Story N˚4: The ILGWU and garment workers’ rights

Recently, I was altering a piece of clothing that turned out to be vintage.  What made it vintage for me, more than the style, were the finishing stitches. The construction looked thoughtfully done, and there was extra stitching to make the garment more secure- this helps it last longer.   I don’t know when it was made, probably in the ’50s or ’60s, but inside the garment, I discovered a tiny tag:  International Ladies Garment Workers Union.  And, one of my favorite things to see on a tag: “Made in U.S.A.”

clothing tag measures 7/8"x1 1/8" (2cm x 3cm)
clothing tag measures 7/8″x1 1/8″ (2cm x 3cm)

I don’t see anything like this on clothes tags today. It led me to wonder if there are any garment workers’ unions left. According to wikipedia, this union (ILWGU) was formed in 1900, and was active and growing in its first decade. The union was designed to improve “workers’ wages, working conditions, and hours” (see link below). The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and its workers were key players at that time in the fight between unions and companies. The fire that killed 146 of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory workers in 1911, sparked the push toward safety and compensation laws for workers. The fire was so deadly because the company had locked the doors of the factory, so that no one could leave without permission. Those who died were mostly young immigrant women who either burned to death or jumped to their deaths to avoid the flames. Today marks 104 years since this tragedy. And although U.S. garment worker unions are weak today, they allowed for necessary change to improve the U.S. working conditions that have become the norm today.

This may seem far away, but there are present day events that show that the past problems of worker exploitation and dangerous work conditions are far from resolved. The Rana Plaza tragedy in which over 1,000 garment workers were killed or terribly injured when the factory building collapsed, is a dramatic example. There are many other disasters like this, though, that occur frequently, but don’t make as much news. The following link gives a good overview, and there are many other good articles on the subject.

I share all of this to emphasize the importance of caring about where our clothing comes from and who is making it.  No matter where in the world they live, skilled laborers should be proud of their craft and valued for their important contribution. After all, there is no one in our society who doesn’t need clothes!

The lyrics to the below song (written in the ’70s) sum up the ideal garment worker situation,

“The Union’s “Look for the Union Label” song went as follows:

Look for the union label
When you are buying a coat, dress, or blouse,
Remember somewhere our union’s sewing,
Our wages going to feed the kids and run the house,
We work hard, but who’s complaining?
Thanks to the ILG, we’re paying our way,
So always look for the union label,
It says we’re able to make it in the USA!”

“The Garment Worker (1984) by Judith Weller was commissioned by the ILGWU and the Public Art Fund, and donated to the City of New York. It is on permanent display outside 555 Seventh Avenue, between West 39th and 40th Streets in the Garment District of Midtown Manhattan. It portrays a garment worker at a sewing machine and is intended as a reminder of the role of the ILGWU’s members in making New York one of the garment and fashion centers of the world.”




Story N˚3: The Blue Wonder

I think it was 1990. I was in my last year of high school. My two best friends since the 4th grade brought over a polyester bell-bottom jumpsuit in a crazy 70’s print. Tab collar, zipper front, cuffed sleeves. They had bought it for $1.00!
This jumpsuit turned into my disco costume through college, and then my Halloween costume through the years. For disco dancing, I would curl and feather my hair. I had cork soled platforms and blue eyeshadow up to my eyebrows. The look was so perfect, my jumpsuit was dubbed the Blue Wonder by a fellow disco dancer.
A few years ago, a good friend gave me an Afro wig to wear with my jumpsuit and platform sandals. I added some cheap gold necklaces and high-sheen lip gloss to turn it up a few notches.

I wore this version to the Greenwich Village Halloween parade last October. It’s still fantastic and in the exact same shape as it was 25 years ago. That’s one of the down sides to polyester- it will last forever, but due to our consumerist habits, it is piling up in our landfills. The true upside is that it can be recycled from broken down plastics into fibers. Polyester fibers have improved in quality for textiles since the 1970’s. The original stuff, my jumpsuit for example, wasn’t as comfortable or attractive, and definitely not breathable. Today, polyester is spun into microfibers that have a texture so fine and beautiful, they are easily confused with silks. Sometimes I have to smell a fabric to know if it’s a natural fiber or not. (Polyester fabrics have that toxic, plasticky smell.)

The above reasons are why I don’t buy polyester-based clothing, but I’m holding on to my Blue Wonder.  It’s proven to be a trusty get up!

circa 1995
Halloween 2014
Halloween 2014

Story N˚2: Woven in Argentina

Back in Argentina, 2005. I wanted to explore Buenos Aires for the first time, and revisit my beloved Córdoba and friends there. It was a mild, but rainy winter that July. The city intimidated me.  I watched the elegantly urban women pass by. I wandered around in my geeky red walking shoes, blue jeans and turtlenecks- nothing I felt good in, as in beautiful. I think ‘quirky-oblivious’ was the running theme of my style (still trying to shake that look).bsas01

