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BurdaStyle readers, a question: Since so many of us live in parts of the world where clothes can be purchased relatively cheaply and few people are forced by economic necessity to make their own, why are we doing it?

I had this conversation with a friend recently. We agreed that there is a growing do-it-yourself crafts movement afoot and wondered what might be fueling it. My friend wisely pointed out that few of us are doing work that actually involves making anything anymore; we’re writing at a computer, or processing numbers, or providing services. It feels good to create something with our own hands. It’s a form of self-expression.

Thinking more about it this week, I began to realize that for me there is also an element of protest in my choice to make my own clothes, of resistance to the way clothing is manufactured in the world today.

It comes out of the awareness that companies generally pursue a strategy of chasing the lowest labor costs they can find — first within the USA, and then wherever in the world they can go. Many have no qualms about outsourcing jobs to countries that use child labor, have weak environmental regulation, are virulently anti-union, and maintain unsafe working conditions. It means they can increase profits faster, which is what corporate stockholders demand.

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Outsourcing of jobs in the USA is done without regard to the effects these practices might have on the communities that have watched so many industries move from northern to southern states (where labor was cheaper), and then out of the country entirely. You can see the effects of this everywhere, in nearly every American city that used to rely on private industry for jobs. Many formerly thriving urban centers are today hollowed out, some literally in ruins.

I don’t want to support these practices anymore. Obviously, 100% purity can be difficult to maintain. Sometimes you need a pair of underwear and there’s no other option than to buy something imported from a low-wage country. Or you purchase a few yards of cheap imported cotton knit and you don’t want to know who wove it or under what conditions.

It’s a lot like food. Do you ever wonder how those grapes ended up in your fruit salad, under what conditions they were picked, sorted, and shipped, and by whom? The answer can be alarming.

Clothing manufacturers have, furthermore, branded us to death, marketing their products as symbols of sex, youth, escape — even, paradoxically, anti-consumerism! The message is that if we wear a certain pair of jeans we’ll look like Che Guevara or John Lennon or James Dean.

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I don’t want to care what someone may or may not think of me based on my brand of sneakers or underwear or sunglasses. I am not a brand and neither are you.

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It can be hard to resist consumer culture and it can be pleasurable to participate. But it’s nice to know that my jeans are originals, made by me, and that just weeks ago my T-shirt was just generic knit yardage on a bolt.

Readers, how about you? Do you sew just to have a great-fitting pair of pants or skirt, or are you also making a statement about who you are and what you believe in?

When you wear your own handiwork, are you hoping simply to blend in or, on some level, are you making a statement of resistance about the status quo?

~Peter

Also make sure to check out Peter’s Jeans Sew-Along starting Monday, May 2nd on his blog Male Pattern Boldness!

When native New Yorker Peter Lappin bought his first sewing machine two years ago to hem a pair of thrift store jeans, little did he know he was initiating a journey that would bring him fame and fortune. While awaiting his fortune he stays busy writing “the world’s most popular men’s sewing blog,” Male Pattern Boldness, and now contributing to BurdaStyle.

“For more than twenty years I’d lived on the edge of the Garment District without even knowing what a seam ripper was. Now I rip daily!”

87 Comments

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    May 14, 2011, 08.12 AMby ruthw

    Also worth reading: http://www.fashion-incubator.com/archive/how-sweatshops-start/.

    I particularly note her comment “Sewing is a very low entry industry, it’s the first industry any nation develops so it’s ideal for anyone who is disadvantaged.” I think that clearly applies on a global scale too.

  • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

    May 13, 2011, 08.59 PMby Peter Lappin

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    May 8, 2011, 02.39 PMby asperge11

    I make my clothes mostly because i love to create things but also i love it when i’m wearing something and just think “i’m the only person in the whole world wearing this exact peace of clothing, its a complete original”. I try not to buy from big brands, and recently i’ve not been buying many cloths at all.

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    May 7, 2011, 08.12 AMby Coreyart

    Peter, this was a great post! Well written! I have to agree with everything you’ve said.

