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Mar 6, 2010

Sewing as protest

Since we live in a part of the world where clothes can be had relatively cheaply and few people are forced by economic necessity to make their own, why are we still doing it?

I had this conversation with my friend Johanna (the 10-sewing-machine gal) last Sunday.  We agreed that there does seem to be a nascent do-it-yourself crafts movement afoot and wondered what might be fueling it.  Johanna wisely pointed out that few of us are doing work that actually involves making anything anymore; we're writing at a computer, or processing numbers, or providing services.  It feels good to create something with our own hands.  It's an expression of who we are. 

Thinking more about it this week, I began to realize that for me there is also an element of resistance in my choice to make my own clothes.  It comes out of the awareness that so many American companies, in their quest for ever-higher profits, pursue a strategy of chasing the lowest labor costs they can find -- first in the USA, and then wherever in the world they can go.  Most have no qualms about outsourcing jobs to countries that use child labor,  have weak environmental regulation, are virulently anti-union, and have unsafe working conditions.  It means they can make money faster, which is what their stockholders demand.

Factories are often located in places -- and this is no coincidence -- where labor organizing is outlawed and can get you killed.  Outsourcing is done without regard to the effects these practices might have on the communities here in America that have watched jobs go first to the South, and then out of the country entirely.  You can see the effects of it everywhere, in nearly every American city that used to rely on industry for jobs.  Many American cities are wastelands -- literally in ruins.

I don't want to support these companies anymore.  Obviously, 100% purity can be difficult to maintain.  Sometimes you need a pair of underwear and there's no American Apparel nearby.  Or you buy a few yards of Chinese cotton knit because it's cheap; you really don't want to know who wove it or how.

It's a lot like our food.  Do you ever wonder how those grapes ended up in your fruit salad,  under what conditions they were picked, sorted, and shipped and by whom?  The answer can be alarming.

Clothing corporations have, furthermore, branded us to death, marketing their clothing as symbols of sex, youth, escape -- even anti-consumerism.  The message is that if we wear a certain pair of jeans we'll look like Che Guevara or John Lennon or James Dean.  Real people are reduced to symbols of cool.

I don't care what someone may or may not think of my brand of sneakers or underwear or what assumptions they make about me based on how I dress.   I'm not in high school anymore.  My goal in life is not to acquire the symbols of status that represent power in our society.  My power lies within me, not my brand of sunglasses.

I understand that it can be hard to resist the culture and pleasurable to participate.  And goodness knows, in many ways I participate too.  But it's nice to know that my jeans are original Peter Lappin's, and that a week ago my tee-shirt was just generic knit yardage on a bolt.  The only person who had to like it was me.

So how about you?  Do you sew just so that you have a nice-fitting pair of pants, or is something else going on?

When you wear your own handiwork, are you hoping to blend in, or are you saying something about who you are and what you believe?


  1. ooh! I'm first! Yay! I returned to sewing so that I had something to wear. Before my illness, I was already wearing men's jeans and pants just to get them long enough. 6'0 women are few and far between, and 'tall' pants looked like flood pants on me. But after my legs started swelling, I started sewing so that I could have long pants that not only fit over my legs, but would fit over the three inches of compression bandaging I sometimes have to wear. So in a way, it is to blend in--with long pants, you can't see the ugly brown bandaging fashion statement.

  2. Peter, I am really glad you posted this. We used to live in Japan and were privy to a lot of news about China that never made it to the US. For more than one reason, we decided to never buy anything made in China again. That was the big reason for starting to make my own clothing. Some things slip through the cracks now and then, but we are obsessive label-checkers and if we can't find a US or European made replacement, we just do without. And not only clothing, but just about everything else.
    Learning about slavery practices there and the Chinese government's apathy to it made me cognizant about other issues as well. I don't buy any fruit or vegetables from California. Doing so not only supports illegal immigration, but it also directly tells the growers that you are completely willing to support their activities and that's a whole host of problems. You vote with your dollars every single time you buy soemthing. And if you want to read something really awful, just do a Google search about what goes on with flower-growing in South and Central America. Those workers are being poisoned to death so we can send each other roses on Valentines day.
    I cannot in good conscience support companies that have screwed American workers out of jobs instead of finding a solution here at home, or support human rights abuses just so I can pay $20 for a shirt.
    But what really burns me is the fact that so many people whining about our economy and screaming to the government to do something about it are the very same people who refuse to sacrifice anything. They continue to shop at WalMart to get the best deal instead of taking the time to find an alternative or go without, they refuse to take the time to read labels, they refuse to think about the bigger picture. It's the American way to get what one wants immediately to the point that gluttony is a "right". God forbid anyone should have to sacrifice their right to have it all.

