"I want to say, this machine isn't just history." The garment industry in history, and in our lives today

If you ever complain about the price of your jeans, I want you to find a sewing machine and try to hem a pair. Granted, the industrial size and strength of the machines they use to produce them on a large scale is much greater than my personal machine, but I hemmed a pair last night and have vehemently given up the practice henceforth. I pulled out my denim-strength machine needles, the kind you buy specifically for denim, and broke two of them on the first leg. I found my pace halfway through, and managed to finish them on the third needle, but I was livid. I have been sewing all my life, and have been learning in earnest for the last three years, and I do not break needles. I decided that if I were to produce a pair of jeans, start to finish, I would charge the prospective buyer $2,000, at least. Obviously, I should not go into the jean-making-or-selling business. But it was a stark reminder that there are plenty of women--and also men and children--whose days are defined by pumping out pair after pair to sell to hungry consumers around the world for amazingly low prices, considering the labor. I cannot tell you how many times, during my years in mall retail sales associateship, I heard parents complain about the cost of jeans. They were especially mad when the jeans  were bleach-washed and "destroyed" (lots of holes and patches, in other words), as they could not believe they were paying more money for something that has been ripped up. As someone who has sat at home and pulled denim threads out of jeans until my fingers bled to get the same look in DIY form, I often held back from pointing out the obvious to them: someone has put many hours of their life into creating this pair of runway-ready jeans for you or your teenager. If you want, buy the regular pair for a whole $20 less, and take them home and try to do it yourself.

There are no new revelations to be had in what I am saying. Sweatshops and the low wages of garment industry workers have been well-publicized over the last twenty years or so, and I do not pretend to have some answer. As long as people need clothes to wear, there will be this problem in the world. But the important thing to remember is that it was not so long ago when the women of the United States were the ones subjected to the long hours, low pay, and back-breaking conditions. It is part of the phenomena of developing nations, that a generation will work very hard in factories to provide better lives for their children, the whole theory being that they can eventually move up a notch in the world. One of the most important lessons about places like Lowell, Massachusetts, which was defined by its industrial factories and garment producers in the nineteenth century, is that those conditions, the ones we thank our grandparents for improving for us--have not disappeared. They have simply relocated. Another group of people carries the burden today, producing clothing for the masses.

Earlier this semester, we read The Lowell Experiment in one of my classes, in which ethnographer Cathy Stanton examines the relationship between historians, a post-industrial city, and the National Park that the city is today. Lowell is still a real, inhabited city, but it is also a historical subject, and a place in the American industrial past that serves as a ground for social scientists to really examine many aspects of the course of American history over the last couple hundred years. What Stanton does the best is remind us that historians do not exist in a vacuum, but are, just by going to a place and trying to learn about it, affecting the results they will find. The relationship a historian has to her subject cannot be entirely removed from the results she will present to her peers and community.

And the other key thing Stanton brings home is that Lowell's history cannot exist one its own, either. People who visit the city-slash-national-park have to be confronted with the notion that these factories, just because they are no longer booming here, does not mean they are gone, that we have cured the world of the plight of the factory worker. She points out one poignant moment on a tour she was on, when the tour guide strayed from his script for a moment and did what Stanton had concluded had not been happening in this place: he connected past and present. His statement:

I want to say, this machine isn't just history. When we built this historical park we had to travel around the world to buy looms. Looms like this are operating as we speak somewhere around the world. It's kind of neat to think about that. And there's no right or wrong answer, there's no easy answer to it, but we can go to Wal-Mart or A.J. Wright or any store, really, and buy really cheap clothing. And what's the alternative? Paying a lot for your clothes? We all work, we all try and and pay the best we can for our cloth. But the reason we can get cheap cloth is because someone around the world is working on these looms, and looms not unlike what we have today. A few years ago, Kathy Lee Gifford was in trouble for using child labor on machines just like this. So it's just something to think about.

One other thing I like to sort of think about is the word "labor." It means "to suffer" in Latin. And when you think about the suffering that goes into making cloth, back in history and even to the present day, it's just something to think about. We wear the clothes, sometimes we don't think especially how hard the person who built or made the clothes worked to produce that. And all that labor, all the suffering that went into building this city, and the results, both good and bad. Just think about that a little bit. And I'll be talking about more of the positive consequences on the way back. But on a hot, sticky day, with this loud machine and the lint flying in the air, it's pretty easy to picture how miserable it would be to work there. (p. 61)

Stanton says it was a stunning moment, where suddenly each person on the tour was confronted with "the phantom figure of the Malaysian or Pakistani mill girl who was laboring--suffering--so that we could buy a t-shirt for a small fraction of what it would have cost to produce in a developed country."

The tour guide was obviously taking a risk, and chose his words wisely, speaking softly around the issue but offering no illusions about what he was referencing. And, the author reported, the other people on the tour, while a bit shaken, seemed to be able to handle it. "This is precisely the goal of progressive public history," she says, "to seize such small opportunities and compound them into larger visions of the process we are all a part of."

I was reminded of all of this not because I hemmed a pair of jeans--although that brought the message of labor and frustration home personally--I was reminded, really, by the remembrance, recently, of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City, which 100 years ago went up in flames on a Saturday morning in March, killing more than 100 workers, mostly women and children, due to a shoddy fire escape and other unsafe conditions for its workers. Supervisors would lock their workers into the factory's floors, on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the ten-story building, and so when the fire erupted, many people were left to jump out the windows--usually to their death. In 1911, in an industry of extremes that was subject to the whims of the fashion trends, work of this nature was often relegated to new immigrants seeking to improve their lives. Their average work weeks were 84 hours. These were the victims of the fire, one of the worst workplace disasters in American history. The tragedy of that day, which you can explore in a podcast and recreation of the morning here, reminds us again that such circumstances have not gone away--they have only gone beyond our national borders. It is a kind of labor many of us can only imagine.

It has not entirely left the United States, nor Lowell. Immigrants still hold those jobs, today.

The World's Jason Margolis did a news story on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and its galvanization of the garment industry. (I heard it on Jeb Sharp's How We Got Here history podcast.) He reports exactly the thing that the Lowell tour guide was imparting on his listening visitors, but in more specific way, and with direct connection to the conditions that existed in the Shirtwaist Factory in 1911.

“Effectively what we have done is exported our sweatshops and exported our factory fires,” said Robert Ross at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. And it’s as if the 1911 conditions had been lifted up by an evil hand and dropped into Bangladesh.”

According to the Bangladeshi government’s Fire Service and Civil Defense Department, 414 garment workers were killed in at least 213 factory fires between the years 2006 and 2009. Last year, 191 people were killed in Bangladesh in a reported 20 incidents, according to Ross’ research. Last December, a fire killed at least 25 people in a garment factory there.

“And the pattern is disturbingly uniform,” said Ross. “The shops are often in high rise buildings, just like the Triangle. The pattern is that an electrical fire starts, and then without adequate, or any fire escapes, without sprinkler systems, the workers surge to get out. And in factory after factory, the newspapers report locked gates and locked doors. It’s a horrific duplication of what we earlier experienced.”

Even while we may not have answers about these issues, it is important that we be aware, as we put on our clothes each morning, that simply because the factory is farther away does not mean the work has improved any in the last one hundred years. After my frustrating night last night, my hat goes off to all of them, in every factory corner of the world. I hope we can begin to change out outlooks and our consumer mindsets, or at least improve our awareness as a whole, so that we can move towards improvements in the lives of all garment industry workers, not just the ones in the United States.