Often in the home sewing community we talk about our ‘handmade wardrobe’ and say things like “Ooh almost x% of my closet is handmade!” OR “Hey! Check out my new handmade dress!”, we use hashtags such as #HandmadeWardrobe to find other sewists and connect with people who also like to sew. But aren’t all clothes handmade by someone?
The more I started researching this, the more I discovered that people just don’t realise that all their clothes have been handmade by a human person. There seem to be so many people who seem to think that machines are sewing clothes. When we talk about clothes being made in factories, in an assembly line, there are so many people who don’t realise there are human beings doing the majority of the steps in the process.
The person who had asked the above question on Quora, has seen this story on NPR and was surprised to see that there were people sewing together t-shirts in factories, asking ‘Is it true that even T-shirts are still sewn together by humans using sewing machines? Aren’t there more automated and standardized ways of stitching pieces of cloth together to make clothing?’ There seems to be a common belief that simple articles of clothing such as T-shirts are made by machines, more couture garments are the ones that are handmade.
A few years ago a man named Jonathan Zornow was similarly shocked to discover that machines aren’t making our clothing, he was particularly surprised to see how complex it is to make even a ‘simple pair of pants’ (seriously – trouser making, simple? Um, no.) Anyway, in order to help ‘fix’ the ‘problem’ of people making our clothes Zornow invented a robot called ‘SewBo’ to sew them for us. The downside? Robots can’t manipulate soft objects, so the fibres need soaking in a polymer (plastic) to harden them so that the robot can sew them, then the polymer is washed out of the fabric at the end of the process (YIKES!). If this is how close we are to machine made clothes then it seems we still have a long way to go.
Of course there are machines involved in large scale garment manufacture, have you seen videos like this on YouTube of people cutting huge piles of fabric using some sort of industrial jigsaw? Each person in the assembly line also has their own very specific jobs in order to speed up the process, for example one person sews on pockets, another assembles the crotch seam, someone else sews the belt loops etc etc. Each individual becomes an expert at their step of the process and becomes incredibly quick and accurate at that step, but it’s still people, not machines!
Ultimately, isn’t the problem that clothing is so cheap people assume machines are making them? People don’t want to face up to the fact that their £3 t-shirt was made by a person who was probably paid very little to make it. That £3 has paid for fabric, thread, dye/printing, transport costs, storage, tax, profits AND several people’s wages to make it, seems like they probably weren’t paid much!
In high fashion, they refer to garments as ‘machine made’ when a sewing machine is involved, hand-made garments are those couture garments that have been sewn together by hand. I find it unsurprising that the giants of the fashion industry are used to erasing the efforts of the multiple people involved in making those ‘machine made’ garments where there are actually people operating those very sewing machines. This Harpers Bazaar article about the Metropolitan Museum of Art Manus x Machina Exhibition where designers are using 3D printers and other technology to make clothes, seems to go to some length to avoid mentioning that ‘machine made’ clothes are actually still made by people!
The difference is, that we sewing people KNOW how that t-shirt or those trousers are made. We understand each step in the process and know how skilled those people are who made the Ready To Wear (RTW) clothes. So why do we still refer to our homemade clothes as handmade? I’m not really sure, is it because the word ‘homemade’ makes them sound somehow inferior? Handmade gives the impression of some sort of artisanal element, evoking images of craftsmanship and quality, but by refusing to label out RTW garments as handmade are we disrespecting the people who made them? Ultimately, gaining our respect isn’t going to pay them any more wages but if we change our mindset, could it be the start of change?
I don’t honestly know what the solution is, do we start calling our me-made clothes homemade? Home-sewn? I don’t think I’ll be referring to my makes as handmade again, but I don’t know what a good alternative is. Do you have any suggestions or ideas? Let’s chat!