  3. Well, I sew because it will be my job at some point (yay!) But I really started trying to sew things I will actually wear because of a book I read called Made In China (the woman tried to spend a year not buying things made in China). It is not a particularly good book, nor was the writer very creative in finding ways of getting around buying things from China. She never once visited a thrift store!
    My one problem I run into is that a lot of the materials I use when sewing end up being made in these sorts of places. Fabric is almost always from China, as are many notions. Buttons almost never are, they usually hail from Italy (weird). So I've started trying to sew mostly from old sheets n' stuff.

  4. Funny you should mention notions. All the Coats and Clark thread seems to come from Mexico. The lightbulb I bought for my Singer 15-91, China. Nearly all sewing supplies are made in the Far East or Mexico, alas. It's a race to the bottom: cheaper and cheaper production from countries desperate for jobs. And there's always someone more desperate!

  5. I too have a soft spot for equitable employment standards. I sew because I love knowing I can turn a bunch of fabric into something useful and (hopefully) beautiful. But the more I sew, the less comfortable I am with massed produced garments. It's been almost 3 months since I've bought clothing from a store. I'm sure I will again - but now that I know what truly goes into production, and I can't believe I can afford to buy any of the beautiful RTW things I see - much less get them on mega sale.

  6. I sew for many reasons, it is from my own creativity/my hand, so we buy as little as possible so we don't support those practices, and I have 4 kids who need clothes. Our resources are tight, so I sew from fabric in stash or recycle things (I have spring tops for my oldest daughter cut out from rarely used tops of mine, refashioning them.). I haven't been in Walmart but once in the last several weeks, avoiding it like the plague. I get the hair, personal products, diapers, etc., we need and get out.

  7. Sewing has never been political for me. I've been sewing since I was a teen, and that's a lot of years ago, and it's a passion for me. I work as a designer and I like living my life creatively and sewing is an extension of that. That's not to say that I shop at Walmart! I don't. I object to the disposable mentality that has become the norm lately and making my own clothing, I make most of what I wear, allows me to opt out. Of course, I still buy fabric, but I don't buy cheap fabric, so most of it isn't made in China.

  8. Peter, this is an awesome post. I understand how outsourcing has hurt American manufacturing, my dad has worked for National Steel for over 30 years, moving up from the floor to the exec. offices in that time. But this past year his plant was furloughed for months, and is now only on partial part, because so much steel comes from Asia. My sewing is a way that I can show companies, even if it is just by not purchasing cheap clothing from China, that I do not support these decisions. Of course, my single protest may not be felt, but if more and more people do the same, then they may feel the impact. I also try to not fall prey to the trend of "everything is disposable" that we see so much of in our culture. For this reason I purchased a house in the city that was 100 years old, rather than moving to some suburban sprawl just to have stainless steel appliances and granite countertops. I also see my use of vintage sewing machines in the same light...reduce, reuse, recyle...and repairing those old machines, keeping them out of a landfill, is a part of that. I appreciate your post, and am glad that there are more people out there that share a mindset. Sew on!

  9. I did not get to see the whole show, but did anybody watch "Schmata" on HBO? It was about the garment industry in the US and its demise.
    I sew for various combinations of reasons at various points in time. Creativity and self-expression always fashion into the equation unless you are trying to duplicate an item. Fit and quality factor highly into my decision to sew a garment; even if it is made with super el-cheapo fabric of questionable origin. If it fits better, I wear it more, and it was worth the time. And only I can decide what my time is worth.
    And I love the buzz that comes with "You made that? Really?"

