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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

  • Fbdee538d4ba8abae92c0b779de54f4ed447bbaa_large

    May 1, 2011, 06.57 PMby ross

    Hi..great article… I still buy some clothes at the stores, like jeans. Clothes that I can’t do. But I have made the decision to make my own clothes, or to buy locally to my friends that have their own labels, all hand made. I want to suport creative people and also to have a personal style. ross

    1 Reply
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      May 1, 2011, 10.29 PMby Peter Lappin

      Sounds like a great idea!

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    May 1, 2011, 08.11 AMby loulourosa

    Hello Peter, very good topic! For me this issue is very important. The mass industry isn’t fair at all. People in countries like India or Bangladesh work in the worst imaginable situations to provide us of the “latest” fashion. And it’s not only the cheap brands that work this way, also “designer” brands have their clothes made as cheap as possible. Making clothes is a time consuming proces, and as long as people want a new piece of garment every week (!!!!!) for the price of a loaf of bread, the situation for people working in this industry will not get any better. The thing is that a lot of people do not know where their clothes come from, they think that there are “machines” who make their clothes. They are not aware that there are people working with these machines,….(my housekeeper is sure that her jeans are made by a machine!)

    So for me sewing is away to avoid buying clothes, and it is also a nice hobby for me. On the other hand I’m also concerned about where all these (cheap) fabric comes from, these are also woven, coloured and printed by people,… there are so many things unfair in this world. My family and I are well aware of these matters, we look at the labels when we buy things, and choose quality instead of quantity. We also buy second hand clothes, furniture,…+ everytime we want to purchase someting we ask ourselves “is this necesary”. I know this is only a small drop in a big ocean, but it makes us feel better.

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      May 1, 2011, 10.29 PMby Peter Lappin

      If everyone did this, all these “small drops” could have a big impact!

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    Apr 30, 2011, 06.45 PMby suzanneallen

    Thank you for a very thought provoking article! Keep it up.

    1 Reply
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    Apr 30, 2011, 02.41 PMby gedwoods

    This is a very interesting argument, Peter. In my company blog postings, on www.gdotmoda.com/blog, I have been developing a sustained argument about an ongoing shift in the role that fashion and consumerism plays in our lives. Once upon a time, these were primarily modes of expression, but their role has been shifting towards a means of “creating our identities”, within a modern understanding of identity as multiple and fragmented rather than unitary and whole. There is some fascinating research that shows how fashion choices serve individuals who are dealing with stressful role or identity conflicts – along the lines of the book on Afghan women sewing in another recent BurdaStyle blog posting. In addition, there is a growing search inour “consumerism” to connect the “micromeanings” of our consumer choices to the “macromeanings” that govern our lives and our values.

    Your argument is that the entire DIY movement is a part of this shift, and I think you are right. We are all tired of making choices that are “cut off” from our larger values, and learning to sew and make clothes is, indeed, a way of reconnecting our micro-choices to our macro-values. This is certainly part of my motivation, and I see it is very much a part of that of other members of BurdaStyle.

    Thanks for posting this!

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      May 1, 2011, 10.30 PMby Peter Lappin

      Great points, gedwoods!

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    Apr 30, 2011, 11.53 AMby linkemasche

    to be honest, I really started sewing out of protest to all reasons mentioned in the article! I am really proud that I stopped buying “normal” clothes in stores when I was about 15, 16 years old. the idea was progressive in these days, I dont know any person who is sharing my idea. (I am sewing my clothes – except underwear and shoes etc. – and if I buy, I try to buy fair trade clothes). This is the best aritcle on burda style I have read so far! thanks!

    1 Reply
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    Apr 30, 2011, 09.44 AMby sarsaparilla

    Thanks for this, Peter! I started sewing my clothes when I was 12 – very badly, mind you. At the time, sewing was just a fun hobby that occupied my spare time. When I was 16, I attended a presentation that focussed on factory working conditions in developing countries. I only remember one speaker – a Sri Lankan girl not much older than myself, who had spent most of her life working in a clothing factory. She worked extremely long hours in horrific conditions (only 1 toilet break per day, no water etc) for very little pay. She said the biggest problem was that these workers are not allowed their dignity, and that seemed incredibly tragic to me. She organised protests demanding the implementation of basic workers’ rights, and eventually succeeded and was able to attend university. Really inspiring stuff!

