This is a post about fabric, similarities and differences between cultures and the real cost of fashion.
In 2008, I had the extraordinary opportunity to visit Laos through my work with MCC. Part of my experience there was a village stay where we lived in cool stilt houses, ate brown sticky rice, and saw women weaving. They set up their looms beneath their houses where it’s cool and wove these extraordinary pieces of fabric. You can see the weaver wearing a skirt called a “sinh” made from this weaving. It’s essentially a wrap skirt.
I bought three lengths and when we got back to Vientiane, I had a seamstress down the street from my hotel sew it into a sinh for me. What makes a sinh unique is that it’s not a length of fabric like most wrap-skirts, it’s a tube with two hooks. This unique design allows you to sit on the ground while wearing the skirt and still be completely modest. It stays up, is safe to wear in the wind, is totally adjustable as you gain or lose weight (the story of my life) and looks fabulous. Women and girls in Laos wear these every day, all the time.
Fast-forward to this year. My globe-trotting cousin Sonja and her family spent spring break in Central America, including Guatemala, where she snapped a photo of women in the market selling “faldas” – 6-8 meters of woven fabric which is wrapped around and then double pleated on one side and secured with a woven belt. (This is similar to an Indian sari, which is also a length of fabric, pleated and then tucked into a slip worn underneath.) When I saw the photos I asked her to bring me one and she did.
I decided that even if I learned how to wrap and pleat a falda, I’d never trust myself to wear it without it falling off of me, so instead I found a Thai seamstress here in Abbotsford and asked her to sew it into a sinh, which she did.
Here’s the true cost of fashion part. In Laos, I bought the lengths of weaving for about $5 a length. The seamstress costs, if I remember correctly, were about $15, so I had three skirts for $20. The seamstress there seemed to be making a decent living from her work. Sonja didn’t charge me for the falda (but I do remember her telling me that it was very inexpensive – under $10). I don’t know if the women in the market are making a living wage selling their wares or not, something I’d be curious to find out. The seamstress here in Abbotsford charged me $75 for taking this Guatemalan falda and turning it into a Laotian sinh.
And there it is: the true cost of fashion. It took the seamstress here about 3 hours to copy the pattern of my Laotian sinh and turn the Guatemalan falda into a sinh. She took the left-over fabric into a scarf for me. So basically, her work came to $25/hour. I make about that doing my job as a writer for MCC. Still, I swallowed pretty hard when she told me how much it was going to cost.
Remember me? Thrift Shopper? The person who looks for deals all the time? What the heck am I doing paying $75 for a skirt? The thing is, I know I’m going to wear this to death. I’ve been wearing my Laotian sinh year-round for 5 years and it’s still in great shape – I’ll probably get at least another 5 years out of it. This falda/sinh is just as practical, comfortable and beautiful and if I wear it for 10 years or more, I will certainly get my money’s worth. The kicker is getting past the “oh my gosh that’s expensive!” feeling on the front end when you’re forking over the bucks.
But after the things I’ve pondered in the aftermath of the Bangladesh garment building collapse and the high cost of cheap fashion, I realized that I really do need to put my money where my mouth is. Shopping thrift and supporting charities by doing so is one step. Paying someone the true value of their work is another.
What do you think? Did I spend too much for this skirt?