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At ‘Slow Process,’ Burlington designer turns vintage grain sacks, tablecloths into your new clothes

Mar 07, 2023

Inside Slow Process in Burlington's South End, there are two distinct atmospheres.

In the storefront, racks of trendy men's clothing are neatly presented. A colorful red carpet adorns the floor. There are twinkle lights.

But step into the back, and that's where the magic happens. Here it's more chaotic. Textiles are piled everywhere. A large cutting table dominates the space.

Then, there are the four massive sewing machines.

Sitting at one is clothing designer Sam Zollman, who founded Slow Process — a Burlington-based clothing line that is committed to making environmentally conscious garments that redesign the male uniform — in 2018.

"I really love taking classic menswear silhouettes, but lending some amount of like, softness or beauty to them, whether it's changing the fabrics or certain details," he says.

Zollman says he always knew he was an artist, but didn't find his medium until he discovered sewing. He learned the craft by watching YouTube videos and taking a few classes.

More from Vermont Public: Vermont Quilt Festival ends in 'gut-wrenching decision'

For his debut collection, he wanted to challenge the traditional notions of masculinity. His designs blend classic symbols of Americana manhood, like a letterman Jacket or a vintage baseball jersey, mixed with vibrant colors and floral patterns.

"I wanted clothes that had elements of my favorite menswear styles — whether that's denim jackets, or cool button-down shirts, or you know, things that are more vintage-inspired, like different kind of smocks or whatever — but I just wanted them to carry less of the symbolism and the things that identify as hyper-masculine," Zollman says.

And he wanted his designs to not add to America's obsession with fast fashion. According to Boston University's School of Public Health, Americans throw out more than 34 billion pounds of used textiles — that's more than 100 pounds of textile waste per person — each year.

In his designs, Zollman strictly uses high-quality textiles that date as far back as the late 1800s. He looks on the internet and at estate sales to find old tablecloths, coverlets, grain sacks, and more antique fabrics that are undervalued and would otherwise be sent to landfills.

"I use a lot of antique buttons," he says, grabbing a handful. "So these are all antique corozo nut buttons from the kernel of a palm that grows in Central and South America mostly. But it was used before Bakelite, before plastic, but it's really durable, and you can polish it, and burn it, laser it, all the things you can do to plastic, but it's actually an organic material, and they're so just beautiful."

Kelly McDowell, a sustainable fashion professor at the University of Vermont, says over the last 50 years, the fashion industry has evolved to rely on cheap, overseas labor and less durable materials. As a result, we’ve become accustomed to super-cheap clothing.

"Does anyone really believe that a shirt is worth $3 brand new?" she says. "If you do, you need to stop and realize that you are in a funk, and you need to analyze your consumer psychology."

McDowell says while it might be fun to buy something cheap and wear it just a few times, low-cost garments mean the wages paid to those who make them is often very low.

In addition to fast fashion's impact on workers and the planet, the quality of today's clothing and textiles is also often lower than it once was, she says.

Zollman, for example, uses a lot of textiles from the 1900s like grain sacks and flour bags.

"The bags themselves were meant to be reused over and over and over again, and so the quality is far superior than most anything else you can find," he says.

And better for the planet. Clothing manufacturing uses a immense amount of water and creates 1.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually.

More from Vermont Public: Why this Vermont designer makes clothing from vintage quilts

"There's sustainability in the sense that the material you're using has already been in existence, and therefore the environmental impact of that is like a sunk cost," Zollman says. "But if the thing you're going to make is then going to break down in a year, was that really worth it?"

Zollman's designs cost between $285 for a button-down to more than $1,000 for larger pieces. He's knows that unreachable for some people, but he has been surprised by how his work has connected with Vermonters.

"There is some education that goes into the work I do," he says. "I need to contextualize why are my clothes more expensive than most other clothes you can find here. It's taken a few years for people to know who I am and understand the work that goes into it and the stories behind these pieces.

He says many Vermonters appreciate that he does this work with his hands.

"So there's this great legacy or tradition of wanting to be self-sufficient and supporting yourself with the materials you have around you," Zollman says. "And so, in many ways, when people come into the space and they see all the sewing machines, they see the clothes, I think it does resonate in that way. That even though it is fashion, and fashion is something that feels a little foreign, there are elements that really connect with the culture and lifestyle here."

This story was produced in collaboration between Vermont Public and the Community News Service. The Community News Service is a student-powered partnership between the University of Vermont's Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program and community newspapers across Vermont.