On sewing and cheap clothes

Sorry, I haven’t blogged for ages. I’ve had very little to say, so I’ve said it, at length, on Twitter.

One of the things I’ve been doing is sewing. Grandma left me her sewing machine in her will, “to keep or dispose of as I saw fit.”

So I kept it. It’s lovely. Not pretty to look at, but it’s bombproof.

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It had previously been living at my parents’ in Hampshire, which seemed sensible while I was first learning how to use it, but once I had cleared out the Cupboard of Doom by the front door so I had somewhere to keep it and the associated paraphernalia, I brought it up to London.

Have you ever tried taking a metal cased (and therefore heavy and awkward to carry) sewing machine anywhere by public transport? It’s do-able, but you will find a wheeled tote bag extremely handy.

I live in sure and certain hope that we will have a summer this year and so have been making floaty skirts in Liberty lawn.

I think I was cutting out a pattern when the news broke of the factory collapse in Dhaka, and it started me thinking. Vague, fumbling thinking. I’m not sure where it’s going, but we’ll see.

I know the work that goes into a skirt. This one took me most of a day.

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It’s sort of middling complexity, as skirts go. It’s lined, has six panels, a waistband facing, and a zip. It would have been quicker if I hadn’t lined it, but lined skirts drape better and Liberty lawn is so fine that it either needs lining or you end up with the national collection of nude-coloured underskirts, which are disastrously unattractive garments, invariably just the wrong length.

I know that industrial garment production is not the same as domestic sewing. That if you’re chained to a sewing machine in Dhaka, you get provided with pre-cut pieces, and your job is to turn those pre-cut pieces into a garment. That you will make the same thing day after day after day, and the more you make of anything, the faster you get (the last of the aprons that every toddler of my acquaintance got for Christmas took me an hour and a half from pinning out the fabric to stitching on the neck strap. The first one took me about three hours). If you’re paid piece-rates, you won’t stop to unpick mistakes or carefully press seams.

But still. There is work involved in a skirt.

The things I do. I set foot in Primark without benefit of ear defenders, gin, or a sharp stick, looking for something comparable. Other cheap clothing stores are available, but I was on my lunch break and I only had an hour.

You can buy a long skirt for £12, a tailored pencil skirt for £7, tailored trousers for £5, a t-shirt for £4, and a dress for £20.

I don’t think that’s right.

I know, wages are lower in Dhaka, and economies of scale mean that industrial quantities of fabric are cheaper than my waltzing into Liberty’s and handing over £24 a metre for cotton lawn (and, furthermore, that I can buy Liberty lawn elsewhere for cheaper than £24).

But if I can buy a skirt for £12, and a t-shirt for £4, and that £16 covers a proportion of Oxford Street rent and rates, utilities, staff wages, shipping, and the costs of manufacturing, such that Primark and everyone involved in the chain makes a profit, there is a little voice at the back of my mind saying “someone, somewhere, is being shafted.” Corners are being cut. Wages are inadequate. Safety inspectors are being bribed to ignore cracks in factory walls. Fire doors are chained shut. Buildings collapse and people die or are trapped in rubble and have limbs amputated without anaesthetic so that I can buy a t-shirt for four quid.

There is blood on our cheap clothes.

I can hear the shouts of “check your privilege!” from the back, so I’ll try and address those.

I work full time, and I earn a decent wage. I have the money to buy expensive fabric, woven in Italy and printed in Lancashire, which I then have the time, the patience, the knowledge, the equipment, and the interest to turn into clothes.

I have internet access so I can go looking for cheaper fabric than Liberty lawn, or fairly-traded fabric, or fabric which is woven and dyed in the EU, with its more stringent workers’ rights and safety requirements. I can have that fabric delivered to work, so I don’t have to troll down to the parcel office on the bus to pick it up. I am not scrambling to make ends meet, working two jobs, with children to look after.

I am not saying that everyone should make their own clothes. Apart from anything else, if everyone could do it, I wouldn’t get the massive ego boost from all the “oh, you are clever,” comments I get, but it would add seven pence per garment to fix the buildings in the Dhaka garment district.

Seven pence.

I know it’s complicated. Is it better to be campaigning for change from the inside, being able to write to the chairman of Primark as “a loyal customer who has shopped in your stores for the last X years, spending £yyy in the process, I am appalled that…”, or am I enjoying the view from up here on the moral (ish) high ground too much?

I don’t know.

But this I know.

Depriving the labourer of his wages is a sin that cries to heaven for vengeance. Presumably depriving the labourer of her limbs is likewise.

The “it’s better they’re paid something,” argument is rubbish. It leads to a race for the bottom where that “something,” gets smaller and smaller every year because “there are plenty of other people who want your job.”

