| Arts & Culture
Style All Clothing Is “Handmade,” Even When You Can’t See It
Factory-produced clothing still requires human hands. When we pay less for our clothing, it is the cost of labor at play.
When I tell people I made my wedding dress, it is not quite the whole truth.
It took nine drafts to make what most people would call “my wedding dress”—the white swath of organza, the wide sleeves, and the low back. My whole visible construction had fewer than ten lines of stitches, with the edge of the skirt formed by a selvage edge with a single shining gold thread. Under this delicate outer dress was a base, a dress that my mother and I found on a sale rack by random chance with the right color of soft gray tulle I had been looking for.
But the original neckline was wrong; stiff layers made the skirt the wrong shape. Bright pink paillettes and fake pearls hid the delicate vines of gunmetal bugle beads that wound their way up the bodice and down the skirt, fanning from the waist. Clipping and reshaping and refinishing, I transformed the dress as I removed the layers of tulle and plastic embellishment, then carefully hand stitched the white silk organza on top. I raised the neckline, reshaped the arm scythes, added sleeves, dropped the back down so low it dipped to the waistband. I made my wedding dress, but so did many other people who cut, sewed, beaded, and bedazzled a dress that was waiting for me to find it—the only one of its kind—on an empty rack.
Right now, you may be curled up in soft loungewear, or at a desk in business casual. Perhaps you are en route somewhere on a subway in jeans and a sweater. No matter what you are wearing, it was made by a skilled team of workers. Somebody gently joined the toe seam of your socks on a machine where a human hand must stretch each individual knit loop in a row across a series of long teeth as fine as a comb. Every single seam of your shirt and pants was pushed through a sharp sewing machine needle by a person. Fabric was carefully laid out in broad stacked sheets, and then someone bravely cut individual sizes of a garment’s pattern pieces like slices of a layer cake. The zippers, buttons, and other crucial fastenings that keep your clothes on your body were attached—and only made possible—by the supple dexterity of fingers, even this late into the industrialization of clothing production. Every single label was carefully sewn in. Finished garments were ironed, folded, and packaged by someone flexing sore wrists at the end of a long week.
The Industrial Revolution gets credit for changing everything, and in some ways it did. The history of textiles is vast and complicated, but all preindustrial garments started with busy human hands spinning fibers and weaving. This was done perhaps by the archetypal at-home spinners who gave us the word spinster , or in a noisy workshop with other spinners and weavers. As industrialization concentrated this system into mechanized factories, it reduced the cost of labor, the cost of fabric, and the perceived value of the textiles as a whole. The oft-mythologized Luddites rioted not because they were afraid of technology but because they were being replaced by machines, which devalued their craft and threatened their livelihood.
Sewing, however, unlike spinning and weaving, resisted automation. Individual tasks could be arranged assembly-line-style to increase speed, but the operation of those machines requires a skilled worker—even now. It requires deft and complex motion: the press and push and pierce pivot. It needs dynamic attention, adaptive problem-solving, creativity. A robot can shoot a gun, but it cannot sew a T-shirt .
When people say handmade , they usually mean made at home , or at least bespoke, end to end, by the same skilled hands that started the project. The label is applied so preciously that it obscures the truth that everything you wear is handmade to some extent. Two hundred years after the heyday of the Industrial Revolution, we no longer understand how much factory-produced clothing still requires human hands. Consequently, we often don’t understand that it is the cost of labor at play , not the cost of materials, when we pay less for our clothing. Sewists work long hours for little pay, often faced with labor violations and little recourse. Assembly-line-style piecework, called as much because garment workers are paid by the piece , often means sewing the same hem or seam on identical garments. Fueling garment-factory floors since the Victorian era, it transforms their skilled handiwork into part of a larger machine.
It’s not as simple as demonizing industrialized garment production. We all need clothes, at a price that we can afford. Yet we seem to have rocketed past any Luddite’s worst fears. Ultra-fast fashion , moving more quickly than even the seasonal trend cycles, shows little signs of slowing. Recently established trends like Shein “hauls”—videos that proliferate on TikTok and other social media platforms, in which consumers unbox and try on recent purchases from the multibillion-dollar Chinese retailer—are made possible only by sewists making as little as four cents a garment . While it is difficult to imagine the physicality of the labor of sewing a garment for yourself, you can still work out how some of the very basics of the math break down.
