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Use It Up, Wear It Out, Make It Do! Be Part of the Sewing Rebellion!

twig's picture

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.

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Submitted by lambert on

I have to be liveblogging, but this topic is important in every way, and thank you so much for posting it.

basement angel's picture
Submitted by basement angel on

What an amazing use of discardables that is. I have a beautiful cashmere sweater that is the loveliest shade of periwinkle I've ever seen but the sun faded it while sitting in a basket waiting to be put away the other day. But now I'm plotting to turn it into a really cute purse with cashmere flowers from other sweaters that are now unwearable. I can't find the pattern I'm using online but this page will shows how to make an adorable handbag from a stripey, felted sweater:

thanks for this post, Twig. This is the stuff that's keeping my happy nowadays.

twig's picture
Submitted by twig on

Felting is very cool. It makes really sturdy bags and no one will have one like it. Here's one I made a couple years ago from a man's wool sweater:


You're going to have so much fun, BA -- any chance of seeing pics when you're done?

basement angel's picture
Submitted by basement angel on

I love that bag, too. That's a brilliant idea using men's sweaters (which are far more llikely to have an interesting geometric pattern) to create a very high-end and elegant bag. Nice work.

Zolodoco's picture
Submitted by Zolodoco on

I got on the buy-nothing-new bandwagon a few years ago after reading about "The Compact" when I was moving steadily toward a state of militant frugality. I'm a bit of a hypocrite now, because I'm all too willing to go off the wagon when it comes to running gear. To this day, even as the last of my frayed cotton clothing stumbles on, I can't bring myself to purchase more. It seems utterly futile, because in just 5 years or so that too will meet the same fate. For the most part the cuffs and collars have had it the worst, so I might just chop them off and sew new hems. For that spot on the front of all of my jeans that mysteriously frays into a hole I have a pair that's beyond redemption to use for patching.

Air drying helps save non-synthetic fabrics from a lot of wear and tear. I started doing it indoors on a drying rack about a year ago. I wonder if I might have gotten a few more years out of the hopelessly disintegrated shirts that I had to throw out last month if I'd tried this much earlier. If nothing else a rack of assorted damp clothes adds a certain something to a room. Or maybe my place is just that dreary.

twig's picture
Submitted by twig on

I totally forgot about washing/drying and how it beats up clothes if you're not careful. Plus, drying racks are supposed to be a great way to add humidity to dry winter air, if that's an issue where you are.

Submitted by Elliott Lake on

and even cuffs. You have a seam ripper, yes?

Open the seam, remove the collar, flip it over, re-insert, stitch back down. Voila', new-looking collar. The wear is now on the underside.

Same thing with cuffs, if the design permits it.

You must be a youngster ;) this is a mend I learned when I was a little girl.

twig's picture
Submitted by twig on

I've heard of it but never really knew how to do it, kind of a lost art in our disposable culture. I'm going to try it on my favorite shirt. It's a noob, at a mere 20 years old :-) -- but soooo soft, and in need of a collar/cuffs fix.

Valley Girl's picture
Submitted by Valley Girl on

So funny, because, tho I never did it, I am of the generation that knew about this!

MsExPat's picture
Submitted by MsExPat on

..since I have no dryer.

But there's a big problem, since Hong Kong has, like 95 percent humidity lots of the time. So I got one of these.

It is the most amazing appliance. It is both dehumidifier and clothes dryer. Basically what I do is hang my wet laundry in a closet, close the door, and in 45 minutes everything is dry and fresh without having been heated.

The Japanese make all these AMAZING appliances that are tiny, use a small amount of power, and serve multi functions. My washer is a 5kg front loader that's 18 inches deep and 22 inches high!! You only need to use a small, small amount of soap (I buy one bottle of the stuff and it lasts 8 months). Which is better for your clothing, too.

Oh how I wish these appliances were available in the US. My clothes would last much longer, and I could actually fit one of these washers in my New York apartment.

twig's picture
Submitted by twig on

existed -- brilliant!!

When I was little, my mom had an outdoor clothes line she used when the weather permitted. Everything smelled so fresh and clean when you brought it in, it was worth all the wrangling with wet fabrics and pinning up the pieces.

I've tried to figure out how to do it here, but I'm guessing laundry hung outside to dry in LA would end up smelling like car exhaust and diesel truck fumes. Not that any of us would notice, since that's what everything already smells like. But that little clothes dryer you have would solve the problem nicely!

MsExPat's picture
Submitted by MsExPat on

One of the great things about being outside of the US is that you can easily get clothes altered and even made from scratch. Most of my wardrobe is either old beautiful stuff that I've saved from, like, forever (I even have some of my mother's gorgeous 1950s jackets). Or it is stuff I had made for me in India, Thailand or Hong Kong.

There's even a guy here in HK, who works on the street doing re-weaving. He's a genius!

You can also get zippers, buttons, hems, etc. done while you wait on the street downtown.

twig's picture
Submitted by twig on

as far as I'm concerned. They're hard to find here, only a few in the whole city, and not cheap, so I only use them for really nice pieces. But the repairs are invisible!! So cool!

Submitted by gob on

I get attached to my clothes and hate to get rid of them and buy new ones.

Sewing on buttons is easy. Air drying extends the life of my clothes by an amazing amount, especially my beloved winter socks. Felting is indeed a wonderful thing. I haven't done it myself but have a felted cloche hat made from old sweater yarn by a pair of local sisters. I defy anyone's head to get cold under such a helmet.

Other things: use the coolest water that still gets your clothes clean (I use the "warm" setting on my washer, as absollutely cold water does nothing for my clothes, but crank back the hot water valve).

Zippers do require professional tools and skills, but velcro doesn't. When the zipper I had put in by the local tailor failed the same way the original one had, I was tempted to give up on my coat, but decided to try velcro. It works very well, was quite easy to put in by hand, and looks fine. (Also, the way it gaps whenever I bend over demonstrates the design flaw that killed off both zippers!)

twig's picture
Submitted by twig on

for clothes and I use it all the time on dog kerchiefs. Thanks, gob, great idea!

There's also some no-sew, double-sided sticky tape that can be used by non-sewers to secure a hem that's coming apart. Forgot the name, but I'll get it when I go to the fabric store later. It's iron-on -- very cool!

katiebird's picture
Submitted by katiebird on

When I realized that the lint I took out of the dryer was actually part of my clothes! I cheat by drying underwear and socks ... those don't have the lifespan of outside clothes no matter what you do - so I don't feel guilty blasting them in the dryer.

But, my clothes since I stopped machine-drying them? Some of them have lasted over 20 years. Dryers play hell on clothes.

Submitted by lambert on

"When I realized that the lint I took out of the dryer was actually part of my clothes!"

+1000. This is so obvious that I never thought of it!!!! It's a lot like our attitude toward waste -- throw it "away," but where does it go? Or, in this case, where does it come from?

Submitted by lambert on

Clothing is at the base of Maslow's heirarchy of needs, along with food and shelter.