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A slave made your clothing for you.

February 16, 2013

linenLincoln SlaveryAlthough 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.

My recent experiment with a pattern called Monk's Belt.

My recent experiment with a pattern called Monk’s Belt.

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.

Handwoven table linens from my loom.

Handwoven table linens from my loom.

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.

Useful links:

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!

And don’t forget that YouTube is a priceless source of fiber instruction, from beginning knitting to spinning and even warping a loom.

I spun this silk specifically for weaving.

I spun this silk specifically for weaving.

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From → fiber arts

15 Comments
  1. pictfamily permalink

    A really interesting post. I am gradually getting around to making more things for myself, and have also started to seek out fairtrade fabric for projects. I enjoy knitting and am developing my sewing skills, but I think weaving is a bit beyond me as yet!

    Good luck with your endeavours and I look forward to seeing how your plan develops

    • Best of luck with your own projects! I don’t expect everyone to race out and spend thousands of dollars on looms, but I already have one and so I ought to put it to its best use. Start small….a knitted cap is a great way to launch a local wardrobe. And a rigid heddle loom is an affordable way to slowly ease into weaving.
      Thanks for writing! 🙂

      • pictfamily permalink

        I take your point about the weaving, but I already have a house full of stuff – I think a loom would be a thing too far! Just finished knitting a hat though, and should be sewing up some gloves this evening 🙂

  2. I want to try making gloves as well. I’ve got a pattern, and an essay from the Internet about making them custom-fitted, but just haven’t had time yet. Post a photo of the finished gloves on your blog; I’d like to see them!

  3. Lynne Shifriss permalink

    What interesting food for thought. I am trying to live more consciously. It’s more than clothes, though. For instance, whenever we are able to get stuff really cheaply, it’s because somebody’s not getting compensated fairly. People here in Bloomington like to diss Starbucks, for example, but they are great for employee benefits and contribute lots to liberal causes (they give full medical insurance for employees who work at least 20 hours/week, vacation time, etc.) And I won’t buy stuff at Hobby Lobby anymore because of what they are trying to do with birth control and medical insurance. I take clothes to be repaired at Sew and Sew’s instead of buying new. I wear an apron when I eat so I can wear clothes a couple of times instead of washing clothes all the time. My knitting and sewing are not up to the level of making my own clothing, but my two favorite sweaters are from Goodwill. The whole consumer culture we have, in which more and more stuff is supposed to equal happiness, is so bad for us in so many ways. Anyway, keep talking; it’s an inspiration.

    • Thanks for writing, Lynne! I’m working with a tailor right now who is making pants for me that REALLY fit, so she is going to keep my pattern on file and will make up a new pair with whatever fabric I bring her in the future. My handwoven yardage isn’t sturdy enough for pants, but I’m working on it! It’s good enough for a jacket or a dress, however, and that’s the next tailoring project.

  4. It’s so very hard to compete with economies of scale not to mention economies of indentured servitude. For example, a client brought in for alterations a floor length beaded ball gown she had purchased for $150. She was almost ashamed at the price because she had just recently been trying to purchase some similarly beaded fabric from a retail fabric store. The price for the uncut yardage was $150 per yard. I would have needed 4 yards at least to construct a similar ball gown not to mention the many hours of skilled labor, patterning, fitting, and sewing the dress.

    Ready to wear is cheap but that’s about all it has to offer.
    It’s usually:
    not ready to fit and not built to be alterable
    ready to disintegrate after a few washings, and
    almost ready to throw away after a few wearings.

    I have many garments that were tailored in the 1940s, 50s and 60s that still look fresh and wear well. They were made out of quality fabrics and constructed with longevity in mind, i.e. the understructure of the garment preserves and protects the fashion fabric, using underlinings, finished seams, button backing and so forth. In addition, so many of the parts of the garment workings are treated as design elements, bound buttonholes, sculpted lapels and pocket flaps, covered buttons and belts, working cuffs to name a few. These clothes were made by skilled laborers and cost more but one expected to wear them for years and years and indeed, I love the fact that I can wear clothes made over 50 years ago.

    Can you imagine what some of the clothes you can buy at Target will look like in 50 years???

    • When I was younger I used to haunt the local vintage shops where I found beautifully-made clothing that looked great and suited my impoverished budget. I still remember the beautifully-finished inner seams of one particular black jacket I bought; it dated to the late 1940s and I wore it frequently for more than a decade. When I go to Target today and look at their clothes, it’s slipshod, badly assembled, badly fitting and would most likely come apart under heavy use. In terms of style and construction, I feel that American clothing peaked between the 1930s and ’50s and is now suffering a sort of Dark Ages of barbarism and decline. If we want better clothing we’ll have to make it ourselves, and if we lack the ability we’ll ask talented tailors like yourself for help. (You have a nice web site, by the way!) Many thanks for writing.

  5. Love this. It’s an important aspect to home sewing that I’ve never heard anyone talk about before. I especially like that you’re weaving your own fabric- your wovens are so gorgeous! But I have been wondering for quite some time where my store bought fabric comes from. There are still textile mills in the US & Europe, but where does the $1 or even $5/yd fabric come from? I always marvel at how cheaply you can buy fabric & then how much cheaper it would be to purchase RTW clothing.

    • You’re quite right, it’s still a problem even to buy fabric at a shop to take home and sew yourself (70% of a garment’s carbon footprint supposedly comes from the environmental toll of dyeing and processing fiber). But all things considered, sewing your own clothes from industrial cloth is still a step in the right direction because it minimizes the human oppression inherent in the garment industry. We can only make big changes by taking small steps first. Thanks for writing!

  6. You’re so right!!! Everything you say in this post is the heartbreaking truth. I also think it’s up to us, as individuals, to care about the sourcing of our clothing. Thanks for a great post.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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