A stitch in time
When it's so difficult to find ethical clothes on the high street, maybe it's time to sew your own. Jane Turner looks at sewing machines.
Mahatma Gandhi declared that the Singer sewing machine "was one of the few useful things ever invented" because it was a labour-saving device which did not put people out of work and tended to a primary need. In these days of the global sweatshop, maybe it's time that we considered being more self-sufficient when it comes to clothing.
Our clothes are mainly made in factories in the developing world where labour and production costs are low and governments are less likely to regulate working conditions than in the UK. In such sweatshops, wages are low, hours are long, conditions are often unsafe, unions may be banned and child labour may be used. These sort of conditions exist in sweatshops in the West as well.
One way to avoid sweatshop labour is to buy from Fairtrade suppliers such as People Tree or Bishopston Trading (see our Alternative Clothes Directory on the website for more suppliers). These clothes are not available on the high street but by mail order. Another solution is to make your own using a sewing machine.
Most of the companies on the table specialise in making sewing machines &emdash; the Swiss Bernina, the Swedish VSM Group, Janome from Japan and the US Elna International. The exceptions are the car company Toyota (part of a larger Japanese grouping), Brother, the Japanese company more famous for its printers and Kohlberg & Co, a US investment company which recently bought the bankrupt Singer company.
None of the companies had a code of conduct for workers' rights at supplier companies and only two companies, Brother and Toyota, produced environmental reports. All the Alert marks on the table are for operations in tax havens.
A sewing machine can be powered by hand, treadle or electric motor. All the modern machines are electric and can come with high-tech, computerised bells and whistles. But even if your electricity comes from a renewable source, a greener option would be a hand or foot-powered (treadle) machine. You'll have to get these second-hand. Treadle machines have the added bonus of giving your legs a good workout.
Once you've got a sewing machine you'll need some fabric. Here is an opportunity to minimise your clothing's impact on the environment. Synthetic fabrics such as polyester and nylon are made from non-renewable petrochemicals, use vast amounts of water and energy to make and take a very long time to biodegrade.(1) Even cotton may not be as natural as it seems. It is the world's most pesticide-sprayed crop. Many of the pesticides used are organophosphates, acutely toxic nerve poisons.(1)
Luckily, it is possible to get hold of organic, natural fabrics. We found three suppliers on the internet:
- Greenfibres Freepost LON 7805, Totnes, Devon TQ9 5ZZ, Tel: 01803 868001
Organic cotton flannel (£13.30 a metre) and denim and linen. £3.00 fabric swatch card available.
- Textiles from Nature 84 Stoke Newington Church Street, London N16 0AP, Tel 020 7241 0990
£15 a metre for flannel, bedlinen and denim. £3.00 swatchbook available, refunded against first order.
- NearSea Naturals US-based company selling organic fabric and also organic thread, natural and recycled buttons, organic elastic and trims. $9 a yard for cotton flannel.
Out with the old?
If you're getting rid of a sewing machine, we found three projects that send them to poorer countries.
Tools for Self Reliance (TFSR) helps grassroots development projects in Africa by providing refurbished hand tools and sewing machines. TFSR volunteers around the United Kingdom ship tools worth more than £500,000 each year to partner organisations in Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Mozambique, Sierra Leone and Ghana. From the Orkneys to the Channel Islands, there are nearly 70 groups refurbishing tools and 100 tool collection points.
They only send machines that can be repaired and will have a long life. Spares for round-bobbin manual Singer sewing machines are the only ones commonly available in Africa. Any brand of modern electric machine is useful, but old electric machines should be round-bobbin Singers.
Contact TFSR for the latest list of local groups and collection points in the UK. Some local groups with websites are listed on the main TFSR website.
The Tools for Self Reliance main office is at: Netley Marsh Workshops, Netley Marsh, Southampton SO40 7GY
Tel: 02380 869697
Workaid is a UK-based charity set up in 1986 to tackle poverty in developing countries. It supplies second-hand tools and equipment to approved training projects, mostly in East Africa. Donated equipment is sent to a wide range of training and income-generating schemes run by schools, polytechnics, churches, women's groups, and self-help groups for disabled people, HIV/AIDS sufferers and refugees. Sewing and knitting machines enable women to set up small businesses at home and typewriters are used to teach secretarial skills.
Its operation is concentrated in Kenya and Uganda, where it works in partnership with local NGOs which assess projects and distribute donated goods.
In 2003, Workaid sent 440 tool kits, 846 sewing machines, 148 knitting machines, 901 typewriters and 25 duplicators to 150 projects in Albania, Eritrea, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, the Philippines, Romania, Serbia, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, the UK, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
It currently has good stocks of sewing machines, but it also needs all kinds of haberdashery - reels of cotton, zips, bindings, buttons, lace trimmings, lengths of fabric, etc. Check it again in a few months' time to see if it needs any more sewing machines.
Workaid, Unit 2B, St. George's Industrial Estate, White Lion Road, Amersham, Buckinghamshire HP7 9JQ
Tel: 01494 765506, Fax 01494 765507
Tools with a Mission is an independent, interdenominational Christian charity which sends new and refurbished tools all over the world.
Tools With A Mission, Unit 3, Perry Barn, Burstall Lane, Sproughton, Ipswich, Suffolk IP8 3DJ
Tel: 01473 652029, Fax: 01473 652113
1 Textiles from Nature July 2004