  10. I try to be conscious of what I'm using and where it's come from, so I do repurpose a lot of old clothes to make my kids' clothes. But not always. And we live on a very limited income, so sometimes beggars can't be choosers when it comes to food or staples in the house. Which is seriously annoying on many many levels: in terms of the poor wages we get from employers who rant about "the bad economy" but make 15 or 20 times the living we do, from businesses who are willing to subsidize products from sources with questionable practices but not from businesses who provide higher quality (and more expensive) products made in the US... a whole host of things. (My employer acually had the nerve to complain one month about how bad the economy was- apparently because of illegal immigrants- and then two weeks later declare that he wanted to outsource part of my work to India because they could do the same work for pennies on the dollar and get it back to us overnight. Seriously? Fortunately, that would require my employer to be much more organized and focused than he is so I think he's forgotten about it. I hope.)

    The problem when you're very poor is that it's very hard to do anything but what's least expensive. But givining up disposable anything is a start (and I don't just mean plastic dishes, I mean anything from cheap shoes to cheap clothes to cheap sheets for the bed... when I buy something, I usually expect it to last a while so I try to buy the best quality I can afford. Which often isn't very high).

    And all that is sort of depressing. I think I'll go make my kids a high-carb, low-protein breakfast. Hopefully they won't get rickets or something.

  11. Dear Peter,
    I sew because I love creating. I love taking a piece of fabric, letting it speak to me and become what it was destined to be...okay that may be a touch over the top dramatic, but I enjoy the vision and being able to make things fit how I like them. One of my favorite jobs was working for the Jantzen company on the sewing line. I specialized in elastic, primarily swimsuits. I was really disheartened to learn the company had outsourced their manufacturing and the plant had been torn down. It's just a barren parking lot. Oh and the fabric remnants we were allowed to take home??? Heaven!!! It's a sad statement about our economy that makes cheaper valued over quality.

  12. I started sewing because I couldn't find clothes that fit - vanity sizing has sized me out of clothing. I know most people are not always sympathetic to being "too small", but I am rather short and proportionate for my height, and the end result is that most 00P sizes are too big for me. I could no longer buy pants to fit, and tops are gradually becoming too large as well. Sewing was a way for me to get properly fitting clothes, like business suits and dress trousers.

    However, I positively loathe supporting nefarious corporations and industries that so blatantly violate basic human rights. I generally avoid Walmart at all costs - I used to live in a rural area and would deliberately drive 25 miles away to go to buy things that most people would just get at the local Walmart. I prefer to buy produce from local farmers markets and farm stands (easy to do in New Hampshire) and I would rather purchase larger items from local mom and pop stores (of which there are very few). I'm also a vegetarian and only buy eggs and dairy products from local producers (again, easy to do here...I can walk down the road to the neighbors and buy eggs from their backyard chickens if I so desire).

    Now that my sewing is at a level where the clothes do not scream home made, I will most likely sew everything from now on. And despite the low cost of many sweatshop produced items, there is no lure of the price tag for me because nothing fits well anyway. I like the idea of being self sufficient, and I enjoy the challenge of making garments that look RTW.

  13. Peter - you are going to be sorry you posted this because I am very very political about this topic. I used to work in economic development and watched companies shake down communities, threaten, play one community (state and country) against another - and then send their technology, production and equipment out of the country for cheaper labor. Now there are companies that have woken up to the fact that there are countries where the concept of 'intellectual property', 'trademark' etc. is pretty fluid and they are moving production back to the US - but only because the theft, poor quality, etc. is making producing overseas more expensive than doing it in the US. But it is not as if they are bringing production back to places like New York or PA - they are going to 'right to work' states where union organizing is busted all the time. I also feel very strongly that a country that cannot clothe, feed, shoe, educate, and produce stuff with American-made goods, made on American-made equipment and systems is a country that is in big trouble. Companies not only chase the lowest labor dollar - they also chase lowest capital costs too -- and when we have to compete with countries such as China, which basically funds the R&D to produce much more high tech machinery, equipment and production systems, is is almost impossible for a company based in the US. China and places like it have what is called 'national industrial policy' and they groom every factor of life: education, training, financial lending policies, where production is allowed to go, etc. to that aim. They have specific product aims and gear everything (how many engineers need to be graduated every year; how many computer programmers need to come on line, where to develop natural resources and when they need them and so on)to those aims - this is how they dealt with steel, aluminum and now carbon fiber technologies. This is also why American consumers find it difficult to find things like an affordable US made bicycle anymore. Decisions were made at the federal level in the 1980s that made it very very easy for US companies to take production and intellectual property (even when it was originally funded by US taxpayers) out of the country -- and our economy and our ability to actually do stuff for ourselves has suffered ever since. I sew for lots of reasons (I like fashion; I like clothing that fits and looks good on me and that has features that I can't get in RTW). But I also sew (and knit, and garden, and do a lot of other stuff) because I refuse to support a system designed to make us all into simply consumers of trashy junk that is going to end up in the landfill.

