Now that we had a concept, material and patterns for our clothing line, we just needed to find a manufacturer. Easy, right? Not quite.
The next part of our adventure was by far the most difficult, as well as the most eye-opening and inspiring part of our journey so far. Both of us have always been environmentally aware. We recycle, we compost, we try to think about the impact of our actions on the planet and the health of our kids. But after learning how clothes are made, how workers are treated, and the actual human and environmental cost of Big Clothing, we realized that we were still blissfully unaware about the impact of many of our purchases. This is information that changes you; you really can’t unlearn it.
Feeling anxious to start using our growing stacks of dress shirts, we set up a tour of several factories in the Bay Area. We knew very little about the fashion industry, but we did know that we wanted to be a part of the growing revival of American manufacturing, which would allow us to oversee every step of the process. It was Made in the USA or bust.
Our first stop was a reputable manufacturer in San Francisco. They took great pride in their facility, and we were excited to finally see a commercial production facility. I’ll say right up front that it was fine. But since it was our first stop, we were still shocked by the noise, smells, and workers endlessly sewing, bent over their machines. If you can envision an early 20th century assembly line at the Ford plant, making Model T’s, you have the right idea.
I don’t mean to knock their process-they were the best of the best, and brands who work with them can know that they follow the law and have humane conditions. When the final product needs to sell for under $20, and the factory gets paid per item, you really need the most bare-bones, streamlined process possible.
A little overwhelmed, and already realizing this wasn’t going to work for us, we somewhat reluctantly continued to the next couple of “quality”, “Made in the USA” garment factories.We saw high-end, organic baby lines you’d recognize being made in dark, windowless basements, filled with dust, smells, noise, and grim employees. It was depressing, claustrophobic, unhealthy, and just really, not what we wanted. When you put a beautiful outfit on your baby, you want to think that well-paid, loving hands helped to create it.
We were coming to the realization that almost all clothes, even stuff that’s expensive and “high quality,” are made in very depressing conditions.
We had made so much progress, and yet, we felt we were going to have to start over again. This isn’t a get rich quick scheme—it’s about taking responsibility for our actions, and the clothes on our backs.
The real kicker was these factories didn’t want to work with us either! They only made clothes that could be cut in bulk from large bolts of fabric. They were unwilling to make a new garment from an existing one. Not enough economy of scale, not enough money in it for them. One said they would do it- at the price of a sample for each garment, or roughly $89 to sew each item. What?!
We needed a different way to make our clothes.
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Next Week: Our Sew Shop Love Story