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The Lost Craft of Care

Alden Wicker

Clothing isn’t made to be tailored anymore.

It used to be that designs had seam allowances, or an extra bit of fabric next to the seam so that if your cocktail dress fit a bit too tight in the hips, you could easily get it taken out. (Or in the case of my mother and grandmother, take out the sewing machine and do it yourself.) Now when you turn something from a mass retailer inside out, there’s a quick stitch wrapped around the thin fabric.

This is probably at least partly due to the fact that those beautiful 60’s dresses don’t have any give or stretch—part of their charm, in my opinion. But it also must be because clothing makers know that shoppers in my generation rarely flip a garment inside out to inspect the seams. We like it, we try it on, we buy it. Sometimes, we’re in too much of a rush to go in the dressing room. What does it matter if it doesn’t fit? It’s only $15.

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This is despite the advice of such tastemakers as Stacey London of What Not to Wear, who was always counseling guests to get things tailored to fit, and Nina Garcia, Project Runway judge and Marie Claire creative director. “Don’t be afraid to splurge a little or invest in tailoring to ensure the perfect fit,” Garcia told Racked in 2011.

“Tailored” has become a perfect adjective for describing a certain way of dressing. It evokes a chic and expensively attired lady-boss clicking into her office, ready to peruse line sheets from her underlings.

So yes, the fashionable ladies of the United States would love to be the kind of women who swoosh into the local tailor’s storefront with an armful of attire to be pinned and sewn just so, yielding a flattering and timeless look. But there’s just one problem: It’s not worth it.

Well, it’s not worth it if you buy fast fashion, that is. Let’s say you buy a $17.90 winter top from Forever 21. As Forever 21 fashions tend to do, it gets a hole underneath the arm after you wear it three times. Is it worth it to you to pay $10 to get that hole repaired? Maybe … if you knew the shirt would last for at least a few more wears. There is no guarantee with fast fashion. So you dump it—maybe in textile recycling if you have access to it, but more likely in the trash. It’s not like you can donate it.

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It’s no wonder the average American throws out 70 pounds of textile waste per year, and 85% of that goes to our landfills. I’m looking at my closet as a write this, and I don’t even see 70 pounds of clothes in there. Where is all this coming from? Oh yes, Bangladesh, China, and other countries with poor environmental and labor protections.

All this, not remarkably, is contributing to the decline of the tailoring and shoe cobbling industries. The number of tailors in the U.S. dropped a staggering 20% from 2009 to 2013.

Shoe cobbling did see a resurgence during the recession as more people discovered a “make do” attitude. But from 2009 to 2013, it saw a 1.9% decline, while other industries zoomed upward. And while 17 years go there were 60,000 shoe repair businesses in the US, now there are only 7,000 struggling to make do with fewer repairs, and turning away business because they can’t repair such cheap imported shoes. (99% of shoes sold in the U.S. are made in Indonesia, China and Vietnam. Perhaps the last 1% are made in Italy, like so many claim.) If you buy a pair of shoes at the average price, $43, then a $50 repair (not unheard of) is out of the question! Just dump them (shoe recycling is even rarer than textile recycling) and get a new pair.

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The fall of the shoe industry might also be linked to another negative environmental factor: cars. You truly appreciate a good cobbler only when you live in a city where you put your shoes to the test walking miles a day. Just place these maps of cobbler-saturated states and public transportation hubs side by side. See a similarity?

Besides being bad for the environment, all this waste is just sad. If we lose our tailors, how will we hand down a cocktail dress to our daughter to wear to a formal? If we lose our cobblers, how will be pass on a pair of oh-so-cool boots to be worn when she gets to college?

Cobblers and tailors and well-made clothing go together like jam with a scone or mimosas to a brunch. They make the good fashion in our life even better.

So my point is: if you’re going to buy a piece of clothing off of Zady, where everything is made to last, make sure you get the number of a good tailor and a good cobbler who can fit it, fix it, and keep it nice for the next ten years.

Alden Wicker is the Founder of EcoCult, a curious, provocative, utterly enthusiastic view into sustainable fashion.