Americans have rightly praised the key heroes and heroines of the COVID-19 battle, notably frontline healthcare workers and first responders.
And our hearts — and hopefully wallets — have gone out to the service industry, most of all restaurant workers, who have almost no safety net in a crisis like this. I applaud folks who have tried to buy to-go food and tip servers as big as possible.
In other cases, community action is leading to informal networks to help the newly unemployed, hungry, elderly, and stressed.
That’s what’s meant by the phrase “we’re all in this together.”
And now I’d like to advocate for another group of mission-critical folks, most of whom would NEVER advocate for themselves. A group of workers who were always there in the American workplace and who are now getting tons of requests to come to the rescue with their highly skilled labor.
Follow This Thread
They’re known in the clothing and tailoring industry as the “sewists.” The seamstresses. Mostly, but not always, women. Often, but not always, immigrants. And always undervalued, underpaid, and under recognized by American culture.
Yet now that everyone needs a mask to go outside these days, these skilled workers are proving what it means to be on a war footing as they ramp up production to churn out masks quickly both for hospitals and institutions and for all the rest of us.
Some have existing careers as clothiers, historic or theatrical costumers, alteration shops, boutique designers, quilters, or fabric shop owners who are pivoting their businesses to meet the need for masks.
And these hard working masters of the needle and thread need and deserve fair pay for doing so! Yet there are plenty of people pressuring them into working for free or shaming them if they seek a fair wag.
Just to be clear, I’m not one of them. I’m not trying to get you to give ME a fair wage. I’m not a seamstress or a pieceworker. And if left to my own devices, by the time I finished making a mask for myself the quarantine would probably be over.
Yes, I do sew. But s-l-o-w-l-y. Not just slow fashion, but also by hand when I make 18th, 19th, and early 20th century reproduction clothing. Occasionally I make something contemporary. But I always make it slowly, and just for me, and only as a hobby, and definitely imperfectly!
BUT…I’m big time into following sewists and seamstresses and makers on Instagram and I take classes in historic costuming and otherwise learn from the amazing sewing community out there.
And one of my dearest friends is a highly educated professional seamstress who runs a good old-fashioned alteration shop that employs sewists. I hang out over there all the time. (Or did, before all this.)
Truth be told, she’s not just a friend. She became a friend through being my private sewing tutor over the past two years. And she has AMAZING skills and knowledge and experience.
With her as my guide I’ve worked to regain what few sewing skills I learned while growing up. Maybe I would have learned more but I was in high school just when schools were cutting out Home Economics classes. Perhaps they thought sewing and cooking too easily pigeonholed girls and young women rather than recognizing that these would always be essential life skills
Or perhaps America’s rapacious demand for endless consumer goods, especially cheap “fast” fashion, made sewing at home too pricey, rendering the skill obsolete for those in the so-called “first world.”
Which is part of my point.
One reason sewists are undervalued and underpaid is that through a focus on globalization and slash-and-burn consumption (fast, excessive, and with evil planned obsolescence built in), wages, which were never high in the first place (think 19th-20th century sweatshops and penny piecework), continually face downward pressure.
And it’s no better for sewists in China, Bangladesh, and Vietnam who are our effective outsourced slaves. Only we don’t call it “slavery” since they get a buck a day or so for making us our must-have ultra cheap duds. Capitalism sure puts the spit and polish on otherwise lowlife structures.
Fast fashion is a systemic problem that rapes natural resources and despoils waterways. Fast fashion harms workers the world over and deludes rich countries into thinking the breakneck buy-toss-buy-toss consumption party can last forever, no consequences.
But I digress…
Interfacing with a Sewist
Let me make this simple:
If you now need a mask and can’t make your own, and you’re not in poverty, or not newly unemployed with no income, or not too infirm, please, be prepared to pay for one and be prepared to pay what it’s really worth. Be prepared to support the sewists, seamstresses, tailors, and pieceworkers, particularly in your own neighborhood or city or country who will make your important virus-slowing face shield.
By my calculation that price for goods made in America should be around $20-29. whether picked up locally or shipped within the U.S. (for free).
I’m not going to bore you with a rationale for every cent of this figure I’ve come up with. But suffice it to say that that’s what a handmade mask at the Olson Mask level is worth in time, materials, and related business costs.
