Use It Up, Wear It Out, Make It Do! Be Part of the Sewing Rebellion!
Like it or not, we have to wear clothes. Even here in Inner Blogolia, clothing is a necessity, at least some of the time. (And if not, feel free to keep that to yourself.)
But clothes fall apart. Buttons disappear. Holes happen. Zippers fail. If the first thing that comes to mind is “time to go shopping,” hold on a minute.
Shopping is fine if a) you can afford to buy new clothes, b) don't mind that so much new clothing is not only poorly made but is also made of second- or third-rate material and c) you're not concerned with the effects clothing production has on workers in other parts of the world. Many times, these effects are lethal, like the recent Bangladeshi factory fires.
Obviously, upgrading working conditions worldwide and paying workers a living wage are the right things to do. But that means giving up some portion of corporate profits, or raising prices on retail goods, which would probably cut into profits, too, since fewer people would buy the more expensive items. As a result, manufacturers talk about making improvements, but not much changes.
So the number of worker deaths due to unsafe conditions continues to grow, while corporations like Gap and Target (to name just a few) hope no one finds out about the worker abuses in their own factories or in those of suppliers, and they can continue doing business as usual.
(While we're on the subject, here's a petition you can sign, asking Abercrombie and Fitch and Target to provide fair compensation to families that lost a loved one in this fire.)
One way for the consumer to step outside this vicious cycle is to shop for apparel labeled “Made in the U.S.” But that label is no guarantee that the clothing wasn't actually made by workers in U.S. territories, like the Mariana Islands (a favorite of Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay) or American Samoa. Technically, anything produced there is “Made in America.” But wages are low, even with the recent boost in minimum wage, safety is negligible and workers are treated badly.
Even if you are certain the item was made in one of the fifty states, that doesn't necessarily make it sweatshop free.
In 2000, more than half of the 22,000 sewing shops in the U.S. violated minimum wage and overtime laws and 75% violated health and safety laws. A study in 2000 found that 98% of Los Angeles garment factories violated workplace health and safety standards by operating under conditions such as blocked fire exits, unsanitary bathrooms and poor ventilation. The workers in Los Angeles are almost entirely immigrants earning about 1/3 of a living wage.
Invariably, there's a question about what happens to workers if too many consumers stop buying these goods and they lose their jobs. Aren't they better off with any work – even if it is exhausting, mind-numbing and dangerous – instead of no work at all?
Honestly, I don't know the answer. I like to think that a combination of boycotting the companies that rely on cheap labor (which is pretty much all of them) and writing letters to corporate headquarters to let them know what you're doing and why is a step in the right direction. But that's just one idea. You can read more about the situation and some thoughts on how to make it better here, here and here.
In the meantime, one way to stop giving money to companies that mistreat workers is by making the clothing you have last as long as possible. That means that when a hole appears in your sock or a button falls off your shirt, you don't buy new socks or a shirt at Target or Wal-Mart or some other blood-sucking retailer. You fix the hole or sew on the button.
These same skills are useful for repairing thrift store purchases that are in good shape except for some minor wear. Even better, you may be able to find vintage clothing at a thrift store that's far better quality than most of the today's new stuff. Older clothing might need minor repair, but it's usually well worth it.
My fondness for repairing older clothes is why I went to a Sewing Rebellion seminar called “Mending 101.” (Actually, I already know how to mend. I went mainly because of the the group's name. How often do you see “rebellion” paired with “sewing”? Not often enough, if you ask me!)
Sewing Rebellion is the creation of “Frau Fiber” (aka Carol Lung), MFA, textile worker, activist and instructor at California State University Los Angeles. The group's motto is "Stop Shopping, Start Sewing." Here's a little more about what SR stands for:
The Sewing Rebellion is a cultural revolution where participants are invited to emancipate themselves from the global garment industry by learning the skills to produce your own garments. Frau Fiber and/or regional chapter organizers distribute their knowledge of the garment industry, pattern making, and sewing, encouraging the reuse, renovation and recycling of existing garments and textiles in the creation of unique garments tailored to individual tastes and body shapes.
Every month or so, Frau Fiber hitches up her human/bicycle-powered sewing machine outside certain retailers' storefronts to draw attention to the treatment of workers in the global garment industry. But you don't have to do that! Instead, you can learn how to repair and reuse clothing – “use it up, wear it out and make it do!” as Frau Fiber says. To help, she's put together a series of tutorials on how to mend, sew on a button, make an apron from a man's shirt, turn a t-shirt into a shopping bag and “celebrate your mend," using unconventional stitching, patches and whatever else you feel like adding.
One more thing – forgot to mention zippers! If you have a piece of clothing with a broken zipper, don't throw it away. Many dry cleaners have alteration people in the shop who can put in a new zipper for a few bucks. Tailors can do this, too. Zippers are a bit tricky and require a sewing machine; you can't really sew in a zipper by hand – well, you can but it'll look like crap. Just trust me on that.
If anything here is confusing or if you have questions, feel free to ask. If I don't know the answer, I'll find out.