I could’ve done my “creative and empathetic storytelling through our clothes” in the most normative way: “Oh, look at the exploited garment workers of China-India-Bangladesh-Cambodia”. And that would have been very legitimate. I know enough about their average working conditions as to orient my consumption towards patterns that could either improve their working conditions or put them out of work (in its current fast fashion modality). But these are not the garment workers I think about often. There have been so many media exposés that only cognitive dissonance stands between this point of information saturation and a real fashion revolution. I’ve made my boycotting decisions and moved on.
The garment workers I do think about often are the in-between ones. I think about the EU periphery seamstresses in Lithuania and Romania stitching the “made in EU” labels on garments that have been externalized inside the unified market. I think about those that fall between the abysmal wage/hours/rights ratios of overseas fast fashion workers and the top-of-the-game haute couture artisans (and starry-eyed ecofashion employees (1, 2)). I think about the anonymous seamstresses that the up-and-coming designers and “makers” externalize the sewing to. I think about the grandmas who make everyday miracles at mend-and-repair chain stores (especially the part or running around the city and looking for the most similar zipper or buttons to replace). I think about the fact that your fingers and eyes still suffer, even if you are gold embroidering a one-of-a-kind Valentino gown.
The 1960s cellulose disposable clothing didn’t really revolutionize the industry towards relatively simple and fully mechanized. We have an even more complex garment industry where robots haven’t been able to replace people at most tasks (just think about the fact that sequins and beads is usually an indicator of child labor!).
People doing basic maintenance that the rest of us never learned to do and would chose not to anyways… Going away from the basic “but-I-don’t-have-a-sewing-machine” argument, raise your hand if you think of mending when finding a hole in your sock! Raise the other hand if you know how to darn a sock! It’s not a whole forest of raised hands, unless you ask that to a bunch of quite older ladies. Full disclosure here: my grandma darns my socks, but only the woolen (artisanal) and expensive (Bonne Maison) ones. The cheap little ones just disintegrate on their own…
What I’m saying is:
1. Mass sewing/fixing of garments is not a fun activity neither for your neck, eyes, or mind. (In general there are very few things that work well and maintain maker satisfaction and product quality at mass scale. Marxist alienation, anyone?)
2. Even if we manage to radically improve the worst labor conditions in the garment industry (and we should, obviously!), the new improved low won’t be pleasant either.
So instead of the anonymous empathy exercise, I’m covering the closest social circles first. There is a long line of women that have directly and indirectly influenced my relationships with garments. Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg, only the visible part, but these very-close-to-home circles remind me of how personalized garment production and repair can be. Even in industrial societies and big cities. And how much dexterity, imagination and pure magic goes into garments. Each garment. At every stage of production and repair.
First, some context. Scarcity (or uniformity, or sheer ugliness) of ready-to-wear garments incentivizes creativity and problem solving. Up until the mid-1990s in Latvia obtaining clothing for the whole family and taking care of it was a demanding duty squarely placed on the shoulders of women. While not as essential as obtaining food and cooking it, a varied set of skills was required to keep everybody warm and presentable enough. So women made their own curtains, crocheted baby booties, bartered for a piece of nice fabric, and knew that fashion as form of self expression was hard work. And if your arms grew from an entirely wrong place for sewing, you could establish a reciprocal relationship with a friend, colleague, or neighbor who could do that for you in exchange for another favor or money. In Soviet Union favors mattered more than money. For a glimpse at Soviet aesthetics, see this Pinterest board.
Specialization is bound to happen in such contexts (hi, Adam Smith!), so everybody knew back then that, if you needed to go beyond the basic darning and fixing or got your hands on an especially nice fabric, the neighbor lady of flat Nº17 or Katya from Accountancy department was the ones to turn to.
Hence due to circumstances beyond my control I have always been surrounded by women making and fixing garments. This is my tribute to them and their superpowers (and a sketch of the networks of favors and barters that characterized the informal Soviet garment market):
Jūlija, my grand-grandmother. Garment superpower: making something out of nothing and dressing her six children with that. For example, I still have a crochet needle she made out of an aluminum spoon. It does the job perfectly and is much more ergonomic than the conventional crochet needles.
