Sewing is a dying practice in the United States. A 2014 University of Missouri study found that people ages 18-33 had less ability to sew, hem or repair garments than their parents, and enrollment in home economics classes has declined nearly 40% between 2004 and 2014.
The decline of sewing know-how has mirrored the decline in the American textile industry. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in the sector has declined about 80% since 1990. Two percent of the garments bought in the United States today are made in the United States. In 1990, that number was 50%. Fewer and fewer Americans know people that work in the textile and fashion industry.
At the same time, we’re buying more clothes, more often and more cheaply. In 1960, the average American bought about 25 garments a year. In the mid-2010s, the average American bought nearly 70 garments a year, while also spending a smaller percentage of their income on apparel.
There are multiple, varied causes behind this large-scale change. Trade policy changes made it easier for cheap-labor-powered textile factories in developing counties to sell their goods in the United States. “Fast fashion” trends have gotten consumers used to paying very little for poorly-made garments — if that cheap pair of jeans falls apart, you can just buy a new pair. Clothing making has been literally cheapened as a skill. And, from an American perspective, clothing making, and it’s environmentally harmful byproducts, has been pushed to the margins of the world.
Liz Ricketts, an instructor at the University of Cincinnati and a founder of the Sustainable Fashion Initiative, has seen the global effects of this shift in production first-hand. In the early 2010s, Ricketts started working with a fair trade fashion company based in Ghana. There, she started studying a massive outdoor market in Accra, the capital. The market there receives 17 million donated garments — they’re called “dead white men’s clothes” there — a week. Forty to 50% of those clothes are never purchased. They go straight from donation bins in Europe and the United States to Ghanaian landfills. “We’re basically dumping our trash, the global trash,” there, says Ricketts, “That’s not the fault of the organizations that are collecting things. It’s just the reality is that we have too much clothing.”
Ricketts says the questions she’s most often asked about clothing overproduction and over-consumption is “Where can I shop?” or “What’s the good company?” These questions are surely asked in good faith, but questions like these can also be limiting. “There are a lot of people out there making things in an ethically sound way, but, ultimately, it doesn’t matter if buy something from a company that uses good production standards or uses clean resources if you don’t wear it properly, if you don’t know how to launder it properly, if you don’t care about it.”
Ricketts and the Sustainable Fashion Initiative are trying to train those practices into today’s fashion consumers. They want to increase awareness of the broader effects of modern fashion trends and they want to ensure that fashion consumers have the know-how necessary to truly value their garments. They’re teaming up with the student-led Anti-Fashion Boot Camp at Cincinnati Mini Maker Faire September 15 and 16. They’ll be teaching Boro repair techniques on stained and torn donated clothing and creating a community rug out of donated t-shirt yarn. “The most sustainable garment is the one that you care about,” according to Ricketts. The Sustainable Fashion Initiative and the Anti-Fashion Boot Camp will ensure its clients have the right tools to care.