My wife and I recently had a rare evening. As with most parents, such occasions allow for small joys that our busy lives often prevent. I chose entertainment, so Christina had to go to the fabric store.
She likes to knit at the loom and thought she might try crocheting. My wife needs time and space to contemplate things like yarn, so I wandered around the store.
Some guys seem uncomfortable in the fabric store. I see them there, circling around the carpentry section like they have some kind of manly business there. I’ve never had a problem with the fabric store. When I was a child, my mother made our clothes. She did it all. When the Pound Puppies were popular, she even made them by sewing the bootleg logo onto the dog’s plush buttocks.
We went to the fabric store as often as we went to the grocery store. I remember I was five years old, running down the aisles of the rainbow with my arms outstretched, feeling the textures change with every leap. It was the 1980s, so the colors were screaming like train whistles. Mom used to buy wax paper patterns in those sturdy industrial envelopes. The confused, half-smiling kids on the cover were showing my sisters and me what our next outfits would look like. We were too young to realize they were trying to warn us.
I loved the outfit I wore on my first day of kindergarten, though. Blue denim pants and jacket with a matching backpack. Mom sewed a dump truck onto the backpack and an excavator onto the coat before writing my name inside the collar. No beacons. It was an original.
My first friend invited me for my first slumber party that year. He lived down the road. We arrived to find a snapping turtle dead in its path ahead, shotgun blast through the side of its shell. My friend’s stepfather had killed him “to serve as an example to others”. I thought he was talking about other turtles, but maybe that was an optimistic reading of the situation. The man had also removed all interior doors to the house, including the bathroom door.
It was a weird scene, but whose first slumber party isn’t a little weird? When I got home, my mother noticed that I was missing some clothes. She called my friend’s mother, but there was no sign of them. A few days later, I noticed my friend was wearing one of my homemade shirts. Without a clue, I said, “Wow, I have a shirt like that!” My friend shifted uncomfortably in the seat of the bus we were sharing.
I told my mother about it that night. She said it’s okay, he needs the shirt more than you do. And then she started making me a new one. We didn’t even have to go into town; he had enough fabric left.
Long later, my dad said he made less than $8,000 that year. We’ve had it bad, but others have had it worse. It helped a lot that my dad could fix things and my mom could sew.
So it occurred to me last month at the fabric store that the kind of things my mom used to sew for us would now be cheaper to buy at the store than to make. A yard of almost any fabric costs as much as a sale shirt at Wal-Mart. This is only possible because the shirt was made overseas by workers who earn less than $8,000 in today money.
I’m certainly not the first to notice this. Shahidha Bari recently reviewed “Worn: A People’s History of Clothing” by Sofi Thanhauser for the London brand Literary Review.
Bari cites Thanhauser’s research to say, “Today it is more expensive to make your own clothes than to buy them. This is a relatively recent and shocking development in the history of human clothing. How did such a situation arise? The answer to this question is globalization and the devaluation of labor it has triggered.
Clothing, like food, is one of the most culturally important necessities of life. We are what we wear, not just in terms of fashion, but in terms of class, climate and economic impact.
When I was in the fabric store last month, I looked at the patterns for sale. One for a men’s wool dress coat caught my eye. I try on these coats every time I see them, but they rarely fit well. And they usually come in black or gray, with no other options.
Holding this envelope in the store, I thought about flashy designs I could use for the lining. I could use a tartan yarn, maybe even match it with my favorite Stormy Kromer. This thing really could be one of a kind.
But it also scared me. Not just the cost, although my mother certainly couldn’t afford to do such a thing at the time. No, it’s scary to think about the time and effort it takes to break out of the consumption cycle. Although it devours our resources and undermines entire sectors of gainful employment in our economy, the system we have is paradoxically easy to maintain.
At least for now.
When India sought independence from the British Empire more than 75 years ago, its spiritual leader Mohandas Gandhi realized that his country was becoming increasingly dependent on British goods, especially textiles. that’s why Gandhi pushed the “homespun” movement, encouraging the massive population of India to weave their own thread and weave their own cloth. By doing so, he said, India would no longer be dependent on UK cotton imports.
Although this was not the only factor in India’s independence, kadi the clothes became an important symbol which led to Indian autonomy in 1947.
Are we still able to do such things?
It seems that we have created a system devoid of common sense. Why should it be more expensive to make your own clothes? Repair your own cars? Make your own bread? Here we find the crux of our problem: we have stripped both the usefulness and the humanity of life. We pursued efficiency with such dogged determination that we actually caught the bastard.
I could sew this coat I dreamed of, but I would have to learn how to do it first. I would have to be humble and take time.
“The production of clothing is a deeply social and moral act,” writes Bari. “It’s woven into the story of how we became the humans we are, and it will also play a crucial role in determining what kind of humans we become.”
Global institutions are on the brink. Buying $3 shirts that you can throw away in a year seems unlikely to be an option forever. Even in the most optimistic vision of tomorrow, we will have to build our own future, literally.
Before investing in cryptocurrency, before getting into real estate, before stocking up on guns and ammunition, we have to ask ourselves this: Can we sew? Can we wrap warm clothes around the next generation without even going to town? It could be difficult. It could take some time. But at least it’s something we can actually control without hurting anyone in the process.
This comment first appeared in the Minnesota Reformer. Aaron J. Brown is an author, community college instructor, and radio producer for the Northern Minnesota Iron Range.