London Fashion Week is just ending. It’s not something I pay close attention to at all as I’m obviously not a dedicated follower of fashion; if you’ve met me you’ll know that the way I dress is almost 100% sale or second-hand, frequently with a subtle got-dressed-in-the-dark twist. But on Saturday I met someone who made me think hard about fashion and how little we, the end consumers, know about our clothes and how they are made.
I was running a mending event in Wiltshire when a man wandered over and picked up this piece of denim from my heap of scraps.
The scrap came from a pair of my youngest son’s cast-off Gap jeans. He’d successively holed, ripped, then outgrown those jeans, and I eventually cut them up for patchwork. This scrap now sits in a small cardboard suitcase of denim pieces which I lug to the Big Mend and back every month, just in case anyone wants a worn, soft denim patch to repair their jeans with.
The man looked closely at the scrap and, after a moment of scrutiny, said in a thick Middle-Eastern accent: “Yes. Sandblasted.”
He then went on to tell me that he had worked in a Turkish jeans factory in the 1990s, sandblasting garments to fade them fashionably. The work had damaged his lungs. Permanently. Living and sleeping in the sandblasting part of the factory (not unusual for migrant workers) hadn’t helped. He only retains about half his original lung function. It is not a reversible condition. Many of his co-workers and family members have died of the lung disease silicosis. Sandblasting is such a pernicious process that it was eventually banned in Turkey a few years ago. But the fashion for the worn jean continues, and so does sandblasting – but in other less regulated places, such as Bangladesh.
The fashion in the West for the pre-worn is curious. Why, when we can’t bear to allow our bodies to show any vestiges of age, do we want our clothes to look prematurely old? I can remember the time when all jeans were as stiff and unyielding as they were deep blue. You had to work at wearing them in, like a stout pair of leather boots or a Brooks bike saddle. Fading, similarly, was achieved only with time, wear and washing. But on the upside, in contrast to most of the ones you get today, your jeans lasted intact for years. I wondered if I’d imagined the former ruggedness of jeans (a kind of false denim-memory syndrome) until I found an old scrap of a pair I’d owned as a teenager. I’ve kept it, absurdly, in the materials lugged from home to home over the years – retained because it still bears my embroidery stitches (a bit of belated Flower Power). That denim is truly rugged. They really do not make them like that anymore.
That said, a few companies (like the Hiut Denim Company) now specialise in making robust denim jeans once again, jeans with a conscientious provenance too, but at a price. Perhaps this is the right price, the price free of needless exploitation and pointless disease. Very nice if you happen to have £130+ available to spend on jeans. But what about those who can’t afford it? What to do?
One thing is to learn to detect the sandblasted finish and simply not buy it. Should you even buy sandblasted jeans second-hand? A moot point. The charity shop can seem for clothes what the money-launderer is for immoral earnings, displacing the context, cleansing the sins of production. But, of course, it doesn’t really.
Another thing you can do is ask your favourite jeans manufacturer/s whether they still use sandblasted denim. If so, where has it come from?
And finally, you can consult one of the organisations working to eradicate sandblasting.
I felt rather humbled to learn so belatedly about the distress caused by those distressed jeans, to hear first-hand from a sufferer about the perils of sandblasted denim. It’s not the price I wanted anyone to pay, not for a pair of jeans.