  14. I started sewing as a child, for creative reasons. I've always had an appreciation for hand-crafted things.

    Later, I needed curtains and slipcovers for my apartment, and I needed clothes that fit when I was between sizes. This rekindled my interest in sewing and I remembered how much I loved making things out of fabric.

    I'm no fan of Wal-Mart, but for me, sewing is more about a love of making things. I also love quality, which greatly reduces my options at Wal-Mart anyway. :)

    What I generally do now, instead of checking labels, is simply to try to buy fewer things, period. And I'm really picky when I shop. Because I absolutely hate throwing things away, but I also hate to "make do" with poor quality items.

    I feel fortunate that I was introduced to thrift shops at a young age. :) Many of my sewing supplies came from thrift shops, as well as a couple of sewing machines. I've learned that there is a lot of beauty to be found in old things, for a great price.

  15. For me, sewing is definitely part of my belief in being a mindful consumer (although it's not the only reason I sew!) -- I definitely don't have it in me to go totally off the grid, but for a long time I have worked against the consumerist mindset, both as an activist and personally. If you are interested, there are literally millions of resources out there to give you ideas and support. A recent resource I am currently enjoying is the Ethical Fashion and Conscious Consumption blog, she also is running a college project called Thoreau's America that's pretty interesting. Lot of good thoughts about sustainable crafting at, too.

    I have to point out that in my opinion, you can't even call the sewing branch of DIY culture "nascent" -- it's always been there, it's just been unpublicized. As for DIY in general -- the "formal" DIY scene as we know it today is a few decades old, (older, if you count the hippie version; unbroken since the beginning of human history if you link up all the people who have been makers and conscious comsumers!) and the needlework part of it is at least 10 years old at this point. True, fashion sewing has only been a teeny part of that until recently, and that is certainly starting to finally widen. But it's always been part of it. Unfortunately, I suspect it will always be a small part of the movement, it's just too much of a learning curve/investment for most people. Which is a shame, since I think in many ways it's the most rewarding.

    Plus - what Toby said! (That comment went up while I was writing). I will ditto every word of that.

  16. I sew because I enjoy the process. Also, I love tools and machines. The hardware store is my favorite store next to the fabric stores and sewing machine dealers. Also love the Salvation Army Thrift store. I am not making a political statement at all but do wish I would never have to buy anything from China or any place where sweat shops are the norm.

  17. What everyone said - plus, I started sewing in 1969 as part of Home Economics class. Also, my mother sewed as did her mother. I was always a mad crafter even as a tiny tot and, at the time, the classes meant I could make even more stuff. Oddly, I never really liked clothes shopping, it never really turned my crank the way sewing always has. When I do buy clothes, I am rarely impressed with the quality; I feel I could have done a better job, cheaper. So, shopping is kind of irksome. There used to be a magnificent garment industry in this city, it is now all but dead. The bottom-line mentality which seems to affect every single aspect of our lives - whether it is the food we eat, the clothes we wear or the stuff we use to get by - has not improved anything. It's contaminated our food, cheapened our belongings and turned us into consuming pits of endless need. Don't like it. I love to sew, knit, embroider, paint, crochet, make lace, cook from scratch, garden, and seek out even more crafts to conquer. As for Walmart, here in Quebec, we call it Wal-merde - merde being the French word for feces. Nuf said, I believe.
    I adore your blog, Peter, and check it out far too often. Your taste in movies mirrors mine - but why haven't you talked about Grace Kelly in "To Catch a Thief" yet or, le sigh, Audrey Hepburn in 'Funny Face'?

  18. 6thofdecember, early on I mentioned "Funny Face" as a fashion movie that's familiar to many already; instead I opted to critique "Lady in the Dark."

