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.
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.
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.
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.
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.