SocietyJanuary 15, 2023

Essay on Sunday: Can a stitch in time still save us?


Nadine Hura was embarrassed of her homemade clothes as a kid. Now she appreciates her mother’s craft, and sees value in clothes that weren’t made at lightning speed by overworked, underpaid strangers. 

I was born among sheepskin car seat covers sewn by my mother. She was a factory outworker, stitching pre-cut panels of fabric end-to-end before flicking them the right way out like a maestro. From the boxes of fabric that turned up on our doorstep every week she produced a symphony of soft furnishings and drapery. All throughout the recession of the late 80s, and the doubling-down of the 90s, my mother sat in the basement and sewed. She turned cloth into coins. 

Being surrounded by fabric and cotton and elastic all my life made me feel like sewing was ordinary. I didn’t feel special or lucky to wear home-made clothes. I felt embarrassed. I wished for new clothes from America, or at least DEKA. But money was tight and priorities clear: food, mortgage, then shoes.

Mum sewing car seat covers, 1988. (Photo: Supplied)

At school, I found myself unnaturally drawn to inspect the seams and hems of other people’s clothes. They seemed to have no visible blemishes or imperfections. No weird pockets or cuffs made of mismatched fabric. I was convinced that clothes made in bulk by machines were superior to the one-off pieces my mother’s arthritic fingers fashioned out of scraps and offcuts.

I’m ashamed now, that I was ashamed then. But there are things you can’t know until you’re ready to see them. Or until you’ve tried your hand at them. Last week, I downloaded my first sewing pattern from the internet and spread it out on the kitchen table. Mum stood over me, issuing directions in a language that was foreign to me: grainlines and selvedge edges, basting and understitching. 

She shunned the written instructions, she said she could see how the pieces went together just by looking at them. She waved a pocket in my face like I was stupid. See?

I asked her how she knew which order to sew the pieces and she looked at me with a mixture of exasperation and pity. Like we couldn’t possibly be related. Like I wouldn’t survive in the wild. 

My mother was first introduced to a sewing machine in the late ’60s, 17 and pregnant. After a half-hour lesson she was put to work on the factory floor with the other girls. I’m 45 and divorced. After half an hour I was still trying to staple the pages of the pattern together. 

Me as a child in my under-appreciated homemade clothes. (Photo: Supplied)

For my mother, sewing wasn’t a hobby or a lifestyle choice. It wasn’t an ethical desire to divest from fast fashion and reduce carbon emissions. It was economic survival. The boxes of fabric that she collected from the factory each week did not come with instructions. You got a five-minute tutorial on the spot, then you were expected to go home and work it out using logic, experience, and the unpicker. “It wasn’t fun,” she said. “I was shaking in my boots every time I unpacked those boxes.”

For my Nana’s generation things weren’t too dissimilar. Sewing was a necessity in the 50s. An essential skill. According to my Nana’s treasured copy of Needlecraft, a gift on her 30th birthday, no home was complete without a sewing machine — if you were lucky it might even run on electricity as opposed to a treadle. 

Though faded, this special cloth-bound compendium is still in pristine condition, suggesting the spirit of needlecraft did not often call my Nana to a seam. But I can hardly blame her. There’s a whole chapter dedicated to the science of laundering and mending. In a world where perfectly good clothes end up in landfill by the tonne every day is it any wonder my 16-year-old daughter stared at me blankly when I asked her if she knew the meaning of “a stitch in time saves nine”.

My nana’s 1950s copy of Needlework, and her twin daughters in the matching frocks she made (my mother is on the left), 1952.

Regardless whether it’s work or relaxation, some things haven’t changed. Sewing still takes time. It still requires skill. The only thing that’s really changed are notions of value – which is not the same thing as cost. No matter what you wear, no matter what you pay at the till, someone has held those panels up, seen how they go together, guided them under the foot of a sewing machine. 

Most likely, that someone works in a factory in a country in a village or town you can’t even imagine the shape of – because, despite all the technological advances of the past half century, there’s still no machine or robot that can match the aptitude of a pair of human hands in joining two fiddly bits of fabric. That knowledge ought to change the way you look at your seams. 

While I was pinning the pattern pieces onto the fabric in preparation to cut, Mum and I listened to an interview that took us behind the scenes of one of New Zealand’s few remaining clothing manufacturers. Ben Kepes, founding director of Cactus Clothing in Christchurch, walked us around the factory floor – from the bolts of fabric on the left, to the hand-sewing of lapel-domes on the right. 

Like mine, Ben’s mother was a machinist. His parents were refugees, which gives him a special connection to his employees, most of whom are migrant women aged from 20 to 70. Some 35 nations are represented under this factory roof, with experience spanning multiple generations. 

