Drawstrings and Child Safety

Amended 10/6/09: This entry is somewhat dated in that it was written before the passage of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA). Perhaps Esther’s comments below were considered conjecture or hypothesis when they were written but much of what she said has come to pass. If you are not familiar with CPSIA, it is critical to read about it now. Under CPSIA, it is now a crime, punishable by fines and a potential prison sentence, to produce children’s items with drawstrings or ties at the neck, waist, hems etc. Since the law is ambiguous, it’s best to omit this design feature altogether.

Esther Melander, a children’s wear producer, has written a guest entry on drawstrings and child safety in light of some recent recalls. If you produce children’s wear, these issues affect you too. Thanks Esther!

In 1996 the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) created guidelines for the use of drawstrings in children’s upper outerwear. The guidelines specifically target drawstrings found in the hoods and waistlines of sweatshirts. They were created after reports of several injuries and even death of children who wore such clothing that became entangled. The guideline applies to clothing sized 2T-16 and is considered voluntary.

CPSC’s drawstring guidelines do not represent a standard or mandatory requirement set by the agency. And, while CPSC does not sanction them as the only method of minimizing drawstring injuries, CPSC believes that these guidelines will help prevent children from strangling by their clothing drawstrings.

Even though the guideline is considered voluntary, it would be in a DE‘s best interest to follow them. In the first two weeks of December 2007, there have been five recalls of children’s clothing with drawstrings!

The latest recalls are representative of the type of drawstring issues that keep showing up. The jacket (below) has a drawstring at the waist (picture does not show it).

The two pants (below) are borderline with the ties at the waistline. They are not technically drawstrings, but they are knotted belts. The belt on the jeans appears to be stitched to the belt loops, but is being recalled because it is a related style to the other.

The problem with the bright pink shirt (below) are the long pink ties are located near the neck.

The hooded striped sweaters have knotted velvet ribbon ties (below).

All of these products were found in major department and chain stores. The irony is all of these stores should know better because these guidelines have been in place for over ten years. The buyers should know. The quality auditors should know. The manufacturers should know. The technical designers should know. And yet, the problem continues to show up. As you can see, there is broad interpretation with the guideline and how it is applied. The original guideline applies to outerwear and the recalled jacket certainly fits. But what about the recalled t-shirt and pants?

The difficulty comes with understanding the difference between an industry standard, voluntary guideline, regulation, and law. For example, the lead levels in painted products began as a guideline and has now morphed into a regulation that can result in severe fines and penalties if not properly followed. The transition began with voluntary recalls by manufacturers and the CPSC. As the public became more aware of the problem and the danger explained, children’s products that contain lead are now under mandatory recall. I believe the drawstring guideline is starting to go down the same path. The pattern right now is in voluntary recalls and public information. As public awareness increases, there will be public pressure to make this guideline a law or regulation. From a public or consumer point of view there is no difference between a voluntary guideline, regulation or law.

What began as a voluntary guideline for drawstrings in upper outer wear for children 2T-16 has resulted in unintended consequences for related products. Any childrenswear designer has to question the use of ties for any age child in any piece of clothing. Potential sources of strangulation or entrapment are everywhere. Consider the common baby bib. Pre-guidelines, bibs were sold with knots on the end of the bias bindings. Now, they are sold without the knots. Yet, it becomes a strangulation issue because the ties could still become caught in a high chair. Do the guidelines cover this too? Sure there are other types of closures, but they pose potential choking hazards. Snaps, buttons, and velcro pieces can come loose if not applied properly. What to do? Feed the baby naked and hose them down afterward?

Other products that can cause concern:

  • Bibs with ties made of bias binding, ribbon, or fabric.
  • Girls dresses with waist ties made of fabric or trim. The ties may contribute to the design of the dress, but also provide a fitting mechanism.
  • Dresses with detached sashes. Some sashes may measure 60-72 inches and are not permanently affixed to the garment.
  • Dresses, tops, or pants with added trim that may be loose, especially ribbon dangles.
  • Hats with ties made of ribbon or fabric.
  • Hats with straps, either attached on both ends or attached on one end with some type of closure on the other.

I am sure blog readers could come up with other examples. When you take safety issues to the extreme, there are all sorts of hidden dangers in clothing. From a realistic and practical design perspective, you can not design a 100% safe product. The pressure is more extreme with children’s clothing. No one wants to unintentionally injure or contribute to the injury of a child. What to do?

