to look through the whole document for instances of this and fix them all. I transfer that task onto a list of things to check systematically throughout the document, using a find a replace function.

On that page, I also find this:

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Simply a note to myself that I’m not sure whether I’m misreading or misinterpreting something, and I need to review and think it over. I transfer that task to a list of chapter-by-chapter edits to make. Later, when I’m not bogged down by deleting ‘specifically’, I can re-read that section and think about it. Nor do I have to worry that I’ll forget to come back and do it, because it’s clearly written on a list outside the document itself – I don’t need to hope that I remember to look through the document again page by page.

The point

Has this achieved anything that the straightforward ‘read through and make changes’ method doesn’t? I think it has.

  • First of all, making only the simple and quick changes now means that I don’t interrupt the speed of going through the document by trying to make decisions for harder problems. Any serious thinking is deferred for a time when it can be tackled in its own right.
  • Ideally, I only have to comb through my annotations once this way, because every change marked is either done when I encounter it, or transferred to an external list. I won’t need to go through the whole document again and again. In other words, my ‘inbox’ will be ‘empty’.
  • Because I’m not making every change when I encounter it, only the 2-minute ones, I can get through the whole document of annotations in a single day (namely today) and, at the end, have a definitive picture of the work remaining to be done. Everything not already completed will be written on another list: search and replace functions to run, questions to ask my supervisor, items to check at the library. A few pages of lists are much better than a series of unknown tasks still hidden in the margins of the document itself.

Back to work now! I hope this has been helpful for some at least. None of this is rocket science, but I often think that because academic work is ‘intellectual’ I don’t submit it to the same methods of tracking and organising I do for ‘real job’ work. I have found that treating it in a systematic way has really helped manage this final stage of work on my thesis.

Pattern Drafting and a Blouse

I haven’t mentioned it yet, but since the new year I’ve been drafting my own sewing patterns. My mom gave me a pattern drafting book called Make Your Own Dress Patterns for Christmas, along with a fitting session to get a basic pattern fitting me well so I could use it as as a sloper (a basic pattern from which designs are made).

You know I love sewing anyway, but drafting patterns has really got me going again. I found patterns to be one of the major reasons I didn’t sew as much as I wanted: buying patterns is expensive, and even good patterns have to be fitted, a process I’ve never enjoyed. Added to that, I almost always change patterns anyway to suit whatever vision I have for the garment, and paying £10 for a new pattern only to have to make so many changes feels redundant.

It turns out that pattern drafting is not as mysterious as I thought it would be. If you have a basic sloper to start with, drafting a pattern is a matter of making systematic changes by slicing, overlapping, pivoting, and manipulating the paper pattern into a new shape. The resulting pattern does need to be fitted by making a sample version (I tend to use old sheets for this), but so far, every self-drafted pattern has already fit me better than most commercial patterns, and having drafted it myself it’s much easier to alter because I understand how its shaping works.

So I drafted a pattern for a blouse, specifically to use some cotton lawn I bought at Walthamstow Market last September. I had been saving it for a special purpose, but also had only 1 metre and thus couldn’t get more than a plain blouse out of it.

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The shape of this is basically the bodice of a dress, not particularly fancy. One of the best parts about pattern drafting is the ability to problem-solve from the start, which I did in two regards. First of all, I wanted a pattern that would work to make a casual top from normal cotton fabric, but one that wasn’t a collared button-down style. Because cotton is one of the easier fabrics to find, I knew that a pattern that would work with one metre would be really useful to have – it would also make it possible to splurge on something like a Liberty cotton, which are £16 a metre and upwards but quite beautiful.

Second, I wanted to get in on the current peplum trend but in an understated way. It’s a clever style insofar as it really is just the top part of a dress, allowing some of the pretty details of a dress bodice but serving the function of a blouse. However, a lot of the peplums I see are just a bit fluffy for my taste; the extreme versions strike me as trendy rather than necessarily flattering. Just my opinion. So on my version I kept the peplum fullness minimal.

It buttons up the back, and look! I found some flower buttons that perfectly matched the design. I also did the buttonholes by hand, the first time I’ve done so – and it was not as hard as I expected, nor as time consuming. Doing one buttonhole and the corresponding button took me about 20 minutes, so if you parcel out your hand sewing in TV shows and movies as I do, that’s six episodes of a sitcom or one two-hour movie for all six buttons.