Take the “living wage,” which is $24.16, according to MIT’s living wage calculator . That’s the minimum hourly wage I’d need to be paid before taxes to live without precarity in the United States, strictly on average. I’m confident enough as a sewist to risk my own wedding dress. Even so, the simple linen T-shirt I’m wearing right now took me five hours to press, cut, and sew the fabric together. That doesn’t take into account the customary finishing, inspection, and packaging that is part of a garment factory’s process, nor any design time. At minimum, my shirt should have a labor cost of about $120. (This cost also does not include the fabric I pulled from the closet, my trusty heavy-duty Singer sewing machine that was a Christmas gift from my mother, or my grandfather’s shears.) At this price, even with a day job, I can only afford a scant fraction of what we customarily think of as “enough” clothing. At the scale of factory costs, it is cheaper to make a shirt like the one I made for myself, but not cheap enough to reasonably sell that shirt for twenty dollars or even fifty dollars. The small US-based brand from whom I purchased the shirt’s sewing pattern sells a ready-to-wear version of the item in a similar linen fabric. They price it at $145.
Shein, the decade’s most prolific and vilified fast-fashion purveyor, sells many shirts for less than twenty dollars, with sale items coming in at just a few dollars. Its most expensive items top off around $150. Driven by whip-fast trends and a churn cycle that moves as fast as the algorithm, #SheinHaul has over seven billion views on TikTok. The company releases a truly extraordinary number of designs each year, several orders of magnitude above its so-called peers. (As of April 2022, Shein had released over three hundred thousand styles to the US market, while Zara had released just under seven thousand, according to the Business of Fashion .) Clothing is a basic human necessity, and it’s been an expensive commodity up until recently. Now it’s cheaper and easier than ever for most of us to accumulate—but it has other costs.
Studies have documented elevated levels of lead in some of Shein’s garments , and the clothing sold is predominately made of polyester, knit, and stretch confections with minimal tailoring or finishing . Instead of longevity, the company relies on the speed of trend cycles to sell. This ultra-fast model also stands accused of replicating specific designs or even whole collections by independent designers. What comes out of this process is most often a pale echo of the original item, which is rarely protected by intellectual property law. Stripped of the intentionality and vision of the original maker, any unique story is elided entirely to suit the production facility and the most economically efficient deployment. Many hands create it, but at the expense of everything else, the garment emerges haunted by the choices that lead to its creation.
Clothing is a basic human necessity, and it’s been an expensive commodity up until recently. Now it’s cheaper and easier than ever for most of us to accumulate—but it has other costs.
Besides the basic necessity of clothing ourselves, constant novelty and the instant gratification of new outfits might be too tempting with a single tap. It’s scientifically proven: Online shopping feels good . At such low price points and high volumes, necessity appears to be beside the point. Shein is currently one of the most downloaded shopping apps in the United States. We browse and shop recreationally while clothes appear and disappear as mere images on the screen. Concerns about longevity and quality are less than secondary in TikTok videos styling new hauls every microseason. The vibe shifts, the trends move on, and the algorithm punishes anyone who lingers.
It’s part of a paradigm shift in how consumers think about style and ownership of their garments: as disposable as a takeaway container, easily discarded, unappealing on the thrift store rack a season later. The story of the clothing begins and ends with your purchase. The whole system is set up to minimize curiosity about where the clothes are coming from, who made them, or what happens after you personally tire of them. It’s intentional. The faster the fashion, the less time you have to stop between purchases and ask questions about who made your clothes or why. If you did, you might even buy less.
Constructing any gown is a long process with high stakes, a wedding dress even more so. You might not know until months into the process if you’ve done it correctly. After months of research, my mother and I went to a department store to look at formalwear for a bit of low-stakes fun and inspiration. I tried on everything—enormous red ball gowns and impossible sparkling slips. Who doesn’t love to shape-shift occasionally? But with my sewing hands on, I was thinking about fabrics, where the boning lay, waist heights and necklines, not even color or fit.
“Try this,” my mother said. “Maybe we can save you some work.”
The dress she had in her hands was a perfect shade of gray, though everything else seemed wrong. It was the only one. It was just my size. It was not perfect, but as a foundation it was impeccable, saving me enormous amounts of sewing. Even then, before I changed anything, I could appreciate those skilled hands that made what was likely one of many, now forgotten, tucked into the back of a lonely rack, serendipitously waiting to be transformed by me.
