Shopping with a sewer’s eyes

Author: fraise

Saturday 24 September 2011, in Crafts, Sewing


Hand-stitched jacket

Today I went to H&M to look for a cardigan. While there, I noticed that they were now carrying suit separates, and that the jackets had what looked like hand-sewn topstitching, the likes you usually see on tailored jackets. I looked more closely, and indeed, it was done by hand. (No machine can do this – it’s a single thread.) Then I looked at the price: 39.95 EUR. Dumbstruck, I shot this photo with my mobile phone, returned the cardigans I’d wanted to try to their racks, and walked out of the store. I won’t be shopping at H&M again.

The root of my reaction is that there is simply no way that the seamstresses were paid a decent wage. At 40 euros retail, knowing that these stores have a markup that is 2 to 3 times what they paid for an item, that makes this jacket’s manufacturing cost – assuming there were no other intermediaries between the manufacturer and H&M – about 14-20 euros. I reached the conclusion that this cost is unacceptably low based on a modicum of sewing experience; fundamental knowledge that you too can use to evaluate clothes.

At its very basics, an item of clothing goes through the following steps: pattern selection, fabric selection, pattern and fabric cutting, and sewing. Depending on what is being made, there will also be ironing steps at certain points. Modern manufacturers are able to automate pattern and fabric cutout, ironing and sewing, except for certain types of stitches, such as the hand topstitching shown here. A jacket is quite complex – where it is feasible that a t-shirt could be manufactured for 5 euros, since it can be almost entirely automated (you still need machine operators), and has very few pattern pieces (4 total: front, back, and sleeves), this is not the case for a jacket.

We’ll take an example from a modern-day patternmaker, Butterick, and their jacket pattern in the wardrobe set here (B5687). Since I’m adapting the example for a manufacturer, we’ll ignore the price of the pattern itself; once you make thousands of mass-produced items, the pattern price is practically negligeable.

We’ve still got the following costs, however – I’ll use the yardages for size 12. You’ll notice that patternmaking sizes still follow rational sizing, unlike stores that pretend to have size 0 and such.
– Jacket fabric: 2 1/4 yards (2.1 meters)
– Jacket interfacing (keeps the collar and hemlines stiff): 1 3/8 yards (1.3 meters)
– Jacket lining: 1 1/2 yards (1.4 meters)
For a total of 5.125 yards, which we’ll round down to 5, despite the fact that this jacket is smaller and better-fit than the one sold at H&M.

That’s already quite a bit of fabric. If you buy decent-quality cotton, not suit fabric or linings, and as an individual (non-wholesale), you can find some for between 8-15 USD/euros per yard/meter. Were we an individual, we’d already have reached 40 euros before sewing anything. But of course, we are considering the mass manufacturer, who gets heavy discounts; around 2-3 USD/euros per yard/meter. This would mean we’re still at a minimum of 10 euros for a jacket that hasn’t been cut out or sewn yet.

To keep to the manufacturing price of 14-20 euros, we’ll hypothesize that H&M buys fabric for 1 USD/euro a yard/meter. The hypothesis is realistic: there are serious questions about what mass clothing manufacturers pay their fabric suppliers. This price would bring the fabric cost for a single lined jacket to 5 USD/euros. Which leaves 9-15 for paying the people who operate the cutting machines, irons, and sewing machines… and for this jacket, the seamstresses who do the hand topstitching.

The Butterick pattern looks to have about 17 main pattern pieces minimum for the jacket (not counting the pockets), probably at least 5 interface pieces (lapels, collar, shoulders), and 7 or 9 lining pieces, depending on how they’re sewn. That’s a minimum of 29 pattern pieces to cut out – and for the seamstress on a sewing machine to keep track of and assemble properly. For those of you who have never sewn before, this is not a minor consideration since a properly-constructed item of clothing needs to have the fabric facing the right way – you can’t just sew things together any which way; fabrics have right sides and wrong sides, and pattern pieces also have to match up at certain points (seams, darts, pockets, lapels, collars) in order for them to look right.

We can pretend that the cutting costs are negligeable, which they aren’t, but you’ll soon see why I’m pretending this drastic reduction. We can also estimate that it takes two hours for a manufacturing line of seamstresses, each doing a different section or sections, to assemble a jacket. (I am purposefully overlooking investments in thread, scissors/blades, lights, oil, and needles to simplify.) A theoretical 4 minutes per piece, without rest breaks, without making any mistakes, without any needle or thread breakage, without any machine troubles. As seen earlier, we had 9-15 USD/euros remaining – that works out to 4.50 to 7.50 USD/EUR an hour. US federal minimum wage is 7.25 USD/hour. We’re not doing too badly, if H&M paid 20 per jacket, and apart from all the assumptions of bare minima.

Except there hasn’t been any hand topstitching yet. This jacket had topstitching all around the front hems, from bottom side seam, around the lapels, to bottom side seam. We’ll really theorize now, and assume it took half an hour for a single seamstress to do, which is realistically quick.

While things may still seem borderline decent, in fact, I didn’t point out earlier that the H&M jacket also has decorative orange-red tape around the lining sewn in, and that the jacket has clearly been ironed. We didn’t figure in the extra cost of that orange-red tape, sewing it in, and, additionally, the time to iron in the interfacing while that was being put in, which is to say, before the finished product was ironed. We can imagine that the finished jacket was steam-ironed, but interfacing can’t be ironed that way; it needs direct contact from a heavy, flat, hot iron. Hopefully readers have also noticed another missing bit – buttons and buttonholes.

As you can see, it just doesn’t add up. Someone, probably several people, were not paid fair wages in order to create this jacket, no matter which country they live in.

5 responses to “Shopping with a sewer’s eyes”

  1. Marianne Says:

    Here, here! Sharing on my Facebook.

  2. Ann V. Says:

    You are ethically spot on in this observation. For a peek inside the whole world of manufacturing that could distract you for weeks, take a look at the Fashion Incubator site. The writer reminds me a lot of you, similar voice. Hope you enjoy it.

    Glad I found your blog again.
    Ann, San Dimas

  3. fraise Says:

    Thank you for the link, Ann – I wasn’t familiar with that site, it looks great!

  4. Anon Says:

    This is very interesting – thank you. Congratulations also on the Masters and the kitten!

  5. foxglove Says:

    C’est horrible!

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