Last month I was in Seattle doing some shopping with my son. Walking by J. Crew, we decided to pop in for a quick look. After all, everything was 30% off. I spotted a floral t-shirt in my favorite shade of blue so, without much thought, I bought it. Back home in Portland, I pulled another J. Crew t-shirt, purchased earlier this year, out of a load of delicate wash and hung it to dry. When I went to fold and put it away, I discovered the front had multiple tiny holes in it. I had worn it maybe a dozen times since purchase and the fabric was already disintegrating. I returned my new floral t-shirt and vowed to sew all my t-shirts in the future.
Coincidently, I found a used copy of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion about this time. This book has been on my radar for several years; the time for reading it seemed right, given my experience at J. Crew. What I learned has changed the way I shop for clothes and fabric, filled me with gratitude for my sewing skills, and sent me on a quest for quality in my closet.
What is quality?
Most of us don’t know the answer because we haven’t experienced garments made of quality fabrics and techniques. Very few quality garments are produced any more. We simply couldn’t afford quality garments if we could find them, and for good reason. Those garments are made of the finest fabrics, in factories that pay a living wage or better and have finishing details requiring hand sewing and hours of labor.
When it comes to quality, the best fabrics were milled in England and Italy (still are) and many fine cottons were milled here in the south. Synthetic fibers were rare. Men and women used to buy fewer clothes, but the best they could afford. They knew about fiber content and could feel the difference between quality and inferior cloth. If you have been fortunate to handle Liberty cotton, you could surely feel the difference between this fine fabric and inferior cottons.
Finished garments of quality deserve a closer look. Inside you will find French or Hong Kong seam finishes, linings in jackets, skirts and pants, blind hems, covered snaps, etc. Outside you will find design details like tucks, pleats, matched plaids, covered belts, ribbon, lace, soutache braid or other trims - details that are too costly in today’s fashion market.
Why did quality disappear?
The simple answer is fast fashion. The rise of fast fashion seems to have started with the social upheaval of the 60’s. Rebellious youth weren’t interested in the fashion dictates of seasonal fashion collections. At the same time, sportswear became popular with its offerings of lower cost separates. People moved away from making their own clothes in favor of buying cheaper clothing. Consumers began losing their knowledge of quality construction and materials. Fast fashion retailing broke away from seasonal selling to meet constant demand for new styles. As most of us know, clothing manufacturing moved off shore to meet the demand for lower prices. To keep prices lower, fabrics have become thinner, more synthetic fibers are used and quality control is almost non-existent. Oversight takes time and slows down the fast fashion cycle.
The true cost of fast fashion.
I can’t write on this topic without touching on the human and environmental costs of fast fashion. Undeniably, the clothing industry is labor intense; typically, 20-40% of a garment’s cost is labor. It’s no wonder cheap labor has driven garment production overseas, causing staggering job loss in the U.S. News accounts have highlighted deadly fires in overseas factories where workers are rarely paid a living wage and work inhumane hours in toxic environments.
The environmental costs are not only unhealthy, but unsustainable. The EPA estimates Americans throw away at least 12.7 million tons (68 lbs. per person) of textiles each year. At one time 3rdworld countries were happy to receive our cast-offs. As clothing has become cheaper, they can now afford new clothing. Some of our discarded clothing can be recycled, but about half of our wardrobes are now made of polyester, which is recycled plastic. Landfills cannot continue to absorb our textile waste. The microscopic polymers found in synthetic fabrics like polyester, nylon and lycra are released into our lakes, rivers and oceans whenever we do laundry. The toxic chemicals and dyes used in producing these fabrics are polluting soil and water unchecked in manufacturing countries where there is no awareness or money for clean-up.
Sew what can we do?
Those of us who sew are the lucky ones. We have choices not available to everyone and our choices can effect positive change in the clothing industry. We can make and wear better quality clothing than we can find or afford in stores. By choosing to sew with natural fibers, organic textiles, or otherwise high-quality fabrics, our clothing can be nourishing. We can create demand for ethically produced, quality textiles by educating ourselves about fibers and where they are milled and purchasing the best we can afford. There is a greater cost to quality, but we can choose to own less. With our knowledge, we can look for quality garments to refashion and recycle. We can mend, repair and extend the life of our quality garments, shoes and bags. We can educate our children to appreciate quality, understand the costs of fast fashion and to be content with less.
We are fortunate to have a variety of independent fabric stores in the Portland area, each offering a selection of quality fabrics:
· Josephine’s Dry Goods
· Modern Domestic
· Mill End
· Pendleton Woolen Mills
I encourage you to get to know them and their offerings.
Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, by Elizabeth L. Cline
Laundry, Vol. 01, a UK publication available at Barnes and Noble