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The Real Cost of Cheap Clothing

What does that $14 shirt really cost? Info graphic.
What does that $14 shirt really cost?

photo and price breakdown courtesy of macleans.ca (click the photo for more details)

This breakdown of the cost of an average shirt really shows some of the major problems with the clothing industry. Specifically, why almost all ready-to-wear clothing is horribly unethical in several ways. Let’s break it down:

Treating workers like machines…

The people who make these shirts are paid $0.12 per hour. Now, this particular example is from Bangladesh; some countries, like China, have wages that are much higher – double, even – at $0.24 an hour, or more! And they get the privilege of working 10-14 hours per day, for a whopping monthly income that gets as high as… $250. PER MONTH. For working crazy long hours in crowded factories with major air and noise pollution. And then there are the folks who make the fabric (see below about what that means) who are spending their days inhaling all kinds of chemicals for the same great pay in similarly horrifying places.

…results in low quality workmanship…

Because when you are expected to meet a quota, it is all about SPEED. So the stitch length is longer, which means it’s more likely to come loose while you’re wearing or washing it. I’m sure you all have as many shirts as I do with hems that are pulling out?

…and to keep the prices low, they use the cheapest material around – PETROLEUM. Ahem, I mean Polyester. So it’s great for the environment.

Did you know that polyester is made from petroleum and coal? And, in order to produce it, you start with an acid and alcohol chemical reaction to make a melted plastic puddle, which is stretched into ribbons and dried. And then cut into chips and dried some more. And then melted again and forced through tiny holes to form strands which can be knit or woven into fabric.

And you love wearing it, don’t you? (No. No, you don’t.)

Also, because it’s made of plastic, it doesn’t breathe when you wear it. So when you get hot and sweat, the heat and moisture are trapped between the garment and your body, making it more prone to permanent odors and pit stains and you more prone to discomfort while wearing it. And if you’re cold, it forms a barrier between your skin and whatever heat source you may use to try to warm up.

Natural fibers (cotton, linen, silk, hemp) on the other hand are breathable – meaning heat and moisture can escape when you get warm, and can get in when you are cold.

WHAT IF CRAFTY BROADS MADE THIS SHIRT?

Well, first, we don’t have the economies of scale that mass producers do – so our suggestion would be lobbying to bring good manufacturing jobs back to the USA. But for the sake of this blog post, let’s see what it would cost to make it here. We’re going to assume that we already have a pattern, and that our workers take 2 hours to make the shirt, since we don’t have an assembly line factory or machines that cut the fabric for us. Here’s how it breaks down:

$50.00 – Labor: 2 hours @ $25/hour – our current labor rate
$10.00 – Materials: 1 yard of 100% organic cotton or hemp fabric and a few buttons
$ 0.00 – Factory Overhead: included in our labor rate
$ 0.00 – Factory Margin: None, we don’t mark things up
$ 0.00 – Shipping: None, we don’t outsource our labor
$ 0.00 – Agent: None, no outsourcing of labor means we don’t need someone to find a factory for us
$ 0.00 – Retail Markup: None, you buy directly from us

TOTAL COST TO CONSUMER: $60.00

You could extrapolate with some assumptions – perhaps a US factory with special equipment could make it in just one hour, and paying at least minimum wage* (currently $8.25 in Illinois) could perhaps reduce the labor to $25 or so, including its overhead and markup. And with economies of scale, the material cost could probably be reduced by a dollar or two, bringing the wholesale cost to around $33. If we assume the same 60% markup by the retailer, that would bring the total to $52.80.

*We’d argue that sewing is skilled labor, and should be compensated at a higher rate because it can’t be done by just anyone. Furthermore, the minimum wage is not really a living wage and desperately needs… a raise.

So… in summary, yes, it would cost quite a bit more than we are used to paying to have ethically made clothing. It would mean a return to a time when we bought a much lower volume of much better quality garments. It would mean that we’d wear the same clothing over and over, instead of having a new outfit for every day of the month. It would mean taking better care of our clothes – using gentler cycles, hang-drying more things, and even hand washing from time to time.

What do you think? Is it worth the higher price to have ethically made, better quality garments? Will you start making that change in your wardrobe?

Alison’s Custom Beaded Blue Silk Dupioni Mother-of-the-Bride Dress

Let’s just say this post is a throwback Thursday deal, since we made this dress nearly two years ago…

Alison wanted something lovely to wear to her daughter’s wedding, and she wanted it to be in a similar style to Hayley’s 50’s-inspired wedding dress. She wanted something that would suit the mother-of-the-bride but also be wearable for other special events. We settled on a retro-style dress with 3/4-length sleeves, a v-neck, and a true tea-length hem.

