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Wearing Me: A Tale of T-Shirts

I bet you own a t-shirt. Depending on your various beliefs and their translations into your shopping tendencies, it comes from one of a few places. Here are the generalized options: you’re cool, it’s from American Apparel, non-union but fair labor, US made; you’re meticulous and moneyed, it’s union; you don’t think about that shit, it’s from somewhere, your mom got it for you, it’s in the nebulous realm of “supervised” international labor, or it’s flat-out sweatshop made, either in the US, US territories, or internationally; you’re too cool to think about that, it’s from the thrift store, which means it’s a cast-off of one of the above shoppers, depending on the neighborhood and sourcing policy of the thrift store. Statistically, unless your focus is fierce and your dedication unwavering, you’ve got a sweatshop t-shirt somewhere in your wardrobe.

Sweatshop is a troubling word. Mostly, it gets used to leverage consumer power toward more humane labor practices in global capitalism. When American consumers think or talk about sweatshops, we feel both bad about our consumption habits and disempowered. We may learn and feel outraged, listen and discuss, or try to shop smarter. Usually, we settle back into our ignorance as quickly as we can.

The conditions of this ignorance are more interesting than the realities it aims to ignore. Obvious injustice needs simply to be rectified, not explored. It cannot be rectified, however, if we can’t see or understand our own experience within the system, not as guilty consumers but as one part of a complex equation. Our relationships to the objects of our everyday lives are fundamentally part of this equation, and often go unexplored. Take your t-shirt, for example. Even if you didn’t need to look at the tag to find out where it was made, what else do you know about it?

Industrial t-shirt on the left, author's t-shirt on right. Photo by Ellie Krakow
Industrial t-shirt on the left, author's t-shirt on right. Photo by Ellie Krakow

Clothes are the objects we keep closest to us. We use them to cover and reveal ourselves, to become and articulate who we are and how we feel. Sometimes they make us feel guilty, happy, lovely, ugly. I drastically changed my relationship to clothes after working at a major corporate retailer. Being an agent of the system, however disinterestedly, made me want to sever myself from it completely. I stopped buying sweatshop clothes, and eventually decided to wear only clothes I make myself.

This decision has taught me a number odd and interesting things about clothes and how we think about them in late capitalist America. The most surprising thing I’ve learned has to do with t-shirts. Of all the garments I have made and worn, from winter coats to blue jeans, bathing suits to party dresses, people remain most impressed with my ability to make a t-shirt.

T-shirts are not difficult to make, even for a beginner. They are made of four pieces and trim, usually out of knit cotton or cotton blended with synthetic. Knit cotton is perhaps the most forgiving fabric on the planet. If you have a basic sense of form and a healthy sense of adventure, you can cut freehand. Otherwise, you can use a standard pattern or an old shirt cut apart at the seams, and create variations. One advantage to t-shirt structure is that you can easily guess what effect any change in the pattern will have on the finished garment. If you want a boxier look, you cut the body wider. If you want the sleeves shorter—you get the idea. At this point I can make two-three t-shirts an hour, if I cut them simultaneously and don’t have to change my sewing machine’s thread color. You can make a t-shirt with very little knowledge of the body, of patternmaking, of sewing. It is a forgiving form made of forgiving materials. Many of the people who make t-shirts are doing so in degraded conditions for very little, if any, pay.

I was initially insulted that people were impressed with my ability to make such a simple garment. If poor and exploited laborers without basic rights could make them for long hours in windowless rooms, shouldn’t I, with my American privilege and pleasant studio, be able to figure it out? Did people think so poorly of me that making a t-shirt seemed as though it would be an indomitable task?

I have since overcome my insult with curiosity. Clearly, no one thought this was a matter of my limited capabilities. There is something particular about t-shirts that makes making them seem impossible, whereas jeans and dresses do not have this special quality.

