Birch Fabrics is one of our favorite organic fabric companies. We got a chance to interview Cynthia Mann, Birch Fabric CEO & Creative Director, recently and pick her brain about the organic textile industry.
1) How do you think buying organic benefits consumers, communities, etc.?
Buying organic supports consumers and their families, and communities alike, immensely by supporting healthier practices in farming, which translates to everything from the clothes we put on our bodies to the food we eat.
2) Why is supporting small businesses important?
Supporting small business is important because it supports our community and makes it possible for small families to be in control of their own futures and livelihoods so that they don't have to depend on corporations and jobs in an ever changing economic environment. It shows our children that we promote growing our community by making better choices where we choose to put our spending so that we are empowering our neighbors and people that are close to us.
3) What motivates you during challenging times?
What motivates me during the most challenging times is the humility, endurance, and motivation of my hard working staff that never give up, no matter how hard things get. We love what we do and we fight to exist because we feel like we are the luckiest people on the planet to be able to work in such a fun and mutually respectful environment. Our community is like none other! Crafty, considerate, and loving. And the people that work in our industry fit right in!
4) What would you do differently (if you could) with Birch Fabrics at the beginning of your business venture?
I wouldn't change a thing!
5) What lessons have you learned?
The most important lesson that I've learned in my business is to always be positive and never underestimate the power of an individual. It's the people that make a business.
6) Do you think organic is the way of the future? Is the demand going up?
I wish the answer to that question was a resounding "yes." However, with the economy the way it is, it’s hard to see the demand changing too much. We've definitely seen the demand in Europe go up extensively, and the US usually follows suit, but sometimes takes a bit longer.
7) How do we educate quilt makers and handmade apparel businesses and crafters to use more organic products?
To educate sewers on the importance of using organic fabrics you have to start with educating them on the effects of the farming of traditional cotton, but even more importantly the harsh chemicals used in the finishing process of traditional cotton textiles. You don't have to be an environmentalist to be concerned about harsh chemicals such as formaldehyde and heavy metals being absorbed in to you or anyone else in your family's skin and body. With instances of environmental cancer on the rise I think that buying and sewing with organically produced textiles is something that will likely become just as much about our long term health as the environment.
8) What are your thoughts on the higher costs of organic fabric?
I know it is frustrating for consumers that organic fabric is more expensive than conventional cotton. However I think that the price difference relative to the long term alternative consequences of not buying and using organically produced vegetables or textiles is worth it. Over time the costs have begun to bridge a gap. As you have seen in the stores, organic produce is nearly the same cost as non-organic produce. I do believe that textiles are working hard to get to this place as well. We can all dream can't we?
A few thoughts about the “fabric of our lives.” I’ve become intrigued with using more organic materials in my inventory. Today, Adam and The Bear features three different legging patterns made from organic fabric. I’d like to add more items as interest in these pieces increase. I’m no authority on organic everything, but it’s become a hot topic in the fashion industry of late and I have a few thoughts. All traditionally grown cotton certainly isn’t treated equally, but the industry has discovered some amazing benefits to using organic cotton.
What is organic cotton?
Organic cotton is grown without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Much like organic produce, organic cotton begins with natural, untreated, and GMO-free seeds. The cotton seeds are planted in healthy soil and grown in an environment free of chemical insecticides and pesticides. The processing of the cotton plant into fabric is complex and requires the use of even more chemicals. The organic cotton processing is natural, and kinder, if you will, to both the environment and the factory employees.
The whitening, finishing, and dying processes of organic fabrics is done through toxic-free methods, using natural products like peroxide and natural dyes rather than the chemical toxins, and in some cases formaldehyde, used in conventional fabric production. Check out this denim dying process- True Blue.
Also like the organic produce industry, there are third-party certification organizations, such as the Global Organic Textile Standard, who verify that organic producers use only methods and materials allowed in organic production. All cotton sold as organic in the United States must meet strict federal regulations covering how the cotton is grown.
What about cost?
Just like organic apples at your local grocery store, organic cotton often costs more, thereby making the final piece you purchase a higher priced item. That said, if more consumers demand more products made in an environmentally friendly way, we’ll likely see a cost reduction over time.
Adam and The Bear is a company composed of ethically made products, it’s the cornerstone of our business, in fact. You will see more organic pieces from us down the road. I hope you research and decide for yourself if items made with organic material is important to you.
