Garment Work: unpicking the global garment industry

Anne Elizabeth Moore’s Garment Work unpicks the denim trade

Anne Elizabeth Moore: Garment Work, 2010, photo: Elizabeth White

Anne Elizabeth Moore: Garment Work, 2010, photo: Elizabeth White

The current resurgence of craft and hand making — especially among a new and often self-taught generation of makers — is often theorized as a contemporary reaction to (indeed as an act of resistance against) the forces of economic globalization, mass-production, and consumption. But as Julia Bryan-Wilson astutely observes, the relationship between craft and mass-production is much more complicated, for craft ‘is also a thriving enterprise that exists within a larger geopolitical context of mass production’ (2011 p.73). While craft is an artistic practice, it is also ‘dominated by women making consumer objects in factories in China and elsewhere’ (ibid). Bryan-Wilson’s points help shed light on the complexities of hand crafting in the larger context of economic globalization. Consider for example, that all of Apple’s iPhones, iPads, and iPods are assembled exclusively by hand in Chinese factories, raising compelling questions about the distinctions between the hand crafted object and the mass-produced one, and about the value of hand work itself. Do we truly appreciate the toll this method of assembly takes? The hands that craft these objects belong to a person — to a factory worker — thousands of whom suffer serious, debilitating, and preventable injuries sustained performing the endless repetitive gestures required to produce them.

The ongoing project Garment Work by artist and writer Anne Elizabeth Moore considers these questions in the context of the global garment industry. In Garment Work, Moore methodically takes a pair of mass-manufactured jeans apart by hand, and in the process exposes the harsh labor conditions under which textile workers toil to produce the garments we purchase.

It is estimated that during the manufacturing process, each individual pair of jeans can be touched by as many as 60 pairs of hands that guide it through the various production stages: cutting cloth, sewing seams and hems, adding pockets, belt loops, buttonholes, labels and grommets. Moore deconstructs this process, taking the jeans apart until nothing is left of them but neatly organized piles of threads. Using one’s hands to tear apart industrial-machine stitched seams is a strenuous job, and in so doing, Moore calls attention to the labor required to produce the jeans, and by extension, to the appalling labor practices that dominate the global garment manufacturing industry: relentlessly long hours, low pay, risk of injury, exposure to toxic chemicals, lack of benefits and healthcare, precarity, harassment, and the absence of collective bargaining rights. Garment Work — with its emphasis on the artist’s labor — examines the abusive working conditions in the factories that produce the majority of the world’s garments, and connects them back to the American retail outlets that sell them.

Moore first performed Garment Work in 2010 during an artist residency at the Leipziger Baumwollspinnerei in Leipzig, Germany, formerly one of the largest textile mills in the world. East German textile manufacturing shifted overseas following German reunification in 1989, when the state subsidies upon which the industry was dependent were cut — leaving it vulnerable to global economic forces — and abetted by international trade agreements designed to facilitate the entry of Third World countries into the garment industry. Moore’s taking a pair of jeans apart served as a metaphor for the destruction of East Germany’s textile industry but also, to embody current working conditions in the global textile industry — conditions once endured by workers at the Baumwollspinnerei.

More recently, Garment Work exposed working conditions for women garment workers in Cambodia, where Moore spent time as a Fulbright scholar, artist and writer. Her ongoing collaborations with Cambodian garment workers — Cambodia is home to over 350 000 of them — provided the raw material, so to speak, for the performance of Garment Work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in 2011. This iteration of the project examined working conditions at H&M — the second largest clothing retailer in the world — by taking apart a pair of H&M jeans, manufactured in Cambodia and purchased by Moore at H&M’s flagship Chicago store, located around the corner from the MCA. Garment Work exposed the links between difficult working conditions in the Cambodian factories that manufacture clothing for H&M, and those endured by workers in its retail stores here in the USA.

Garment Work at the MCA was participatory, with members of the public invited to join Moore in taking the jeans apart. Viewers would sit around a table as they picked the cloth apart, all the while discussing abusive labor practices in the garment industry and at H&M in particular. Many visitors to the MCA often shop along Michigan avenue before or after their museum visits, and Garment Work brought people together to reflect upon the working conditions in the garment industry both here at home and abroad. Poignantly, a group of former H&M workers discovered and subsequently participated in Garment Work on a visit to the MCA. They had resigned en-masse to protest abusive working conditions at the nearby H&M store: understaffing, low pay, long hours, and lack of benefits.

Garment Work is performed — whether individually by the artist, or collectively with viewer participation — by hand. The hand is central to the garment’s manufacturing process, as well as to that of taking the jeans apart. While mass-manufacturing and artistic crafting (considered here in the form of unraveling and unpicking) are vastly different processes that unfold in dramatically different contexts, Garment Work reveals the overlap between them. Through the act of unmaking, Moore draws our attention complexities of production and consumption; in so doing, she asks us to value the labor of the workers who make and sell the garments we buy, and to make informed decisions about the products we consume.

Citation: Julia Bryan-Wilson, Sewing Notions, Artforum vol.49, no.6, February 2011, pp.73-74.

A 10 minute edited version of Garment Work can be seen here.

Steampunk Singer and Contemporary Textile Industry ‘Ustopias’

Singer 160™ – Limited Edition Machine (

Singer 160™ – Limited Edition Machine (

‘Ustopia is a word I made up by combining utopia and dystopia – the imagined perfect society and its opposite – because in my view, each contains a latent version of the other.’

