Talking Textiles with Tara St. James

By Tribute Collective on

Behind every clothing item you wear is an origin story. The textile starts from a source like a plant or animal which is transformed into a thread that is weaved into a fabric, then dyed and cut before making its way into your closet. When shopping sustainably, it’s important that we as consumers pay attention to the origin story of the clothes we wear. There's a lot to learn in the world of sustainable textiles, and to help us understand it a bit more, TRIBUTE chatted with Tara St. James.

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St. James' interest in fashion began as a young girl, living in Montreal. She explained that her path in the arts started in high school, leading her to live in France for a year to study art history. It was her year in France that refined her desire to pursue fashion and eventually led her to start her own brand. Prior to having a sustainable fashion brand, named Study NY, St. James worked for several fashion companies, including one that she helped build from scratch. When her fashion career started in 2004 she was more interested in working for existing fashion houses rather than having her own brand. Her knowledge in sustainability developed within the manufacturing supply chain she worked with, “2004, was like the Wild West of sustainability, there was no information on the internet, no schooling, there was really no education around it, so it was just learning as I went”. In 2009, St. James launched Study NY. Having her own brand gave her the freedom to implement her own ideas of sustainable fashion and design.

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In the late 2000s, sustainable textiles were limited mainly to organic cotton, recycled polyester, hemp, linen and bamboo. Tara pointed out that she used bamboo early on, but stopped once she realized how bad it was, “it had a really good marketing campaign, it became, like, the most sustainable fiber because it grows naturally without pesticides, it was antibacterial, anti-microbial” but she goes on to say that it became so popular, that producers were cutting down virgin forests to replace them with bamboo forests. Those areas ended up losing all biodiversity. Bamboo, like rayon, is chemically processed to obtain its silky texture, another reason why it is not sustainable. Deceiving practices like these contribute to greenwashing in the sustainable fashion industry. There are many components that go into making a textile sustainable, including how it is dyed. Tara explained that the fabrics she features in Study NY are dyed from a variety of sources, mainly fiber reactive dyes and low-impact dyes. Fiber reactive dyes are typically used on cotton, linen, rayon, Tencel, and hemp. This type of dye bonds directly with the fabric, contains no toxic substances, and requires less rinse water. Natural dying, which typically comes from vegetables and fruits, requires more water. Tara says that if people are going to dye textiles from fruits and vegetables, it is important that it comes from the waste, like avocado pits or onion skins, rather than the food itself. She highlighted two US-based dyers she has worked with who use natural dyes. One is Cara Marie Piazza, based in NY, who hosts natural dye classes and partners with local restaurants to collect the food waste. The other is Green Matters Natural Dye Company, based in Pennsylvania, who focuses on natural dying for apparel and home goods. Tara will be featuring Green Matters in her upcoming Textile Tuesday Talks on Re:Source(d).

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Outside of running her brand, St. James is an educator. She is the founder of Re:Source(d), an education and consulting platform around supply chain and textile sourcing. The team at Re:Source(d) have a variety of expertise with the common goal of making positive change in the fashion industry. Re:Source(d) offers several services, including Textile Tuesdays. Textile Tuesdays is a monthly webinar that highlights sustainable textile vendors, but started out in person, “it was a monthly, like, in person show-and-tell for sustainable textiles”. Because it took place in person, they were limited to featuring people who were relatively local to New York. When the pandemic forced the world to go virtual, it opened opportunities for more vendors to be included, “we can invite people from all over the world to do a presentation”. While the focus for these webinars is mainly on materials, Tara is opening the platform to discuss technology around the materials, like biodegradable polyester and biodegradable treatments. St. James’ expertise has also been used to educate future designers. She has taught and lectured at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Parsons, and Pratt. Within the last couple of years she became a research fellow and production coordinator through the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator (BFDA). Tara explains that when giving lectures she tends to avoid talking about the problems in the fashion industry, “there’s a lot of people talking about that, and you see them on Instagram all the time, I think people are very aware of how bad the fashion industry is, so I tend to veer more toward solutions”.

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I asked Tara what textiles she leans toward (I mean, she is a textile expert after all). “I definitely gravitate toward denim, cotton shirting, wool, outerwear fabrics”, she explains that this is partly because her degree was in men’s wear, and also because she is Canadian. She goes on to say that she is automatically inclined to get anything that is striped, “my entire wardrobe is striped, blue and white stripes”, which intersects perfectly with many of the designs featured in her brand. When it comes to shopping, St. James shared a few of her criteria, “I shop by feel, I like to feel the fabrics, I also shop by construction, I can tell when something is well made, and when it’s not”. She also included a piece of shopping advice that she recently heard, “stop and ask yourself if you really need that piece in your closet, and how long you think you’ll have it”. She says it is important to be able to know where the product was made, and if that isn’t obvious through the label or brand website, consumers have to hold brands accountable to be transparent.  Happiness is another key factor to Tara’s buying advice, “if you buy something that you really love, and you’re gonna take care of it, it doesn’t really matter where it came from”. Taking care of the textiles we wear means adopting good washing and drying habits. She explained that people in North America are conditioned to wash their clothes more often than needed, and with harsh detergents, “that contributes to micro fibers going into the ocean, and degrading our clothes more quickly, which means we have to replace them more quickly.” She says to wash less often, on a cold cycle, use biodegradable detergent, and hang dry or dry on a lower cycle.

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As consumers we can’t always know right off the bat what the origin story of our clothes are. While brands do what they can to promote transparency, it is up to us to do research about the textiles we buy into. TRIBUTE, along with platforms like Re:Source(d), Fashion Revolution, re/make, etc. provide consumers with accessible resources to shop sustainably. Tara even pointed to a platform called Carbon Calories which shows how many carbon emissions come from the products we use, including textiles. When we prioritize shopping for sustainable textiles, and give our clothes a longer lifespan, we encourage the change toward a more sustainable fashion industry.

Words by Allyna Wilson