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I hope you don’t think I’m overthinking this, but I’ve given this pattern a name: the Cliveden blouse. While big pattern companies normally number their pattern designs, independent designers usually give them names. Curiously, I found that as I was working on this, I needed a name for it in my head, other than ‘that peplum blouse’. I also found, far more than anything I’ve ever sewn from a purchased pattern, that I was approaching it like a piece of artwork and thinking about the sources of inspiration and the images it evoked. Specifically, because it was based on a dress bodice style and made of printed cotton, it reminded me of nineteenth century styles, like this. And it made me think of gardens, like the tulip garden we visited at Cliveden last May.2013-05-06 14.09.53

The moral of this story

I know sewing probably isn’t something most of my readers really do, so I thought I’d share something I learned from this project that could have broader relevance for even purchased clothing. This has to do with fit.

What I learned from this blouse is that good fit and tightness are not at all the same. Moreover, good fit actually obviates the need for something to be overly tight just to avoid looking boxy. In both sewing and purchasing clothing, over the years I have tended to opt for things that fit snugly because I really hate being ‘swallowed’ by my clothing. I have also stayed away from those flowing, caftan-style blouses you find in places like Monsoon, because while I like them on the hanger and on other people, I never like they particular way they drape (or don’t) on my figure. I’ve given myself a kind of complex which I notice when sewing – mere quarter inches of extra room in a garment give me the shivers, I think because I am so used to ‘extra ease’ signifying boxiness.

But since I designed this pattern from scratch, I discovered that with the appropriate amount of shaping I could have quite a bit of room to move without it looking boxy. For example, at the back there are little darts (small tucks) at the neckline, barely visible in the back view picture above, which nip the neckline in to keep it from gaping, while allowing plenty of room below for shoulder blade movement. I think this blouse looks pretty shapely, but it honestly feels as comfortable as a t-shirt because it doesn’t cling or restrict movement.

Thus, one important question I have learned to ask, when making or buying clothing, is not just, ‘Is it big/small enough?’ but rather ‘Does it have enough shaping?’

Two Reflections on Being Organised

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This is my morning coffee view from the window – one of my favourite times of day.

I always do some organising in the new year. Recently in particular, I was reviewing the current state of my thesis and making a detailed plan for everything that needs to be done before I finish.

In doing this, I’ve been recalling some of the principles I learned from David Allen’s book Getting Things Done. I wrote a while ago about the relationship of organisation to anxiety, and how I collected things into my ‘inbox’, processed them, and did some file organisation.

This time last year, I really felt like the ‘admin’ in my life was in need of a huge overhaul. I think I have a reputation for being organised, but you must believe me that I am just coming out of a phase of what feels like huge chaos. Commitments, communication, and all manner of tasks always slipped by my immediate notice, I constantly had last-minute scrambles for deadlines, and a lot of things just slipped by undone.

Therefore, the last year has been a good time to overhaul my system, and adjust my way of thinking about how to manage the admin of daily life. In fact I think I had a few misconceptions about what it meant to be an organised person, and have changed my thinking in a couple of ways.

First of all, I was afraid of writing everything down, but in fact seeing what needs to be done is liberating. One principle of Getting Things Done is that no task should be left without some physical reminder, be it a list, a calendar entry, or some kind of trigger like a post-it note. Although I agree with this in principle, I think anxiety and stress cause a resistance to this activity, and a perception that having everything out in the open is so scary that it’s better to ignore what needs to be done instead of writing it all down. If your list of starred items in email is already 15 items long and some emails have been there two weeks already, resistance to adding yet another starred item increases, and it’s easier to say, ‘I’ll remember to do that’ and just let it slip into the receding flow of inbox items, uncategorised, unflagged…you welcome the state of blissful semiconsciousness that partial ignorance brings…. At least that way you don’t have to be reminded constantly of what you haven’t done (i.e. of your impending failure).

I can say from experience now, though, that often the thing that has saved me from meltdown is sitting down with a sheet of paper and simply listing everything that needs to be done but which exists nowhere but in my head. Equally important is including everything ‘unofficial’. It feels kind of wrong at first, including things like ‘find a good enchilada recipe’ and ‘reorganise cleaning supplies’ with ‘apply for new passport’ – they’re vastly different activities, of differing importance/necessity and time required, etc. What’s been most vital for me to recognise is that the only factor required to put them on the list is the one they all share: they are all in my head.

Equally, with very important tasks, like finishing my thesis, having a thorough system which tells me each and every task I need to complete actually relieves much of my anxiety. Looking at those lists daily actually makes me feel better. Which brings me to my next point.