    I would add that I think there is a “sea change” coming regarding purchasing ethics in the US. No longer is it good enough to balance price and quality—one has to measure the impact on the lives it took to bring the item into being. Fair wages, decent living conditions, environmental impact, and business practices all have to be considered, and I think more and more people in the US are willing to think about those things.

    The social programming that has come to us regarding materialism is slowly, generationally, beginning to unwind. Having “stuff”, and being “trendy” is less important. It’s almost like the impact of mass production and the industrial revolution is starting to unweave. There are too many holes to feel comfortable using the blanket anymore. It’s time to wake up.

    We can’t fix everything. Western civilization has worked too hard to entrench things the way they are. But every little bit helps. And making one’s own clothes may end up being simply symbolic in the end, but it’s an important symbol. Wearing what one likes rather than what one is “fed” by the fashion industry, choosing to upcycle instead of purchasing something new, trading craft and sewing supplies and fabric stashes… These may not be solutions that can directly impact business integrity, but it’s a step. Personal convenience and low price don’t absolve corporate exploitation and pollution. And more people are realizing that.

    Thanks for articulating feelings that are getting more and more common. Because of this post, I’ve subscribed to both your blog and signed up here at Burda Style. Thanks for your words.

    1 Reply
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    May 5, 2011, 09.39 AMby Ruth Brown

    I decided after the vintage sewing machine article I absolutely love Peter Lappin. (Don’t tell my husband.) I agree completely with him again! I haven’t bought new clothes in years!

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    May 4, 2011, 05.01 PMby ijada13

    Wow! This is certainly a very controversial topic and I think it is one that always sparks lots of debate within the sewing community. I have a few things to say so here goes…

    First off, of course it is so important that each human receives the basic human rights and appropriate pay wage for the work they do. However, there are companies which receive a lot of negative attention for selling low price clothing (I’m thinking of Primark in particular here.) Nevertheless in recent years they have joined the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) which means they fully support Ethical Trade, whereas companies such as TopShop are not members. In some ways this makes me think, are companies like Topshop worse in someways than ones like Primark because their profit margins are that much higher, which means they are potentially exploiting workers even further?

    As much as I would like to be able to buy fairtrade clothing all the time, as a young person with only a weekend job, I know it would just not be possible for me to do so.

    However as far as sewing my own products goes, I love the sense of pride I feel when someone compliments something I have made myself and I love the skill involved in emulating something I have seen and been inspired by. As for the future, I would like to get into fashion marketing, however as I know how shallow an industry this can be, I should like to look into eco-fashion which I feel will rise in prominence over the next few years.

    Thanks, these are just my opinions and in no way do I expect people to agree with me…:)

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    May 3, 2011, 03.00 PMby mirela

    I am my own Brand. I sew for the pleasure of creating and wearing my own clothes that were just fabric on the bolt before, so true!

    2 Replies
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      May 3, 2011, 07.14 PMby Peter Lappin

      I love that statement: “I am my own brand.”

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      May 6, 2011, 01.38 PMby ichigogirl

      I love it too! And it’s very contemporary and true for the whole western world, I guess. Our lives are a lot about branding ourselves (just look at Facebook). A whole lot better than trying to live up to a brand that someone else created :-)

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    May 2, 2011, 02.33 PMby ruthw

    Pete, I have lived in America (Texas) and found American people friendly, charming, hospitable, hardworking, etc, etc. But they are not better or more deserving in any respect than other people in other places that I have been, lived and worked (most of Europe, Canada, Brazil, Turkey, Kenya….) .

    What I am saying is that before you call for protest and boycotting the products of less developed countries, try going there and asking them if that’s what they want from you. Listen to the workers instead of lecturing us about what you imagine is their plight. They have voices too. Do they want to be laid off because of your objections to their employment?