I bought my first sewing machine in 2012. It was a basic Brother machine designed for the entry level sewer. I had never sewn before. But I had this desire to find an outlet for my creativity and thought it’d be interesting and fun to make clothes. Without proper training, I truly believed this phase of my life would be just that – a phase. Once my machine arrived, I decided it was time to get down to the business of learning to sew. I watched countless YouTube videos and tutorials, read specialty books, and mixed that with a healthy dose of old-fashioned trial and error. When someone says, “I’m self-taught,” I always wonder. But, in this case, I am completely self-taught.
I began with basic pieces like a pillow case dress for my daughter. It wasn’t too shabby, so I upgraded to an adult tank top. Sadly, the tank turned into a complete failure, but I learned from the process, so in the end it wasn’t a total waste.
I’d have many more failures down the road, and probably some still waiting for me, but I try to see what can be learned from each circumstance. And the most important part… I try again.
I soon returned to making clothing for my daughter because it was less of an investment of my time and money. At the beginning, each piece was slow going because I didn’t grow up around a group of grandmothers and aunties sewing, gossiping, and drinking tea. Does anyone grow up that way these days? Words like “notions” and “lining” weren’t things we discussed around the dinner table. I kept my phone next to my sewing machine so I could look up industry terms. The sewing world is filled with jargon, so I had to become bilingual. Occasionally, even now, I use my phone to look up the difference between a box pleat and knife pleat.
I also didn’t know what a pattern was. I got a big Simplicity-style education just from reading about them. I would spend evenings perusing patterns and pattern instructions, and reading about what others had to say about patterns. It has grown into a small obsession.
Nowadays I see a cute shirt or dress at the park and think to myself, “can I make that?” Most of the time the answer is yes. I also wonder how I can make it better or cuter or make it into something I’d like better, then the magic of design starts working and I sit down at my machine and see what happens.
Hi, I’m Megan.
I’m passionate about how things are made.
Wife, mother, and general maker of things. I like fashionable expression and a good bottle of reasonably-priced wine. I believe less is definitely more. We live in a culture where we can demand our products be ethically and responsibly made. Welcome to Adam and the Bear, a durable children’s clothing store filled with ethically handmade items for stylish and playful children.
It was around Kindergarten when I started rejecting the clothing my mom picked for me in favor of something a little more experimental. I had my own style. I wore anything pink and purple. Not just pink or purple, but both. Together. I still fondly remember some of the pieces in my childhood wardrobe such as the ankle zipper jeans my grandma bought for me as a special treat. I was under strict orders concerning the rad, classic 80’s jeans – “You are only to wear these for school,” my mom said. This might have been the first seed of an idea to come years later.
Why can’t a kid’s wardrobe be both stylish and practical?
I was into popular fashion early. I read and collected fashion magazines and faithfully watched my favorite show, House of Style, an MTV classic at the time. Thinking back on it I chuckle a bit to myself, but one can’t ignore their fashion roots. My small high school dubbed me “best dressed” and the school paper predicted I would become a fashion designer.
I went off to Western Washington University to study Economics. I was drawn to Economics because I like learning and visualizing the correlation between things, plotting things on graphs. I need to see results. It was a good academic fit. I then started my career at Nordstrom where I worked with quality, designer clothing and helped customers pair different high-end pieces together. Another seed of sorts was planted during that time. I worked with many of the same customers over and over again. I got the sense their wardrobes, the items I had helped them pick over the years, were, well, disposable. This shopping trend - one honestly I, too, was a part of - seemed frivolous.
I challenged myself to start appreciating pieces in my own wardrobe that were better quality, lasted longer, and could be worn on many occasions.
I kept these ideas in the back of my head when my husband and I started our family. Our daughter came along and all of the sudden I was dressing my baby in countless cheap onesies and rarely worn dresses. We were swimming in buckets of cheap baby clothes, many of which were never used. There were so many!
The abundance was bothering me. My fashion magazines were long gone from my everyday life by this time, collecting dust in a closet, replaced by pregnancy and baby books. As I fought to get my head above water in both caring for my baby and managing a household overflowing with stuff, I began a journey to break free from pop culture’s trends. I bought higher quality clothing, but fewer pieces. Yes, I did more laundry, but I found better quality stands up better to multiple washes.
I couldn’t let go of the lack of correlation between the children’s fashion industry and profit to retailers charging $6-10 per pair of leggings How?
Think fabric cost, seamstress wages, and shipping. What gives here? I was appalled at what my research revealed. And yes, I was part of the problem.
This desire for better quality, and ethical methods soon merged with the fashion designer wannabe in me and I started thinking about ways to curate my own style. I had to do something. And for starters this “something” was isolated to my own home. I wanted to come up with a way to create cute, high-quality, playful clothes made ethically and from creative fabrics.
Tune in next week for more of the story.