When are clothes too expensive?

One of the things that gives me a lot of satisfaction about my classes, is the moment when students start to realise how much skill and work goes into making clothes and doing alterations.

It’s probably only since the 1970′s and 80′s that we’ve lost touch with the many skills of making.  Most people in the UK educated before then probably learnt how to sew at school (at least the girls did!).  OK, so I’m not suggesting we go back to the days of girls doing domestic science and boys doing woodwork, but to regain that knowledge and that appreciation of workmanship would do us good.

Earlier this year while watching the most recent of Mary Portas’ many and varied activities; the Channel 4 series “Mary’s Bottom Line” (where she attempted to revive garment and textile manufacturing in the suburbs of Manchester through the production of knickers) it felt like she’d been inside my head and made a TV series about the things that regularly set me off on a rant!  The Mary Portas project needed to sell their knickers for £10 per pair in order to cover their costs and make a bit of a profit.  Compare this to Primark where they sell for probably around £2?

Since the opening of China’s textile markets, the real terms price we pay for clothing in the last couple of decades has dropped, whereas the price of many other things has risen.  Without getting too bogged down in the detail, part of the reason for this is the removal of textile and clothing quotas by the WTO (World Trade Organisation), to enable a truly open and transparent market.  An admirable action in itself, however, while markets adjust one effect has been the flooding of our market with cheap imports and the inability of domestic markets to compete.  The consequence being; a loss of jobs, businesses and crucially – skills.  Once skills have been lost it can take decades to get them back again.  I’m not an advocate of protectionism, but I do believe in the power of educating consumers.

Now maybe the tide is turning.  Cotton prices started to rise at the end of 2010, reaching new highs driven by climatic conditions and rising demand in places like China and India, in fact India issued an export ban earlier this year.  In China there is a rapidly expanding middle class and workers are beginning to demand more rights, higher pay and better working conditions (and rightly so).  But all this means that the big high street retailers over here will have to start paying higher wholesale prices to their overseas partners.  The people in charge at said high street retailers won’t be absorbing this increase, they’ll be passing it on to us.  The days of cheap disposable fashion are coming to an end, maybe not in the next 5 or maybe even 10 years, but I believe beyond then it will become unsustainable.

So, when you’re browsing the rails of an independent retailer and you see a frock for £120 and your first reaction is; “what a rip-off I could make it myself for less than that”.  Stop and really think for a second, perhaps you could make a single dress for yourself, but……to be paid for within the price of each item of clothing for sale in a shop are the following:

  • fabric (which in turn includes raw materials, weaving or knitting, printing, dyeing, amongst many other processes)
  • thread
  • components such as zips and buttons
  • the cost of researching and developing an original design
  • pattern cutting and pattern grading
  • skilled workers to sew the garment together
  • distribution
  • overheads for retail premises
  • marketing and selling.

It’s a lot to cover isn’t it?

If you’re interested enough to find out more, you’ll find a lot of information on these websites:

http://www.ethicalfashionforum.com/   http://www.labourbehindthelabel.org/   http://makeitbritish.co.uk/

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