    Ever since (I’m 19 now), I’ve been extremely conscious of the immorality surrounding certain aspects of the fashion industry. I suppose do sew as a protest. I thrift and sew most of my clothes, preferably with thrifted fabric and patterns. Can’t complain about the price of my wardrobe either! I find the disposable nature of our society troubling – I’m one of those annoying people who recycle everything and refuse to buy new things unless absolutely necessary :)

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      May 1, 2011, 10.33 PMby Peter Lappin

      Wow — great comment. It sounds like hearing that Sri Lankan woman speak really had a huge impact. I think if more people knew what many of these workers had to deal with, they’d think twice about their clothing purchases.

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    Apr 30, 2011, 08.09 AMby ruthw

    Although I sew myself and have sympathy with arguments about sustainability and ecology, I think that the accusation that “other countries” are running sweatshops is 99% unjust. The reason that sewn products from other countries are so cheap in the US has little do with sweatshop production and everything to do with the fact that for many and varied reasons you get everybody else’s oil cheap (compare the price of gas in the US to the rest of the world) and this gives the US consumer huge spending power. Where I live, textiles is one of the main industries. Factories and labour are run well and pay reasonable salaries. Workers are unionised. If you translate those salaries into US dollars, you may think they are small, but that is only because the dollar is overvalued. In fact, a worker’s salary can support a family here (only 25% of married women work here and mostly they don’t want to: culturally they see it as their right to be supported) as rents and food are affordable and public transport is good. In fact most workplaces also provide lunches (even dinners) and transport to and from work too.

    I am not denying that in some places in the world, some children work, but such places tend to produce very shoddy goods and don’t last. The market finished them off. Also, one of the worst places in the world for forced and slave labour is, in fact, the US, where the exploitation of Mexican labour is extreme (often involving murder of workers who try to abscond) and well-documented but there has been little will to take it on and punish the slavers.

    Personally, I use my vote to protest and other political channels. My sewing is a pleasure and a hobby.

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      May 1, 2011, 10.35 PMby Peter Lappin

      Ruth, I don’t know where you live, but my article is not an accusation against “other countries” but rather global industries that seek the lowest labor costs possible regardless of the consequences to the workers involved. Exploitation is wrong regardless of the nationality of those involved.

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    Apr 30, 2011, 07.23 AMby urbandon

    I’m with Beesting. Clothes in the past were made to last year after year. There is so much rubbish out there that will never last. I sew as a form of protest not just against the labor and trade practices but environmental as well. It’s not just the manufacturing but the shipping- the biggest 15 cargo ships in the world is equal to all cars emissions in the world. If just one of those ships was put out of service buy not transporting junk t-shirts the world would be better off.

    1 Reply
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    Apr 30, 2011, 02.52 AMby Yvette Stanton

    If I had all the time in the world, then I think I would sew as a form of protest. I would also cook and bake as a protest, protesting against the RUBBISH that is on the supermarket shelves purporting to be food, but only actually being food-like substances. In the mean time, I get a lot of satisfaction from making. Making anything; it can be a meal, a cake, a knitted garment, a sewn garment, an embroidery etc.

    1 Reply
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      May 1, 2011, 10.39 PMby Peter Lappin

      I’m with you, Yvette!

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    Apr 30, 2011, 02.19 AMby pambox

    i definitely sew as a protest against a number of things, some more serious/important than others, probably. bad labour practices is one, although if i’m really honest that’s more commonly a reason why i won’t buy from really cheap stores when i do buy clothes, than a motivation for sewing in and of itself (it is still a reason for it, though).

    but sewing is also a protest against the conformity and – frankly – boringness of so much mass-produced store bought clothing. i can only speak for women’s clothes, but most of us aren’t built to a standard body shape, much less the standard body shapes clothing companies tend to use. for myself, i’m very slim, but even clothes made in the smallest sizes are made for big boobs, and very rarely do those two things actually go together. friends of other sizes and shapes have similar problems with clothes not really being made for their frames. and with the obsession on appearance, this really isn’t helpful for anyone’ self perception. by sewing my own stuff, i can make things for me, that complement my shape and sit at the right spot, rather than making do with what some manufacturer has decided i should look like.

    clothes shopping is also often very boring now. its heading into winter here, so all the stores are filled with winter stock, most of it in black, grey, white, cream, and maybe a little bit of burgundy or navy. it’s all just so dull. i want some personality in what i wear – and i know i’ll stand out in my one off deep fuschia wool coat when everyone else is in their standard black! this is a big part of why i use vintage fabrics or second hand finds – the other reason being it promotes reuse rather than overproduction and waste – they are more interesting in terms of colour and design, and there’s less of them around so you’re doubly different from the crowd. so while everyone else wears their neutral dark skirt this winter, i’ll have my 70s paisley print skirt in white, orange, and olive (or at least i will when i make it!). and when you wear clothes you like, that you find interesting, you feel better and more confident, so it has an emotional boost too.

