On Ethics: 1

Molly and Sunita

So, one of the reasons I am so enthused about starting sewing is that it provides an antidote to the cruelty of the high street fashion industry which results in abuse, exploitation, and increased poverty for the poorest members of society, and in the worst cases,  such awful tragedies as the Karachi garment factory fire of 2012. I confess I’ve been wilfully and shamefully turning a blind eye to the awful working conditions that mean we can buy £4.99 vest tops on a whim, or £9.99 shoes. I have had  the occasional pang that has resulted in brief moment of, ahem, ‘activism’ i.e. I walked out of the newly opened Primark on Oxford Street in protest at the labour conditions necessary to produce so many clothes at cheap prices and then walked straight into another high street shop and bought clothes there. I am entirely convinced that these would have been produced under similar conditions, and all I achieved was paying more for clothes that the workers who made them got paid next to nothing for.  Pointless, depressing, and made no difference whatsoever.

I have also occasionally bought from Fair Trade or ethical clothes stores online, but our culture of entitlement has left me thinking that they are expensive. I know rationally that they are being the sold at the actual price they should cost if workers are paid well and non-environment destroying production processes have been used, but after years of buying things at knock- down prices, everything seems a rip off. I think that if I liked the styles more, I might feel more content with my purchasing, but they are often in frumpy fabrics or small sizes and do not provide the instant gratification that cheap and nasty unethical but fashionable high street or online shopping can  give you. As much as people are trying to modernise ethical fashion, often the ‘modernising’ only happens in ‘chic’ brands with a very small size range, and the few options for anyone over a size 16 are quite frankly, dull. If I put ethics aside, which is far too easy to do faced with a really really cool sequin playsuit (or maybe that’s just me), why buy one not really very interesting dress for £80 in a cut and fabric you don’t really like, when you can buy 6 different ones from a less ethical supplier that are MUCH more exciting?

I don’t think the ethical shopping offer at present is enough to undo my hardwired delight in having shiny new clothes. One new shirt I don’t really like every month is just not the same as all the fun things from ASOS Curve. But what is enough to undo it the drastic change of perspective that sewing gives me.

I have been needing a shock to the system, and that is what sewing my own clothes has given me. It has given me a deeper understanding of what exactly I am under-paying people to do. I can’t believe how much work goes into making one item of clothing. Granted, I am a beginner, and granted I don’t have the industrial sewing machines and sergers and fabric cutters used in factories like the one in Karachi. But the fact is, clothes take time to make. They take concentration and skill. There is absolutely no way that pricing a t-shirt at £3.99 is reasonable. Especially when you factor in the cost of fabric, the cost of shipping these items from far way to the UK,  and the cost of displaying them in a shop. The only way that these prices are possible and profitable  is by cutting corners every possible way that one can: by under paying staff, giving them long hours with no breaks, offering no benefits and providing appalling working conditions with old machines, cheap fabric, poor sanitary facilities and no thought paid to health and safety.

I know you are now shaking your head in despair at me, thinking ‘I knew that already, it’s been known FOREVER, how come it has taken you so long to work this all out?’. But the fact is I have had all this knowledge in my head for years, but until I started doing what men, women and children in the garment industry do every day, for no thanks, little reward and a lot of back ache, I didn’t really understand it. I needed to feel the fabric running through my fingers from the comfort of my own home to even be able to understand a tenth of what it must feel like for people who do this, not for a hobby, but for 15 hour shifts, day in day out, to appease an ever changing and fickle disposable fashion industry. I’m disappointed at myself for lacking the interest or imagination to really understand this before, but I am glad I am beginning to now. Quite often, when I am fretting over a difficult pleat section, or inserting a tricky sleeve, my husband will say to me ‘they are clever, those children in factories in China, eh?’

Note 1: I am aware that there are many problems in buying the cheap fabrics that I have been snapping up to practice on. I will write about this in a later post. But for now, I am grateful, that for the forseeable future, I will be the only one leaning over a sewing machine to make any new clothes I wear.

Note 2: I am very aware that for many people buying cheap clothing is the only option. I understand  that buying ‘ethical’ fabric, expensive sewing machines and thread is not possible for many people. I understand that the space to sew is a luxury. This is not meant as a post to criticise people on low incomes. It was meant purely as a slap on the wrist for me for being so ignorant, and buying so many cheap clothes that I didn’t need, and which have continued to boost the demand for sweatshop made clothing.

That’s it! No clothes buying until 2015

I have way too many clothes. 2 large wardrobes full and two chests of drawers. I’m a bit of a hoarder and probably half my wardrobe is made up of ‘incentive clothes’ or ‘memory clothes’ which are waaay too small to me, but which remind me of a long-lost slimmer time. This, I know is foolish. I have got bigger in the last couple of years, so pretty much had to replace my small wardrobe with a whole bigger sized one. Unfortunately I still hung on to the tiny clothes, so have doubled the space I need. My husband is appalled at me. My wardrobe is ridiculous, but yet, I have been unable to stop myself from buying more clothes in the hope that they will somehow make me feel as stylish as I did when I was slimmer. They don’t fit in there, they are often cheap and in stretch fabrics or unflattering ‘big girl’ shapes, and usually are deeply unethical and mass produced by people working in awful conditions for little money. This compulsive buying has not made me feel any better about my place in the world, or my contribution to it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m generally a very happy and healthy person, but my attitude to clothes, size and beauty, like many women, has been somewhat skew-whiff. I think compared to a lot of girls, small or large, I am ok, I don’t have any major body hang ups (even though many people might think I should). I am happy to be seen by everyone in a swimming costume and wear the things I want to, however ludicrous they are. Hot pink strappy jumpsuits are my friend. But the compulsive buying, which is often tinged with a strange nebulous desperation, a hope that this thing, this one thing will make me feel like I used to when I was smaller, needs to stop. Post internet shopping guilt as another package of cheap and nasty clothes arrives from ASOS has been my companion for too long.

I started off by initiating a ‘one in, one out’ policy with clothes buying. If I bought something new, I had to send an old thing to the charity shop. Inevitably this would need to be something too small that I hadn’t worn for five years. This went some way towards my accepting that I wasn’t going to get back to being a size 14 any time soon, and even if I did, I would probably want a new wardrobe, not one that was half a decade out of date. It did not however assuage my guilt at contributing to an oppressive system of fashion production which exploited men, women and children producing cheap clothes in factories abroad, and which often humiliated and marginalised women here in the western world.

And then I discovered sewing. And even though I have only really been doing it for a couple of months, already it has done three huge things for me:

1) Stopped me from passively endorsing a hideous fashion industry at a cost to human dignity everywhere.

2) Allowed me to discover a creative and practical side of me that had lain dormant since school.(and err, spend hours and hours and too much money browsing beautiful fabrics online, but more of that later)

3) Allowed me to realise that my body can not be defined by a clothes size. It is unique, ever changing and marvellous, and I can make clothes that rejoice in that, rather than try and apologise for something shameful or which make me look like I’m trying to be something I’m not.

Sewing allows me to be a much better me. And this blog is going to chart my successes and cock-ups in learning everything that actually Making Stuff can do for a person and their place in the world. And I’m not going to buy any high street clothes until next year. And if all goes well, I won’t buy any in 2015 either. Apart from jumpers. I hate knitting. And shoes. I can’t make shoes. But everything else, me made or nuthin.

no shopping

(I promise that future blog posts won’t be as grandiose as this one, and will mainly focus on wonky hems and bias binding, but for now, I am filled with joy and wonder and enthusiam for my new hobby, and I just had to get it out there!)