Have you heard about this book? You must have done, it’s like the 50 Shades of Gray for people who sew, everyone is reading it, shocked but also pretty excited, and just a little bit smug. At least, I assume that’s how people are reading 50 Shades of Gray, if I wanted to read Twilight Bondage Erotica I would…be a completely different person. And hopefully you wouldn’t be reading this…
So, I finished this text about two weeks ago, and I have to say, I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It’s rare I read non-fiction of any kind, but of course as a sewer myself I had to be curious about this book and besides, sewing has, for better or for worse, altered the way I think about clothing, about buying, and about the garment industry in general. It’s amazing that this hobby I picked up through curiosity and the desire to dress better has evolved into something that may indeed haunt me for the rest of my life. Walk in as a curious newbie, learn some new things about yourself, and the world, and never leave. Guys, we’re totally in a cult…
So this isn’t a book review. I liked the book. I enjoyed learning more about an industry that is deeply in trouble and deeply troubling, and I have to say, I felt, as do many of us who sew, a mixed sense of horror and pity. Oh, my god, that’s the ideal of Aristotelian tragedy! Mingled fear and pity! (I’m….in Drama School. Be nice.)
But what I mean is, this book sort of just reinforces what many of us already think, we nod calmly thinking to ourselves complacently, oh, well, I don’t participate in this system anymore, I’ve seen the light, I’ve come to whatever deity we are most comfortable quoting, we’re the GOOD ones. And hey, we are, we do have that virtue, we make stuff with our hands and we know the time and effort that action takes, and for many of us that makes us think more carefully and consciously about buying.
However, I was telling my roommate about the book, and she pointed out something really important. Fast fashion has, in fact, shifted the burden of the task of making clothing from being a huge part of the lives of women, and in fact a lodestone around the necks of most of the lower and middle class, to being something many women no longer have to think about. Women can further their careers, or even have careers, because they don’t have to worry about the mending all the time, making clothing for their families or themselves, it’s a huge shift. Well, that is, it’s a shift for women in the West. Because I responded to my roommate that the reality is, we haven’t eliminated this burden, we’ve handed it off. Women still make up the majority of workers in the garment industry, they just do it overseas, primarily, as we know, in Asia. So while women of all classes here don’t concern themselves with making clothing, that doesn’t mean that all women are liberated from this task.
But it got me thinking. A lot of, deeply privileged, people who chose to sew at a time when we really don’t have to do so (I mean, we might believe we have to, and I think Overdressed makes a great argument for why everyone has to at least acknowledge these issues in the world of clothing manufacturing at least try to mitigate them, the major strategy to do that being to make you own and mend your own garments) are women. There are male sewers, awesome ones, too, and a lot of tailors are male (because our silly little female brains simply can’t wrap our heads around tailoring, duh) but the majority of the people who gravitate towards these tasks, sewing, knitting, crafting, are women. Is that just our conditioning? Why don’t men sew? Did fast fashion, spanning back to the garment industry of the late 1800’s, free women to work but enslaved them to flashy trends and badly made clothing? Did the garment industry help our lives only to hurt them in the long run?
Of course, it’s not that simple. Still, it’s something to think about in the midst of all this back patting and praise for what is, in my opinion, a really excellent and informative book. We don’t criticize vacuum cleaners for making cleaning easier because it’s a machine. We don’t criticize the sewing machine itself. But because there is, and as far as we know, always will be a human element in garment construction, and because that human element is and has been, by and large, women, we have to consider the way that fast fashion has helped many women eliminate domestic tasks from their lives by forcing other large groups of women to make sewing their whole lives, and for very little money, at that. How much convenience can and should we expect in our day-to-day existences? And are we really willing to take on the tasks we’ve so easily shirked and passed off to other, less convenient, cultures?
In a sense, we who sew are, but do we really know what that would mean? I’m at the point when I sew most of my own clothing, and thrift the majority of the rest. But I’m privileged to have gotten there, and I know that if I was stuck in a situation where new clothing was needed I could have it, in two shakes of a lambs tale, a few dollars, and hours and hours of a Chinese woman’s life. And honestly, at this point, I can’t imagine what it would be like to not have that safety net around me. Can you?
So, anyway, that’s what I’m thinking about right now. I’m off to write the next Oedipus Rex. But if you have time, drop me a comment and tell me what you think about these issues, if you consider them at all.