Archive for September, 2011

Mémoire soutenu

Posted in Education at 17:20

Ouf! I defended my Masters thesis today at noon. It lasted an hour, all in French (naturally), so I was kaput near the end. Overall, the jury – my thesis advisor and another comparative literature and anthropology professor – thought my research was original, well-done, and well-reasoned; the main critique was on the multiple directions I took (it was indeed difficult to pull together consistently). The “note” (grade) was 14/20, enough for a “mention bien” which is equivalent to our American magna cum laude, or “high honors”. Highest in France is “mention très bien”, the US summa cum laude, to which can also be added “avec les félicitations du jury” (literally, “with the jury’s congratulations”, while a better translation would be “with distinction”), and plain “honors” are “mention assez bien”, the US cum laude.

“Mention bien” is acceptable for a PhD, French doctorat, if I so wish. I would very much like that! However I had a rough time getting my Masters pulled together in a single year while working full time, and the two professors also recommended taking time to think about and prepare for doctoral studies before officially beginning them. In France, a doctorate is required to take 3 years of study/research/thesis writing; a fourth year can be added, but only under highly exceptional circumstances. In order to be able to work on a doctoral thesis properly, I would need to find funding for it. There are some scholarships and PhD funding sources available, so taking time off will allow me to delve into that more.

As I just told a friend elsewhere – it’s a bit like a write your own adventure!

Shopping with a sewer’s eyes

Posted in Crafts, Sewing at 14:46


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.

Heritage days

Posted in Education, La France at 21:17

Avenue Marius Raveu

Over this past weekend in France were held the journées du patrimoine, heritage days. Many museums and historical sites were open for free, and some had special tours. I once again sacrificed outings for my thesis, mainly because I’ve been to most of the places already, although I have yet to see the inside of the Villa Arson. Improving the French language in my thesis before printing it today was much more important, however! My defense is scheduled for next week – I am starting to feel more nervous, but also looking forward to talking about my research and writing.

After printing and binding my 155-page tome (volume), I went to deliver it, having taken the afternoon off to do just that. I got off a few bus stops too early, so decided to walk to the Université de Nice to deliver copies of my thesis to the two jury members’ mailboxes rather than take the bus. UNice, as it’s also known here (not spoken UNice, but written), has several campuses in Nice, as well as in Sophia Antipolis. For literature and languages, the faculté (college) is at Campus Carlone, located on a hill. I started at the Fabron musée d’art naïf and walked up a narrow road with switchbacks. It was nice, as it ended up being my own sort of heritage day! I had been unfamiliar with that part of Nice until now, and enjoyed visiting.

Above is a street plaque I crossed. I searched for Marius Raveu online, and found the best information gathered together in this French WWI history forum. Raveu flew bombing missions in WWI, was awarded the croix de guerre and continued as a civilian pilot afterwards, “beating several records”. He died in an airplane crash at the end of 1925.

I also passed a few beautiful villas, including one with gorgeous iris frescoes beneath the eaves (taken with my smartphone, so the quality isn’t great, but you can see their complexity by zooming in). I love these under-eave frescoes here.

Truth and evidence

Posted in Education at 14:52

One of the things that came up when writing my thesis was the immense amount of unsupported claims of goddess myths themselves being “unsupported”. In one case, Mircea Eliade went so far as to use a logical fallacy to support his claim that male gods had always ruled alone, and that women gods were secondary, if not entirely overestimated (emphasis is in the original): “we cannot deduce, from the presence of Paleolithic feminine figurines, the inexistence of worship for a divine male Being.”* It’s worth noting that this quote is in the context of a few meagre paragraphs brushing aside physical evidence of goddess worship, in the midst of Eliade’s book-long theory that male gods had reigned alone and supreme from the beginning of humankind. His statement is basically like saying, just because some people today worship a masculine god, doesn’t mean that a supreme spaghetti god doesn’t exist. But I digress. As a matter of fact, if I may be allowed a generalization that can be supported by reading any number of scholarly works on matrilineal societies from the Paleolithic to contemporary days, goddess worship went, and goes (it still exists), hand in hand with egalitarian values, in large part due to the idea of hieros gamos, sacred marriage between goddess and god. So yes, gods did exist, on an equal plane with goddesses. In all my readings, I have not yet found a single example of goddess-worshipping cultures that devalued or disempowered men. Every gender (many of these societies recognized more than two genders) was valued for its unique contribution to society. It was not utopia, but it was egalitarian.

