Monday, 21 April 2014

Sewing Ethically

I admit I live in a bubble - it is deliberate and takes a great deal of effort to ensure that my little bubble's fragile skin  isn't broken.  I don't watch the news and rarely read newspapers and scan magazines with an element of scepticism - I tend to watch nostalgic Television programmes like Downton Abbey and call the midwife - where I am shielded from some of the more unpleasant misery that takes place in this world.

This week, - having experienced a few lovely weeks of sunshine, I have been up into the outer reaches of the loft and brought down my summer clothes. I love doing this it is like meeting with lovely old familiar friends. As the red polka dot dress reveals itself in the bag, memories of summer evenings eating lobster at the beach cafe spring to mind. Or the dainty blue polka dot dress that I have had lots of compliments about every time I wear it (yes I do have a lot of polka dots!) They are all familiar and have been worn by me for nigh on five years now. 

I find that this system of wardrobe rotation is somewhat outdated, made more noticeable by the lack of seasons in shops - every week there are rows of 'new in' items, dresses or skirts - clothes shops are transformed weekly not seasonally. It seems that clothes are like fast food, only meant for instant gratification, swiftly replaced. Clothing is throw away after all it costs less than the average takeaway.

I don't have to be convinced to sew, I know that sewing opens up a world of possibility - I can fully express myself by creating clothes I want to wear, but I did not realise until I was glancing through the pages of this weekend's observer that it was ethical - and as much as I try and hide away in my bubble - we are all connected. 

April the 24th did not really have any significance in my mind, other than an arrangement to meet with some girlfriends - but it was on that date last year over 1,133 young garment workers were killed and 2,500 injured when their clothing factory in Bangladesh collapsed. The magazine went on to explain the whole change in clothing manufacturing called 'fast fashion'. H&M and Primark being the biggest retailers to make use of third world to produce clothing at rock bottom prices. What developed was cheaper clothing that survived barely three weeks before it was superseded by the next 'trend'. What makes it so profitable is our insatiable desire for novelty and bargains.

I am guilty as the next person - the rush of a bargain - teeshirts that cost barely three pounds meant I could buy several for the cost of just one. I would pile these items into my basket while at the same time my expectations were low in terms of the construction and durability. So what if it is made shoddily - I would think,  its only pennies it only needs to last a few times and then I can buy another. 

What we ended up with is 'fast fashion' and just like fast food, I don't think it does anyone any good. While I stood in the queues to buy my goodies, I would try and distract myself from thinking about who had spent the time sewing these items. I know how garments are constructed, how long it takes to make a teeshirt, I also can imagine that there would be several profit making organisations between the sewer and the shop all taking a slice of profit from the tiny £3.00 my tee shirt was costing me. I had caught the back end of stories about children sewing Nike teeshirts for pennies, in large airless factories. 

Looking at me from the pages of this weekend's magazine were pictures of women holding photographs of missing loved ones, alongside the shacks they lived in, descriptions of how they spend 10 hours a day hunched over a sewing machine, sewing 50 pairs of jeans an hour for just $60 a month.

The article described in detail how one supervisor made the decision to return to the crumbling factory knowing that the women she supervised would follow her, that decision meant she had those women's deaths on her conscience. It was horrendous decision either way, the women needed to feed their families and could not afford another day without pay. I read the reports of the lights going out, the groaning just before the building collapsed and I was face to face with where my teeshirt had come from and how expensive it really was - it just wasn't me paying the price. 

I can't say that I am big enough to change the world, the problem of fast fashion won't disappear if I stop buying teeshirts at £3.00. The difficulties are complex - their culture and the way their society is run, the fact that building is not regulated, the distribution of employment. However, our attitudes to fast food and cheap food production is changing, why not the same for clothing production?

I can write to the manufacturer of the clothing I do buy and ask questions. I know that they take it seriously and multiply that effort because they believe for every person who writes another ten don't. I can choose not to shop in these stores, even though they are offering compensation and trying to change working conditions, they understand that we have ethical values its just that our love of a bargain overtakes that - I know I have done it so many times. 

What the article has done for me is to consider more carefully the choices I make, I am not naive enough to believe that making my own clothes makes me immune. Cotton comes from exactly the same regions, printing and processing takes valuable resources from communities desperate for the cash. 

The current trend for Vintage and retro styling is one that I enjoy - some talented people have even gone so far as to re-create the styles and patterns of the 1940's when clothes rationing was at its height. What we maybe need to bring with those pattern styles is the same reverence for clothing itself, to make the most of every pice of fabric, repair and remodel rather than throwing away. If fabric costs more then perhaps we would also appreciate it.

I have looked at some ethically produced fabric - however when I have calculated that the new dress I have in mind is going to cost nearly £80 in fabric alone I was shocked - but all it needs is a little mental adjustment. Yes I can buy cheaper, ready made in the shops, but what I am going to create is something beautifully made that will give me years of pleasure, and most importantly no-one has been exploited in the process. By buying ethically, I can support the small factories that are offering a different way of working, one that enriches those who produce the fabric rather than exploits them. 

April the 24th is Fashion Revolution Day, the brainchild of Carry Somers who is a fair-trade pioneer. You can get involved tell everyone you know, find out how and who made your clothes. You can ask questions - more importantly wear something inside out on the 24th to show your support for ethical clothing.

Be the change you wish to see in the world - Ghandi

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