    The picture that accompanies your text (apart from the pornographic one) is of a well-run factory – one of them is wearing a face mask. It is clearly a clean and well-equipped place to work and the workers are healthy looking and well-clothed. What’s wrong with a well-run factory providing women with an income? And a job which probably leaves you with more integrity and less of a drug habit than modelling for Calvin Klein.

    (If you are intentionally provocative to get ratings or to prove a point, by the way, whether by choice of pictures or topics, people WILL get irritated and onlookers will not be fooled by protests against “anger”. There is such a thing as righteous anger and indignation and the right to free speech gives us all the right to express it as long as we are not abusive to others.

    2 Replies
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    May 2, 2011, 01.47 PMby ruthw

    Of course exploitation is wrong, Peter, but the movement of factories from one country to another in pursuit of cheaper labour is part of the “free market” which is so central to the US worldview and foreign policy. You need to go read the General Agreement onTariffs and Trade which gave free rein to the movement of capital all over the world in the name of the “free market” but did not free up labour to move and follow capital and higher wages. So we all became the prisoners of our passports. If you boycott “sweatshops” in Bangladesh, do you imagine that an alternative source of income will spring up out of nowhere for those people? Or will they just starve?

    You make it clear that your concern is primaily for people in the US: “Outsourcing of jobs in the USA is done without regard to the effects these practices might have on the communities that have watched so many industries move from northern to southern states (where labor was cheaper), and then out of the country entirely. You can see the effects of this everywhere, in nearly every American city that used to rely on private industry for jobs. Many formerly thriving urban centers are today hollowed out, some literally in ruins.” But all over the world our resources (read “oil” particularly are “outsourced” cheaply to the US by the use of militaryt force. Libya – straight in. Burma – forget it).

    But this is an international site so you can expect that people might not be so sympathetic to your argument. It looks like protectionism from where I am sitting. I think you are being used in ways that you haven’t considered.

    If you are interested in global justice, as opposed to just the standard of living of the US population, you may have to come to terms with the fact American standards of living might not always be so exceptional in the future.

    I actually think that it’s a shame that you raise such political topics here. But if you do so, I don’t think that other people should just lie down and listen to such US-centric views without protest.

    2 Replies
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      May 2, 2011, 01.52 PMby Peter Lappin

      I appreciate your viewpoint, Ruth, and share many of your frustrations with these issues. These are complex problems but worth discussing in an open forum and with an open mind. As an American, I describe the devastation I’ve witnessed here, but my concern doesn’t end there or I wouldn’t have raised the topic. I think it is important to be able to separate the individual from his/her government and — to the extent possible — to see the good in people. We can solve more through mutual concern than through anger.

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      May 2, 2011, 05.04 PMby loulourosa

      Hello Ruth,

      I understand your point of view but only up to a certain level,…
      People all over the world shouldn’t be patronized at all. I live in Belgium, so not in northern America.
      And I do think this discussion is usefull.
      Maybe it is rather naïve to think that difficult problems such as globalisation and patronalism can be solved by homesewing.

      But I also think it’s naïve to think that people in low-cost countries are happy in their situaton,… This is colonialism as it excisted in the 19th century, only now under a different name. In some parts of the world people are forced to work in industries to provide us in the western world of all the luxury we want. Meanwhile their situation isn’t getting any better.

      I once saw a picture of a 5 year old girl who worked as a slave (she was chained by her ankle), she had to work in a textile workshop all day. This girl was barely dressed and underfed.I must say this little girl was’nt looking happy at all. Things like this happen as I write this! And when I think about this I’m happy that I can feed and dress my daughter properly and give her an education. I think this is a basic right for all people allover the world,…

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    May 2, 2011, 11.16 AMby ichigogirl

