Sunday 14 August 2016

woman versus machine

Earlier this year the World Economic Forum released a report to help us prepare for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, marked by "development in genetics, artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing and biotechnology". 

The future is here!

So I suppose it shouldn't have come as a surprise to hear a story on Planet Money (I adore podcasts, lifesavers for my long commutes) titled "The Sewing Robot", talking about SoftWear, the company that may have created automating sewing.

No human required.
Image copyright SoftWear Automation

Machines have taken over manufacturing jobs since the first Industrial Revolution, including the fashion industry with the introduction of mechanised looms replacing the labour-intensive practice of weaving textiles by hand. However, the actual sewing together of garments has remained in the hands of skilled people - machinists - who sew each and every garment we wear today. All the seams, all the zippers, all the buttons and button holes, all touched by human hands.

It makes sense when you think about it - fabric is flimsy, soft, slippery and flexible, it can easily become bunched up or shift position on the machine, even when the most skilled hands are involved. How can machines ever compare with the quick-thinking and reactive hands of a talented sewer? That's exactly what SoftWear is trying to figure out.

I'll let you listen to the podcast yourself to hear all the details, but this story raised so many questions in my mind about what this would mean for the fashion industry and for our relationship with clothing, I just had to write about it.

Of course I know technology creates wonderful advances (hello Blogger!), but there is no hiding from the fact that when robots move into factories, humans move out.

Though it is incredibly hard to track the exact figure, there is an estimated 58 million people employed in apparel and textile manufacturing. Most of them are women, and most of them are located in developing countries. Garment manufacturing is one of the easiest businesses to begin due to the low cost of entry, and is one of the primary industries found in counties in the early stages of development. It's hard to know exactly what jobs will replace the hands-on work of sewing in these regions with little availability for re- or up-skilling should machines truly take over this role.

Image copyright ALAS

Also, I love knowing that my clothing was made by people. For years I didn't pay much attention to the 'Made In' tags on my clothes, but I do now, and I know that real people sewed my clothing. And because of my commitment to sustainable and ethical fashion, I'm starting to get a clearer picture of who these people are. Labels like Carlie Ballard, ALAS, Cloth & Co, Threads of Peru, and IOU all provide incredible detail about who made their fashion, and Fashion Revolution has opened up the doors to factories sewing global fashion brands through the #WhoMadeMyClothes campaign.

Some of the talented women making Carlie Ballard pieces.

In this age of blossoming radical transparency from fashion brands, I don't know that I'm ready to say goodbye to the personal touch of hand sewn garments. I'm just beginning to understand and make connections. And surely there is something lost when a machine takes over an artisan skills like handweaving?

Me wearing my stunning - handwoven - Threads of Peru scarf

Does this make me a luddite? Pining for a romantic past that was never really was? Or too optimistic, thinking we can make affordable clothing that is safe and respectful for workers around the world?

Should we embrace technology, knowing that at last no one is being harmed or treated unfairly to make our clothing? Or should we fight to keep some traditions even if it means (gasp!) inefficiencies and lower productivity than a machine would enable?

What do you think?

And just because it's a beautiful reminder that, at least for now, many people's hands make our clothing, enjoy (re)watching this short clip c/o EcoAge, Handprint.