For those readers who are my real life/social media friends, you’ve no doubt noticed that I’ve picked up a new hobby. My Instagram has been flooded with pics of my burgeoning self-made wardrobe (sorry/you’re welcome).
And I’ve learned some big lessons. Here are a few of them:
Anyone who wears women’s clothes knows that shopping is a battlefield–if for no other reason (and oh, there are so many other reasons) than that sizing is all over the place. You’re a squiggle here, a dog there, an expansive universe at this other place, and that store for teens seems to have a forcefield that repels you if you approach. Initially I wrote those as numbers but then I realized that a) some people find numbers tricky and b) they’re as nonsensical as a squiggle, dog, and expansive universe so why not be honest? This video from Vox gives a nice overview of why women’s clothing sizes make no sense:
“It’s not you, it’s the industry.”
One of the first big shocks of making your own clothes (and something I’ve seen others go through time and again) is that the sizing is absolutely inconsistent with Ready To Wear (RTW)–which means you’re often at least two sizes bigger than what you’d buy in a store. There are a couple wonderful things about this: 1) Across individual pattern companies sizes tend to be consistent; 2) You learn the size doesn’t mean anything.
Let’s say your measurements are x (bust), y (waist), and z (hip). Now, in RTW with an xyz you may span from 6 to a 10 to a 14 to a 16 and cover s, m, l, xl depending on the stores you shop at. When looking at patterns you may also span a couple different sizes depending on the pattern company, but your measurements are always the same. So maybe you’re a medium, a large, and an extra-large across three pattern companies. Regardless, you’re still an xyz. Sewing my own clothes has taken a lot of the weight over the letters or numbers on the tag (partially because my tags are numbers-free, baby) away, and shifted my focus to my measurements. But they too are free of much of the angst I’ve had in the past when measuring–let’s be honest, when we measure our bodies why are we usually doing it? To show we’ve succeeded or failed in losing fat, right? And so, much like stepping on the scale is fraught, so too is the measuring tape. But now it’s just a series of numbers which tells me which line to cut.
A couple other notes on sizing: 1) One reason that knits are so popular is that you can fit a much larger range of sizes into one garment when it’s got stretch (think a stretchy dress from Old Navy vs a bridesmaid dress from…wherever makes bridesmaid dresses). This is also why quite loose, flowy patterns are popular. More people can fit in fewer sizes, which means companies can make fewer sizes and make more profit. 2) Most pattern companies are explicit in the body shape they design for, so you can find companies that design for bodies that look like yours, and can adjust things to get them just-so.
Making clothes is hard work. I know we’ve all seen the documentaries. We may even still subconsciously boycott Nike due to the sweatshop scandal in the ’90s. We probably shake our heads and sigh and wish that ethical clothing was more affordable. But then we go out to H&M or Joe Fresh or Adidas or wherever it is we get our clothes and we put it out of our minds.
I spent a whole day sewing a couple weeks ago–I had a couple shirts to make for a friend and a duvet cover (#neveragain)–and I was in pain long before I was finished, and even into the next day. It’s very repetitive, very physical work. It’s exhausting.
It can also be really frustrating and time consuming. And that is without the immense pressure faced by garment workers who are often paid per piece in overheated, structurally unsound buildings, at times locked in and denied bathroom breaks.
Sewing my own clothes, putting the labour in myself and seeing that it is a significant amount of labour, has evaporated the cognitive dissonance I allowed (and needed) in order to buy into fast fashion. Holding a dress that costs less than an hour’s living wage brings home how much labour went into that piece and how low the cost must be.
To illustrate this point, let’s do a little cost comparison between RTW and self-made clothes.
Figuring out exactly how companies price things is hard, but a good rule of thumb is that the retail price is four times the first cost (“the total cost to create finished goods ready for sale in the marketplace”).
So that American-made shirt will be going for $53 (and that is without taking into account design and marketing costs), while the Bangladeshi-made shirt will be going for $14.88. And let’s be clear that labour in the United States, especially in the garment industry, is wildly underpaid.
I made two shirts for a friend recently that, in retrospect, I wildly undercharged for (which I have no hard feelings about if you’re reading! Important lesson learned). They were $35 each (I knocked it down from $40 since I could bulk sew parts of them). Here’s what that looked like for one:
$0–thread and bias tape didn’t get factored in
$23–1.5 construction time=$15/hr (significantly less than a living wage or than what I’d accept for a job)
$0–nearly an hour picking out fabric–because factoring that into the labour costs makes my per hour so low I can’t deal with it, and I went in deciding I wouldn’t charge for picking out fabric since this was my first time making something for money and I didn’t want to feel like I was overcharging
$0–pattern, which cost at least $10 but which I bought knowing I’d make some for myself and some to sell
Now, I don’t benefit from wholesale prices, which knock about 80% off the material cost, which feels like a big difference, but looking at the picture above, the difference is between $7-8.70.
Now, part of that is undoubtedly the gendered socialization that leads me (and so many other women) to undervalue our labour. But an equally large part of that is that asking for a price that covers simply material and labour at a living wage with no profit takes us to almost $70 for a tank top. Which is simply out of the realm of possible for most of my friends who, like me, tend toward non-profit/social services/helping work that pays shit all. And because I’m building my skills and because I want (more) ethically made clothing to not be out of the realm of possibility I will not be charging $70 for a tank top.
Which brings us to one of the maxims of sustainable/ethical fashion: buy better, less frequently.
Sewing my own clothes has helped with this too, because sewing something is committing to several hours of labour (at least), requires a pattern I either have or will buy, printing the pattern and taping it, going to the fabric store and wading through hundreds of bolts of fabric, buying notions, ironing (which I hate), and on and on. So knowing the labour that goes into a piece means that a) I’m not buying a $15 dress on a whim and b) I’m not sewing something on a whim because it takes too much damn labour and time. I’m thinking about my existing wardrobe, about what looks good on me, what I feel good in, if I have fabric in my stash I can use, if I have a pattern I can use or modify, if the end result will be worth all the labour I put in.
Now, I know that ethically made clothing is legitimately out of the reach of a lot of people (poverty requires and begets poverty). But I also know that it is within reach for a lot of people who don’t focus on it because it’s a lot easier to not, because buying a new dress or new jeans is fun and feels like a reward, because we’ve been taught that clothing is disposable and there are now 52 microseasons in the fast fashion world–which exist solely to make us feel out of the loop, like we’re missing the latest trend, so we’ll buy more.
And I’m certainly not trying to be some hypocrite up on my high horse–I recently bought underwear that was no doubt made unethically because it’s beyond my scope at this point, and because, fuck, you gotta wear something, right? But rather I want to encourage us all to be more thoughtful in how we consume clothing, and I want us to be aware of the labour that goes into each garment (almost always exploitatively, sometimes by children or other slave labour). I want to encourage us all to not allow ourselves the luxury of “out of sight, out of mind.”
And I want to be very clear that unless a company is explicit about fair labour standards and has receipts, then they are using horrifically exploitative practices. It is simply not possible to manufacture a $20 t-shirt ethically. So the next time you see some fast fashion company outed for exploitative labour acting bewildered and saying that they “trusted” the contracted company (a neat way to avoid responsibility), know that they are lying. Unless they are explicitly paying for fair labour, they are willingly using sweatshop labour and hoping we’ll be too distracted by the next item in the news cycle to hold them to account.