Centering the making of a garment in the story it tells beyond aesthetics spins a more richly textured narrative, but not necessarily one that is easier to navigate. Sewing your own clothes is not inherently sustainable or ethical, nor does it save you money or time. It’s not accessible to everyone. Sure, with time and effort, it gives the unique satisfaction of turning a thought into a physical object, and of a task done well with specificity. Utility might be considered, but it is now more often a small luxury to create something by hand. Furthermore, fiber production and cloth dyeing themselves are as fraught with labor violations and ecological concerns as corporate garment production. People who sew are not particularly likely to take up farming sheep or silkworms to spin and weave and cut and sew as modern wardrobe martyrs producing a truly ethical wardrobe. Such a thing cannot exist, not without fundamentally changing how we structure our relationship to clothing and to each other.
While everything you wear might technically bear the mark of someone’s hand, your sense of connection to that labor disappears the further you get from stitching it yourself. The bigger the brand, the more explicitly the goal is to hide the hand altogether. A singular handmade object preserves the collected thoughts and consideration and context of the maker. It marks the moment of its making, and it collects time in its wearing. If the maker works in collaboration with someone else, it contains the stories of both the individuals and the partnership. Created in community, it provides a map of influences and concerns, traditions, methods, and contemporary trends. When commerce gets involved, the concerns of the consumer are also written into its story. The more a garment is designed by committee and cost analysis, the less a part of the story any one person is. That doesn’t mean it’s not profoundly useful; it is still worth asking who made it and why you bought it.
Sewing simply takes the time that it takes, plus skill, energy, and an able hand. It doesn’t always work out as planned. My wedding dress, even with its unexpected collaborators, took shape over six months of stolen weekends and evenings. It was fit around migraines and freelance work. By most measures of bespoke bridal sewing, it was a minimal affair, suited to my tastes and skills. Had I started from scratch, I would have needed more than a year to create what I wore on my wedding day. I am very grateful that was not the case. I owe an enormous debt to the people who sewed and beaded the original dress, the one I found on that rack—wherever they are.
Even still, in the days before my wedding, I sat watching endless movies while hand stitching tiny, imperfect silk stitches until my fingers cramped. It’s delicate work, and to keep the outside of the dress perfectly smooth, it can’t be done by machine, with each stitch catching the silk only to the lining. It was important to me that the inside of my dress felt as lovely as the outside, a special touch you can ensure when you make it yourself. The last steps included adding my initials to the inside, a mark that my hands had contributed to not just the chronicle of wearing this dress but also its particular making.
The more a garment is designed by committee and cost analysis, the less a part of the story any one person is.
Never once have I sewn a perfect garment; I suspect I’d be afraid to wear such a thing. Even my wedding dress has a few secret mistakes. The perfect-for-me imperfect things I’ve made or that have been made for me are the things I reach for first. These flaws are removed from commercial production, for obvious reasons—imperfect garments we purchase aren’t special; they’re liabilities. We see them as flawed, a failure of the impersonal system from which we expect precision, high-quality labor, and low prices. This kind of production just doesn’t attempt to remove the presence of hand from the process of crafting the clothing we wear. It speeds up the process to create such a volume that no emotional investment is supported or required. There’s still a story, but most of the time, we treat it as unrelated to the story of the garment’s life. It might even be replaced by branding or marketing. The ecosystem of textile production doesn’t disappear just because we hide behind phone screens and shipping boxes.
Our clothes have a life of their own, and the ecosystem of online shopping has a logic of its own, an ouroboros of desire. Instagram ads chase us across our timelines as we scroll. Website cookies feed ad networks our most clickable cravings even after we’ve purchased. Fashion seasons shorten as microtrends keep coming. Classics keep getting updated. Companies need to grow, or they perish. Even hobby sewists and knitters aren’t immune; trend-driven patterns and styles take over Ravelry and Pinterest feeds with the same fervor as anywhere else. Whether purchased or patterned, your perfect wardrobe always seems to be lurking just off-screen, inspiring a constant search for the one garment that will showcase who you are. Clothes have never been just about being clothed. Personal style is a constantly evolving process, as our bodies, needs, and lives change. Declaring your style point of view can be done with the ease of a click.
The work of homemade garments, however professional, retains the frisson of art through its singularity. A handmade object crafted by yourself or a loved one retains its unprofessional quirk even in the highest finish—a moment where a thread skipped, a slightly wonky hook and eye, an accommodating pleat. When a thread comes loose or a loop of knit emerges from a beloved sweater, you are much less likely to throw it on the pile of castoffs. But every garment has a story before and even after you. Homemade clothing contains the accumulated meaning of mistakes and problem-solving, of considering what you love and what you don’t. But how you see yourself and the world is also written in every seam of the clothing you purchase, whether from a fast-fashion brand or secondhand store. Not a single item in your closet is bare of meaning, or community. Every garment is already inscribed with your relationship to the world.