Bleaching the Bobbins
Even though I didn’t know her very well, or forvery long, my grandmother gave me so much. My curly hair. My curvy silhouette. A collection of costume jewelry that would’ve been nothing for Coco Chanel to turn her nose up at, a guacamole recipe that I always add too much garlic too, and an old pine chest of pincushions, silks, laces, and velvets. (Image: Anna's grandmother)
The other things she gave me are things I’ve spent most of my life not knowing I had. In my blood flows little bits of the life and language and culture she never got to share with me. Speaking Spanish, even though I stumble over words and had to learn it in a classroom, not a kitchen, feels right. The staticky ranchera music from my boyfriend’s record player seems like it should have been floating on the air al
l along. Susan Alexandra’s CDMX-inspired collections seem sacred, and walking the streets of San Francisco? Second nature, as long as it’s Polk Gulch, Nob Hill, or the Mission.Never the Wharf. (Image: Orly Anan Studio for Susan Alexandra)
She also gave me fashion. My grandmother, who I called Nana, was a seamstress. In the early 1960s, after an honest-to-god coin flip decided where they would live, she and my grandfather went west, to San Francisco. This daughter of seasonal migrant workers from Mexico who had harvested produce for Goodyear farms and made a home at what was then called Camp 51 in Litchfield Park moved into an apartment in the Richmond District and spent my father’s childhood not looking back. No Spanish at home, none in the neighborhood. The only place where she spoke it was the factory floor.
She worked for Bill and Geri Ross, Jewish immigrants from Austria who supervised a floor of— predictably— all women. As a a first generation Mexican American, m
y grandmother was a rarity— the rest of the labor force was made up of immigrants from elsewhere in South America. My father tells me El Salvador was well represented.
About a month ago I was listening to a lecture on how the garment manufacturing process really hasn’t been fundamentally changed since the invention of the sewing machine, and since then I’ve been thinking about my grandmother and the factory a lot lately. But thoughts of her hold even more weight when I read the latest headlines, not only about the virus, but about the persistent problems in fashion’s global supply chains that just don’t seem to go away.
My grandmother was lucky. Until I made him tell me every last detail he could remember about it, my father jokingly called the factory a “sweatshop”, but she was. The owners were good-natured. They let him come in after school and sit on the benches lining the walls of the factory while his mom finished her work. They always said hello, and didn’t mind it one bit when my grandmother took him around to all of her coworkers’ sewing machines and told them proudly that he was her son. Many years later, my father says, my grandmother told him conspiratorially that when he didn’t come to meet her at work to go for a milkshake at Woolworth’s counter, my grandmother would sometimes convince the women she worked with to go out for drinks with her instead.
“What was Nana’s drink?” I asked my dad.
“Oh, honey, I don’t know. I think whatever the happy hour special was!” he told me with alaugh.(Image: sfgate.com. 1960’s Market Street in San Francisco, a block from the factory’s location. It has since been torn down.)
Their work wasn’t sold in stores they had never seen to people they would never know, it was just driven across town. The women took home the leftovers from bolts of fabric used to line jackets. My father struggled to recall the name of the pattern on the extra fabric that his mother used to line his jackets— it was paisley, he finally remembered.
I asked him how much she made, and whether she ever did custom work to make some extra money. He said he couldn’t remember exactly, but that his was by no means a single-worker household, since his mother’s earnings made a significant contribution to what my grandfather made at a private investigation firm. “And she never had another client besides me,” my father added smilingly. It’s no family secret my grandmother doted on my father, her only child.
Nana was lucky, I kept thinking while the Wall Street Journal broke the news that Nike, Adidas, H&M, Patagonia, and other western companies had factories in their supply chains that had tangles with China’s Uighur muslim work camps. She was lucky, I thought, when the New York Times reported that Fashion Nova’s factories were paying workers $4.66 an hour. She was lucky, I thought, when the same paper reported on how the fast fashion industry had congratulated itself for the measures it took after Rana Plaza, when those measures were just competitive trade agreements that broke down, signed by member brands that pulled out. I keep thinking she’s lucky as I read that these problems aren’t unique to fast fashion supply chains but exist in those belonging to luxury brands as well— Saint Laurent, Dior, and more have failed to make sure the Indian embroidery artisans they employ make atenthof what one of dresses they make is sold for in a month.
She was lucky and by extension I am lucky, so I applied to go to India and Bangladesh for the summer to work for nonprofits that support garment workers. Then the responses started rolling in. Yes, we’d like to have you, but no, we can’t. We have stopped accepting volunteers due to the spread of coronavirus. I don’t even know how to reply to these polite rejections.
Thank you for your quick response, I don’t know how you managed it, because I can’t imagine how terrifying it must feel to try to prepare the community you support for the impact of this pandemic when even under normal circumstances these workers face falsified criminal charges, physical abuse, are prevented from unionizing at every turn, have next to no guarantee that the factory they work at has passed basic fire safety inspections, don’t know whether or not they will be hired to help fill the latest order, and essentially, face the same sort of uncertainty every day that Americans are just this week learning to face. They, and you, are so brave.
I’ll send my resumé along again when this passes.
I began this article, not knowing where it would go, before I recognized what COVID-19 really was and what it meant. The global market has plunged as if from a cliff. Women’s Wear Daily reported experts predict the virus will strip away two year’s worth of our industry’s recent growth. Soon it will become clear that fashion has not experienced a change this great since the Industrial Revolution, when the sewing machinewas invented and implemented. It’s likely that the internet of things, artificial intelligence, blockchain, virtual reality, and 3D printing will come to play increasingly significant roles in the Business of Fashion, replacing ideas at the forefront yesterday and today. Fashion will be suddenly and forever changed.
I finished this article in my on-campus social isolation, having arrived at a sort of literary destination. I think the point is this. Just because this is overshadowing the industry’s other problems doesn’t mean those problems go away. Maybe, out all this destruction, there will come a new chance for fashion. Maybe out of our solitude will come a newfound creativity. As an industry, we’ll take a long hard look at everything we’ve done right, but also all the things we’ve done wrong. We’ll be forced to make changes. But we canchooseto make changes that will right those past wrongs.
We are all going to do some pretty awesome things. Maybe, and especially in the case of fashion students, the nature of some of those things is such that we will have to wait until next semester to start doing them. Perhaps some of us can do them from our laptops. A couple of things we can definitely do are vote with our online wallets, give our e-support to some pretty great fashion creatives and causes, and, just to keep morale up, maybe dress up without going out. Whatever you’re going to do, I challenge you to remember, and tell someone(it could even be me!) the story of what inspired you to enter this fabulous industry that I will never stop loving. Don’t forget you are lucky.
I was told over Zoom yesterday that the entire fashion studio was bleached, even the bobbins. I found that oddly inspirational. Years of studying fashion hone a dedication to individual details and the artistic ability to see what they mean for the bigger picture. That’s exactly what we need right now.
Keep bleaching the bobbins.