What I have come up with is this. T-shirts are our base, our basic clothing item. They are also one of the most deeply industrialized garments we wear. Designer t-shirts, though they do exist, are less popular, than, for instance, designer shoes. It is hard to make a really fancy, recognizably elite t-shirt. This is why “designer t-shirt” often means a regular t-shirt with designer’s name or logo emblazoned on it—it’s the only way to distinguish it, since there are few details of structure or fabric to alter before the t-shirt stops being a t-shirt and becomes a blouse. There is no detailing. They are an invention of industrialized society. Knit fabrics as we know them today are virtually impossible to make without machines. They would require knitting needles the size of pins, and take years to make a yard or two. With machines, however, knits can be made quick and dirty. And they are—cotton pesticide practices are an ecological as well as human disaster, as are dyeing practices. T-shirts are the garment that most reveals our alienation from craft, from practice. Button-downs used to be made by tailors, and we can imagine them being pieced together thoughtfully to the specific measurements of a specific human, even if ours are made with elasticized fabric and gap at the buttons when we move. Trousers, likewise, have a history of being made before they were manufactured. But t-shirts are purely industrial, a product not only of the mechanization of making but of the informality of the culture born of the American industrial empire.

Because of this, making a t-shirt doesn’t seem like the simple cut-and-sew job it is. Industrialization has made us stupid about the object-world we inhabit. We can no longer look at something and guess whether it would be easy or hard to make, whether it requires immense skill or the simplest, barely skilled, steps. We mostly inhabit a world we think of as pre-existent. We see objects in non-human terms. When confronted with a computer, a clock, a shoe, a t-shirt, we can barely remember, even if we work hard at it, that though we didn’t make it—and maybe couldn’t even imagine how to if we tried—somebody did. Someone, somewhere, made what you’re wearing now. Someone being paid to do it (or not paid, depending on how unlucky they happen to be in the grand scheme of globalized capitalism) has touched what you touch, has changed it from raw materials to the object you use, by making.

That this kind of making predominates in our lives means that we measure all other making by it. The skill of an individual is measured by the physical ability to make something look as though it was manufactured rather than made, to make something precise and without discrepancies or variations. Visible signs of human involvement are perceived as lack of skill, which the maker would avoid if at all possible. The t-shirts I make are impressive to people because it’s almost impossible to tell they’re made by a person. The visual slippage between them and manufactured t-shirts is so slight it is unnoticeable. The seams are a little different, in that they’re single rather than double topstitched on the sleeve hem, when I bother to hem at all. I often don’t topstitch the shoulders, whereas most manufacturers do. I don’t use an overlock machine or elastic thread, a difference that causes tiny buckling along the seams, a difference that only the most engaged and astute observer would notice, and on a whole, we don’t consider what we or anyone else wears with that kind of attention. There is an incremental amount of friction between the t-shirts I make and the sea of mass-produced visual homogeneity which is our collective wardrobe, but it goes largely unseen. This is what makes the t-shirts impressive.

This system of valuation asks the maker to be invisible, and is another reason I felt disgruntled by people’s responses to my made t-shirts, especially as compared to their responses to my other made clothes. A desire for made objects to deny they are made, to show no traces of the hand or mind engaged in their making, denies the maker’s right to existence and creativity. It negates the individuality that manifests in the made object. It asks us to erase ourselves.

Or perhaps it doesn’t ask but demands. When I became an expression of my own mind and hands, by being entirely visually determined what I imagined and made for myself, I felt suddenly invisible. I could no longer participate in constructing my identity from the proffered elements of consumerism, the collective visual language of my peers, cobbled together from advertising and our responses to it and the visual identities of the varied places from which we’ve come.

Being able to tweak a visual persona to give us the necessary emotional perspective for different circumstances is something we become practiced at in consumer culture. We become fluent in the complex language of our visual landscape, of our place and community. We learn not only from advertising but from each other. I didn’t recognize the importance of gauging and responding to this visual language until the ability to do so was no longer available to me. Before I began making my own clothes, there were no physical impediments to my use of this language, whether I wanted to look relaxed or on a mission, hot or cool.