    I am SO impressed with what people have written here. I hear this again and again and again and I start to wonder how many of us feel this way and why our positions aren't heard more often outside of blogs. But I understand why: the media are owned by the same corporations and are entirely bottom line-oriented. There's no money in an anti-corporate message. We are, after all, "consumers" first and foremost.

    There's something so utterly self-destructive and short-sighted about what has happened to American industry. We can all shop in thrift stores for our conscience's sake, but the jobs are gone and with them the health -- and wealth -- of our communities.

    Will they ever return? Not in the short run. And the planet can't sustain it anyway, whether the manufacturing takes place in China or the USA. We will have to find a different way to live.

  19. I sew because I need to wear dresses and the styles that are out there are just not me. And I enjoy having unique, well made clothing. It does frustrate me that so much fabric comes from countries that do not treat their workers as they should.

  20. Great post! I work for a custom apparel manufacturer in San Clemente, CA (We do everything under one roof - patternmakers, sewers, trimmers) - for a great guy who truly does care for his employees.

    For a long time we've heard "Why should I pay you $60 when I can get that jersey for $40 from China" which, thankfully, is beginning to turn into "That's *great* you do everything under one roof in California" - I do think people are starting to care about the origin of their purchases . . .food and clothing.

  21. *Way* too much coffee - that's three "greats" in one post!

  22. I sew because at some point I thought I'd like to have a wardrobe of clothes that fit me properly that were in a style I liked, and that had no logos. Unfortunately I'm not yet accomplished enough that what I make always fits me well, or that it doesn't often look like I made it with both hands tied behind my back. And I'm pretty sure a lot of the fabric is made in under questionable circumstances. But at least it doesn't have logos, and it's usually the right color and style, so I suppose that's something.

  23. I think it's important to note that, as Gail said, there are many small companies that are designing and producing clothing, shoes, makeup, bags, etc in the US -- you just can't buy their goods for $10 at a box store. Supporting DIY companies has always been a big part of DIY for me! I would much rather have one skirt that's well-made and supports local families than 5 that will fall apart next year. Promoting that kind of thinking will help change things, I think. ( the top of my head I can think of several women's brands, but no men's brands! Doesn't mean they're not out there though.)

    And you're totally right, Peter -- the media has never covered subcultures of any kind well, other than in a sort of "look at this weirdness!" way; especially when you're talking about any stance that doesn't promote buying lots of stuff. (It's one of the reasons people are forced to keep rediscovering things that are already out there -- the retro "movement" is a good example, every 8-9 years people suddenly think it's a new thing when actually it's pretty much never gone away since the just keeps going back underground.)

    But there are a lot of people out there and slowly the internet has been connecting them all. I think there's hope that the way people connect now with blogs and social media will keep these ideas from sinking underground every time the media moves onto the next "new" recycled thing!

    I think it's important to keep talking about these issues -- every time something like the Compact gets press, most people think it's ridiculous but a few more peole think "hmm, that's an interesting idea." So don't feel like it's futile! And keep thinking, talking and posting about it!

  24. Good topic, Peter. I sew mostly because I LOVE TO SEW and i currently have the time. It is a time-consuming passion because I'm not that good at it yet. I want clothes that fit.

    I was wondering if it was just me getting increasing anxious about how corporate America is so blatantly strangling the average American. In fact, I have begun asking my friends point-blank if they feel this way too. It's not like this is news but I was wondering if other people were even aware or scared or anything.

    In my last position, I worked for an international philanthropy funding indigenous peoples' food diversity and global biodiversity. Two of my regions were Melanesia and Australia. To hear from the ground up from people in those counties how rapacious China is in sourcing raw materials to feed their exploding economy would just make you eyes pop out. It is however an old, old story and we were/are no better.

    However, it is important to me to feel like I can vote with my actions and so ditto to what everyone else has said.

    1. I think you (an American) do yourselves a disservice. While Americans have had a reputation for wanting to buy everything, you have by and large been willing to pay generously for what you wanted, .

  25. A great book I always recommend relating to this topic is David C. Korten's "When Corporations Rule the World." It's a good read and provides a history of how we got here.

    Corporations are accountable only to their owners and they are amoral, i.e., morality does not enter into their thinking.

