The Savvy Sage of Sewing Stimulation

Getting a real grip

The latest rage in all the sewing world is Elizabeth Cline’s Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion.

She has really nailed it on so many different levels.

Too Much:  First she deals with the whole idea of too much clothes in your closet – she says she has enough to open a clothing store.  But all her clothes are either worn out after two or three wearings, or else she gets them home, and they don’t work/fit/look right or something’s wrong and are never worn.  The whole addiction of buying clothes on such a fast timetable – no longer is she only buying at the seasons (Fall or Spring), she’s buying every two weeks as determined by the stores, designers and of course the marketers.  She’s not even encouraged or is it desirable to buy what she needs or even what she wants – it’s just to buy.

Workmanship: Next she deals with the quality of the clothing.  Many of her friends admit to her that they gauge the garment by often how many times they can wash the garment before it’s misshapen, falls apart, or is otherwise unusable – which may be as many as 20 times to as few as 3 times.

Fabric: Part of this quality also deals with the fabrics, which are often substandard and woven so loosely that it’s a miracle they can even stay together to be shipped and presented at a store.  Often stores or buyers have to return garments (more returns recently due to the economic situation), that are either wrongly assembled, or so poorly assembled and even color variations within one shipment so that one size may be one color and another size of the same model is a different color, or colors vary within one size.

The Economics:  Because of the recent recession there is even more of a need/drive for the manufacturer to deliver a product at even cheaper costs than previously.  This means salaries are cut, or kept the same and hours are increased and the decrease in fabric quality and quality of work.  As Ms. Cline deftly spells out, that recent unionization of some factories and resulting strikes has raised wages to “living wage” levels.  This means enough to buy food, a home (usually one room with a building in back for waste), but ice box, furniture, appliances are all luxury items.  And this wage is some of the top wages being paid in the clothing manufacturing  factories.

Recently, Cline writes that this is so below a meager wage that the workers have if not unionized, have at least consolidated to strike for higher wages.  They were rewarded however at the time the newer wagers were supposed to go into effect, the deadline passed and nothing was done nor were the new pay levels met.  If they are, then usually the hours are extended with no overtime, so in effect the factory got the same amount of work for the cheaper wage.

Morality:  Of course there is the aspect that many stand-up companies get their clothing manufactured in sub-standard, at best, conditions however these companies, even though they profess that they care about the quality of working pay and conditions, usually negotiate and hire the work out through a contractor who is the person who then contracts the low-paying factory to do the job.

One statistic that Cline quotes (and all her data is backed up by research, footnoted and documented, which makes it all the more disheartening), is that the factory worker who makes the garment receives 1% of the total cost of the garment.  Usually what happens in the garment biz is the factory will bid the job out at $5/garment but it will cost them $2.50 to make it (because of the low wages and/or long hours), the contractor will bid the job at $10/garment and it will cost him/her $5, and the store will sell it for $20, which means that the factory worker would have received 20¢ of the $20 garment.  This is how little the maker of the garment receives.

When I think of my own pricing for my clients, I wouldn’t even consider doing a garment for this sort of cost, as a matter of fact, I would consider it an insult.

Although Cline says that most companies hide behind a contractor to get the work done as cheaply as possible, she mentions one company in particular, Knights Apparel, that does work hard to make sure that the employees not only receive living wage at reasonable hours, but beyond that when they have their apparel made in the Dominican Republic.  Knights has made a decision that they will sacrifice some of their profit to make sure that the garment is made in a moral and honest way, and yet compete with the cheaply made H & M, Forever 21, Walmart garments.

Recently while in a US national park store and a famous national park, I noticed that everything was made in China.  When I complained, the volunteer workers, said they had nothing to do with it.  Like the uniforms designed by Ralph Lauren that were made in China, and a huge furor developed, I wonder why the same isn’t said or done about the items sold in the national parks.

Because no one knows.

Mindset: And this brings up another of Cline’s points, that because the art/skill of sewing has been lost especially with this current generation, they do not know how things are made or what the skills are to make things, and do not have any perspective on what it may take to make a garment.

Marketers, clothing retailers and designers all collude to prey upon this lack of knowledge to not only sell and market sub-standard clothing, but to make the consumer believe that there are not two or even four fashions seasons;  the fashions change every two weeks, so that the consumer MUST shop constantly for new fashions to be kept up to date .  If the consumer has no idea about investment dressing or really understanding how the system works against them, then how can they even hope to be rid of this burden of not only too many clothes, but clothes that don’t work, don’t last, and aren’t used.