Ben says there’s sufficient demand to run the factory 24 hours, but not enough skilled workers to make it possible. “They’re so talented,” he said emphatically, which made my Mum sit up a little straighter. “But we just can’t attract the people.” That’s especially true for cutters, a specialist trade demanding a 5000-hour apprenticeship.

I suspect the struggle to find workers is at least partly due to the fact sewing isn’t any more glamorous now than it was in my mum’s day. I didn’t ever think of Mum having a career, and nor did she. I didn’t see or appreciate the technical expertise; the steady hands, the focused eyes. To me it seemed dull, mundane, repetitive. 

Me, aged 10, in my mum’s factory-in-the-basement. (Photo: Supplied)

Ben from Cactus Outdoor says there’s actually more variety in sewing than you might expect. Their factory routinely produces 200-300 units of an item, sometimes up to 1000. But that’s still a fraction of the quantity of overseas factories which regularly churn out 120,000 of a single garment. My mum made a sweltering number of sheepskin car seat covers in the 90s, but still nothing approaching that scale.

Throughout the factory tour, you can hear the familiar drone of sewing machines, dulled slightly by a radio playing easy-listening hits. Mum said the factories in her day were head-splitting, and if there was music playing you wouldn’t have heard it over the ricocheting machines. I asked her if there was a sense of camaraderie between the women, if they chatted while they worked? Again, she looked at me with disdain. Specifically, she said “We were too fucking busy to talk.”

The other reason New Zealand manufacturers can’t compete with overseas factories is the cost of labour. And here’s where we come full circle. Wages in New Zealand provide minimum protections for employees, ensuring they’re not exploited the way they are in factories in poorer nations. That’s great, but those values come at a cost that are reflected in the price. “Made in New Zealand” is often code for quality, not economy. Or as my daughter often reminds me: “Having a conscience is expensive.”

These days, it’s hard not to feel sick walking around the shopping malls stacked wall to wall with racks of cheap clothing, if you understand the costs of fast fashion borne by Papatūānuku in the form of carbon emissions, toxic waste, and water consumption.

Refusing to participate in the culture of over-consumption is at least part of the solution, and with the recession biting, it’s not even a choice for a lot of people. Sewing your own clothes might be an option for some, but who are we kidding? Sewing is exclusive rather than essential. A luxury rather than a necessity. And fabric – none of which is manufactured here in Aotearoa – is expensive, and arguably just as problematic in terms of draining natural resources and emitting carbon. 

Repurposing old fabric is an alternative to buying new, but even skilled technicians don’t necessarily find that straightforward. Not everyone has a personalised tutor to point out the bias or help turn a jean crotch into a purse. More to the point, the era when every home had a sewing machine is surely bygone.

It seems to me that the textiles and fashion industry is just another massive problem to add to the ever-expanding landfill of climate problems. It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed and confused and frankly embarrassed by all we don’t know and don’t understand about the “system” and our role in either ignorantly upholding it or actively dismantling it.

None of the current or popular solutions feel sufficient or truly transformative. Paying more for quality and durability isn’t always a matter of choice, nor should one’s inability to purchase ethically be used as a tool of shame. Reducing consumption is important, as is reusing, recycling, upcycling, trading and buying second hand. But how can we genuinely invest in a model that values Papatūānuku over profit, without also leaving people behind? It’s not enough to be virtuous. We have to be realistic and recognise our limitations as individual consumers against the might and greed of massive corporations. 

Frankly, since I’ve been learning to sew I even less want to look at fast fashion and disrespect the time, skill, craftsmanship and sacrifice that has gone into those racks of clothes. As Ben says from the factory floor: “Unless you can see how something is made it’s easy to dismiss.”

Which explains in a nutshell the tsunami of waste headed for landfill.

It makes me wonder if the solution to climate change begins with accurately articulating the problem. The climate crisis isn’t about rising seas and extreme weather. Those are merely symptoms. The real crisis is one of disconnection. 

Being separated from the origin stories of the things we use, wear, eat and consume comes at a cost. If we’re disconnected from the stories of the things that we put into our shopping bags and trolleys – the stories about how they’re sourced and made and packaged – how can we accurately ascribe a value to them? This is very different to the concept of “price”. It begins with seeing and understanding where things come from. It begins with whakapapa: appreciating every single thing we wear – not because we own it, or because it was cheap or expensive, but because someone, somewhere made it. With material that came from the earth. 

In one of Fiona Kidman’s short stories, a young woman is offered a fancy new dress to wear to a dance. She hesitates for a moment. It’s one of the latest designs – it’d look so lovely. But as her fingers graze the silky fabric, an image of her mother floats into her mind. She’s squinting in the low light, hands guiding a gathering of cotton expertly into the sewing machine’s teeth. 

I’ve lost the story now, but I’ve never forgotten the daughter’s pride when she stepped out in her classic lemon frock. Her sense of loyalty. You never once doubted what she was going to choose.


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