  26. I sew because I always have, I started very young. But I am glad I sew because it gives me insight to a section of the world economy few people understand, and that is textiles. It drives me insane when some snobby psuedo-environmentalist tells me 'oh, we NEVER use plastic containers for OUR food' and is wearing a polyester shirt, a nylon jacket and carries a polypropylene bag for her groceries. Yes, better than nothing, but the hypocrisy is stunning. We need to go beyond organic foods and using a recycling bin. At least when I buy a cheap t-shirt at Target I know what I am buying, and it means that I have already checked the thrift stores and ran out of time to sew it myself.

    One thought about fabrics from China - we are still bypassing the child labor in the garment factories.

  27. I really started sewing my own clothes in the early 80's when I had no money but access to my estate sale box of vintage patterns and my mother's stash of fabric. Also, I couldn't find ready-to-wear that fit me. Soon I became a sewing snob. I would look at things in stores and turn my nose up at them because I knew I could it make better.

    Today I sew because I love it, and the clothes in stores are cheap and tacky or too expensive for me. I still use my box of vintage patterns (several boxes now). I like my tailored style of clean simple lines accessorized with vintage jewelry.

  28. Peter, I know you have a lot of comments to read now, but I ABSOLUTELY had to respond and say I cannot be more on the same page as you regarding the ethics of fashion and clothing consumption. It is definitely one of the main reasons I sew. It is ALSO one of the main reasons I haven't bought any new clothing (that wasn't made by a friend or AA underwear actually) in years. I could go on for a while and rant and rant but I'll just say (for now) that I'm glad we (and many others) are on the same page about this and want to do something about it, even if it's just by being aware and educating others.

  29. You know, anytime someone says I must be awfully clever to make my own clothes, I reply "well, if underage, underpaid children in Asian countries can sew garments, no reason why a Westerner with everyting can't." I like lots of things about making my own clothes but one thing I like the most is the appreciation it gives me for how much work it takes to construct them.

  30. Great post, I've been thinking a lot about this lately. I'd like to think that I'm doing something by sewing, but my fabric most likely is produced by Chinese slave/child labor.

    And I'm still the typical American consumer in that I sew because I want more and better clothes, even though my old ones are perfectly fine.

  31. Avoiding products that have a negative impact on the environment or other human beings is another way that sewing is a means of self expression for me. Even if I'm the only one who knows that I am expressing my desire to be outside of the mass market and all of the baggage it carries with it, I still value that knowledge.

    I love livebird's witty comeback.

    And I also love the point that reducing the quantity of the things we have is just as important as circumventing an evil supply chain.

    Thanks for the discussion!

  32. I sew mainly because there is a thing about handling fabric, sitting at my machine, manipulaing patterrn pieces that just makes me feel real good! Even thinking about it makes me feel good.
    It is a bonus to me that I can get clothes that fit and that not everyone else is wearing up the street.
    I do agree with all your reasons to sew but I mainly sew because working with fabric gives me a buzz.

  33. I loved this post Peter, and it is so great to read all of the comments from like-minded sewers. Its wonderful that there are more and more people out there questioning the constant-consumer model of life that corporations want to push on us!

    For me, a love of sewing came first and then the environmental/ethical concern grew out of that. I went to fashion school for a year because I had caught the sewing bug and wanted to pursue it further, but looking at the business side of it turned me right off any thoughts pursuing a fashion career. The sheer waste and exploitation at just about every level boggled my mind.

    For the whole of last year, I didn't purchase any new clothing, just made everything I needed myself or bought from thrifts. It was easy because I hate shopping in malls and I really loved developing my sewing skills.

    As far as fabric goes, I used to buy stuff from Spotlight (our version of JoAnnes). There is not a whole lot on offer there and it's pretty uninspiring but it was all I really knew. Then a new shop opened in my city that stocks ex-designer fabric, most of which is manufactured in Italy or elsewhere in Europe. The fabric from this shop typically costs around four or five times the amount per metre than what I used to buy at Spotlight BUT! The quality is beyond compare, it's like a whole new world to me using these lovely materials. Because of the cost these materials never end up going into my stash to languish- I buy for specific projects and complete them. So now I am not buying more than I need.

