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Why Sewing is One Answer to a Sustainable Future

Published:
December 14, 2023
October 2, 2023
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We’ve all been there — we’re scrolling social media and see our favorite online personality traipsing through the streets of Rome wearing the chicest, most on-trend outfit we have ever seen. Obviously, as we are slurping a Cup of Noodles on our headboard-less beds, we cannot afford to have Dolce and Gabbana supply us with our summer wardrobe, so we hop online to sites such as Amazon or Shein and see almost an exact replica for $35. We add-to-cart and anxiously await the arrival of our little slice of the cultural zeitgeist.

“Fast fashion” is the moment right now thanks in part to Instagram and influencer culture. Oftentimes fast fashion brands will copy ideas from high-end or celebrity brands and sell their “dupes” for a fraction of the cost. But what about the “someone” who made that dirt-cheap outfit for us? A recent investigation by the Department of Labor found that garment workers receive some of the lowest wages on the planet, with one manufacturer paying their workers $1.58/hour — significantly lower than any state’s minimum wage. Environmental author Ronald Geyer found that no major clothing brand pays its garment workers in Asia, Africa, Central America, or Eastern Europe enough money to climb out of actual poverty.

On top of the labor dilemma, what exactly are we getting for our hard-earned money when we buy from fast fashion sites? Part of what makes designer clothing so expensive (besides the name brand “Gucci effect”) is these pieces are made with higher-quality fabrics and more time and attention is paid to the construction, making them last longer and easier to repair. According to Earth.org, however, since the rise of fast fashion, there has been a 36% decrease in the number of times a piece of clothing is worn. Echoes of Pope Francis' environmental encyclical Laudato Si can be heard, particularly his calling out of “throwaway culture.” We are throwing away lower quality, cheaper pieces at a stunning rate, all while throwing away our concern for the dignity of those behind the sewing machines.

Now that we have gotten good and depressed, what can we, the average consumer, do? While we cannot individually revamp our consumerist culture, I believe that we need a cultural mind-shift, one that values the output of the garment worker within the larger fashion industry. 

Once we appreciate the intrinsic value of garment workers, we will be more likely to consider the value of the physical act of making clothes — specifically sewing. This presents an incredible opportunity to reach into our past as a solution for our future. When we think back to our grandmothers, so many of them had to sew their family’s clothing, as even then, store-bought fashion was outside of the budget. Somewhere along the line, “homemade” became an insult, with the connotation you were too poor to afford what the “others” had. But with the emergence of Etsy and other artisan websites, that idea is changing.

As a kid, my mom was a sewist. Most shopping trips involved the phrase “I can make that for five dollars,” which admittedly was frustrating for me, who just wanted to buy it off the rack. I never truly appreciated this maxim until she was able to replicate my favorite celebrity wedding dress for my senior prom. She recreated the dress of my seventeen-year-old dreams for a significantly lower cost, and I felt ownership and pride when I wore it because I witnessed how much work it took to produce.

When I became a mom, I channeled that sewist legacy and became essentially a costumier for my two daughters who love elaborate princess dresses, obscure Disney characters, and highly complex Broadway attire that send me to the machine instead of spending thousands of dollars online. Anytime they wear these pieces out, I am approached by someone asking if I would make one for their daughter, and I have to tell them that the amount of labor I put into them would make the dresses unaffordable if I charged for time.

This realization could be the key to solving at least part of the affordable, sustainable fashion conundrum. How can learning to sew be an answer to affordable, sustainable fashion in the future?

  1. We can still get the “dupes” we desire but in a much more ethical way.

More and more, pattern makers are creating versions of popular fashions, and YouTube is filled with content teaching every conceivable sewing technique. For nearly the same price as the piece you got off of Shein, you could make your own couture, bespoke, made-to-measurement outfit that you know for a fact was fairly made (and you’ll be more likely to wear it and repair it because you are familiar with how it was constructed).

  1. You learn a valuable life skill that will spill over into other areas of life.

No, sewing an outfit is not an easy solution, but I can speak from experience that it is a fulfilling one. Sewing my own clothing has taught me patience, perseverance, and resourcefulness (remember when we were deep in the pandemic and everyone became Little House on the Prairie adjacent?). 

  1. We appreciate the value of a well-made piece.

When we sew our own clothes — methodically cut out the pattern, pin the pieces together, press the foot pedal, and cut every stray thread — we certainly begin to appreciate the amount of effort garment workers put in. Perhaps you try it for a while and realize you’d rather toss your machine out the window. At this point, you will likely be willing to pay an extra $20 for a shirt that will not rip in two wears and end up in a landfill. That $20 then could go to garment workers to help them reach a liveable wage. In fact, studies show that a mere $0.20 increase in the price of t-shirts would be enough to pull an Indian garment worker out of poverty.

Until we consider the link between producer, product, and consumer — whether it’s in our food distribution or our personal wardrobe — we will never solve the inherent issues with fast fashion. It is too easy today to turn a blind eye to the struggle of workers and to justify clicking “buy.” If we want affordable, sustainable fashion in the future, perhaps learning to create them on our own can be a way to reduce the amount of clothing waste while at the same time learning the intrinsic value of those who stitch together the outfit of our dreams.

Creators:
Katie Lemaire
Published:
December 14, 2023
October 2, 2023
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