The Americans in my hotel thought I was Argentine. They would ask me questions, testing out their Spanish. I was flattered, and determined not to blow my cover. The porteños (Buenos Aires natives) were on to me, though. Not feeling totally Argentine (‘cause I’m not) and not feeling very American, topped with an acute shyness left me rather lonely in that city. But when I got to Córdoba, and began recognizing places, and meeting people, I felt very much myself- a lone woman adventurer. Córdoba is much more manageable and endearing to me than Buenos Aires, simply because it was home for nearly two years. I quickly learned where to jump on and off the colectivo (city bus) again.
I revisited the downtown where I had poked in for yarn ten years earlier. Street performers, musicians, mothers and daughters shopping together, elderly folks feeding pigeons from the park bench, toy vendors, empanadas and alfajores! This is where I first encountered sycamore and eucalyptus trees- both have bark patterns which enthrall me.
One of the best parts of my visit was going to the street fair downtown. Every kind of artisanal craft available: jewelry from seeds, horn and Argentinian stones, gourds carved into mates and sugar bowls, hand-stamped leather wallets and belts, glass lanterns wrapped in leaf prints. The twilight was magical with the lights and smells and flow of people. I overloaded myself with gifts for friends back home and thank-you trinkets for my hosts. And of course, something for myself- a woven hand bag in grey, blue and orange lines- that I still use ten years later. It is worse for wear, but I have to note how well it was made to have lasted this long.

wovenbagI passed through the city center once more before flying home. I popped into a shop that turned out to be another artisanal craft space. I saw a mannequin dressed in a rich blue top unlike anything I had ever seen. After trying it on I had to buy it; it’s one of those pieces I would regret not having. I believe I paid around $24, and the woman who made it said that I could come the next day and learn how to make the top using bias woven yarns. I do regret missing that class… I hope to replicate this top one day. It is my official Bohemian treasure- something I have only felt cool wearing, if for no other reason than for being such a unique piece. And Brooklyn is the perfect place to go Bohemian.



I am a clothesmaker and ethical fashion advocate in Brooklyn, NY. I have the opportunity to work with and be inspired by designers in the ethical fashion community who are making a difference in the way we experience clothing. In this community, there is a positive story about how a piece was made, how the company is giving back to people and the environment through their practices, and how we should care about what we wear. I believe in caring about what I wear, and making the best choices for, not only my style, but the people and world I live in- we are all connected. Why would I have clothing that I don’t completely love and trust? Why would I have pieces that don’t represent who I am and what my values are?

I am aware that this endeavor- an ethical wardrobe- is a process. Despite being committed to buying only clothing that is ethically sourced or second hand, I do have clothes in my closet from before that I can’t be proud of. The idea, though, is not to throw everything out (waste) and start from scratch. A better idea is to “use it up, wear it out”, and then to buy conscientiously until I can boast a closet full of ethical, sustainable, handmade, organic and natural fiber clothing- a thrilling prospect!

While I’m on this path, I want to tell the stories of the pieces I have that do honor my principles, my history and my eclectic style. I want to share the experience of clothing that shapes my life, and to bring importance to those things often taken for granted in our throw-away consumerist world.

Story N˚1

Story N˚1: Argentinian wool + Polish handicraft

In 1995, I served a mission for my church in Argentina. I was so happy to be sent overseas. Not only did I start to break down my U.S. ethnocentrism, I fell deeply in love with the Argentines and their culture.
As vast and diverse as it is geographically, the area of the central sierras and south along the Andes to Patagonia relies on warm knitted handicrafts. Sheep and wool production are thriving industries there. I saw many women taking their knitting projects wherever they went, often making an income on their skills and products. Many men are skilled knitters as well. I saw my first knitting machine run by a man proud of his own sweaters. I was amazed to learn that most of the sweaters and baby clothes my friends had were handmade by someone.
The town centers always have at least one major yarn shop. In downtown Córdoba, I remember a shop with floor to ceiling colorful skeins. I wasn’t a knitter then, but I couldn’t help going into every yarn shop I passed. I was mesmerized by the textures and colors. I ended up buying several skeins of a heathered mauve wool. I must have bought it promising myself to learn knitting, although I can’t remember what I thought I would make, perhaps baby clothes…
Back in the U.S., I packed those skeins around for roughly a decade, moving them from place to place through college and beyond. I made a few half-hearted attempts to learn to knit, but the skeins remained stashed in my ever growing pile of some-day projects.

Finally, I met a Polish woman, Eugenia, at work who is a crochet master. She was continuously creating adorable clothing for her granddaughters. I mentioned the yarn I was hoarding, and she jumped at the chance to turn it into whatever I wanted. I couldn’t believe my luck. I asked for a cap with ear triangles, a sleeveless sweater top and a scarf- I had that much yarn and then some. The resulting pieces weren’t as I imagined them, despite my notes and illustrations. The cap was a puffy beret with a strange ruffle and, yes, ear triangles. The crocheted top was also ruffling in an unflattering way. Polish crochet master and I clearly didn’t share the same vision. But the scarf, which was actually more like a shawl, turned out beautifully, and I still have a large skein of yarn left to adorn my stash. I didn’t appreciate Eugenia’s work until I moved to New York. Now the shawl is my cuddly wrap on cold nights. The merino wool is so warming and comforting, and I’m proud of its Argentinian origins and Polish crafts(wo)manship.

— Emily