Sewing at Two Ends of the Extreme

(Edit: This post was prompted by the weirdness of working on a historical man’s tailored coat and some simple knit tops for my MIL at the same time.  And crankiness.  I get pretty cranky on this subject, I think I’d had a series of conversations about labor practices and was upset by them.  I edited this post for style and clarity, because I wrote this some time ago and perhaps now I’m a better writer but I stayed true to the original tone.)

On the other end of the spectrum, I’m sweatshop sewing.  Hooray.  I wanted to just sit down and sew something start to finish yesterday, and the already cut MIL tops called my name.   It’s all a little disheartening because between me and you I think the final product looks like a Wal-Mart special.

We don’t have Wal-Mart here but “Big W” is- well- big.  Interesting to note that Big W uses exactly the same sort of signs, fonts, pricing schemes, logos and slave labor camps as the American abomination.  I don’t bother pointing it out to people any more.  Australians are clever enough to know that Wal-Mart = Evil, but point out Big W is the same company and they’re shocked.  Shocked!  I don’t mention it any more.

Target and K-mart are also big.  I hate buying cheap clothes.   Aside from the sartorial aspect,  as a sewist I know what goes into clothes; when I pay $12 for a pair of knit leggings I know someone is getting screwed somewhere.  I take full responsibility for screwing the person, whoever they are.

How could I go off on a Wal-Mart tangent like that?  It’s so dreadfully three-years-ago…  I’m sure I’m not offering new information.  I ask myself- if it is so well known as to become a cliche that Wal-Mart makes profit off the misery of its employees at home and in the sweatshops, then why do people still shop there?  It is the consumer who becomes the predator in this case, when they still choose to shop in such a place.  That is how I feel when I walk into one of those stores, like a filthy consumerist predator.

Some people point out to me that when they buy at one of those stores they “get more for their money.”  Really?  Do I need five crappy t-shirts that would collectively last as long as one well-made ethical one?

Other people might say that they can’t afford to shop anywhere else.  To them I say if you live in poverty here, you are impoverished by the standards of the West.  I could consider myself poor.  Then I look around and see I have a house.  I have nutritious food, even if it is a little plain.  We have a car.  We have electricity and a computer and a phone.  I have always been rather poor, but I never had to fetch drinking water and carry it to my house.  Never.  I have more than many people on this earth can dream of having.

The argument that a rich person can victimize a poor person because the rich person isn’t as rich as the other rich people turns my stomach.

We tell ourselves we are not actively hurting anyone, which soothes our conscience.  It’s easy to write off horrific working conditions in a factory in an unpronounceable city on the other side of the world.  We blame the company but forget that the company would not conduct business that way if no one bought their goods.  Consumers, we are active and not passive.  Every purchase has meaning.

I know I’m “preaching to the choir” here- I rather enjoy the many people in the sewing community who take issues like consumption and ethics to heart.


  1. I share your sentiments about the artificially low prices at Walmart. But I have another question. Does it also seem that the prices for inexpensive fabrics sold at Joann's, Hobby Lobby and Hancock Fabrics might be the result of people being underpaid and taken advantage of?For example, there are often cotton fabrics sold at $2 a yard regular retail price. To bring cotton to market it must be: planted, treated with pesticides, harvested, processed, spun, dyed, woven, cut, packaged and distributed. That seems like a lot of work for $2 a yard.What do you think? Are these stores also guilty of offering products at low prices that are made possible by taking advantage of people?

  2. I completely agree with your comments on sweatshops and cheap (overseas) labour. In fact it is a big part of why I have (slowly) taken up sewing. Just yesterday my kids and I were talking about how fortunate we are, to have everything that we do (and we live fairly modestly, but again, have never had to walk for miles to carry home buckets of dirty water that make us ill). I wish people could be more aware, and yes, we are all part of the problem in some ways, because we all get sucked in, (I buy cheap fabric because my skills are not up to buying expensive ethical fabric), but I guess, it all begins with awareness…thanks for posting.

  3. I agree. We also don't live in luxury by our peer's standards, yet I'm always aware how rich we are – and that part of our wealth is due to taking from others. Since I sew I also flinch when someone (who usually has a house, two cars, etc. etc.) says they can't afford a pair of 200 € pants. Yes, that is expensive. And that is what they would have to cost if everybody were paid our wages. I still buy at low-cost venues sometimes. One problem: a more expensive garment is often not made more ethically. Even "ethical" producers are frequently greenwashed. The only solution I see is buying "certified" fabrics or used garments and sewing a small wardrobe that will become completely worn out. That would be doable – sewing hours – and could be financed (few clothes that need to last a long time). Right now I'm just trying to work up the nerve to spend 20 € a metre on green/ethical cotton jersey!

  4. Oooh good question, Karen. I'm not sure about it, but the price does seem to show that someone is getting the shorter end of the stick. I find that cheap fabric is nas-tay. It pills and wrinkles badly and doesn't wear well as a general rule. It's really hard to know how ethical fabric manufacture is, but I do know that the woman who runs Aurora Silks is passionate about ethics and personally visits most of the silk weaving operations. Also, Charles Parsons (wool mostly) does random ethics checks at their Chinese plants. Hear, hear, Imaan. (Glad you commented!)Uta, I still buy at low cost venues too, but I make a concentrated effort not to. I know what you mean about a more expensive garment not necessarily being made more ethically. I found a website that discusses ethics in fashion. For my purposes I'm more interested in labor rights and fair treatment of workers. "Green" comes a distinct second. I usually focus more on green because since 85% of my family's clothes are sewn by me, it takes out the wage slave aspect.'s another site I came across a while ago which ranks most of the major clothing companies by how they treat their employees as well as their industrial ethics. I checked out a few that I like to shop at, and apparently Gap (good for basics) ranked high for ethics. I'll dig up the website later, I have to run!

  5. Not sure I actually feel like a predator when I shop in a cheap store (I normally shop in thrift stores, not department stores), however I 150% love your paragraph about who we compare ourselves with to decide whether we are 'rich'. We in the west are so spoilt, it is rather pathetic. I know that by world standards I'm fabulously wealthy and I hope I never forget to be grateful for it.

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