Being successfully organised and productive depends less on the physical system itself than on the habits with which I manage it. I love organisational tools – folders, notebooks, calendars, tabs – oh my! I’m intrigued by digital systems in theory, though I never find them to be very satisfying to use except in limited situations. However, I think I have often struggled to find a good system for myself because I mistakenly thought that it was the physical setup (or digital setup) that would make it work or fail. If I felt my work wasn’t organised or if I didn’t have a clear idea of what was going on or a sense of being in control of it, I assumed that I hadn’t figured out the right physical system: I hadn’t got the right categories in my tabbed binder, or the right size of notebook, or found the right calendar layout.

I was somewhat surprised, but relieved, to find that Allen not only doesn’t recommend a specific physical organisation system, but tends to favour those which are simple and often non-digital. His emphasis is on the practices you apply to the system: forming good routines and habits in how you use it, making good decisions with it.

As I said, I’m in the final stages of my thesis, and in the new year I decided to take stock of the project and make a comprehensive set of lists for completing everything. In the past, I would have agonised over what system to use for managing this. Index cards? An Excel spreadsheet? A notebook? A loose-leaf binder? A set of file folders? The answer commonly given to this conundrum is ‘Whatever works best for you.’ Yes, of course – but surely I can’t be alone in thinking, sometimes, that nothing works well for me? I’ve tried all the systems above at some point, for managing some type of task, and all have failed me. So I thought.

This time around, though, I finally figured out that probably any of those systems would work, as long as I updated it faithfully, consulted it regularly, and ensured that it was always a complete record of the project. The fact that it isn’t colour-coded doesn’t matter, nor does it matter that my crossed-off items share a page with my still-to-do items and create visual clutter. I used an old notebook which had been used for my Old Norse class long ago, removed the Old Norse notes, and added tab dividers with post-it notes. But I think it could have been any notebook, or a set of papers in a folder, or a stack of index cards in a box, or a spreadsheet. It works, and believe me, it relieves my mind of so much anxiety, because I consult it at least three times a week and add anything that needs to be done, as well as crossing off what I’ve completed, down to the smallest task – ‘Fix formatting of footnote 34 on page 17′. It’s the regular consultation and updating that makes it work.

In summary: the first importance isn’t the system that is organised per se, rather it is I, the person, who organises. The good news about that, in my view, is that if things feel out of control it isn’t because I haven’t found the perfect file setup or type of notebook or calendar. It’s simply that I need to adjust the way I use them.

 

Some Vintage Knitting

I have finally knitted a wearable sweater! IMG_0680

I found this 1950s pattern in a local charity shop, and bought it because I’ve always wanted to try a vintage sweater pattern. In fact it was very easy to knit, and I did big portions of it watching TV and on the train into London, nearly finishing it back in September or October. However, once I assembled the pieces I felt that the sleeves were a little more baggy than I would prefer, and, depressed by how much effort I’d invested, I didn’t finish it and put it away. Finally, though, I pulled it out again and decided to reassess the sleeves. I still wasn’t sure, but opted to go ahead and buy buttons to finish it off, if for no other reason than to prove to myself that I could knit something that was at least wearable, if not perfect.

You know what? I really, really like it. The sleeves don’t bother me as much now, and if in the future I want to redo them, I think I could adjust the pattern for a slimmer fit. It’s not that hard to unravel knitting and re-knit a piece with the same yarn.

I have a fairly long (but fraught) history of knitting. I’ve known the basics for a long time, and for many years I had one pair of knitting needles that were my own and on which I would knit blankets and scarves for my toys. As a teenager and young university student, I branched out into some attempts at cardigans, and while I knitted prolifically I struggled to produce anything that was very wearable. Some of that was incompetence – wonky cardigans with two sides that didn’t match up, edges that rolled, etc. Much of the problem was poor choice of yarn, and not knowing where to find patterns that looked like wearable garments for my own taste instead of boxy, artsy-craftsy styles.

For this cardigan, I chose a yarn of natural fibres (I think it’s a bamboo/cotton blend, from a couple of years ago) rather than a cheap acrylic, and the pattern had a better range of sizes than I’ve sometimes seen and a more trim fit through the bodice. Altogether, those things made this actually a wearable garment. I also splurged a little on the buttons, reasoning that if you’ve bothered to knit a whole cardigan, you should buy buttons that enhance it, rather than cheapen it.