    Why I took up sewing: I’ve always made things, and enjoyed doing it, and also enjoyed doing things my own way. Since my mum had a closet full of material that she encouraged me to use, taking up sewing was a very natural thing to do. I think the reason I really began to want to learn how to sew though, and to learn how to make my own patterns was that 1. All clothes in the shops were too big for me. I figured that if I have to alter everything I buy I might as well make it in my own size right away, and 2. All the commercial sewing pattern companies patterns run VERY big, even if you follow the size charts, so I got the same problem again, got tired of having to take everyhting I made in (a lot) and signed up for an evening course in pattern construction. Why I keep sewing (now I can afford brand name clothes, and I’ve discovered that american brands do small sizes, so I CAN actually shop ready made again): Definitely a protest against the way the clothing industry treats the workers at the bottom of the pyramid. Also, I do buy some clothes, but mostly from smaller designers (except for jeans), which is expensive, and even though I could afford to buy more I don’t want to spend ALL my money on clothes (much rather on good sewing machines, hehe). Sewing my own is a lot cheaper. And it’s fun!

    1 Reply
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    May 2, 2011, 05.51 AMby alexus1325

    I sew my own clothes because it’s satisfying! I love having something I couldn’t otherwise afford (like a $200 jacket), but I also thrift to scratch that itch. Sewing has been a continual learning experience for me, which is perfectly suited to my insatiable curiosity! I alter patterns to suit a design I want, or to make it work with a given yardage. I enjoy the challenge of new pattern manipulations or drafting things in my head and seeing them come to life with a few simple measurements. I feel proud of myself for not throwing that polyester satin or 4-way stretch Lycra across the room.

    I’m also immensely proud (almost the Pride type of proud :P) that I can do something that a great majority of those in the Western world don’t even THINK about. I have a SKILL. That makes me feel like I could be on a level with electricians, welders, mechanics. For my boyfriend, who is now a heavy equipment mechanic, it all started with learning to change the oil on his father’s truck. Most people don’t realize just how easy it is to learn a skill, because they don’t realize the pleasure they’d have in the doing!

    1 Reply
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      May 2, 2011, 10.49 AMby Peter Lappin

      So true. Great comment!

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    May 2, 2011, 02.30 AMby geewillakers

    i absolutely sew as a protest but for one more reason then mentioned: my baby sisters are now teenagers and im in my twenties trying to be a role model to them and every time i see them they have name brands scrawled across their cleavage… so now i sew as part of a protest against the ‘oversexing’ as someone near me said it of YOUNG women’s clothing in stores near me. me and a few women between the ages of 15 and 33 have started sewing dresses that are beautiful … if vaguely old-fashioned… in a hope to get back to being feminine and confident while still being able to move around without anything falling out or busting a seam… or being ogled at by unwated company… my thirteen year old sister has gotten into it a little ..if not daily… still working on the fifteen year old, but she may not be a fifties chick like me so im trying to find an era to fit her…

    1 Reply
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      May 2, 2011, 10.41 AMby Peter Lappin

      That’s great! (I love the 1920s, personally — late 40s too!)

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    May 1, 2011, 11.53 PMby Robin Denning

    This subject has long fascinated me. In addition to all the economic and political ramifications, I love the creative challenge of living small. I am gravitating towards what I imagine is the size of wardrobe that a person had a hundred years ago. The reason they had small closets was because they had so much less than we seem to need nowadays. I want to wear versatile mix & match pieces that can be combined and accessorized creatively.

    Also, the poor quality of products is annoying. I just bought some new pants and I got them at Target. I used to shop at Talbots, Chico’s and J.Jill, where it costs 2-3 times more, but the stuff falls apart just as fast as the cheap Target stuff. I was just thinking about that today – comparing the quality of $24.99 pants from Target with $90 pants from J.Jill and I think the only thing different about J.Jill is they have a more focused & cohesive marketing strategy. Shopping is very disappointing. As far as jackets and tops, they don’t fit unless I buy knits, because my body frame varies from standard measurements. I like well-made, well-fitted woven coats, jackets and shirts. I can’t go out and buy them, so I make them. Of course, I just love to sew. There’s that, too.

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      May 2, 2011, 01.14 AMby Peter Lappin

      There are so many good reasons to make one’s own clothes — quality, economy, politics, joy; it’s fascinating!

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