Milda, my grandmother. Garment superpower: diplomacy and making useful connections. While crafting is not among her talents (pedagogy and cooking are), she knew better than anybody how to make mutually beneficial arrangements with skilled people and obtain the necessary materials. One of her colleagues, Biruta, was known for her sewing skills, so most of my mother’s and her sister’s early wardrobes were made by her. The little blue blouse remains as evidence. Another of her colleagues, Māra, is a lace-making superwoman. She taught me how to crochet, and, when I started wearing the little blue blouse, we assumed it was her needlework at the front. One of my favorite garment-related episodes is her doubting if she had made those embroideries but then turning it inside out and instantly knowing that “no, it’s not mine, I do it differently”.
Anda, my godmother. Garment superpower: access to fabrics. For many years Anda worked at a Supply base. That meant first-hand access to goods that did not trickle down to the shops and made her a crucial point in my family’s fashion options. All the skills in the world won’t help you if don’t have the fabrics!
Erna, my grandpa’s sister. Superpower: surpassing her origins in style. With no formal training in either art or fashion, Erna was a beautiful and stylish women. She sew in her free time for herself and her friends, mostly out of smuggled Burda magazines, that could be purchased in the black market.
Ginta, my mother. Superpower: rational calculus (and being the most stylish mom, obviously!). Ginta started sewing early, learning the basics at school (gendered Home Economics ftw!) and at home. My grandma had changed the seamstress and now was frequenting Drosma (superpower: living a life of Western aesthetics and entrepreneurship behind the Iron Curtain). The most repeated anecdote about Drosma back then is how she ran a clandestine jeans (very scarce merchandise in USSR!) manufacture from her basement, so you get the idea. Drosma was the one who shared sewing tips and tricks with Ginta and sold Ginta her old overlock. Milda managed to obtain a modern sewing machine.
My mom sew not only for herself and her family (one of her pleasures when we go through late 1980s and early 1990s photos is pointing out all the garments made by her), but also for friends and friends of friends who paid for the pieces and became returning customers. Having a trusted seamstress wasn’t considered a luxury back then, it was the only escape from the uniform (and scarce!) industrially produced garments. Ginta made blouses, skirts, dresses, even wedding dresses. My barbies were the best dressed as time by time they received a little copy of whatever Ginta was sewing! I happily slept through the noise of the sewing machine and dreamed of becoming a fashion designer.
But times change and priorities do, too. Ginta developed a successful career unrelated to garments, her sewing machine got packed away and somewhere in early 2000s most of our clothing became anonymous fast fashion. We still maintain relationship with one magic worker – Elita (superpower: saving garments!). Elita does made-to-order sewing from scratch for her loyal customers and then some side gigs for “new designers” unable to make their own designs, but I wear out her patience by bringing my worn-out-but-beloved garments and hoping that she will be able to save the disintegrating fast fashion piece just one more time. An usually she can. Forget Hermione Granger, this is the real magic!
This was Ginta’s submission for a Burda sewing contest ~1991. Both of us are fully clad in garments made by her.
The most recent additions to this data base of talent are my friend Liisa who is responsible for both accompanying me during my first steps at the sewing machine and is the author of almost half of my knickers. Another one is the Argentinian lady at my closest fix-and-mend chain shop. She is ready to tell you her whole life, appreciates extravagance, and her smallest granddaughter now wears Marina’s ear headband. I don’t know her name yet but I have a feeling that it won’t take long.
What are the garment stories in your family? Do you know any people involved in the formal or the informal garment markets? What do they say about their work and the industry as such?
I loved reading the stories of these creative women. Yoour grand-grandmother made me think of the stories of my late grandma as she also tried to dress her five children in the times of poverty.
Now knowing how to make just about anything with your own hands has become a rare superpower. I am so happy they taught us to sew, knit and crochet at school in Finland. In our household all woollen socks, mittens and bonnets to little decorative items are made by me. Sometimes when I work on a garment, it gives me pleasure to think that of my own part I am continuing a thousands of years old tradition. I am also happy that I see a lot of people eager learn these skills!
Hi, Madame M! Yeah, hand-talented people is our best apocalypse resource… and the bond that making or fixing makes is certainly so much stronger than with mass produced anonymous stuff, even if it’s not by myself but by a family member, a friend or by a now-somewhat-familiar person that runs a little neighborhood shop. In that vein I now have “my” frame maker, “my” lampshade maker, etc. It feels really good to have these kind of relationships, even when they are purely transactional.