An Insider’s Look at Fair Trade Textiles Offered in Chicago


This is a guest post written by CFT volunteer Whitney Richardson. 

The ties between sustainability, preservation of cultural heritage, and fair trade are innumerable. The cycle often looks like this: natural fibers are grown or raised carefully, harvested and hand-processed by artisans, created using skill and precision thoughtfully (often by hand) using techniques passed down from generations, the items are then sold at market for an honorable price that accounts for time and skill put in by the creator that goes back into generating an ethical system of production, providing livable income and an honest way of earning.

Quickly, let’s look at some of the waste and harm generated by the fast fashion industry to provide context. Fleeting fashion trends feed into disposable systems, generating waste and contributing to the cycle of poverty. When clothes go out of style, consumers will dispose of the old for something new. Due to the expendability of the items, these clothes are offered at “discount.” The reality is that most clothing offered on “discount” was just manufactured at a lower quality. The clothing is designed to “fall apart,” encouraging consumer disposal. Americans throw away over 68 pounds of textiles per year, according to NPR’s Elizabeth Cline. The items are usually synthetic, contaminated with lead and other hazardous chemicals, causing harm to the wearer and those manufacturing the items. It will take decades for these items to decompose in a landfill. “Industry estimates that 20 to 60 percent of garment production is sewn at home by informal workers,” according to Lucy Siegle’s book, To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?, created with the support of child labor by impoverished home workers, sewing as fast as they can and for as long as daylight will allow for below living wage away from the regulations of controlled industry.

Chicago Fair Trade offers a support network for businesses creating ethical and sustainable wearable goods. Among the many members and other Chicago-area businesses, we contacted Loom Chicago, working out of a Lincoln Square church, to share with us their practice for making fair-trade textiles. Loom Chicago brings together refugee women from different countries to teach and learn from each other skills that these women learned in childhood, drawing the connection to home and creating a new home built around sharing and learning from each other. They create items using various techniques – knitting, tailoring, weaving, crocheting, dying. For the curious folk out there, perhaps, arrange a time to stop by during one of Loom Chicago’s weaving circles on Tuesday evenings in Lincoln Square and see about ways to volunteer and help with the resettlement process. CFT stopped by on a Tuesday to learn more about Loom during a weekly weaving circle, taking place in a spare room of a church, shared with RefugeeOne.

There were many volunteers, mainly self-identified artists, and women from Nepal present for the evening.


For more, read a Q+A with Alexandra Sundet, Loom Coordinator, at a Tuesday night weaving circle:

Whitney Richardson for CFT: What are you working on right now (pointing to the large floor loom)?

Allie Sundet for Loom: We’re preparing to participate in an art show led by the Social Fiber Network as a part of Chicago Artist Month [ed note: this event has passed]. They’ve requested we create panels of whatever size [we want] in various earth tones to resemble a landscape for the show. It’s a collaborative process on the loom between the women, working on this together. I’m not certain what the vision for the directive was but we think it builds a foundation upon the meditative state of weaving.

WR: Where do the materials [for this project] come from?

AS: Donations. We’re using repurposed shirts and towels, yarns, wool. There are drop spindles available for creating yarn.

WR: How does it work for the refugee women who are creating the items [you sell]? Like, how do they choose what to make and what do they receive from sales?

AS: Each woman makes her own items in her own style and receives a percentage of sales from that item.

WR: Where are these items sold?

AS: We mostly show at craft markets – Show of Hands [ed note: held biannually, during the spring & the holiday season] and suburban shows in the city and suburbs. We’re working to get into area stories and are working on an Etsy shop, too.

WR: What tools do you have to work with?
AS: Drop spindles for making yarn, frame looms, needles, a new edition of the floor loom from the Social Fiber Network, frames for things like headbands.

WR: What is preserved in this process of letting the weaver decide what to make?

AS: It is their process to choose and create something that resonates with them. Sometimes, sales-wise, it’s hard to translate to an American market. The point, though, is to make the space to allow personal creativity to thrive, helping build and rebuild this creative identity [and aesthetic language]. Everyone is coming from different places, speaking different languages, and they are being instructed on what they need to do next all the time [in the resettlement process] – this is their creative outlet.

WR: What are the types of weaving workshops that you offer?

VB: Natural dyes, drop spinning, spinning, soon basket weaving. Workshops are offered by volunteer artists who care about what we’re doing and want to share [their skills].

WR: How do women get involved?

AS: Loom was started by the Refugee Resettlement Program of Catholic Charities, by the Director Elma, as a program for women a few years ago. All of the women who work with Loom have been working with Catholic Charities. They come from all over the world, including Bhutan, Nepal, Iraq, and the Congo.

Thanks, Whitney and Alexandra, for taking the time to share your thoughts on ethical textile production and initiatives that are happening right here in Chicago!