SFO Week 4: Known Origins (Part 1)

I'm just going to skip right over Week 3 of Slow Fashion October (the prompt was "handmade") for a couple of reasons: first, if you've read more than one or two posts on Mad Knitting, you know why I make things (it's a lifelong passion, it's in my blood, my hands have to be busy with something tactile at all times for both work and hobby blah blah blah); second, I ran out of time to post last week and rather than be all redundant and visit that topic, I'd rather just move on to the one for this week.


Boy, is this A. Loaded. Topic. 

The introductory post on Fringe Association really nails it, laying out the problems of sourcing materials (fabric in particular) without mincing any words. We don't know the conditions in which the vast majority of apparel fabric is produced, and what we do know is disturbing. The environmental and human cost of fabric and clothing production is staggering. Toxic pesticides, toxic waste from dye runoff, child labor, deplorable working conditions - it's all pretty hard to swallow, especially since most of these things are happening in developing countries where lives are cheap and we can pretend we don't know about it. 

Recommended viewing: The True Cost (documentary available on Netflix)
Recommended reading: Overdressed (linked to Huff Post review because I'm not a fan of Amazon and I try not to link there unless I have to)

For many makers (not the vast majority, certainly, but the number is growing), we are well aware of these problems. Some people have jumped on the handmade wardrobe bandwagon with the goal of making their own clothes so they can, at the very least, eliminate the exploitation of garment workers in the complex chain of the production of clothing in their closets.

(Aside: hey, I'm in that camp. The thought of a teenage girl in south Asia bent over industrial sewing machines making my jeans makes me downright queasy, so I tried making my own. God knows where the denim came from. Making the jeans didn't go so well, but I'm determined to try again. It's a process.)

While making all your own clothes is a noble endeavor, it's not very practical, even for people with a lot of sewing experience. If you work full time, and/or if you have kids and/or a spouse who wears clothes (and, as I understand it, most kids and spouses do, in fact, wear clothes more days than not), you will simply not have enough hours in the day to make a wardrobe for your entire family. Unless you are a superhuman, in which case good for you! And then, even if you could make their entire wardrobes, there is absolutely no guarantee they would wear those clothes or, in the case of growing children, fit them for more than ten minutes.

I mean, we have noticed, have we not, that the vast majority of sewing and knitting patterns available are still for adult women? And, to some extent, young children who have little or no say in what they wear? (I recently tried to find a basic shirt pattern for a tween boy. Near impossible. Not surprising.) That, in my opinion, is all about marketing to certain demographics, not about promoting the ethics of handmade.

I've noticed that this year in particular, the Fringe Association SFO posts have attracted some interesting pushback from people (myself included) who point out the impracticality of handmade and ethically sourced clothing for everyone and even the nuances of the clothing industry. Don't get me wrong. A LOT of it is bad. But there are places where those textile factory jobs, while not good, are an improvement over what was available for work before. Might it not be better to advocate for better working conditions than to try and wash one's hands of the industry all together? The global economy is inevitable, after all.

But I don't think Karen Templer's intention was to try and change everyone's mind or habits all at once. You can't do that in a month of blog posts. She is speaking primarily to the maker community, to a group of people who can make a difference in their own small way, and I commend her for that and for getting this conversation going. I just needed to say that.

There is always the question of finding better options for both clothes and materials for making clothes. But that is far easier said than done. And say what you will about the longevity of a few well-made pieces of clothing and the value of supporting domestic production and small businesses that treat their workers well, not everyone can afford those things. Not everyone likes the limited styles available. And not everyone can make their own.

Predictably, there are a few - very few - options available for clothing and fabric with traceable origins, but for the most part, those options are appealing and affordable to only a niche group of people. Examples: What if you care very much about sustainability but you work in a corporate office where boxy beige linen dresses are not appropriate attire? What if you're new to sewing and are a graduate student on a limited budget and can't possibly afford organic cotton at more than $20/yard knowing you're likely to mess up and have to throw it out or repurpose it into potholders? What if you have kids who grow an inch a week and wouldn't wear something handmade if it were the last clean item in their closet? What if you're an ordinary blue collar slob* and can barely afford health insurance, much less a sewing machine? Etc etc.

It's an uncomfortable truth that this notion of voting with our dollars is most appealing to people who can afford it. Middle and upper middle class liberal women with a creative or crafty streak, like it or not, is a fairly narrow group of people, and they (I should say "we" because I'm a middle class woman with progressive tendencies and an inclination to make clothes) are definitely not the majority of consumers. It's naive to think otherwise and it's naive to think that flooding our own social media streams with these concerns (how many people are reading this here blog post, for example? not more than a dozen or two, I'd wager) is going to make a whole lot of difference to the wider world.

I'm not trying to be a total pessimist but I am trying to be realistic. I think the biggest difference we can make is to broaden awareness outside the maker community. How do we encourage consumers to pressure companies en masse to improve their labor standards? We need political leaders to take this on in trade negotiations. We need investigative journalists to keep investigating these issues and we need them on the front page of proverbial newspapers before the next devastating factory fire in Bangladesh or the Philippines. 

I have more thoughts about origins, but I think this is enough for now. I'll be back with part 2 in a few days!

*Simpsons reference. Name that episode!!


Nora said…
YES. Individual action only goes so far. Even if blogging and social media can make people consider the conditions in which their clothes are made, there are, at the momeent, few solutions to be found on an individual level. We need system-wide change, and investigative journalism and lobbying are two mechanisms that move things forward.
Aimee said…
I'm reading this post and I agree with you! I'm trying to write up my own thoughts about it and it's just so hard to cheerlead for expensive, artsy clothing (which I happen to love, don't get me wrong). Thanks again for sharing your thoughts on this, we definitely need a lot of honesty in this discussion.

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