    Powerful corporations are avidly working to limit our choices in so many ways- I have read a number of factual books on the subject but had to stop because it was depressing me. I am not an activist but I have turned my focus on finding more and more ways of opting out of engaging with corporations. To describe my sewing as a form of 'protest' doesn't feel quite right to me because it is just so pleasurable and I find it a relief rather than a struggle to make the choice to opt out of mass-manufactured clothing. So I am not a 'protester' but in a sense AM blowing raspberries at corporations every time I sit down to sew.

  34. I sew because I have always wanted to be a designer and express myself through my art whether in my own garment or for others. It's no different than if I chose to be a painter or sculptor. Fabric just happens to be my medium.

    You should get your hands on a tv series called "Blood Sweat & Tshirts." It's a documentary series that sends 6 students to India to work in garment factories.

    Sewing has become political just like eating has. People eat organic or locally grown. Boycott Walmart and high fructose corn syrup. Boycott polyester or sewing machines and supplies made in China. Everybody has their protest and their opinion, certainly not that I'm saying child labor in India is great. It does have it's advantages and not just on the American's end. I think it's a sad fact that we have to accept that India is far less developed than we are. Many of the people there are "okay" with working for less than we in America are willing to work for. It'd be nice to balance the world, but when has it ever been?

    It's not really NEW, it's just IMHO at a point in the cycle where people (consumers) are caring more about what they put in and on their body and where their dollar goes. It's nice to see people CARE rather than just get a deal on everything.

    Also there is a huge interest on "fair trade" garment production ect. So should people feel the need to boycott or make educated expenses, those options are popping up more than they used to.

  35. What a great post, Peter. I sew mostly because I love to sew. I can find RTW that fits, but I would rather sew my own.
    I am political about this issue, also. I cannot in good conscience buy clothing that I know or suspect has been made in a 3rd world country by kids the same age as my grandkids. I refuse. I don't care about labels and clothing as status symbols. I am from a long and proud union labor background and while I know that unions are a favorite punching bag for all that ails the world, it's crap anyone who actually looks into the history of labor unions would know that making unions the bogeyman is just another silly scare tactic and that unions are not the bad guy in the equation of corporations/unions, etc.
    I don't shop at under any circumstances at WalMart or Sam's Club. I don't need or want any of the junk from China that they sell, I'll do without and be fine.
    Do I probably purchase fabric from time to time that has been made in China? Most likely, and that annoys me, but at least no children were abused and exploited to make the garment that that piece of fabric ends up as.

  36. I live in Australia where it is almost impossible to find locally produced fabric. It is far easier to find locally produced yarn for knitting, farming sheep was a huge industry 100 years ago and some older companies are still around like the Bendigo Wool Mills. I also count New Zealand manufactures as "local" so there are a few to be found there too.

    But finding fabric is so much harder. I tried to find small locally printed fabric recently and found a few small recently set up companies that only have things pre-cut for quilters. PRE-CUT. Unfortunately I purchased some fabric from one of these companies going through their website and when I click "fabric by metre" and push "purchase 1 item" I expect to get 1 metre of fabric instead I got 50cm by 50cm which is slightly larger then a fat quarter, and not even in the colour or print I ordered. I emailed them and they explained ALL their fabric is pre-cut and packaged after printing and they had run out of the fabric I had chosen. I got burned to say the least and was so furious with this tiny little company just trying to make it's way in the world but it was the only company I thought I had found not based around quilting. Why is it sooooo hard.

    I will not even get started on the 'quality' that is available in most places here. I do not live in a small rural area I live in Melbourne the city that prides it self on being the "fashion capital" and having the only decent fashion week in Aus but even so most of the stuff you can find is a poly or quilters cotton.

    And to top of my frustration I recently stayed up until 4 in the morning to call Mood fabrics to see if they can set me up with some nice silk taffeta for a cocktail dress for some upcoming weddings, and was told after a very long expensive phone call that it would cost $70 US for it to be shipped here.

    If anyone knows of any UK decent online stores I will be so grateful. Generally post from the UK is cheaper and arrives sooner for some unknown reason.


  37. Knowing what it takes to sew a garment, I too am uncomfortable with "cheap" clothes. Somebody paid the price, somewhere. I can't be too up on my high horse, though, as i do not research where my fabric comes from.

  38. My mom (Nancy K) linked me to your post even though I don't sew because I have a passion for researching economic development...and everything you said is spot on. I really wish I had the time (and okay, let's admit it, the patience) to opt out more of the exploitation industry by sewing.

