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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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    Apr 29, 2011, 04.24 PMby hanolalaith

    I’ve only recently begun to think of it this way. The more I sew, the more I love having original pieces that suit me perfectly. And withstand everyday use better. That’s the kicker right there.

    Sewing my own jeans though? If ever I get a sewing machine that can handle it, watch out! :D

    1 Reply
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      Apr 29, 2011, 05.10 PMby Peter Lappin

      The best machines for that are the old straight stitchers from way back when (like the Singer 15-91).

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    Apr 29, 2011, 04.14 PMby tinybows

    I am the ultimate activist on this subject. I live by the rule, “If it didn’t come from a thrift store or was made or remade by me…then forget about it!”. Not only do I avidly avoid the “mass produced look” but I hate giving my money to big businesses that use underpaid laborers.

    Most second hand shops I buy from donate their proceeds to local charities like the Human Society, and programs for the elderly like Meals on Wheels. I’d rather see my well earned money going there! Also, I support local Philly fabric shops when I buy my fabrics so it’s all a matter of keeping it within my community.

    Keep it local, recycle and make it your own!!!!

    2 Replies
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      Apr 29, 2011, 05.11 PMby Peter Lappin

      Excellent!

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      May 11, 2011, 07.51 PMby Sylvia Patterson Robinson

      Oops, I didn"t mean to mark this as inappropriate. I was playing with my mouse. Sorry. lol

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    Apr 29, 2011, 03.33 PMby Nicola Denley

    I definitely sew as a form of protest. A protest against child labour and the shocking conditions that workers are forced into. When I do buy clothes I try to invest in pieces that will last but the quality of clothes is so poor now that I’m almost forced to throw them away at the end of the season. I also don’t want to be driven by the latest fad. I’m old enough to have an idea of what suits me and I want to be able to wear it whether it is the current trend or not (and lets face it if it suits you, you will look stylish whether on trend or not!) I don’t want to pay to advertise someone’s brand (although my spectacles are Prada, darling … :) ) I also love wearing something unique. When I go out I will be the only person wearing that garment. It won’t be recognisable about coming from a certain store. Globalisation has brought us such limited choice – the same brands and garments can be bought all over the world.

    1 Reply
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    Apr 29, 2011, 03.25 PMby CoudreMODE

    Before we start feeling too virtuous remember that textile mills have always been the employer of the poor. If a third world clothing factory closes because more people sew their own clothes the workers will just go work in the textile mills that produce fabric for sewists. Do we really know the working conditions in the mills that produce the fabric in our stashes? Not at all I’d say.

    2 Replies
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      Apr 29, 2011, 03.42 PMby Peter Lappin

      You make a good point, though saying “before we start feeling too virtuous” sound sarcastic.

      People are aware of a problem and trying to address it in a way that makes sense to them. It’s impossible to remedy solely on an individual level.

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      Apr 29, 2011, 10.37 PMby misslivia

      or even the conditions of the people who first sell the textiles. I was slightly overwhelmed when I went to visit a textile market in the Philippines – it was in one of the most run down, poorest areas I visited. :( Needless to say, I did not bargain for any of my materials! It was quite the experience.

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    Apr 29, 2011, 02.19 PMby bluebetty

    Just this year I have decided to sew or knit most of my clothing. It started out because of fit, but now it is turning into something more charged than just wanting my clothes to fit my body. It has allowed me to develop my own style, improve and add to my sewing and knitting skills, and yes protest ready made.

    1 Reply
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      Apr 29, 2011, 02.52 PMby Peter Lappin

      Great to hear, Betty!

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    Apr 29, 2011, 01.20 PMby nikkishell

    I’ve bought about 5 garments in the past 5 years. Everything else i buy second hand or make myself. I don’t want to support cheap fashion and by sewing my own i can make my garments fit my body shape.

    1 Reply
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    Apr 29, 2011, 07.44 AMby geha

    For me both reasons are significant. In my country , really well made clothes are too expensive. And the once, that are accessible for the ordinary people, are not well fitted and not well made. Moreover everything that is imported/sold is tribute to a certain trend, so you can’t really choose what to buy. Though many people won’t agree with me, its a fact. Example – if a low waist pants are in trend now, you may find lots and lots of variations with different embellishments, but not a pair of pants with high waist. Another aspect is that by importing something really cheap, made with lowest labor costs, sellers practically are killing local producers.

    So for me sewing is form of a protest and a way to have what i want. (It may not be sophisticated, but it is exactly the length, the color and the fit I want:) )

    1 Reply
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    Apr 29, 2011, 06.44 AMby mahaila

    I sew for creativity and ethical reasons. I must admit that I try to buy only second hand fabrics, but I find it incredibly difficult. When I see fabrics at the markets I can often picture the accompanying garment which I want to create. So I often experience a creative/ethical internal conflict. I think that it is also important to consider the environmental impact of clothing production. Here in Germany, it seems that the trendy thing is to purchase only BIO (biodiversity) labelled products. I question what bio means and whether the products are actually environmentally and ethically produced. To create change we need to question and discuss these issues. Great article!

