Wardrobe ethics: is handmade better?

Denim border stitch and white jersey drying on the washing line

Clothing can seem like an ethical minefield sometimes. This week’s Fashion Revolution campaign is doing great work highlighting what most people forget – that clothes are made by actual people sitting at sewing machines. And that many of those people work in far-flung places, in very poor conditions.

Sewing gives you control over the manufacture of the garment – you know exactly who made your clothes. But sewing, or refashioning, teaches you something else too. You learn exactly what it takes to make a garment – that even a simple T-shirt requires cutting, stitching, pressing and finishing to get a wearable result. And when you do that, you start to realise that cheap clothing just doesn’t add up.

If I browse H&M’s website, I can see jersey tops priced at £3.99. How can £3.99 possibly cover the fabric (cotton) and thread, a fair rate for the labour, shipping to the UK from the factory and a profit for the retailer? Even accounting for economies of scale and the lower cost of living in the country of production (Bangladesh? China? Cambodia? – the item details don’t say), I think I can still smell a rat. Someone somewhere isn’t making a fair wage for their work.

I’m not convinced that expensive designer clothing is any better –  a high price doesn’t tell you what the producer receives, or whether something is good quality – although you’re more justified in being disappointed if it’s shoddily made. Good value clothing is about quality, not just price.

Sewists value clothing differently. We began to sew because ready-to-wear clothing didn’t fit, or because we couldn’t find what we wanted in the shops, so we’re picky by nature. But the slow pace of sewing teaches you to value quality over quantity. Sewists obsess over fabric, fit and finishes. It’s that thought process, and the fixation with quality that produces a more sustainable wardrobe. Handmade garments have been chosen and altered to suit and fit the wearer, they’re made carefully, and they last longer and get more wear than a knock-off of the latest fad. And that’s why you won’t usually find us in fast-fashion stores loading up with armfuls of the latest trends.

It’s not a perfect world. I’d like to see a better selection of sustainable fabrics available for sewers. And I’ll confess that until this week I hadn’t even considered who makes the thread, zips and trims I use. So perhaps instead of smugly proclaiming #imademyclothes, we should be asking ‘Who made my fabric?’

I’m not suggesting that everyone should make every garment they wear, or that we can travel back in time to an age when there were talented local seamstresses in every town. But the next time you find yourself in a clothes shop, look carefully at what you’re holding as you make for the till. Does it really fit you? How well is it constructed? Will you wear it out?

Don’t settle for mediocre. If it doesn’t fit properly, could you get it altered? If the buttons are falling off, could you replace them? Over time, would you swap a large, poor-quality wardrobe for a smaller, better-quality one? The only way to step off the fast-fashion treadmill is to buy less, but buy better – better for you, and better for the garment workers.

If you want to get involved, you can:

Visit fashionrevolution.org to tackle your favourite clothing retailer on their supply chain

Read Overdressed by Elizabeth L. Cline, the subject of last month’s Colette book club

Check out fashion blogger Man Repeller’s thoughts on slow fashion

Follow US Style and sewing blogger Birds of a Thread, who writes about ethical and socially responsible fashion

Gen up with English Girl at Home who’s been researching where different companies make and print their fabric.

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