A slave made your clothing for you.
Although the United States abolished slavery during Lincoln’s presidency, much of our economy still is based upon slave labor, whether we care to admit it or not. (Slaveryfootprint.org will tell you just how many slaves work for you.)
Most of our clothing is made by women and girls in Asia. We assume that China makes most of our garments, but lately China has been outsourcing to other Asian nations, seeking ever-cheaper ways to manufacture clothing. Were it not for slave labor, our clothing would cost at least double or triple the current price. Spinning, dyeing, weaving and sewing all take time and effort, and this effort is identical whether the work is done in Asia or the US. An hour of American factory labor (with wages, materials and overhead) costs much more than an hour of factory labor in Asia, which is why there’s no longer a strong American textile industry.
And yet clothing is cheaper now than at any time in history. In the early 1980s, with my first after-college income, I bought myself a linen blouse. Beautifully sewn, it was made in Ireland and cost slightly over $40. That was a lot of money at the time—adjusted for inflation, that blouse would cost $100 today. What I paid was fairly close to the real-world cost of hand-processing and assembling that garment. (Linen processing is labor- intensive and can’t easily be sped up.) Silk at that time was also expensive because it too required complex processing. But at some point the US signed free-trade agreements that promoted cheap imports, and the cost of clothing crashed. Linen blouses started to be made in China and cost only a quarter of what I had paid in 1982. Silk became so cheap that when I got pregnant in 1995 I paid only $9.95 each for two oversized silk blouses to use as maternity tops. The purchase was a steal in more ways than one, because the Chinese fiber-industry workers who made those blouses were only paid pennies for each garment they completed.
I have reached a tipping-point and I am no longer willing to let slaves make my clothing for me. For me, it’s a matter of ethics. How can I, as an ethical and humane person, continue purchasing sweatshop-made items when I have an alternative? Many people might say I’m crazy to propose to give up cheap clothing at a time of economic downturn in my own country; but the knowledge that every garment in my closet was made with the suffering of girls and young women is unendurable to me as a parent. In a better world these girls would be attending school to educate and better themselves.
What I propose to do is to make more of my own clothing, since I’m a weaver, a spinner and a knitter. I have a loom, I have a spinning wheel and a sewing machine. I am armed with knitting needles and crochet hooks, and I’m dangerous! I have the power of words to tell others what I’m doing, and I possess the means to spread this information over the Internet. My goal is to weave fine yardage and sew as many of my own clothes as possible from here on. And don’t imagine I’m placing an onerous burden upon myself. The fiber-arts are my hobby, and people pursue hobbies because they’re fun.
This is a call to arms to all those who think similarly. Sign up for a knitting class! Learn to spin yarns and thread. Practice and perfect the fiber arts on your own, or do them in the company of others for support. Get yourself a sewing machine, or buy a portable (and affordable) rigid heddle loom. None of this is rocket science; all the fiber arts are completely doable and have been done by women for tens of thousands of years.
The ability to clothe yourself in garments that you have made by hand is something that will give you the most wonderful feeling of pride, accomplishment and empowerment. Your action will have a ripple effect that spreads beyond your own household, because whether you buy local fleece to spin and knit your own sweaters, or whether you simply buy yarn at your local yarn shop, you will be boosting your own local economy instead of enriching unscrupulous industrialists on the other side of the world.
The Fibershed in California encourages people to network with local fiber providers to make their own clothing. Like the concept of eating locally, the idea is to minimize environmental and societal harm by wearing clothing made with local fibers.
Learn to knit! Right now! Go out and buy a ball of yarn and DO IT!