I have had employers and DEs ask me (I question myself) about products on the above list. I don’t have an easy answer for them. The first place I turn to is the CPSC website. There are no further guidelines other than the drawstring guideline issued in 1996. The next place to look for industry standards is ASTM. ASTM has the same drawstring standards as the CPSC, but charges you $30 for a licensed copy (read ASTM licensing requirements before purchasing anything from them. You might be surprised at the kind of restrictions you will be under). Another option (not necessarily the best) is to look and see what other companies are doing. How long are their waist ties on dresses, for example? The concern is that even major retailers have trouble following their own internal guidelines (and yes, most of them do have internal guidelines regarding drawstrings). Finally, your company can come up with your own company standard.

I would prefer a voluntary industry standard for the above listed products. I think this is something that can be done. In this endeavor, I am currently working on a letter to send to the CPSC, and possibly ASTM. I will be requesting further clarification on drawstrings and ties in children’s clothing, especially for infants. The drawstring conversation is just beginning. Post any comments or questions you might have about this issue.

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  1. bethany says:

    Wonderful post! This is very timely for me because I was thinking about doing a hooded sweatshirt and in my sketch, I had a drawstring around the hood. It never even occurred to me it might be a problem.

    With that said, I have a beef about not putting a drawstring either around the hood or waist of a garment. According to the CPSG only 23 children have died from being strangled from a cord of a garment in FIFTEEN YEARS! Do you know how many kids die in car accidents? Now, I can see how a cord around the head or neck could be a problem. So even though only a few kids died in the past 15 years, I will give the CPSG that. But around the waist? That is ridiculous. I refuse to believe any child could possibly get hurt from a sewn sash around a dress or a drawstring around a waist. Sometimes I think the government or special interest groups go too far, and this is one example.

  2. Teijo says:

    This is an interesting subject that warrants some thought.

    Bethany mentions that the number of deaths attributable to drawstrings in fifteen years is 23.
    A peek at the census bureau website shows the population of the U.S.A. is a bit less than 300 million, of which a bit more than 20% is under 16. Thus, the number of deaths caused by drawstrings per year is is roughly one per 36 million.

    Yes, these deaths could perhaps have been prevented by banning the drawstrings. However, an American acquaintance once told me that he is alive today only because the hem of his jacket got caught on a high scaffold on which he was playing. It may well have been the strong drawstring that saved his life.

    Had he fallen to his death it would have made the news. Had the drawstring strangled him it would have also made the news. Because he was unhurt there was never an official entry regarding the event – let alone an investigation regarding whether the hem alone would have been strong enough to hold him without the drawstring.

    Without accurate statistics it is hard to tell whether more deaths have been caused by drawstrings than have been saved by them. If a thorough survey should reveal that one child in 35 million is saved by a drawstring each year, the lives saved would outnumber the lives lost.

    If so, should they be made mandatory in all childrens’ clothing?

  3. Great post, Esther!

    I’ve been aware of the guidelines since I first started producing children’s clothing. I never use them in my designs–whether one kid or 10,000 have been injured from them–no need to have the extra risk IMHO.

    I just don’t get why drawstrings are necessary. With so many other closures available, it just seems foolish to me to chose a drawstring if it poses a risk.

    I just can’t believe all these manufacturers didn’t have someone somewhere along the line question the drawstrings.

    with friendship,

    • Pam Eyre says:

      When your child, at two years of age dies as a result of a drawstring catching on a slide, in a daycare, where supervision was the issue, the drawstring the method of catchment, and the slide the catch spot,it doesn’t matter she’s one in 36 million. Thank you for caring <3

  4. Esther says:

    There is an extra emotional factor when a child is injured. Even though the numbers of children hurt are statistically low (the lead issue is honestly no different), the motivation to create a 100% safe product increases. The goal is unattainable, IMO. We can do the very best we can though…. The stress or worry of a lawsuit is always looming on the horizon for child product manufacturers.

  5. Darby says:

    I’ve done so much research on this topic, because I wanted to do a drawstring type closure on a swimsuit top (as opposed to just a tie at the neck or a tie at the back)… it would have made tightening the top so it fit nicely so easy. Well, after reading about all of the standards, especially those in NY, I decided against it. You just can’t be careful enough when it comes to kids.

  6. bethany says:

    So I get the fact this isnt going to be the popular opinion, but I feel like you CAN be too careful when it comes to kids. I think it is sad that so many kids are not walking to and from school because their parents have an irrational fear of strangers taking their children. I think it is sad that there are now super viruses that are caused because so many overprotective parents used that antibacterial gel to kill any germ that might give their kids a cold. I think it is sad that kids cant play tag, swing on a swing, play dodge ball, and there are even towns banning baseball because somebody might get hurt- either physically or emotionally. So yes, I do think we can over protect our kids. And this ‘ban’ on drawstrings and ties, especially around the waist is just silly.

