Little Tiny Fingers

One of our new avatar apparel designers, Misteria Loon, sent me a gorgeous gown she just finished designing and developing.  I enjoyed wearing it to Calli’s induction into the Museum of SL Photography  for a couple of reasons.  Not only was it very lovely and new, but I also know that the glamorous look was humanely achieved.   

As a designer and as the CEO of a company dedicated to reducing the environmental impact of the apparel industry, I am always deeply aware of the various inputs that the real life apparel industry requires which avatar apparel does not.  It’s a topic on my mind at this time of year in particular, when retailers are starting to display gorgeous beaded and embroidered sweaters and dresses just in time for the winter holidays. 

The holiday season is upon us with the shimmer of Christmas tree lights and the flicker of candlelight from menorrahs.  We love to wear special clothing at our most festive season of the year, because they connect us strongly to some of our deepest emotions about family and friends.  Such garments make us feel good – glamorous, sexy, or simply special.   All of which is wonderful, except for one thing…how these garments are manufactured.

Being immersed in the apparel industry, I quite often forget that most people outside of the apparel industry do not know how their clothing actually gets made.  They think that machines do it, like cars or airplanes get built.  Big robots move things around while some well-paid robot operator pushes buttons to get their glittery beaded sweater made.   That would be great, if only it were true.

Guess what?  That’s not how it works.

People make your clothes.  Not robots.  Not machines.  People.  I say this a lot in my talks, but it’s hard to make it sink in that people and their fingers make your clothing. These people may use machines but those machines are still primitive relative to the welding equipment that Detroit or Japan provides to make cars.  Ultimately, it’s one person bent over one machine, sewing piece after piece after piece.  And those glittery, wonderful sweaters and dresses that look so pretty when you wear them? Each and every one of those beads or sequins are hand-sewn, using age-old methods of single needle and thread or tambour embroidery.  One person, one pair of hands, 1 needle with thread, stitching each bead, one at a time.

What’s more, the actual hands doing the sewing, one stitch at a time, too often belong to people who in any developed country would still be in school. Not college, not middle school – grade school.  The people sewing, stitch by stitch by stitch, the beads and sequins onto your sweater that you may buy this year for $49.99 is often a child.  Not only is your sweater likely made by a young child, but it is often likely that that child is underfed and malnourished.  That child worked very long hours – 12 to 14 or more – with very few breaks of any sort.  The working conditions themselves are worse than anything people in developing countries would provide to their pets.   And quite often, if these children do not make their stitching quotas, they are brutally beaten with rubber hoses — because rubber hoses do not leave marks that can be seen by human rights auditors. 

Please keep that in mind – small weary fingers stabbing a needle frantically through cloth, trying desperately to complete her quota for the day so she doesn’t get beaten and (hopefully) will get fed – so you can look good at your holiday party.

In the apparel industry, designers love beads and sequins.  We love to show them on our garments.  When we design for runway, we send our garments out to reasonably well-paid sample makers, who also make up the garments, by hand, each stitch placed one at a time.  But the working conditions of the sample maker, who is usually an educated adult often in a developed part of the world, is very different from those of the child working in an overseas factory to make the sweater you will buy for $49.99.  When we as designers create a design for the mass market that features beads or sequins, we know that it will take lots of little tiny fingers to apply those beads and sequins. 

One of my colleagues coined the phrase ‘little tiny fingers’. As we were reviewing keep samples one day, she said to me that she loves the look of beads, but she won’t use beads or sequins on her designs because she can’t bear to think about the children who (probably) will ultimately make them. Not all designers will make that choice.  If we, as designers, are instructed by our employers to design beaded things, then we do it or lose our job.  It is as simple as that. We have a choice: design or get fired.  Most of us choose to design or we find a job where we aren’t asked to design those sorts of garments.  But whether or not we choose to keep our job and design the beaded garment, or to move to another job, that garment will ultimately be designed and the design sent to these overseas factories.  Little tiny aching fingers which don’t have a choice will manufacture the garments, which will then be sent to the retail store. 

You as a consumer also have a choice.  I am not saying you have to choose to give up your glitter and glamour.  You can always get your fantasy fashion kicks in Second Life for a tiny fraction of the cost of one of these real life garments, and you can rest assured that the designer of your garment is an adult being reasonably well compensated for the work. In the atomic world, your choices become more interesting and reflective of your own inner ethics landscape.  For instance, you can choose to buy the beaded sweater from a manufacturer that uses labor that contributes to human rights abuses.   But not all of these garments are manufactured using child labor, so you can also choose to educate yourself about which companies adhere to high labor standards.   You can buy a more expensive garment that is made in a factory where humane practices are followed.  You can choose to buy garments that use a less labor intensive technique such as a metallic yarn used in the knit, or a hot-transfer rhinestone pattern applied to the garment.  Or you can even buy a garment that is produced domestically, which will cost more, because the laborer producing it is paid a living wage.    

If you can afford one of these garments at all, perhaps it’s time for you to pay it forward and buy the sweater or dress sold by a company that gurantees that it does not use factories that support human rights abuses.  If you buy a sweater made using the less-labor intensive techniques, you may find it’s not as glamorous as the hand-beaded sweater.  But ask yourself: how beautiful will you feel in a garment manufactured in such an ugly way?

You do have a choice, which those little tiny fingers do not.  I hope you will make the humane choice.

7 thoughts on “Little Tiny Fingers

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