    a couple of other issues are a bit harder to sort out, though. i agree with your point about using sex to sell, i find it uncomfortable. that calvin klein ad above is really confronting and just wrong, in my opinion. but when sex is used to sell everything, which it unfortunately seems to be, it becomes something you can’t even avoid. i’m not talented enough to make all my clothes, so i do need to buy some, so sometimes it just seems that buying something marketed with sex is unavoidable. the other difficult issue for me is actually on buying locally sourced cotton products. i’m in australia, it’s generally a very dry climate here. but we do grow cotton, even though it is very water intensive. so i end up with a choice – do i support australian industry and better working practices, or do i protest the environmentall damaging cotton industry? it’s a bit of a no win situation, and i’m yet to work out which is the more ethical (or really less unethical) choice.

    well. that was a very thought provoking post of yours, peter!

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      May 1, 2011, 10.43 PMby Peter Lappin

      Thanks, Pam. These are difficult decisions and we do what we can to address them. Just having the awareness and sharing it with others is a step in the right direction.

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    Apr 30, 2011, 01.27 AMby AprilNicole05

    First off, that Calvin Klein ad is disgusting! That being said, it definately feels empowering to know that I can look at a dress that costs $2000 and I know how to make it myself. I honestly didn’t even think that companies in the US were allowed to use child labor whether here or elsewhere, but I feel even better now to know that I am contributing less and less to that abuse….anywhere I can find a list of companies that use child labor?…I will be doubly sure not to purchase their clothing…excellent post

    1 Reply
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    Apr 29, 2011, 11.45 PMby milnay3

    Great blog entry. This is kind of a bit off topic, but here goes. I used to work in the steel manufacturing industry. We had a week-long conference with a steelmaking company from China and one from Korea, both make there steel far cheaper than us Aussies. The reason? They don’t take time to think about what affect each job situation could have on their employees – to the point where they actually budget for employee deaths in the workplace. They’d have people climb on 300 000 ton piles of raw materials to cover them when the wind picks up, despite the great risk of the pile collapsing on them! When things are done cheaply, they are usually done at the expense of something we should put a higher value on eliminating eg slavery, unsafe work procedures. I also sew my own clothes so that they don’t fall apart. I’ve had way too many items of budget clothing fall apart in the washing machine after the first wash or excessive pilling. I also think we live in a time where everything is disposable. In-fact, cars and iphones seem to be the only things people take to be repaired any more! I want clothes that will live for a few years, I can’t buy things like that without straining the finances!

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Apr 30, 2011, 12.07 AMby Peter Lappin

      Great comment, Milnay — so true.

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    Apr 29, 2011, 07.50 PMby be-bops1

    This picture struck a chord with me. When I see the cheap and available clothing out there, I inwardly cringe and think… “What’s the point?” What’s the point indeed? Thanks for giving me many many reasons…

    1 Reply
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    Apr 29, 2011, 05.07 PMby dixiediy

    After sewing so much of my own wardrobe I realize how difficult and challenging it must be for those who do it for a living or work in sweatshops. Sewing is hard work! It has definitely made me more aware about the questionable ethics of the garment industry and while I still buy clothes I try to at least support local stores. And I have stopped shopping at stores whose business practices I don’t agree with (coughforever21cough). I still buy cheap fabric from the store that was probably weaved by some poor underpaid southeast asian child, though, so I can’t act like I’m super righteous about it.

    3 Replies
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Apr 29, 2011, 05.09 PMby Peter Lappin

      Recognizing the problem exists is at least one step toward addressing it, I think.

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      Apr 30, 2011, 08.13 AMby ruthw

      Fabric is not woven by hand these days! If it is, you will know about it – it will be sold as such. It is cheap because it is woven by machine.

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      May 2, 2011, 06.50 PMby dixiediy

      ruthw – I know, but perhaps the underpaid child is supervising the weaving machine? I was making more of a general sarcastic comment about the garment industry as a whole.

  • Picmonkey_collage_large

    Apr 29, 2011, 04.35 PMby designerroya

    I totally agree! People should make clothes to express themselves and to stand up about manufacturing labor! Your posts are always the best on BurdaStyle’s blog!

    1 Reply
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