  7. Jasmin says:

    I find this fascinating, particularly as I have an interest in Clare McCardell, whose use of drawstrings and sashes was applauded for providing fit in the ready to wear market, marking a significant change in apparel manufacture – for adult wear, but one wonders how long it will be before drawstrings in adult wear are an issue as well. I do wonder why as a society we are so protectionist and yet fail so badly to create a safe, respectful and caring environment for people. Is excessive regulation and legislation a substitute for common sense and responsibility? Taking responsibility away from the individual and making legislative rulings doesn’t seem to actually work … off the point a little maybe, but I wonder whether it is a sign of a failing society?
    Here in New Zealand we have the same issues of increasing regulatory burdens to enforce safety and quality (housing is a great example) with significant compliance costs, which do not actually seem to effect improvement – I’d still rather have a house (or dress!) built 40 years ago in which the quality was a result of skill and pride in workmanship, rather than any attempt to comply with external rulings. In my view, internal drivers (care, pride, commitment, skill, responsibility) result in a far better outcome than external drivers (legislation, standards, ‘rules’ etc) which seem to merely result in additional cost, but not necessarily a better outcome. Basic standards are useful, but excess legislation simply doesn’t seem to make sense.

    In a way, it seems to me that DEs follow a form of Agile methodology (software development!) which focuses on frequent face to face communication within the team, trusting skilled individuals to provide quality work, frequent iteration and development, and welcoming changes that add value. Excess legislation and protection of the *helpless* consumer (who could actually just chose not to purchase the item)seems silly to me. If you expect someone (the consumer) to be inadequate and incapable of making a reasonable decision … in the end they will be.

  8. Lisa Bloodgood says:

    In Istanbul, many of the streets and sidewalks are cobblestones and when I was there, I never saw any cones or barricades or warnings around potholes or places they were fixing or around the lamppost that was waiting to be installed. Everyone just paid attention and walked around those things.

    But cones and barricades are one thing and excess regulations that end up not improving things and making them crappy is another.

    I can see never having baby clothes with drawstrings but would be fine for older kids, maybe.

  9. Kate says:

    Hum, I guess I can see the point of this when it comes to clothing for infants, but not for older kids.

    I have a better memory than most of things that happened to me as a child, and I have a clear memory of a winter coat I wore when I was six whose drawstring occassionally got caught on the playground slide. My solution to the problem was to climb up the few inches to the top of the slide by grabbing the edges and detaching the string from the gap it got hung up on. It wasn’t particularly traumatic, the reason that I remember it is that it pulled the drawstring partially out of the casing and my grandmother taught me how to work the drawstring back through to fix it.

    However, an adult woman of my aquaintance lost a leg a few years ago when a bag she was carrying caught in a train door. She was dragged by the train because she was wearing a heavy winter coat and wasn’t able to disentangle herself from the bag. But I’m not ready to declare drawstrings and shoulder bags “unsafe at any speed.”

    The truth is that a kid is much more likely to die from falling off a piece of playground equipment than from getting caught on it. Back when I was a kid our playground equipment was directly on a paved surface, but that doesn’t mean I’m against having soft surfaces under playground equipment today. Safety standards change over time.

    I wonder what the CPSC would make of the “leading strings” that were commonly attached to 18th century toddler’s clothing to make them easy to hang on to while they were learning to walk? I bet kids in leading strings didn’t get the now common dislocated elbow injury which is caused when a small child falls while an adult is holding his/her hand. But today there are probably more dangerous things to get caught in then there were in the 18th century.

    P.S. Here’s an interesting detailed report about a slide-strangling: http://www.triodyne.com/SAFETY~1/SB_V19N3.PDF
    Looks like allowing two-year-old involved to play on a slide without supervision was also an element of the accident.

  10. Molly Chen says:

    I’m so glad to see your post and address the specific challenges of bibs today. As a mother of two, I’ve always wondered (especially with the first child) that isn’t the common bib the biggest strangulation hazard? They warn you about tangling cords and strings, but here you are wrapping something around your baby’s neck – and not just for feeding, but all day long for soaking up drool.

    And when a colicky baby finally falls asleep, I just don’t have the heart to disburse the baby, reach to the back of the neck and yank that bib off. Then what happens, I get that tremendous feeling of guilt when I find the bib covering the baby’s face.

    Child safety is a hard issue to compromise. One child injuring from a poor design is one child too many. There are guidelines that do go “to far” and beyond reality but I’m surprised there hasn’t been a better solution to the common bib – well, at least not until I started my product line.

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