There is a wealth of commentary that could be made on this; for now, I’d like to focus on two relatively simple factual examples that, in spite of their simplicity, dismantle two widely-held, widely-documented “truths” about the “evidence” for denigrating feminity (I specify “feminity” and not “women” because any man who has ever been targeted for “feminine” behavior knows that it doesn’t just affect women).

A statement you often hear when looking at goddesses (this is my paraphrase of a wealth of texts): “there may have been warrior goddesses and myths of warrior women, but there has never been an archeological find of women buried with war goods. Furthermore, there is a long history of women having lower status than men in warrior societies, so it seems their natural weakness prevails in historical fact.”

When you look at archeology, it so happens that in the vast majority of cases, bones are difficult to sex, and so archeologists revert to the rule of war goods equating to a man, and jewelry to a woman. Do you think that any women buried with war goods are ever going to be discovered that way? For a cite, look into Gender and the archeology of death, go to the preview and browse to p.90, in the chapter VIII article on “The Position of Iron Age Scandinavian Women” by Anne-Sophie Gräslund.

Thankfully we are in a world where things such as this are starting (just starting) to be questioned, and in July of this year (2011), the results of a study came out: Viking women buried with swords and shields. Some archeologists returned to a previously-excavated site where all remains had been sexed as male. They looked at the bones and… half of them were actually female. Women warriors existed, just as they exist now, in our own contemporary societies, where women are no longer forbidden from warfare. (I am not, by the way, endorsing warfare for either men or women. However, since it is so often used as an argument to “protect” women by reducing our rights, it is eye-opening to see that it’s based on smoke and mirrors – or rather, war goods versus jewelry.)

As for the “warrior societies” argument, in the cases I looked at, the statements all referred to Occidental societies in which women had been forbidden from scholarly education, independent careers, property ownership, inheritance – taken together, all of that equates to a state of having no wealth – and physical education. Any other cultures were ignored, such as the Iroquois, who were matrilineal, valued male and female contributions to society equally, and were warrior societies. (As a reminder, “Iroquois” is not a tribe but a league of first five, then six nations. There are also Iroqouian – linguistically related – tribes such as the Huron and Cherokee who shared similar beliefs and cultural characteristics.)

In essence, whenever you hear a “rule” about such-and-such category of people being “naturally” oppressed and having “no evidence otherwise”… look into the rules and assumptions that lead to those “truths”, because they are very often, if not always, biased and incomplete, whether by design or by ignorance. A few of the authors I read were clearly approaching their subjects with interest and a genuine desire to report what they found, but did not look beyond the findings, and so repeated information that had been deduced from faulty research methods.

*From Eliade’s “Mythes, rêves et mystères”, p.214. Translated from the French.

Tout va bien

Posted in Biographical, Education at 20:26

It’s been a long while since my last post. Thanks to all of you who patiently return to my site! As you can imagine, I’ve been busy working, whether at my job or on my Masters thesis.

I finished the bulk of my thesis a few days ago, and am now wrapping up translations of cites that were in English originally. Not an easy thing to do, since French is not my native language. I didn’t start learning it early enough to gain as much fluency as in English, beginning only at age 11. Just soon enough to have a good spoken accent, but not quite young enough to soak in an instinct for French phrasing. I really notice it in my French writing. Where in English I barely have to think twice, or when I do, it comes relatively easily and I know how and why, in French it’s a bit like pulling teeth. The demoralizing bit is that I can see that it doesn’t “read French”, but I don’t exactly know how to tidy it up.

My thesis defense will be sometime this month, in any case before the 30th since that’s the final deadline. Having picked a subject that I love, and having thoroughly enjoyed the research and writing, even when it gave me headaches, I’m actually looking forward to it. Oral presentations were my bugbear in youth, but having lived in three countries and fumbled around in several languages has served to wash away most of my embarrassment when speaking. Why worry about a subject I enjoy and discuss happily, when I can remember shopping in Finland on arrival and the only words I knew were “kiitos, kiitti, anteeksi”? (“Thank you, thanks, excuse me” respectively.) Why worry about mutual comprehension in a language I’ve spoken for decades when I can recall talking like a 2-year-old and entirely enjoying “discussions” I had in basic Mandarin Chinese with taxi drivers and artisans? Years of traveling have taught me the golden rule: try to speak their language, listen, and recognize that all humans know what it is to feel silly. Trust that they’ll relate, and the vast majority of the time, they will. Those who don’t, or who make you feel uncomfortable, are giving you valuable information – namely, to find someone else to speak with.

Life aside from my studies has been going very well too. I’m finally in a place where I’ve been able to start relaxing and enjoying the fruits of years of hardship and sacrifice. Where I can just sit in my adorable apartment with my adorable cat and enjoy life.