Crafty Blogs

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Everything you're wearing is handmade

Me hand making a Swiss Roll shoulder bag

I'm a hand-maker, and as such I'm trying very hard to make a full-time living. Every day I spend either with needle and thread in my hand, working the sewing machine, tracing out patterns or cutting fabric. Lots of people I meet have a great appreciation for the hard work that goes into hand making, either because they craft for a hobby or have some training in manufacturing. I can easily identify these people when I'm out and about at craft fairs because they'll consider my work very carefully and, whether they like it or not, they'll say something along the lines of "There's a lot of time gone into this". They're not wrong, each of my purses takes a minimum of three hours to make from start to finish, a handbag might take closer to three days. What they might not have taken into account, however, is how long it might have taken me to set up the stall, man it all day, build a website to sell online, do my accounting and publicise my business. I don't blame them for not noticing these factors, they're mostly hidden, but without them I couldn't be self-employed.

I feel very privileged to live and work in the UK. I'm encouraged to work but not over-taxed (at least until I make more money anyway), I get free health care in the mean time, and Britons have the expectation of fair and decent working conditions for those around them. Unfortunately it's also my experience that, partly because Britain has lost its manufacturing base, a lot of people in this country have no contact with the idea of hand making, and no appreciation for the time and skill it requires. They want everything they buy to be as cheap as possible, and rarely see the hidden cost of buying cheaply. I've met a lot of people who seem to think my prices should be a fraction of what they are, and when I explain the time and skill involved they tell me to have my designs made elsewhere, specifically in India or China.

I've mentioned that Britains have an expectation that their fellow countrymen should have fair and decent working conditions. The popularity of the Living Wage Foundation is testament to this, they suggest a national living wage should be £7.65 (£8.80 in London) as opposed to the minimum wage which is currently just £6.31. The foundation has received support from David Cameron, Ed Milliband, Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson. Perhaps because they have this in mind my friends and family are sometimes shocked to find out that, at my current prices, I pay myself around £3 an hour. I'm not trying to garner sympathy by telling you this, I've founded my own business and I consider it my goal to build on my success and aim for better as the business grows. But I refuse to increase my profits by taking advantage of poorly regulated working conditions in countries like India and China. If it's unacceptable that I should be paid £3 an hour for the skilled work that I do then why should it be acceptable for a stranger to do it for me for even less? Workers in developing countries who do work like mine don't chose their own hours, don't work in pleasant surroundings and don't have the benefit of free healthcare. They don't get to wake up in the morning and chose between designing and making, manning a stall or publicising their business. According to research done by The War on Want in Bangladesh garment workers making clothes for highstreet shops can expect to earn between £25 and £32 a month, 80% of workers start work at 8am and don't finish until 8pm or 10pm. They perform the same task again and again, sometimes with unrealistic production targets to meet. The garments these women make are sold in Primark, Asda and Tesco.

Garment workers in Bangladesh

Take a moment to look at the clothes you're currently wearing. All of it is handmade. It might not be from a handmade emporium, a fair trade shop or a craft fair, but it is handmade. Somewhere the panels of fabric were traced out and cut, skillfully placed together and sewn carefully by a skilled machinist. Details may have been added by another worker, top-stitching, buttons or decorations were added. Finally it will have been hand checked for quality. How much time do you imagine each item took to make, and in what conditions do you imagine it was made? How much do you value the time and the skill of the people who made it for you?

The real luxury of living in the UK is that I am able to promote myself as a crafter. My skills are valued and even admired by some. If I was from India or China my skills would be commonplace, perhaps even not up to standard, and I would receive very little reward for my hard work at the sewing machine. In the UK we can afford to pay more for artisan-made and fairtrade products. We have the luxury of deciding what conditions we would like to see manufacturers working under, so why do we so often chose the cheapest option? Because the cost is hidden behind the brand, or behind the friendly profile page of the factory owner on who offers to make something for you cheaper and quicker than anyone else can. Before you buy cheaply, or suggest that I should make cheaply, look into what these options mean. Consider using your purchase to improve someone elses life, to reward someone for a job well done, to encourage good working conditions and investment in local communities. Imagine meeting the maker of your shirt or pair of jeans and being able to say to them "There's a lot of time gone into this".

'Would You Still Buy That Dress After Watching This' a documentary on the real cost of cheap clothes from Bangladesh's sweatshops

'Counterfeiting : Documentary on the Business of Counterfeits and Knock-Offs'
Includes investigations into China's black market manufacturing industry and the fraud behind some alibaba sellers.

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