When I started making my clothes, there were insurmountable physical impediments to my navigation of these once easy and often subconscious decisions. My skills limited my options. The first pair of pants I made had “a bag for a butt,” an opinion a friend didn’t share with me then but has disclosed since I began making pants that look more like pants. What I made had no place in the visual vocabulary of my place and time. My clothes were no longer legible signifiers. I didn’t know how to write my identity with the language I now had, which no one else could read or speak. I was in a little well of visual silence, speaking a language I invented as I went, trying to bolster my emotional states so that they didn’t need the aid of visual expression. I didn’t know what to wear if I had a crush on a co-worker, if I was hanging out with friends, if I wanted to feel confident at an art opening. Feeling hot became impossible, as did feeling cool.

A huge aspect of my visual identity before I began making my clothes was nonchalance, a genuine expression of indifference toward trends and appearances. I had an air of not-caring, perhaps as the dominant meaning of my visual expression. I was never earnest about my clothes. It’s much harder, I discovered, to be detached and indifferent toward a pair of pants you’ve made than a pair of pants you’ve bought, particularly if it took you three tries to get the fly right and two full days of labor to make them wearable. There’s nothing detached or nonchalant about that amount of effort, no possible way to deny the earnestness of such an endeavor. The ease and indifference I could infuse into my visual identity when I merely had to choose what to wear has been replaced with the involvement of the act of making, which is so rarely effortless.

Buying is about choosing, and in consumer culture, choosing is at least in part about advertising. The effort of making is one particularly anathema to advertising. Advertising is about desire and the fantasy of its fulfillment. It relies on creating desire for objects which actually exist, usually by linking them to an identity you wish you had. If you respond to an advertisement for a pair of shoes, chances are you’ll want that pair of shoes because of how the advertisement made you feel about them, and chances are, if you’ve got the cash, you can get the shoes.

Not so with making. What we set out to make, what we desire to make, is never what we end up with. Inherent in the making process is change. Consider the example of the t-shirt. The difference between the t-shirt I make and the manufactured t-shirt, much more than any physical difference, is that while I am making it, it can change. I am allowed to engage my mind in the process of making. I can spontaneously lengthen the sleeves, add shape to the side-seams, make a pocket, entirely by my own choice, at any point along the way. Unlike the factory or sweatshop worker, I can allow the product to be a surprise. The desire it is created to fulfill is engaged in its making, and can therefore change with it.

The desire involved in making is never fulfilled by obtaining its object but is instead transformed. What we make is guided jointly by our initial desire and the process of making, which includes not only our minds, subject to change, but all the problems we have to solve along the way, the surprises of human error and material inconsistency. What we imagine changes through the process of making, and thus what fulfills our desires is usually different than what sparked them.

This is not the case for desires sparked by advertising and filled by consumption. In that scenario, we see, we get, and we either feel fulfillment or not, but we are never surprised or changed by the cycle. The step in which the desire itself has space to transform has been short circuited. By the time we notice desire, we already know what we’re going to get. When we make things, the opposite is true.

This is possibly why grassroots movements against capitalism often have an aesthetic of the made. Not choosing from the proffered options means we want more, we are willing to build it ourselves. It means that even though you reject something, you’re willing to put yourself, your mind and hands, to the task of renewal. As the economic times get tougher and we begin to question the cycles that lead us from high to low, I hope we will also examine and re-evaluate our relationships with the made things in our lives. Perhaps, disappointed by the options being offered, more of us will make things for ourselves. Making things is a way to show our humanity, break the surface of our image, and reveal ourselves to one another. It is how we show our hand.


Rebecca Armstrong

Rebecca Armstrong is a writer. She sometimes makes t-shirts.


The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2009

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