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Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline

As a spinner and a knitter and, now, a weaver (more on that later), I know something about the labor involved in making a piece of clothing.  It’s significant, in the way getting a college degree is significant.  Ignoring the fact that I start after the sheep has been fed and sheared, or the plant grown and harvested, the fiber has to be washed, cleaned and combed.  This takes days to do.  Then it has to be spun into singles, which then have to be plied with other singles to make yarn.  My handspun yarn is always a two ply because of the sheer amount of labor, but commercial yarns vary between two ply and eight ply.  Then, the yarn has to be turned into fabric.  Knit fabric, by hand, is very labor intensive.  A single plain sock can take twelve hours of knitting time, depending on the gauge of the fabric and the speed of the knitter.  Woven fabric is a little faster, but then has to be cut and sewn and fashioned into a garment.  There can be a lot of variation of labor there there, depending on the quality and complexity of the garment.

And yet, we can go into a mall and buy a cheap t-shirt for less than $15. Elizabeth Cline, a journalist turned book writer, seeks to answer how we got there and why that’s a bad thing. Overdressed begins with a history of the fashion industry and moves into the current state of it today, covering the economics behind why all of our clothes have Made in China and Made in India labels on them and why it’s so damn hard to buy a dress that’s not made of polyester.

In addition to the lesson in economic history, Kline makes an argument that the end result of this more-is-less sort of mentality is that we now have a worldwide cheap fashion market that’s environmentally unsustainable.  We throw out our clothes instead of fixing them.  We ship cloth around the world to cheap labor countries.  The amount of diesel used in this alone is staggering.  The clothes are then sewn together as cheaply as possible, sacrificing artistry for profit, then shipped out all over the world.  It is the opposite of the localvore movement. It’s also nearly impossible to escape as a casual consumer.  So, Kline asks us not to be casual consumers, to buy less and more critically, to honor the process by which a shirt gets into our closets and to value it for the resource that it is.

Several years ago, on Facebook, I asked my Facebookerrati where a good place to source ethical clothing was.  I didn’t get a single response; an unusual thing among my crowd. No one knew, even though my list is filled with the sort of hyperintellectual lefties who should know these sorts of things.  These are the same people that know the farms that their vegetables come from and drive hybrid vehicles and wouldn’t use a plastic bag if their life depended on it.  But there was a wide ignorance about the global fashion market, even though every one of us reaches for many of its products every morning.  Overdressed attempts to fill in this knowledge gap and Kline does a good job.  As a fiber person, it rings particularly true, but it’s a book that everyone should learn from before grabbing that next pair of two dollar nylon socks.
Above all, she finally answers my question. How do you ethically shop for clothing in a sustainable way? At last, I have my answer.


Genre: nonfiction
Subjects: clothing, history, trade

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