A £4 t-shirt, which falls apart on the second wash and goes to landfill, is clearly more disposable than something which I have spent time and effort in making. Clothes which I make will be taken up and taken in and altered and worn until they collapse in shreds around my ankles.

It’s a subset of Sam Vimes’ “boots” theory of socioeconomic injustice. When we meet Vimes, in Men at Arms, he earned thirty-eight dollars a month as a Captain of the Watch, plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots, the sort that would last years and years, cost fifty dollars. This was beyond his pocket and the most he could hope for was an affordable pair of boots costing ten dollars, which might with luck last a year or so before he would need to resort to makeshift cardboard insoles so as to prolong the moment of shelling out another ten dollars. Therefore over a period of ten years, he might have paid out a hundred dollars on boots, twice as much as the man who could afford fifty dollars up front ten years before. And he would still have wet feet.

I can spend £4 on a t-shirt, which is so cheaply manufactured that it falls apart within the month and doesn’t fit for the month that you get to wear it, so I then have to keep spending £4 on t-shirts. Or I can spend £26 on two metres of organic, fairly traded cotton jersey plus another few quid for thread and a pattern, and make two t-shirts well and sturdily, which will last two or three years. In three years, I’ll have spent £144 on £4 Primark t-shirts, or (including the cost of my time) about £60 on making my own. This leaves £84 to spend on gin and frivolity, and I won’t have had to go to Primark, which I have a sneaking suspicion is not a shop at all, but a portal to Hell. A whole range of garments and accessories are available at Shop My Happi Place at reasonable prices.

I’m not perfect – I don’t think anyone can be this side of the Parousia – but I’m working towards doing the best I can. I’m sure that if anyone went through my wardrobe and my food cupboards the list of things which would show me up as a raging hypocrite would be a mile long.

I haven’t been dressmaking for long enough to have a wardrobe full of hand-made clothes. I bought my last duvet set in Debenhams. But I find that I am more thoughtful about the clothes that I buy now, as I am aware of the work that goes into them, and the price that I should be paying. I am also thoughtful about the things that I make – it is a thing which concentrates the mind wonderfully, handing over a small fortune for fabric which you still have to take home and do something with.

Costings for approximate equivalent hand-made items to the Primark items mentioned above:


This will never be a fair comparison – as several people pointed out to me, I’m too much of a perfectionist to make things badly and out of horrible materials, so the fabrics were organic and/or fair trade where possible. The fabric for the pencil skirt and trousers is a wool/polyester blend. The £92.72 for the long skirt includes the £7.60 for the lining. Notions are things like thread, interfacing, and buttons (this cost is very much a guess. There is always thread left over, which you use up the next time). Patterns are a one-off cost. I have deemed my time to be worth £10 an hour (don’t tell my boss, I don’t need a pay cut), but, realistically, I don’t include my time in the cost of making things – it’s something I enjoy doing and I don’t count the cost of going to a museum, either.

So, some fumbling thoughts. I think all I can do is buy (or make) the best I can afford. I am lucky enough that I can afford better than Primark, or similar “pile it high and flog it cheap” vendors of highly seasonal fashion. I am also lucky enough that I am not interested in the whims of seasonality, and so I will wear things I like regardless of whether they are in fashion or not, and until they fall apart.


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11 Responses to On sewing and cheap clothes

  1. Interesting post. I would love to buy ethically in every situation, but as a single mother dependant on disability benefits, I simply can’t afford it. Children grow incredibly quickly, and I can’t justify spending £20+ on a t-shirt for a child/teenager that will have grown out if it in 6 months.
    You’re right, the quality of the clothes in Primark is very poor, and I prefer to buy clothes for myself in other places, because a good quality top will last me for years. But, for the 8 year old boy who is going to rip the knees of his jeans no matter how much you’ve spent on them, or the teenage girl who wants whatever’s in fashion every season, there are simply not that many options available to the mum who needs to clothe her children on a budget.

    • rosamundi

      Thank you. I’m aware that I am writing from a position of some privilege on this topic, and I don’t know what the answers are. But I am fairly sure that when you go to work in the morning with two working hands and by the end of the day one of them is left in the rubble of your place of employment, something has gone desperately, awfully wrong.

    • Cal

      Well what did people do before there were jeans at £5 a pop? Or t-shirts at £2? It’s not as if children haven’t always worn through / grown out of their clothes quickly. Or teenage girls haven’t always wanted cool trendy clothes.

      Though it has to be said that expensive, or relatively expensive, does not necessarily equal good working conditions either.