Concept sketch for Alison's dress

Concept sketch for Alison’s dress

Though Alison was initially leaning towards a color in the red family, when we spotted this beautiful blue beaded silk dupioni, we just knew in our guts that it was exactly what she wanted – and it was!

Alison and daughter Hayley, whose dress we also made, at her wedding

Alison and her daughter, whose wedding dress we also made

We are happy to report that we ran into Alison a year after the wedding – wearing her beautiful dress at the 2013 Jeff Awards!

Alison with a friend at the 2013 Jeff Awards

Alison with a friend at the 2013 Jeff Awards

We couldn’t be more pleased with how this dress turned out!

Alison twirling in her full skirt at Hayley & Scott's wedding

Alison twirling in her full skirt at Hayley & Scott’s wedding

Photos courtesy of Alison Vesely. Used with permission. Photos in this and all posts are protected by copyright, and are not available for reproduction, redistribution, or any other purpose without written authorization from the photographer.

Sarah’s Custom Silk 1930s-inspired Wedding Dress with Bolero Jacket and Full-Length Custom Winter Coat

Sarah's Custom 1930s Silk Wedding Dress

The time has finally come to tell you all about Sarah’s wedding ensemble. (FINALLY! Seriously, the wedding was in December… sorry.) We are really excited to share this with you, after all those months of working on it, dropping hints, and sneak peeks, so here goes!

[Note: I’m trying out this format for custom clothing posts – Concept, Work-in-Progress/Challenges, and Finished Garment. Let me know what you think in the comments.]

Concept

Sarah came to us with a lot of ideas. She loved the green dress from Atonement, and had a flash drive full of bias-cut, 1930s-style dresses to inspire us. She really wanted something that would accentuate her hips and that had a low back. She was looking for a flared skirt to show off the dance moves she and Jeffrey had been practicing. We came back with four ideas, and she chose her favorite.

The four options we presented for Sarah’s dress.

Sarah also wanted some kind of cover-up in case bare shoulders were to chilly for her December wedding, and she asked if we had any thoughts about a winter coat that wasn’t black or gray to wear with it. We suggested the possibility of making that for her two, and she was game! Here’s Julia’s concept sketch for the full-length, kinda period, kinda military coat we came up with.

Concept Sketch: Winter Coat

We also designed a little bolero from silk organza so she could cover up lightly inside. To be honest, this was obviously not the centerpiece of the ensemble, and it could have ended up fairly boring, but we found the most amazing trim which took it from “that’s nice” to “WOW”. Thank you, Fishman’s Fabrics. (By the way, if you ever need really lovely fabrics for your own projects, and you enjoy excellent customer service, you should check that place out. It’s fabric heaven.)

Work-in-Progress & Challenges

Trial version of the dress

We could sum this up by saying we learned a LOT in this process. For starters, we haven’t made many tailored garments like the coat, so we seriously schooled ourselves on the fabrics and construction techniques required for this. Julia did all the work on this coat, and it turned out splendidly. As in, we both want desperately to make some for ourselves.

The chevrons. They were so much harder to do than I expected. Or rather, I went about it the wrong way. What I should have done was first make the mockup in single panels, get it fit properly, and then mark the position of the chevrons. What I did was make some awesome looking chevrons that fit our dress form perfectly, but didn’t work so well on Sarah. Fortunately, Sarah was an exceptionally patient client, and after many, many hours of work, we got it fitting her properly. (And in case you are wondering – No, we don’t charge our clients for the hours we spend fixing our own mistakes and learning new techniques. We do that on our own time.) I’m happy to say that all the hard work paid off, because when it was finally finished? Well, you can see it below.

Finished Garment

We’re thrilled to show you how it turned out! The photos below are by the lovely Emilia Jane, an APW sponsor, fellow foodie, and all-around delightful person. (Who can stir up a pretty mean cocktail.) You can see more photos of Sarah and Jeffery’s wedding here.

The Finished Dress.

 

Detail of the dress.

 

A little closeup on the bodice.

 

Love the way the skirt twirls!

 

We saved some of the dress fabric to wrap Sarah’s bouquet.

The Winter Coat.

 

I just love this photo so much. It looks so awesomely vintage.

 

Photos in this and all posts are protected by copyright, and are used with permission. They are not available for reposting or any other purpose without written authorization from the photographer.

