The Ethics of Sewing

I’m back again (“… cried Nora, with a monumental crash”*), newly invigorated by some NaNoWriMo events in my library. It’s also NaBloPoMo, but I’m not up for a daily post. We’ve been using NaNoWriMo as an opportunity for writing of all kinds, so I’m revisiting the sewing blog concept, even though I know a lot of sewists and knitters are moving away from this format.

Someone just raised a great question in an online forum of which I am a member:

Is it better to make your own clothes from mainstream fabric stores or buy clothes from mainstream clothing stores?

This is something I’ve been thinking about on and off since I read Elisabeth Cline’s Overdressed. Sewists who pledge to make all of their own clothes, or all but the shoes and underwear, often cite the excesses of the global fashion industry as a reason, but unless you’re spinning your own cotton to weave your own denim, it’s not possible to completely opt out of the textile market. My immediate answer to my fellow crafter’s query was that making your own clothing allows you to avoid at least one layer of potential human suffering by bypassing the factories where your bohemian dress from Anthropologie or your $20 Old Navy jeans are made.

But what about the fabric? As Cline describes, factories that produce and dye fabric are hardly paragons of fair labor practice or environmental responsibility, and as far as I know it’s virtually impossible to trace the origins of the types of fabric you find at JoAnn or even somewhere like Mood. Even the bigger fabric companies like Robert Kaufman offer very little information about where their products actually come from (the Kaufman site here talks about designers and management as family, but not about the actual manufacture of their fabrics).

At the same time, there are places to buy ethically-manufactured fabric. And like ethically-produced clothing, it’s very expensive – prohibitively expensive for many of us. So what’s a seamstress to do? Cline’s conclusion in Overdressed seemed to be that we should sew our own clothing using thrifted/upcycled fabric on a vintage sewing machine** but this idea, while worthy, is somewhat limiting. Should we forget about ethical manufacture and sew what we want to sew? Or should we save up and sew fewer garments out of more responsibly-produced materials? I lean towards the second one, but it’s hard when there’s so much temptation (such as this beautiful plum-colored boiled wool, begging to be turned into a jaunty little cape) and so little information available about the origins of our fabric.

*I still always think of this line from the children’s book Noisy Nora when someone says “I’m baaaaack.” Hopefully my return to this blog will be accompanied by less of a crash and more of a quiet hum of regular activity.

**Don’t get me started on the vintage sewing machine thing. I would have a used/vintage machine if my grandmother hadn’t offered to buy me a new one, but for purely economical reasons. I refuse to feel bad about the environmental impact of buying a new sewing machine given that I don’t own a car or a television and I had my last cell phone, a used iPhone 4, for four years. My shiny new Bernina is not a major player in pollution, electronics waste, energy consumption, etc.

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