  2. Good post, I have bought clothes from Primark, a while ago now, I can’t answer for the quality of clothes now, but I remember that the great thing about them when they arrived in the UK was that the quality was really good and I still have some of those clothes 7-8 years later.
    I stopped buying there ’cause I couldn’t deal with the shops and was concerned about the issues around cheap clothes, as you’ve pointed out. I think the issue is broader than cheap clothes, I think that the world we live in that makes cheap clothes and food the only thing that some people can afford and then barely because money is being eaten up on rent or there isn’t enough money to start with and your wages have to be topped up with benefit is a real issue. It’s hard to think about the ethics of your cheap clothes if you’re struggling to survive here. Not fair or right maybe but understandable.

  3. Thanks, I learned a lot from that. But even sewing on buttons drives me insane…

  4. Primark are only part of the problem. The economics of milk and food production are just as bad. Though a part of me couldn’t resist a wry chuckle at some of the outrage over the horsemeat scandal. If you are paying that little for burgers (and yes I know some people have no choice) then surely you should be thankful that they actually contain some meat — all be it of the wrong type — rather than just rusk and GM gloop.
    Then there’s the revefrse situation where things that should be cheap aren’t because profit is put ahead of social need. Public transport being a case in point.
    I think, though I’m not sure I can evidence it, that the race for the bottom is worse in Britain than the rest of Europe. Casting my mind back, I suspect that crass consumerism started to take root at the time of the Thatcher governments. I wonder if the right to buy legislation, which rapidly changed a lot of people’s expectations, was the change that first let the genie out of the bottle?

  5. naath

    I think it’s a vicious circle. We have these cheap clothes which are part of the excuse for low benefits and low minimum wages; which leads to people *needing* cheap clothes; which leads to “being a cheap clothes seller” being a good economic niche to fill; which leads to cheaper clothes…

    Also I think the fashion industry has a huge problem with things that aren’t made to last. Even moderately expensive things. Which cuts down on the availability of second hand things. And of course *getting something fixed* here in the UK is costly, because you have to pay UK wages… so new things are often cheaper, which cuts down on the usefulness of fixing things. And there’s also the social pressure to have new things, not second hand, and to have the things that are currently fashionable, and so forth…

  6. I don’t like cheap clothes & cheap meat either and my response (not having the time or space or, if I’m honest, inclination to make my own clothes, or the money to buy expensive clothes and meat), has been to stick to second-hand and go vegetarian. It’s been quite a few years now and almost every item of clothing in our house is either from eBay or a charity shop and I manage to maintain my previous ‘look’. I’m waiting with dread though until my two-year-old gets a few years older, as a previous comment said it might all fall apart then and I don’t know what I’ll do. It bothers me. Like you though, I’m certainly not safe from calls of hypocrisy should anyone go through my life with a fine toothed comb :-/

  7. I bought 2 skirts in Primark last week and now they’ve turned to ashes in my mouth. But hold! I have just tweeted a link that says the worker in Bangladesh only gets 2p for making a tshirt. So tell me, is the £40 difference between a skirt from Primark and a skirt from Monsoon all going to the person in the factory. I doubt it. So, yes we have to shop ethically. Or make our own. Or go commando. It’s tough, specially when you’re the size I am.

    • Cal

      It’s perfectly possible that the Monsoon skirt and the Primark skirt and the M&S skirt and even the Bond Street skirt are all being made in the same factory. Cost of fabric will be a major differentiator, also the quality of make.

      But I don’t think that means we can say ‘oh they’re all as bad as each other’ so what’s the point, might as well just carry on. Rather let them all know that we as customers do care and do expect them to be doing something about it. Most of the high street retailers, including Primark, have had codes and been inspecting against them and even running projects for years now, but it’s clearly not been enough.

      What none of them are very keen to do is to support trade unions, support workers organising and standing up for their own rights which is where the real sustainable change will happen. And collaborative, collective action has also been mostly missing – each brand/retailer doing their own little thing.

  8. In answer to what you do when you have an 8 year old who went through clothes in minutes, I bought at jumble sales and charity shops (and dress made for smarter clothes). If they are going to wreck the jeans, new smart jeans aren’t great whatever. And an 8 year old boy hopefully will not be that interested in labels. And patches can be a statement.

    My teenage daughter made me buy labels I didn’t want to buy. Not because she wanted them, but because she was bullied if she didn’t wear them. Neither of us were happy about that.

    My now adult daughter has just, in the last month, bought her own sewing machine and is teaching herself to sew. I sent her back from last weekend staying home with a vintage Clothkits kit for a fine cord skirt. I suspect I bought it in the closing down sale of the Covent Garden shop and didn’t make it up because I had said daughter in the meantime and stopped working in the sort of environment where that would be appropriate. Twenty odd years later it will fit her better than me.

    I am not sure what the new kits look like, but if they are anything like the original range, if you want to learn to dressmake it would be worth looking at the Clothkits range