Cory’s Custom Red Corset and Silk Chiffon Dress

Custom Corset and Silk Chiffon Skirt

Time for a step back. We’ve been updating you here and there about what we’re working on now, but we really should have started at the beginning. (It’s a very good place to start.) So we’re going to use the next few posts to catch you up, and we begin with a project we both really wanted to keep for ourselves (even though it wouldn’t fit either one of us…)

Cory was in need of something to wear for the Jeff Awards. She wanted something that looked somewhat period (the nominated show she starred in, Ragtime, is set in the early 1900s) in case she was asked to perform, but she also wanted it to be wearable for any fancy event.

We settled on a design of a corset with off-the-shoulder sleeves and a coordinating silk and silk chiffon skirt in a deep red hue. Since they are separate pieces, Cory can actually wear either the skirt or the corset on its own, as well as together.

Now seems like a good time to talk about the process of making custom garments and corset construction, so here goes. We start by taking a LOT of measurements so that we can create a good pattern that fits well.

Pattern for Cory's Corset

Next, we build a mockup, usually made out of muslin, so that we can test the fit and style before we cut into the more expensive fabric. For a corset, we even put in plastic boning so that our test fit is really accurate. Here’s what Cory’s looked like:

Cory's corset mockup (front)

Once we have this ready, we do the first fitting with our client. We will check various areas to see how it fits as well as get feedback from the client about the style so we can make sure we’re meeting their expectations for the garment. In this case, we needed to shorten the corset around the bottom edge, and Cory asked us to make it a little tighter in the waist. We’ll note the adjustments and then transfer them to the pattern.

Cory's corset mockup (back)

At this fitting, we will usually have a selection of fabric swatches so that our client can help us decide what to buy. Cory wanted a deep red, and we found some really beautiful options, which you’ll see in the pictures below. For the corset, she chose a red fabric embroidered with gold thread. The skirt was made from a rust-colored fabric with a cranberry silk chiffon overlay.

Lining of the Corset and Skirt

The next step is to make those adjustments to our pattern, purchase the fabric if we haven’t already, and put it all together. The skirt is fairly simple – we patterned and then cut a layer of chiffon over a layer of the lining, which are joined together at the waistband.

This is the time consuming part for a corset, because it has multiple layers which all must be cut and sewn together exactly. In the photo above, you can see the lining of the corset. It’s actually two layers – a soft cotton, which is on the inside against the skin, and stiffer canvas fabric that doesn’t stretch at all. This is critical for a corset, as the lack of stretch is what holds you in and supports you! The outer layer of the corset is another layer of the canvas with the “fashion fabric” – that’s the pretty stuff – on the outside. The boning gets sandwiched in between the layers so that it doesn’t poke through or cause any discomfort to the wearer. On the back, we install heavy-duty grommets for the lacing to go through. Finally, we’ll trim the top and bottom edges and apply a bias binding.

Et, voila! Finished corset!

Corset and Silk Chiffon Skirt (front)

Corset and Silk Chiffon Skirt (back)

Maria’s Custom Silk Shrug & Wedding Dress Alterations

Maria's Custom Silk Wedding Shrug

Maria called us just three weeks before her wedding in need of some alterations to her dress and hoping we’d have enough time to create a little jacket to wear over it. We had just enough time to squeeze it into our schedule, so we said yes.

I swear I didn’t tell her to do jazz hands.

When we met with Maria, we hit it off with her right away. She is so friendly and has a great sense of humor. We found out that we have a lot of acquaintances in common – she works at an accounting firm with her brother, and they do taxes for many Chicago actors. Small world. Anyway, she bought a cute strapless dress at a big chain, but it seemed to have been designed for someone with really serious hips and it just wasn’t fitting her quite right in the bust. We ended up taking the hip area in about four inches and doing a couple little tucks at the bust so that it would fit her well and not fall down!

Julia draping the silk shrug

She also asked us to make her a shrug to wear over the dress. Since it was ruched, we thought we’d mirror that in the sleeves. Maria brought some polyester organza fabric which matched the dress for us to use, but as we worked on draping it, we realized it was really just not the best choice for the project.

Julia fitting the shrug on Maria

So we bought some gorgeous silk chiffon, and it was so worth it. Julia did all the draping on this, and I helped with some of the hand stitching once it was all pinned in place. I got to check out the fascinating construction on the inside of this dress (really unusual lining attachment, if you’re wondering – clearly designed to allow for as much machine stitching as possible) while taking care of the alterations. We made a custom label to replace the big box store label – very cool. Here are some pictures:

Front
Back

Maria asked for some help picking out her earrings. She brought a couple pairs, but had chosen a favorite. And guess what? I completely agreed with her choice. Don’t these earrings go perfectly?

Shoulder Detail

 

Maria and Dan are got married this Sunday – Congratulations!