Used Clothes:  So what happens to the mounds (and mounds doesn’t even come close to Cline’s description in the book which you  must read to understand) of used clothing?  It goes to clothe those less-fortunate?  No.  Why?  Because by the time the clothing is tossed out or given to these charities, it is in such pathetic condition that it’s not even useable for the needy.  Therefore, it is usually sold in bulk packages, back to a third-world country hoping to receive one or two gems that have been missed in the many culling through the lot of garments, but then eventually scrapped and again sold or discarded as it it unusable.

Toxicity:  Here’s another big deep dark secret about the clothing industry and this does affect we sewists, that the processing and production of the fiber is so poisonous that it can no longer be made in the USA as the EPA will not allow it.  So this means this process is exported to third world countries who either don’t have the knowledge or stamina to withstand the profit that comes from processing these fabrics, and pollute their own lands and waters to make these fibers.

Sewing: Finally the author does come to one of the best if not only solution, and decides to take sewing lessons to repair, reuse and refashion some clothes she has.  She probably won’t stick with it, but she will learn there is a set of skills to learn as well as the time involved in making the clothing.  But she has learned something here and that is to respect the time and skill involved and how to appreciate the cost of that – therefore the ACTUAL and REALISTIC cost of clothing.

My sewing mentor started teaching as her clients were constantly complaining to her about the cost of her fees.  Her clients started taking classes and about 2 or 3 classes into the sessions, they would had the garment back to my mentor and ask her to finish it and never balked about the price of her fees again!

Education of the skills it takes to sew are basic to becoming an intelligent consumer.  If we were to purchase an appliance, computer or car, we wouldn’t think twice about educating ourselves as to the best value.  With clothing, it’s like no education is necessary.  The marketers have convinced us that the less we know, won’t hurt a thing.  All we need to know is that it is fashionable;  that it is in;  the latest starlet or rock star is wearing or otherwise endorses it and that’s all we need to know  Phooey on how it’s made!

Future:  So what happens now – how much lowers can clothing prices go?  What happens to the future of these factory workers in third-world countries?  How much longer can the consumer remain in the dark about this travesty against the consumer’s lack of knowledge as well as against the ecology of this whole process:  the toxicity in producing the fabric, the sub-standard working conditions, the flooding of the market with sub-standard product, and the waste of disposal of the product.   Cline makes teh additional point that paying standard if not above standard wages over seas, actually brings the cost of clothing back into perspective to what it’s actually work, and domestic manufacturers can again compete with imported goods, bring much need jobs back to the US.

But something is lost here, that she doesn’t deal with very well, and that is the underlying secret that investment dressers all know:  investment dressing is much cheaper and more efficient way to clothe ourselves than this cheap constant flow of junk that we keep siphoning through the system.   The clothes I currently have in my closet date from about 15 years ago to about last year (a few pieces even longer).  I wear some of those garments just as well and often as I did 15 years ago.  They are made well, they are made of excellent fabric, but they are also made to my specifications.  (I have about 3 long, like floor length skirts, that I enjoy wearing during hot summers cause they are flowy and cool).  All my garments are this way, but more importantly, I’ve forgotten what it’s like to have cheap clothing that doesn’t last and clutters up my closet.  As a matter of fact, if it doesn’t last for 5 or more years, I do not think I’ve gotten a good deal with my garments.  Additionally I do not need to buy a whole new wardrobe every year, (or every two weeks) cause I don’t need it, frankly I don’t have the room for it and I really don’t want it.

Cline also admits that the satisfaction of being able to at least alter if not do some major refashioning is a very fulfilling feeling.

This is a little like describing the joy of singing or playing an instrument – and this has been scientifically documented (the music part), which is said to release endorphins that are comparable to those released when eating really enjoyable food (I’m sure it’s fattening as hell!), and participating in sex!  WOW!!!  What a comparison.

But my lack of words in my inability to impart to my readers as well as my students about the incredibly empowerment I feel when I’m thinking about, designing, drafting, planing, assembling, finishing a garment is very frustrating for me.  Empowerment is one feeling, but a pride in accomplishment is another.  This doesn’t include the comfort and knowledge I have that when I sit down in church with a pair of pants after I’ve had a little too much desert the night before, the pants are not going to split, come undone, show something through the seam that the rest of the world doesn’t need to see or any other terrible mishap, because it isn’t going to happen; because the clothes are made so well of solid fabric.

I really recommend this book.  And I recommend that you pass it on to your friends.

Knowledge is power and even empowerment!






Leave a Reply