I Too Have Read Overdressed

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.


Filed under Books, Ethics, Life, Sewing

13 responses to “I Too Have Read Overdressed

  1. Oh, I love your thoughts here! On my post last week about homemade legitimacy, someone commented about homemade vs. storebought bread—the one may taste better, but the other saves SO MUCH TIME in an already filled life. I have been sewing pretty much all my own clothes (undies and socks excepted) for the last couple of years, and that’s fine, but it also represents a fairly serious obsession on my part that most people wouldn’t even want to take on, nor would I expect anyone to. (Although I did tell my mom the other day that if she’s not willing to take up sewing again she needs to stop complaining to me about how stuff fits…). And I’d be extremely hard-pressed to make clothes for my *entire* family, at least while pursuing any kind of outside career.

    I think it’s not so much the fact that garment sewing has been outsourced to paid professionals—it’s how poorly the professionals are paid, and how poor the conditions they work in are, in order to give us the fast, cheap clothes we’ve come to expect. And honestly I don’t think that’s something the free market (including boycotting sweatshop goods) can fix—I think it will take regulation, here and overseas. I listened recently to a radio program on sweatshops (particularly garment factories) and even the activists campaigning for the workers (including former workers themselves) were pushing for better conditions and wages, not a closure of the plants which are often the only employment options for people with little or no education and very few skills in very poor countries. Which doesn’t excuse dangerous working conditions, slavery or functional slavery, or “wages” that barely cover the cost of transportation to and from work. But maybe the solution is to change the plants—and yes, pass on that extra cost to western consumers. But how to do that on a broad enough scale?…

    … ok, I’m going to stop before I write a book, and I haven’t even read the Overdressed book, which may be a much more thorough deconstruction of the situation than a half-hour radio program. Yikes. And I didn’t even get into issues of quality…

  2. Abi

    Hello! I haven’t actually read Overdressed yet (eek), but found your view of it very thought provoking. It’s a big tangled web of feminism/ethics/fashion for sure, but my first thought is: why can’t aren’t “traditional feminine” professions the world over valued as highly, wage-wise, as “male” jobs?
    This could be a valid solution, rather than reverting to the olden days of darning hubby dearest’s socks. We would all have to pay more for clothes, but I say from my (yes, overprivileged) position that maybe that would be a good thing.
    More expensive clothes I suppose would inevitably leave someone holding the darning needle, but in my keraazy ideal world I don’t see why that person should be a woman.

  3. I read the book recently too, but I’m not sure that I feel terribly smug and superior just because I sew. But then, I’ve never been the type of consumer that this book is referencing, nor do I know anyone personally who is. (I’m more of the type who buys a couple of pairs of jeans and a handful of shirts and wears them until they aren’t fit to wear in public and then I’ll wear them around the house until I make them into cleaning rags).

    But the main reason I don’t feel smug is because I’m not sure that the fabric making industry is much better….I mean, it might be, but I really don’t know. Especially in the cheaper fabrics like I can afford.

  4. Very valid post. I’m halfway through Overdressed, and have been feeling quite smug that I have shrugged off the commercial aspect of buying clothes, but perhaps I shouldn’t be. I don’t sew for my boyfriend, and I have no kids, so the hobby for me is entirely selfish. (I keep meaning to make things for my man, but he’s always unwilling to come fabric shopping with me). I am the typical 21st century kinda gal – I work full time and enjoy a life that is full of free time, and since I have found that I dislike clothes in the shops I spend the hours that would otherwise be spent shopping, sewing instead.

    I try to make the best difference and stand that I can, and that is by not participating in what is now, and very often, an exploitative industry. And in the meantime, I try to raise awareness of the effects of cheap clothing…I do what I can.

