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.

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.

Journal of Modern Craft 4.3

The final issue of 2011 continues to look at craft and industrialisation, with a particular emphasis on denim.


Editorial introduction

Craft, Class, and Acculturation at the Greenwich House Settlement by Sarah Archer

None of Us Is Sentimental About the Hand: Dorothy Liebes, Handweaving, and Design for Industry by Alexa Griffith Winton

Architectonic: Thought on the Loom by T’ai Smith

Bridging the Design Gap: The Case of the Nepali Clothing Industry by Mallika Shakya

Telling a Story: The Art and Craft of Denim by Alejandra Echeverria

Made in North Carolina: Skill Versus Scale in a Modern Jeans Workshop by Victor Lytvinenko

Primary text

The Variable Man by Philip K. Dick

Exhibition reviews

  • Raw Goods: The Transformation of Materials by Local Industries by Sarah Johnson
  • Making Is Thinking by Joana Ozorio de Almeida Meroz
  • The New Materiality: Digital Dialogues at the Boundaries of Contemporary Craft by Kate Smith