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I noticed a couple of interesting features to this pattern. As you can see, it has the classic 50s slim-waisted fit. When the sweater is lying flat, you can see that wasp-waisted shape characteristic of other knits I’ve seen from the period – it looks too thin at the waist and angles out sharply. In fact, the waist in this case is smaller than my waist, meaning that the ribbing stretches to fit snugly. Also, notice how many buttons there are and how high up they come! This is one difference I do sometimes notice between vintage or homemade garments and ready-to-wear clothing, that buttons are more closely spaced in older and homemade clothes. There’s no gaping or pulling between them as a result.

IMG_0687This sweater is not perfect. I’ve restrained myself and saved this comment for the end instead of using it as a disclaimer at the beginning! But I don’t suppose any of my readers would point out the flaws. I make a point of saying this partly because I think it’s encouraging to read about others’ projects and realise that they’re not always flawless, but that it can be just fine to wear a garment or display a creation that isn’t perfect. And I make this point to myself as well, because I can be far too perfectionistic in my various handcrafts. To any friend, I would say, Why bother liking the project less because it isn’t perfect? You knitted a sweater from scratch!! Feel accomplished!! (Double punctuation intentional.) So I’m trying to tell myself the same. (And telling it to myself about my thesis as well, incidentally.) Looking at this sweater now, I think I would have worn it a lot over the winter if I had just finished it back in October, instead of casting it away because of its imperfections!

How to Get Rid of Things

One thing I enjoy about January is the chance to reorganise, de-clutter, and generally take stock of my commitments and routines. I enjoy these things anyway, but January feels like the time of year when re-evaluation is most appropriate, and I don’t feel guilty devoting some time to these activities. The part I have the hardest time with, however, is the de-cluttering. I have a really hard time getting rid of things.

My home doesn’t look like those over-stuffed garages from TV shows about hoarders, but if you know me you probably know that I tend to stuff every little cranny with things, even if they’re neatly organised. Empty space in my house doesn’t last long. While I like to think some of this is because of not living in a huge place, and because of doing all my work from home, in reality, those excuses only go so far. Living in the space I do have should be part of living within reasonable boundaries.

I know that some people don’t have this problem. They are a-pathetic towards their belongings, having simply a lack of strong feeling about things in general. In fact I think this is a good attitude, and I’m not saying that everyone ought to have my ‘attachment issues’ towards their possessions. However, I know that plenty of people do, for various reasons, experience the same feelings and habits I have with regard to my things. Those things include:

  • Sentimental paraphernalia
  • Old favourite clothes
  • Things that ‘might come in handy someday’
  • Things I paid good money for
  • Gifts
  • Things I haven’t gotten the use out of yet
  • Books I might want to re-read
  • A garment or project I spent a long time making

I could go into the myriad of reasons these things pull on my heartstrings, including sentiment, guilt, a need to be prepared, or seeking safety. Instead, I’d like to share a few ways I find helpful for getting rid of things when I know my collection has outgrown its space.

Record it with a photo

I used to be really attached to quite a number of stuffed toys, and even into my teens I couldn’t get rid of them because I had endued them with personality and felt guilty ‘abandoning’ them. Partly, I realised, it was because I had lots of memories attached to them and simply didn’t want to forget all of that. Plenty of them also made me laugh, because they were homemade and demonstrated varying degrees of skill in the days when I was learning to sew, or represented a family project fondly remembered. Finally, I lined the stuffed toys up and took a photo of them, which gave me just enough courage to get rid of them.

Do I look at the photo often? Unsurprisingly, no. However, I occasionally run across it when looking through a photo album, and smile. More to the point, the photo gave me one small item to hang onto instead of having to keep a laundry basket’s worth of toys.

A similar suggestion I’ve heard about, if you’re a journaling type, is just to write a little about the item and what you remember about it before getting rid of it.

Transfer the memories

In a similar vein, I often find myself hanging on to memorabilia of various kinds: ticket stubs, dried flowers, napkins with restaurant logos, programmes, etc. At times, I have spent a lot of time and effort meticulously organising these things, only to realise eventually that I just couldn’t keep them all. The question I have found most useful in letting go of these things is: ‘What else could remind me of the memory linked to this thing?’

Very often, there’s a photograph, or simply another item associated with the same memory. At that point I say to myself, ‘I don’t have to worry about getting rid of X, because I’ll remember the event whenever I see Y [the other object].’

Have a get-rid-of holding pile

In the bottom of my closet, I have a spot for clothes or other items that are on their way out. If I feel like I need to get rid of something, but don’t quite have it in me to toss it entirely, I simply put it in the holding pile. That doesn’t take much courage – it’s just putting it in a spot in my closet. Periodically I go through the pile and actually get rid of things or, occasionally, return them to their original home.