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Apr 29, 2011, 02.54 PMby Peter Lappin

      Thanks. Mahalia, of course, it’s a very complicated issue. We’re not going to save the planet merely by sewing our own clothes.

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    Apr 29, 2011, 05.03 AMby madebymeg

    I could definitely say I sew as protest, or because it gives me a better fit. But in all honesty, if those reasons went away, I would still sew. I just love to create and, at the end of the day, that’s what drives me to sew.

    1 Reply
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    Apr 28, 2011, 09.09 PMby jeskagrue

    I made a decision this year to not buy any garments, any more that wern’t environmentally and socially responsible. If it can’t be 100%, its got to be weighed meaningfully – was it locally produced? is it from a locally own small business? is it a natural and organic fibre? was it made from exploited labour? Its tough, but if I can’t find it, I have to make do or make my own. Its made for some thinking. The time I went against my pledge fully (or nearly) was in February – I was going on a family tropical vacation, the vintage bathing suit top I purchased in a set did not fit and I was too extremely busy with school to alter it in time. I bought one at the last minute at American Apparel – which is made in the USA with not too shabby labour (its debatable!), but still shabby in many other ways! Recently, I bought two organic cotton tops from Roots (Canada)…but remembered afterwards a conversation I had with a local ethical designer – that there currently isn’t any regulations on noting quantity of organic cotton – my shirt could be fractionally organic cotton and the company would still be able to say organic if it in part was!

    So actually reviewing all the myraid of loopholes and marketing of ethical-posed products is important. I sourced out a local designer who also imports ethical fabric with a producer she has person-to-person interactions with in India. I found out about a local clothing and textiles action group run out of a local environmental organization. And I live in a small, isolated city – so its got to be in most locales! Their group is interested in raising similar awareness of clothing and textiles as to food. They are interested in creating a centre to sell ethical clothing/textile products as well as have skill workshops.

    I’ve yet to find this, but locating any nearby art school or group who recycles fabric scraps can make your sewing a little bit less wasteful too. I feel like such a hypocrite when I throw away my scraps!

    Anyways, I really think that learning to sew has the potential to separate individuals from all he branded messages of everyday consumer life. Not just from new consumer practices, but also from the act of sewing. When I sew, I think to myself – I can think things out without interruption. If I don’t want to think, I can just be with myself. Whenever I’ve been in a large clothing store or mall, my head is just all noise! And how many meaningful relationships are formed around sharing sewing? Too many! An interesting book to check out is The Culture of Sewing: Gender, Consumption and Home Dressmaking edited by Barbara Burman.

    How neat would it be if getting a new garment wasn’t was a fluorescent lighted attempt to achive self-expression through corporate branding made by anonymous exploited workers with chemically-laden textiles but multiple trips to your neighbourhood dressmaker to collaboratively create a garment to fit both body, expression and social message?! Ah, it would be too sweet!

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Apr 29, 2011, 03.56 AMby Peter Lappin

      Thanks for the fantastic comment — yes it would be great if that were the case!

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    Apr 28, 2011, 07.29 PMby palebluestars

    absolutely! i second what margaretchandler wrote about not voting with my dollar for something that i do not believe in. i believe in purchasing quality items that will last and that are made ethically. unfortunately most clothing does not fit this order. making do with what i have or making what i need myself are the only options i have.

    1 Reply
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      Apr 29, 2011, 03.55 AMby Peter Lappin

      I think that’s true for many of us, for better or for worse.

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    Apr 28, 2011, 07.29 PMby scormeny

    Thanks for this, Peter! Very well put.

    I also feel very much like @margaretchandler: for me the sewing and the secondhand and MitUSA shopping are very personal forms of protest. I don’t mind talking to people about my reasons if they ask, but I don’t proselytize.

    Also, since you mentioned underwear, here’s a tip for women: Hanky Panky panties, nearly all of which are Made in the USA. They are not inexpensive ($18 a pair), but each pair is high quality, and washed on the gentle cycle they have lasted for years and years for me. Unfortunately I have yet to find a bra made in the USA.

    1 Reply
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    Apr 28, 2011, 07.14 PMby margaretchandler

    Yes! Spot on. It is a form of protest. To put it in milder terms, it’s not giving my tacit approval, in dollar form, to an industry that promotes unfair labor and trade practices and produces a constant stream of fashionable waste. The new big splash in my town is a Forever 21 opening in the major shopping district. The parade of cute, utterly disposable garments is disappointing. By making my own garments (often out of vintage and reused materials) and purchasing most other clothes from secondhand stores, I refrain from supporting the fast fashion industry. This peccadillo is something I rarely talk about with people whose opinion I respect, because retail therapy is so normal now, that it’s quite outside out of the norm to hold such an opinion. Heavy!

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Apr 29, 2011, 03.54 AMby Peter Lappin

      Thanks for the great comment, Margaret!

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    Apr 28, 2011, 05.07 PMby beesting

    I definitely sew as a form of protest of the overproduced mass of consumer products available to us by underpaying those that make them. I feel as though we need to get back to a time when clothing wasn’t meant to be thrown away after a season, but worn for years and taken care of.

    2 Replies
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