If you know how to sew, by all means, make one for yourself and your family.
If you sew and your heart is bursting at the seams to make these for free for others, by all means, do so. I am NOT speaking out against generosity, charity, or everyone pulling together in extraordinary times.
But please don’t suggest that others should also work for free or else they’re a bad person or an exploiter of crisis.
And if you lost a job but you know how to sew and can begin making masks, do not feel bad for charging a fair and profitable price for your labor, supplies, energy, and any related business costs.
There’s a reason that skilled labor is called on in war and other critical times and just as the gas man, and plastics supplier, and hospital grade equipment firm, and corporate entities all expect their paychecks for providing resources in an emergency, so too should ordinary workers with rare skills be compensated for providing something that no one else can.
Yet not everyone is on board with that when it comes to sewists.
Believe it or not, one person who works as a seamstress told me that that it would look awful for sewists to ask for fair pay during the COVID crisis.
I’ve been told that because you can get a mask on Etsy right now for $7 or less, or because downward price pressure might make other Etsy sellers ask even less, that $20, or $24.99, or $29.99 is WAY too much to ask for a handmade protective mask, even sourced from locals.
All of which is nonsense. Handmade goods take time, supplies, utilities and other resources. They don’t make themselves! And sewists aren’t robots.
Fair Trade Begins at Home
One thing I’ve noticed about sewists, almost universally, is their kind hearts and generous natures. It makes them willing to do an awful lot without being compensated. It also makes them chronically underprice their own labor.
And, being told again and again by a cold marketplace that they’re not worth a living wage (or higher) they tend to buy in to a poverty mentality that makes them feel insecure, or worse, wrong or even “sinful” to ask for a fair wage for fair work. All this is magnified — the good hearts and the willingness to work for free or close to free — in a crisis like we’re in today.
They feel bad doing anything except for free because they’ve been so devalued for so long. And many on Facebook, Instagram and elsewhere are pressuring others to feel — or act — the same way. There are really intesne debates going on!
So I will advocate for them on the side of deserving pay.
If you’re still working or drawing a paycheck or have great savings and your finances are fine, you must pay a fair price or what-you-will for masks.
If you’re feeling generous, you could try $100 a piece on for size so that the sewist can then make another one or two for free for a person in need. But at bottom, I suggest you pay between $20-$29 for a the two-ply, filter-pocket style even if your sewists asks you for less.
And bring snacks and thank you cards!
If you’re a hospital or institution putting the call out for sewists to make masks for you, please recognize that just as you pay other vendors in your industry, you should be coming up with some baseline grant or fee that you can provide so those sewists can work from home (or their shops) to make masks for you and pay their skilled workers an ongoing wage during the crisis until they get back to their prom and wedding gowns and mens’ suit jacket hems. Anything less would itself be exploitative. Do NOT just prey on sewists’ good natures with an open “call for volunteers.”
Many Hands Make Light Work
Yes, some combination of volunteers, charitable giving, DIY at home, newly unemployed folks with sewing skills, and professional sewists will help get America masked up and ready to flatten the curve from six feet away with clean hands.
And when it comes to that last category in particular — professional sewists — think of their skill as absolutely essential to the COVID-19 fight. Especially when this worker is from your own city or town, your neighbor, part of the much vaunted local community!
While I don’t want to pit worker against worker, I will say that packing up your takeout pork nachos is nice, and buying to-go food will totally help our beloved restaurant workers make it through. But it won’t stop the spread of disease or flatten the curve. Restaurant workers are important, but the sewists are even more so right now. Let’s help them make it through, too.
Don’t ask your friend to make you a mask for free UNLESS you’re in temporary or permanent poverty.
And when this is all over, maybe let’s not go back to all the bad things about the globalized clothing industry from the last fifty years: earth-raping fast fashion, outsourced international wage slavery, poverty wages for American sewists, and disregarding the many, many different roles and skills that it takes to make up a vibrant human society.
And bring those Home Ec classes back to schools, too.
We’re one cloth, woven of many strands, each equally important. The revolution will be handmade, stitch by stitch. So meet your maker and pay her her due!
— Lady Virginia