When I go through the pile, I usually have one of two reactions. Sometimes, I think, ‘Wow, I’d forgotten about that – I love it!’ This happens occasionally with old clothes that I’ve grown bored of, but which I actually like and appreciate anew after they’ve been out of my closet for a while. I think that’s a fine use for this holding space – occasionally it means I am able to appreciate something and use it again when I wasn’t before. However, most of the time, my response is, ‘I’d forgotten about that for the last three/six/nine months.’ Having already realised that I had forgotten the item and never missed it, I generally don’t feel bad about getting rid of it once and for all.

Guilt, oh the guilt!

This last point isn’t so much a tip as a realisation that may be productive. It dawned on me recently that one reason I am so reluctant to let go of many of my possessions is that getting rid of things seems like admitting to a mistake.

For one thing, maybe I have excess clutter because I’m too acquisitive and spendthrift in the first place. I always wonder this when cleaning out my closet.

Invariably, I also get rid of the occasional item that I myself paid good money for but somehow didn’t use. That always feels like admitting my own poor taste. I’m forever vowing never to buy jeans that don’t fit perfectly, yet there’s almost always a ‘least favourite’ pair in my closet that I wear on the days before a trip when I’m trying to keep everything else clean. Whenever I get rid of that pair of jeans, I have to confess to myself that if I had known better, I wouldn’t have bought them in the first place.

With sentimental clutter, finally letting it go is embarrassing because often I should have let it go long before. Saying, ‘I’m getting rid of this birthday card from ten years ago!’ is tantamount to saying, ‘And I’ve clung to it for ten whole years.’ Yes, I had birthday cards from that long ago when I cleaned out my room in Houston earlier last year.

Here’s my final thought on this kind of guilt and shame associated with purging possessions. For me, it stems from what seems like a good impulse: an acute sense of responsibility to be a frugal, non-materialistic, mature person who respects money and possessions, not to mention valuing work and the environment (which produced the item in the first place) – and who hence never buys what she doesn’t need, and uses everything till it’s broken beyond repair, and repurposes every old card and notebook. However, although I don’t advocate willy-nilly acquisitiveness, and ideally I’d like to be wiser about what I let into my home in the first place, it seems to me that allowing so much guilt to accrue surrounding physical things achieves the opposite of its goal. The goal, as I said above, was responsibility and non-materialism – but allowing guilt about belongings to make you hoard them in fact gives your possessions far too much power. It actually seems like its own form of materialism.

I’m Back! And (Surprising) DIY Successes

I’ve been absent for a while, I know – mainly due to travelling, illness, and then simply having gotten out of the habit. I actually think about blogging all the time, and am often jotting notes for posts I’d like to write, but often feel too tired by the evening to sit down and write something extended. So tonight I thought I’d just share a few of the things I’ve been doing, while I’m writing other, more discursive, things for posting later.

So, I mentioned a while ago that I was trying a few homemade beauty products. I should have known this would be a slippery slope! At first, I kept feeling annoyed when I’d find recipes that called for five different types of oil. ‘Why don’t these people get a life?’ I thought. ‘Who wants to buy little bottles of five different botanical oils?’ But then I started funnelling my spending money towards my new hobby. A few months later I myself had a whole drawer full of little brown bottles and found myself blithely concocting in my kitchen and smearing my mixtures all over my hands and face.

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One of my first projects was lip balm, and this is truly easy to make from a mixture of beeswax and oils. The hardness can be adjusted by varying the amount of beeswax, and the viscosity will vary according to the thickness of the oils used. Also, compared to stuff like Burt’s Bees, it’s really inexpensive while having comparable ingredients.

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Slightly more surprising to me was this recent attempt at lip gloss. For some reason I’ve had a nostalgic hankering for lip gloss lately – maybe because it reminds me of the excitement of being young and putting it on for a special occasion, back when it was probably the only makeup I’d wear. But I anticipated that the signature sticky liquidity of lip gloss would be hard to replicate at home – it’s quite different from a balm. But it turned out to be easier than I expected. It’s essentially a very soft lip balm (wax+oil) emulsified with honey and glycerine, both of which are sticky and syrupy. The colour comes from some shavings of lipstick, but it goes on nearly clear.