(Margaret Atwood: “The Road to Ustopia”, The Guardian, 15.10. 2011)

In 2011, to celebrate the 160 years of the company’s commercial success, Singer launched the 160™ Limited Edition Machine. The design reflects back on the years of the brand’s worldwide growth and if unaware of the image source, some of us might suspect this machine belongs among the last creations by “Jake” von Slatt of Thus, a temptation arises to ask: What is Singer® trying to communicate by this Victorian retro design? And why right now – with its 160th anniversary? Wouldn’t such a nostalgic look back on the company’s famous history have been more appropriate for say the 150th anniversary?

Without a doubt, over the years of its existence, Singer® has become synonymous with home sewing,
self-sufficiency and individual creative expression. Singer machines have from the time of the patent issue for the first Singer brand machine in 1851 enabled many a woman around the world to make her fashion dreams come true for an affordable price. “Singers” have also been helping families to get by on limited resources, and, very often too, a home sewing machine would have been a source of some extra income for those able to offer their sewing skills to repair, alter or even make clothes locally.

Coming from a post-communist country, I remember how these skills were still essential for households there thirty years ago. I learned how to make my own clothes for the simple reason that to make one’s own was much cheaper than to buy them from a shop. Also, not less importantly, what was actually available from shops, would hardly ever please anyone’s eyes… With all this in mind I then recollect a story of a friend, who shortly after the fall of the communist regime, went to visit her family in the United States. At one point of her stay, she asked her hosts to advice where to buy a nice fabric that she wanted to bring back home to make a skirt. They seemed rather puzzled by her enquiry and asked with a great surprise: Why would you bother with making a skirt if you can get one for $15?

This story certainly isn’t meant to glamorize the make-do attitude rather unfortunately imposed on people by the communist regimes. Yet, I believe, it points to one of the crucial roles craft has to play in re-thinking the contemporary textile industry. No one who has ever tried to find and buy the material, made or copied the pattern for and sew a skirt, would ever expect it to cost $15.

In this sense, our lost skills make us unaware of the real cost of things and enable the ever expanding textile industry to produce garments sold at $15 whilst polluting lands and waters worldwide and employing very problematic work policies in countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, China or India (and many others).

Here, Singer® comes in again. The economic report of Singer India Ltd from early 2004 announced:

New Delhi: Singer India Ltd is restructuring its business operations which would see it generating more revenues from its non-care area of consumer durables in future. As the domestic sewing machine market is stagnating due to changed consumer aspirations, Singer is now focusing on home appliances and consumer electronics while entering the industrial sewing machines business, which is expected to boom in the coming years due to the Indian garment sector…
(Economic Times, January 16, 2004)

At the same time, during the last couple of years, Singer domestic machines market in the US or the UK has been gradually growing. Craft writer Cat Rossi in her thought provoking post ‘All Sewn Up: Antique Singers and (De) Industrial Aesthetics at All Saints’ (29.1.2012) draws attention to the UK clothing brand All Saints that uses displays of vintage Singer sewing machines (mostly imported from India) across its shops as a branding signature. Rossi proposes that the philosophy of this branding strategy might aim to ‘to show off the fact that in an increasingly intangible world and service-led economy, All Saints actually make stuff, that they rely on craftsmanship and old fashioned quality manufacture.’ This then serves to ‘suggest a redundancy of the mass, industrial production in which these machines were complicit and the oft-cited advent of a new, localised, small-scale manufacture system.’

Is it possible that there was a very similar rationale behind the Singer®’s launch of the retro Singer 160™ Limited Edition Machine on the occasion of the company’s 160 years anniversary in 2011? And if so, what does this [so far] wishful trend for a shift from quantity to quality mean for the future of the textile industry?

In fact, can we really look forward to better quality clothing and more sustainable textile industry when most of us desperately lack the practical experience that would help us distinguish between the well and the poorly made and between good and poor quality material? Most importantly still: Are we ready to pay for clothes the price they are really worth? Or would we still rather own pairs and pairs of ill-fitting $15 mixed fiber jeans instead of a pair of real denim pants famous for their comfort and durability?

The decision is ours to take. Denim jeans might then once again become a symbol of freedom and revolt against the status quo.

Denim cuts

While we are waiting for the first guest posts on the issue of industrial craft, a few items of interest.

Tullia Jack, a Masters Design student, conducted an experiment/performance where she asked 30 participants to wear a pair of jeans for 30 days, five days a week, without washing them. Responses from participants are used to demonstrate that entrenched cultural habits cause us to wash clothes more than necessary. It’s notable that denim jeans were chosen as the crucible of cultural values.

A 2009 Levi’s campaign ‘We are all workers’ evokes a nostalgia for manual labour. The link between denim and US nationalism is further strengthened in the ‘Go America’ campaign. This begs the question again of whether the current post-industrial craft revival is mere costume-dressing. Victor Lytvinenko’s article about the revival of the denim factory in North Carolina suggests what an authentic revival of industrial craft might be like.

Meanwhile, the symposium Craft in the New Economy has just closed in Toronto. Its aim was ‘to address the relationship between craft and issues of sustainable business practice, technology, DIY and social responsibility.’ The notion of craft practice in the 21st century seems to be broadening beyond the studio to include industry. Is this a trend in the arts generally, or specific to craft’s mission of social transformation? It promises much interesting writing for future issues of JMC.