A homespun stitch in time could save us | Essay

March 14, 2022 6:00 am

The author, sometime in the 1980s, wearing an outfit designed and sewn by his mother, Sandra Johnson, who was then known as Sandra Brown. In many cases, sewing clothes is now more expensive than buying them in a store.

My wife and I recently enjoyed a rare evening out. Like with most parents, such occasions allow small joys that our busy lives often prevent. I picked the entertainment, so Christina got to go to the fabric store.

She likes to loom knit and thought she might try her hand at crocheting. My wife needs time and space to contemplate things like yarn, so I wandered the store. 

Some guys seem uncomfortable in the fabric store. I see them there, milling around the woodcraft section as though they had some kind of manly business there. Me, I never had a problem with the fabric store. When I was a kid my mom made our clothes. She made everything. When Pound Puppies were popular she even made those, cross-stitching the bootleg logo on the dog’s plushy butt. 

We went to the fabric store as often as we went to the grocery store. I remember being five, running down the rainbow aisles with my arms out, feeling the textures change with each bound. This was the 1980s, so the colors screamed like train whistles. Mom would buy wax paper patterns in those sturdy industrial envelopes. The confused, half-smiling children on the cover showed my sisters and me what our next outfits would look like. We were too young to realize they were trying to warn us.

I loved the outfit I wore to my first day of kindergarten, though. Blue denim pants and jacket with a matching backpack. Mom sewed a dump truck on the backpack and an excavator on the coat before writing my name inside the collar. No tags. This was an original. 

My first friend invited me over for my first sleepover that year. He lived down the road. We arrived to find a dead snapping turtle on his front walk, a shotgun blast in the side of its shell. My friend’s stepdad had killed it “as an example to the others.” I thought he meant other turtles, but that may have been an optimistic reading of the situation. The man had also removed all the interior doors in the house, including the one on the bathroom.

It was a weird scene, but whose first sleepover isn’t a little strange? When I got home my mom noticed I was missing some clothes. She called my friend’s mom, but there was no sign of them. A few days later I noticed my friend wearing one of my homemade shirts. Cluelessly, I said, “Wow, I’ve got a shirt just like that!” My friend shifted uncomfortably in the bus seat we shared. 

I told my mom about it that night. She said, it’s OK, he needs the shirt more than you. And then she set about making me a new one. We didn’t even have to go to town; she had enough fabric left over.

A long time later my dad said he made less than $8,000 that year. We had it bad, but other folks had it worse. It helped a lot that my dad could fix things and my mom could sew.

So it occurred to me in the fabric store last month that the kinds of things my mom would sew for us would now be cheaper to buy at the store than they would be to make. A yard of almost any fabric costs as much as a sale-price shirt at Wal-Mart. That’s only possible because the shirt was made overseas by workers who earn less than $8,000 in today’s money.

I’m certainly not the first to notice. Shahidha Bari recently reviewed “Worn: A People’s History of Clothing” by Sofi Thanhauser for the London-based Literary Review.

Bari cites Thanhauser’s research to say that, “Today it is more expensive to make your own clothes than to buy them. This is a relatively recent and shocking development in the history of human dress. How did such a situation come to pass? The answer to that question is globalisation and the devaluation of labour that it has unleashed.”

Clothing, like food, is one of the most culturally significant necessities of life. We are what we wear, not just in terms of fashion, but in terms of class, climate and economic impact.

When I was in the fabric store last month I looked at the patterns for sale. One for a men’s wool dress coat caught my eye. I try on these coats whenever I see them, but they rarely fit right. And they generally come in black or grey, with no other options. 

Holding this envelope in the store, I thought about the gaudy patterns I could use for the lining. I could use a tartan wool, maybe even match it to my favorite Stormy Kromer. This thing could really be one-of-a-kind. 

But it also scared me. Not just the cost, though my mother certainly couldn’t have afforded to make such a thing back in the day. No, it’s scary to think about the time and effort it takes to break out of the consumer cycle. Despite devouring our resources and gutting whole sectors of gainful employment in our economy, the system we’ve got is paradoxically easy to keep. 

At least, for now. 

When India sought its independence from the British Empire more than 75 years ago, its spiritual leader Mohandas Gandhi understood that his country was growing dependent on British goods, especially textiles. That’s why Gandhi pushed the “homespun” movement, encouraging India’s massive population to spin its own thread and weave its own fabric. In doing this, he said, India would no longer be dependent upon British cotton imports.

Though it was hardly the only factor in India’s independence, homespun khadi clothing became a significant symbol that led to Indian home rule in 1947.

Are we still capable of doing such things?

It seems we have created a system devoid of common sense. Why should it be more expensive to make your own clothing? Fix your own cars? Bake your own bread? There we find the crux of our problem: We’ve stripped both the utility and the humanity out of life. We chased efficiency with such dogged determination that we actually caught the bastard. 

Now what? 

I could sew that coat I dreamed about, but first I’d have to learn how. I’d have to get humble and take time.

“The production of clothes is a deeply social and moral act,” writes Bari. “It is woven into the story of how we have become the humans we are, and it will play a crucial part too in determining what kind of humans we become.”

Global institutions teeter on the brink. It seems unlikely that buying $3 shirts that you can throw away in a year will be an option forever. Even in tomorrow’s most optimistic vision, we will need to make our own future, literally.

Before we invest in cryptocurrency, before we dabble in real estate, before we stock up on guns and ammunition, we must ask ourselves this: Can we sew? Can we wrap warm clothes around the next generation without even going to town? It might be hard. It might take time. But at least it’s something we can actually control without hurting anyone in the process.

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Aaron Brown
Aaron Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author, community college instructor and radio producer from Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range.