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I was actually very surprised by how much the texture replicated store-bought lip glosses. It even has a little bit of sweetness from the honey, though no other flavour or scent, other than a slightly strange flavour of oils. But all the ingredients (with perhaps the exception of the lipstick) are basically edible (even glycerine is used in food).

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This hand cream is a failure-turned-success. I made it initially for my face, but decided that homemade creams aren’t suited to my skin. Although I haven’t had any breakouts from using oil on my face, creating a cream requires oil and water to be emulsified together with the aid of beeswax to keep the water in suspension (just like making mayonnaise, where the egg does the work of the beeswax), and I’m pretty sure that no matter how much the other ingredients in the cream absorb, the wax just sits on the surface blocking pores. So I didn’t like this cream on my face, but I love it on my hands. In fact, because of the wax, it does leave a slight film on my skin afterwards, but that’s ideal for applying just before leaving the house when the weather’s cold, because it forms a barrier. I usually get very itchy eczema in the winter, so I’m hoping this cream might help with that. I keep it in the fridge because, although my aloe vera itself contains preservatives, I wasn’t sure if they would keep the whole cream from going off. But it has been fine thus far in the fridge, and it’s handy in the kitchen after I’ve washed my hands.

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Here we have some gloup that is a work in progress, which is why I only made a tiny bit. It’s weirdo moisturiser. Facial skincare is the hardest thing to work out when using homemade products, or at least in the case of ‘problem skin’. Some bloggers promise that slathering yourself with plain coconut oil is the answer, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t that simple. In essence, the problem is that your skin needs moisture both in the form of oil and water, but of course oil and water don’t mix so can’t be simply combined. As I said above, combining them in the form of a cream requires wax, which leaves a residue. Commercial moisturisers are either oil-free or use emulsifiers that are more sophisticated and don’t leave the residue. But since I like both aloe vera and jojoba oil for my face, I decided to try whipping them together with a little glycerine (which I also love), and, as I suspected, for the most part they stayed in suspension. It’s either because the aloe is a thick gel which has enough structure of its own, or because the jojoba oil is technically a ‘liquid wax’ rather than an oil proper. There’s a little oily residue left, but for the most part the opaque gloup has stayed stable at room temperature. I haven’t used it for enough days in a row to know whether it works well on my skin, but I would swear from past experience that jojoba oil actually makes my skin less oily overall than a normal light moisturiser. That’s one reason I’m very keen to see if I can make it work.

To summarise, although I’ve had many failures in my DIY products, this has been a lot of fun. For the most part, even my failed experiments can be repurposed (like the cream above), so I haven’t actually wasted very much. A few of the things I really like about this hobby are:

  • It’s a hobby that produces something useful…so I do feel that when I spend money on my ingredients I’m getting double value in both entertainment and a usable product.
  • I’ve enjoyed de-mystifying some of the things I use daily, like lip balm and hand lotions. It’s enjoyable to understand how things are made (I used to love those TV programs that tour a factory and show how something is produced), and why they work.
  • Although I admit I’ve shelled out quite a bit of money acquiring my ingredients, I’ve been making these things for about six months now and most of my oils are still over half full. They don’t last forever, but most have a shelf life of at least a year or more, so relatively speaking I feel like it’s a cost-effective (if not cheap) endeavour.
  • And while I don’t want to jump on fear-mongering bandwagons that sometimes go around about ‘the deadly toxins in everyday products’, I think it’s pretty indisputable that natural ingredients are better in the long run. So long as they work and aren’t exorbitantly expensive, I’m pleased to use my homemade versions where I can.

I’m of two minds, now, when it comes to skincare products. On the one hand, I’ve been quite pleased to discover that in many regards it’s not rocket science. By and large, I feel that a whole realm of my daily life has been de-mystified (as I said). Not only am I better able to read ingredient labels, but in general I understand what ingredients are doing for the texture or effectiveness of something in a little bottle or tube.

This being the case, I do, however, have a new degree of respect for commercial products. Some people who advocate more ‘natural’ beauty products (though not all) can seem to take a very oversimplified approach. The use of preservatives comes under a lot of fire on some blogs and forums. While I understand that people have health concerns sometimes associated with ingredients like preservatives, I do now realise how necessary those things are. In other words, they are not just ‘nasty stuff the big companies throw in’. They’re to enable you to keep a bottle of lotion in your bathroom without it growing mould. And in many cases, just because something is natural doesn’t mean it isn’t problematic. Coconut oil doesn’t work well at all on my face – whereas my standard, inexpensive Simple moisturiser does. Although, if that jojoba oil gloup comes through for me…! We’ll see.