My favorite books aren’t about sewing but about building things sustainably. Like how to dig a well, build a water pump to plumb a home, pull stumps, how to make your own tools, sanitize drinking water with leach fields you build yourself -all without electricity or fossil fuel dependent machinery. There’s a danger in being chained to the reliance of a complex power grid that could be withdrawn at any moment. I feel the same way about sewing. Wait too long and the low prices we’ve become accustomed to paying will evaporate. Asia can charge what they like, we won’t have the choice of doing for ourselves once we’ve forgotten how or worse, no longer have domestic supplies to do it.
By way of illustration, Vesta sent me a link to a disturbing story about the mining of rare earth minerals, elements used in everything from hybrid cars to smartphones. We used to mine those in the US but in a “cost saving” gesture, we passed it off to China along with the intellectual property and tooling to do it. Last year, China implemented dramatic quotas to limit their rare earth mineral exports, now they’re keeping the minerals for themselves. Meaning things like smartphones and hybrid cars will only be manufactured in China or locations they dictate and at the prices they charge or else. And it’s not even that there’s something nefarious behind it. With rising wages and living standards in China, they need materials to meet increasing domestic demand. Our problem is that we’ve forgotten how to mine the stuff cost effectively and we’re sitting on 15% of the world’s supply.
Why does anyone think it’ll be any different with sewn products? People who can still do it for themselves will clean up, not that it will help the US economy at large. The supply problem remains paramount though. The only sure way to control the means of production is to control the supply of inputs like fabric -and rare earth minerals. In war, the best way to vanquish the enemy is to destroy their supply lines. It’s much cheaper, easier and fewer causalities ensue by destroying supply resources than by shooting people or grappling in hand to hand combat. The enemy can’t fight without food or bullets -or as in our case now, we’ve paid our suppliers competitors to bomb our own telephone and transportation supply lines.
If I had another lifetime at my disposal, I’d buy and learn to operate a domestic fabric mill, become a thread spinner or maybe even a tanner. I wouldn’t have anyone to leave it to but I suspect its value would increase and someone in the next generation would buy it. By then I think more people would be eager to get their hands dirty -need would drive that. Why doesn’t anyone see we have the need now?
It is delusional for anyone to worry about intellectual property if they’re sending work overseas. To think you own anything is a fantasy your vendors encourage because it’s profitable for them to do so. Possession is 9/10ths of natural law. If China now controls rare earth IP mining technology originated by very powerful rich nations, expropriating your designs isn’t worth a yawn. Nobody will care about enforcing a law to protect a stupid dress if we can’t build cars or maintain critical communications. To assume anything less is simply not rational.
I don’t advocate isolationism, exporting is a tremendous opportunity for growth. The number of Chinese millionaires has increased over 30% since 2008 and with all that money, they’re looking for more stuff to buy and less low cost stuff to make (wages and minimums have dramatically increased). I think doing business with China is a jolly idea; US made goods have a lot of cachet there. Sure, somebody might buy your stuff and copy it but at least you didn’t send a wire transfer to have them do it to you when you sent your specifications and labels on a silver platter. I have faith in base human qualities like covetousness. It’s dependable regardless of culture, politics and religion. No different from us, they want exclusive and rare stuff their friends don’t have. So sell it to them.
If the potential gains of exporting your product are increasing -and they are- why does no one see that there is an equal and opposite effect? Namely, that the liabilities of importing your products from abroad are increasing too.
Note: Ostrich don’t bury their heads in sand -but they’re much cuter doing it than we are.