CREDIT: Occupational portrait of a woman working at a sewing machine, 1853. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number LC-USZC4-3598 DLC.
I've been taking sewing classes. At last. I can't believe it has taken me this long to get around to doing this. I am now the proud owner of an old Singer that the young Akhenaten bought for me. Wearing thrifted clothes is a much better experience when you have the ability to do alterations. My goal is make dresses from vintage patterns, mostly to manage my fear that the vintage dress supply is drying up. (This has inevitably leads me to the desire to stockpile vintage fabric.) So far I have made 1 1/2 dresses, hemmed my trousers, have a new best friend in my seam ripper and am overflowing with even more compassion for the garment workers of the world.
Whatever you are wearing, vintage or current, cheap or expensive, was labor intensive to make. Someone had to sit at a sewing machine and sew each hem. Each button. Each button hole. Every spaghetti strap had to be stitched and then turned in-side-out by hand. All for very low wages, and most likely in seriously substandard conditions. If they were paid at all. (Many current companies subcontract piece work to be handled in one of the world's Export Processing Zones, perhaps off the coast of Jamaica. There, outside the national boundaries of any nation's laws, subcontractors control fiefdoms made of sweatshops, sometimes closing and vanishing before paying workers. If you'd like to know more about Export Processing Zones, I'd recommend Stephanie Black's film, Life and Debt.)
In fact, everything you own is hand-made. Yes, even the mass-produced item from the 99 cents store. Someone sewed the hems on that dishtowel or assembled a kitchen timer. The parts of your iphone were machine-manufactured, yes, but someone had to sit there and put them together. Machines can only do so much, and often, human labor is cheaper than machine power. Want to about terrible working conditions and exploitation that appear even on mainstream news sources like CNN? (for example, here). 2010 saw a series of very publicized suicides by Chinese workers assembling apple products. Human hands have touched and molded it all.
But we know all that. We know the human cost of our cheap products. We have to repress this knowledge of the suffering connected with our beloved objects. Some people repress the knowledge so very seamlessly, that they would be shocked (shocked!) to be accused of false consciousness.
And yet, in wealthy countries, there is a great cult of the hand-made, venerated at Etsy, and the like. One can get into the Walter Benjaminian aura of the object. Of course in their interviews of Etsy sellers, one of the questioned asked is "What does Handmade mean to you?" The answers manifest a precious false consciousness that elevates the handmade over the mass-produced without acknowledging the similarities. As if aura something that can only be conferred by a woman in Brooklyn at her sewing machine for her Etsy store. Why not the woman sitting at a sewing machine in a maquiladora in Juarez? Is it because she is sewing from someone else's pattern? No? That's not it? What is it then? Is it that the woman in Brooklyn is less alienated from her products? Can listen to NPR while she works? Presumably has been labor conditions in place for herself? You tell me.
I wish I could find it, but about 10 years ago I saw a comic strip with the words:"In the future, we will all work in our own sweatshops." In the first panel it showed a harried woman cutting out a pattern in her apartment while on speaker phone with headquarters. The voice on the speakerphone fired her, and then hired her back for half what she was making before. I believe it is true, we will all soon have our own sweatshops.