    Rock on all of you sewers!

  39. I sew for the value of it. Just like I pay more for my organic and grass fed beef. Isn't that crazy! We have to ask them to feed our beef, grass and ask them to let those cows run around in a meadow.

    I don't care what is cheap-I want what is good. That's why I sew.

  40. Great comments, everybody!

    Jana, I do the same thing. To think that before petrochemicals, ALL food was organic food.

  41. I am a quilter. I don't sew my own clothes. 98% of what i wear comes from thrift stores. I buy my socks and underwear new. Thanks to the internet, i have found inspiration to attempt to sew my own underwear. I don't see myself ever sewing my own clothes - i just don't care enough about fashion - i almost exclusively wear cargo pants and t-shirts. I loved reading this post and the comments. I don't feel as alone in my ethics. Take this quiz to see an estimate or your ecological footprint:

  42. Great post!

    I sew because I don't like what the stores are offering. Poor quality and bad design turn my stomach. There was a time when sewing your clothing was viewed as a negative thing, but today is different. People are fascinated when they learn that you can sew.

    I try to find fabric that is ethical but sometimes it is impossible to find the source from which it come from. Recently, I started re-purposing from my closet. My love for vintage pattern sewing though cannot be curbed so at times I admit I close my eyes when fabric shopping. Old sheets are usually made into muslin's and/or new dog bed covers.

    And for the record, if there's a name emblazoned on the clothing, I should be compensated for advertising the brand. Plain and simple.

  43. I started sewing because I wanted my clothes to fit me better. The funny side effect to that has been that I've drastically reduced the amount of clothing that I purchase (although my fabric stash is growing by leaps and bounds - heh). This is a really interesting discussion though.

  44. I sew because I love it. It's been a creative outlet for me almost all of my life. It feeds my soul. I am not comfortable with profit at any cost whether it concerns human exploitation, expoloitation of animals or indeed unltimately the exploitation of the planet.
    The political ramifications of child labour are depressing, but while you may assume you know which manufacturers are exploiting child - and adult labour - paying poor wages under hard conditions - how do you really know you are boycotting the right companies? How do you know you are not affecting a third world worker's only means of making a living? Wouldn't it be more effective to write to the manufacturer if you do have proof and voice your concerns to the source of the inequity?
    I admire your stance. I just don't know if random boycotting does anything.

  45. Alright-

    I'm just a dude who likes old cars and happens to go to Agriculture school (funny the food thing came into this) with no crafting ability whatsoever...

    However I came upon this blog with my recent interest in sewing... not because I'm at all creative but because I have reached desperate ends with my boycott on foreign manufactured goods (ahem... and American Apparel until they do something about their image). I aspire to make my own oxford shirts someday... they're the only thing I can't find made here (in Canada or US) anymore!

    People pick me apart for my stance but anybody who's ever visited one of our once-great manufacturing towns (Cleveland, Milwaukee, Detroit, Windsor, St Thomas etc.) or thought about our ever-increasing trade deficit ought to realize there's something wrong.

    Not to mention, buying things from stores leaves me feeling... hollow! Maybe I'm just cheap but handmade/homemade means more to me.

  46. I was just forwarded to this post in a roundabout way while looking for something unrelated, but I have to second the commenter who mentioned Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags. It aired on HBO last fall. I'm hoping it will be released on dvd soon! It is SUCH an eye opener about manufacturing of clothing in America.

    I sew because I love the designing/creating process, but for me personally it IS a form of protest. I loathe Wal-Mart. And the mall for that matter. I try to buy vintage, second-hand, thrifted whenever possible just to lessen waste. I make do with less. I sew whatever I can. I struggle the most with my kids, because one is a teenager and the other is 12, and they won't wear "handmade" right now. It's a struggle. i just have to try and educate them about the reasoning behind the why's of my actions.

    One thing I find frustrating about this whole issue, is that people don't BELIEVE me when I try to educate them. To the point that I showed clips from Schmatta in my Fashion class (I teach HS) and some of the kids said, but its not that way NOW. That was "then". (Some distant past). No, I told them, NOW. But they still didn't really believe me. Some of it is too horrific to believe that its possible. Hopefully they will at least think twice before shelling over $$ for cheap shoes at the next BOGO sale.


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