  5. punkmik

    Oh thanks for the review. I had not read the book! I think there are some great things to think about here.
    I never got into sewing to better the world or take a stand against the clothes making industry ie sweat shops, but to make me feel better about who I am and what I want to wear. Family members have said that creativity is in our blood, ie. my grandmother was a seamstress on my mums side, my mum had done any craft you can think of, from window colour painting, to knitting, to sewing etc. And now I am sewing and I used to draw a bit.
    But then thinking about it it is all women. My current partner would love to be able to draw and sew. He has done a little bit now and is excited about having shirts that he likes … made by me of course. lol.
    So i dont know what i want to say but you made me think, 🙂

  6. I haven’t read Overdressed, but am enjoying seeing all the reviews from other sewists. I’ll confess to being in the smug camp, but like others have said, I don’t know what conditions are like in fabric factories. I try my best to offset this as much as possible by using thrifted fabrics, but then I still do some fabric buying.

    It’s weird thinking about garment factories for me since my mom used to work in one; she was grateful for the employment and thought the conditions were okay, but then that was in HK under British rule, not China. I agree with your conclusion that a better living wage is the solution, not just closing down the factories. Also, remembering that the ability to take up sewing is definitely a luxury, available to us because of relative freedom with our time and money.

    • I agree with you– I’m really trying to avoid mindless consumption of things made by workers in miserable conditions, but I don’t really know what conditions are like in textile mills. But at the same time, your last line really rings true– we’re only able to participate in the (relatively) slow process of sewing because we’ve got the time and money. That said, I feel like, for me at least, now that I have the ability to make clothing and the knowledge of the conditions that many garment workers face, I have the responsibility to do my part.

      After having read the book, I do feel more convicted about being more intentional about what I sew to make sure that I’m only making things that I really need and will wear. I had no idea that thrift stores and rag markets are so overwhelmed with donations!

  7. I have read overdressed and am really glad I can sew and have been sewing since a teenager. In between I found TK Maxx and loved to shop there, over the last few months I have stopped buying clothes and am back in sewing mode. We sewers are the lucky ones we can sew good quality clothes at reasonable prices and we have something individual and most probably a one off garment.

  8. Charlotte

    It’s such an interesting problem. People don’t really sew as much as they used to, convenience has led to a deterioration of a domestic industry, but now women get to do things like, um, work. (Jobs that pay $0.78 on the dollar to what men make, but that’s better than it was forty years ago.)

    I’m still in college and I wonder if I’ll have the luxury of enough time to sew once I get a real job. (Also space. How does one cut things in a shoebox-sized post-college apartment?)

  9. I haven’t read this book yet, but it sounds rather interesting! And very thought-provoking. I don’t feel particularly smug about my sewing from that standpoint–I just like the creative process and the customization and not having to be dependent on trends. And I thrift almost all of my non-sewn clothes (except for stuff like socks and underwear. A girl’s gotta draw a line.) Besides, like some people have mentioned in the comments, I wonder how much better the conditions are for textile mill workers. The entire clothing/textile industry is definitely a problem, and I don’t think there’s any easy solution to it, because as long as the demand is there in countries like ours, there’s going to be room to exploit. All I can do is try to contribute to the problem as little as possible.

    On a side note, your description of Fifty Shades of Gray made me laugh. The idea doesn’t appeal to me at all–I did force my way through all four of the Twilight books to see what the hype was all about, and that was bad enough! So nice to know I’m not the only woman who doesn’t want to bother with it.

  10. I love your blog…funniest blog of all time! I have been following you for awhile but I am the worst at commenting! I nominated you for The Versatile Blogger award. The original link is here:

  11. Sage

    Sewing for me is about creativity. To make and wear something that is unique, not in the image of everyone else is beautiful. Originally all fabric work was mens work, women weren’t “allowed” to make clothes, only do embroidery. It was only the pioneer women who took on this role of making clothes while men did the majority of the field work. The industrial age stole this work from womyn. Men/industry took all of womyn’s work away — raising our own children, schooling, food preparation, gardening, medicine/herbal medicine — and made it profitable for themselves, the industrial giants. Womyn became second class citizens, financially dependent on men, and men became cogs in the industrial machine. I find fabric art to be amazing. I don’t know why everyone doesn’t purchase from us who sew; why would anyone want to look like anyone else? We are unique, do we not want to express that uniqueness through our dress as well? Diversity is the new vogue.

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