Saturday, July 15, 2023

Thoughts While Sewing on a Button

Over the last year or so I've been watching the conversations on the social media sites about the hidden costs of fast fashion, from the exploitation of garment workers to the environmental cost of cheaply-made clothing that ends up in landfills after only a few wearings.

I've never been a fashionable person. I don't have the mind-set for it, and I've never really had the money, so while I can observe the social and advertising pressures that drive people to purchase fast fashion, I don't really understand them.

My parents have vivid memories of the stories the adults in their lives told them of the deprivations of the Great Depression. They also remember the shortages of World War II, so they have a good sense of what you need to get by versus what's nice to have, and they passed this along to their kids. Largely, I buy or make the clothing I need in order to present myself to the world as a decent, rational human being. Now and again I'll buy or make something just for the fun of it and let me tell you, I've gotten a lot of joy out of these garments.

A few weeks ago I lost a button off a shirt I made in 1998 and wore several times a month until quite recently. I had spare buttons put away, so in a couple of minutes one of my favorite shirts was ready to wear again. It's become a little too faded to wear outside the house, but it's fine to wear around the house on a chilly day over a purple t-shirt. And those bright purple grapes just make me so happy.

Should everybody know how to sew on a button? Absolutely. Maybe those little sewing kits we all steal from our hotel rooms should also come with instructions on how to thread a needle, repair a length of hem, and sew on a button. This would be at least as useful as the Gideon Bible.

Should everybody make their own clothes? That's not realistic for a number of reasons. But I think that everybody should know that making clothes is an option. Everybody should know how fabric and clothes are made and how to distinguish good quality.

We've been talking about this for over a hundred years. The book Clothing Choice, Care, Cost was published in 1920 in response to high clothing costs after World War I.

While some of the information is outdated, there is still plenty of good basic information on textiles, fibers, budgeting clothing purchases, and clothing care and repair. 

Possibly the most intriguing idea is that of a Clothing Information Bureau, designed to educate the consumer (pp. 217, 218)

My copy of this book spent some time in the library of the Hudson City YWCA, and it's intriguing to imagine this Y having their own Clothing Information Bureau. Woolman also suggested that department stores could house Clothing Information Bureaus.

There are some significant hurdles to updating the concept of a Clothing Information Bureau to our more-or-less virtual lives today, from the tactile element of fabric, to being able to inspect seam finishes, grain line, and pattern matching.

In what physical space could a Bureau reside? Who gets to decide what information is included, and if it's accurate? But most importantly: is it even feasible to counteract the overwhelming social pressures driving fast fashion?

Monday, July 3, 2023

A Well-oiled Machine


Before I journeyed across the Oregon Trail in May 1997 I sold my treadle sewing machine. Space in the moving van limited and I'd decided that the machine was a Very Bulky Item that I could probably live without. On Independence Day that year I decided to spend the day sewing, using my portable electric machine. A few minutes after I started work, the power went out in my neighborhood, and stayed out until late in the afternoon.

I can take a hint. After that I poked around antique shops regularly and eventually found this nice old Singer 201K treadle machine, manufactured on June 5th 1945, in Clydebank, Scotland. The after-market electric light was a great investment of about $20.00, and with that and a new belt I was set. On a sunny day I could get along just fine, irrespective of the state of the power grid.

The 201K was Singer's top-of-the line machine at the time, and mine soon became my primary sewing machine. The only drawback was buttonholes. I'd worked with aftermarket buttonhole attachments on other machines and they were cumbersome and didn't make terribly nice buttonholes. Sometimes I'd haul out my portable electric machine just to do buttonholes using its 4-step button hole feature. Just as often I'd do them by hand. Or, more accurately, I'd procrastinate doing the buttonholes.

Finally, one year, income tax refund in hand, I bought a new electric sewing machine with a well-regarded buttonhole capability and set aside the 201K.

However, for an upcoming project, the 201K machine is right tool for the job, so I've opened it up and given it a good oiling.

Good quality tools are like good friends - no matter how long it's been since you've seen them, you're delighted to see them again.

Ahhh...the lovely sound of a well-oiled machine!

This well-oiled machine runs so quietly that I can listen to the radio while I sew. You just can't say that about an electric machine.

My recollection is that I bought that can of sewing machine oil at the Woolworths at 11th and Market streets in Philadelphia in the 1970s.