Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Let's Talk Socks

And disposable clothing.

Socks have become, in modern American society, the ultimate disposable clothing item. Sock got holes in it? Pitch it. Go buy a new pack of six pairs at the SuperMart for $5. When you wear through those, go buy some more. If you're really frugal, you might use them as rags around the house before you pitch them, but you'll still consider them cheap, disposable, and plentiful.

Which would not be the case if we weren't using cheap labor and lack of environmental controls in China and India for mass production of these cheap cotton socks. Ask an elder, though, if they'd consider socks of better quality, made domestically, and pay more for them, and they'll tell you they never want to darn another sock for the rest of their lives.

So whatever happened to quality products, which cost money that you have to save up, and then they last you a lifetime? Or that you labor over, repair when damaged, and then use as scraps for another utilitarian project later?

Oh, yeah. Silly me - that went away when people started specializing, labor overseas was cheaper than local, and people decided that cheaper/faster/better was true.

Knitters have it figured out, though. We knit socks. We darn them. Some of us even get hold of castoff sweaters and unravel them and knit new garments (including socks) from them. (They're the ultimate in frugal!) I would certainly not want to earmark 400 yards of 100% cashmere yarn for socks, but if I unravel a cashmere sweater for the yarn? Fair game, and I have a pair of cashmere socks. Awesome! Would I darn a hole in one? You bet!

I currently have 2 pairs of Kiddo's jeans hanging in the basement. They have holes in the knees, and after washing them I hung them to dry so I could mend them easier (the dryer would totally fluff the edges and make it far more difficult.) And yet, he'll probably be the only kid in school with patched jeans.

Why is that?

I think there are two reasons for that:

1. jeans are cheap, abundant, and readily available, and
2. no one knows how to mend them anymore.

If you want to get really realistic about it, then there's

3. no one has the time.

The time issue is a big one.

We're all running around, trying to "earn a living" while not having time to just live. Who wants to waste some of the precious time between work, soccer practice and piano lessons for the kids, and grabbing a quick bite to eat before rushing home to run the vacuum and get the kids in bed. If they're lucky they might get to watch some news on television, or a program before falling into bed to go do it again tomorrow.

When, in a schedule like this, are you going to darn socks? It's easier and quicker to grab a new package next time you're at the SuperMart. I've even met some who have bought new socks and underwear and thrown away the dirty ones while on travel because they thought it was cheaper and easier than using a laundromat!

When it's cheaper to replace your underpants than wash them, there's definitely something weird going on in the economics side of things!

So let's go back to socks.

I wear both handknit socks and good quality wool socks in the winter, and handknit socks and no socks in the summer. I have cotton socks for summer wear at work when I can't wear sandals (darn caustic and acidic chemicals!), but they're handknit. I did buy some of what I thought were quality cotton socks a few years ago, and they lasted a whopping two years. My handknit cotton socks I made the same summer are still going strong and look like new. They cost more, they have my own labor in them, and they make me happy every time I wear them. And they are lasting a long, long time. Will I darn them (if they ever need it)? You bet.

I don't believe that cheap, abundant socks are a forever thing. China is growing, India is developing, and we're running out of overseas locations with cheap, exploitable labor. They want to be consumers, too! Isn't it the example we've been setting as the ultimate goal - to be consumers??

There's a lot more in here that I want to get talking about, and we'll explore them in some upcoming posts. I want to talk about economics, and why we use cheap foreign labor. I want to talk about how this is not a sustainable situation and how we're starting to run out of countries to exploit. I want to talk about household economies and how we can make small changes in the way we run our households to support more sustainable industries. I want to talk about the future of cheap clothing, how we got here, and where I think we're heading. I want to talk about over-specialization and the loss of wide-ranging skills.

And how it all comes down to how you treat your socks.

What do you want me to talk about?


kateohkatie said...

I love this post, and I completely agree with you. Quality over quantity is my approach to nearly everything in life - clothing, food, pets (:-P) I'd rather have a few pairs of boots that I absolutely treasure, than 7 or 8 pairs that I feel "meh" about (and that are uncomfortable, poor quality, etc etc). You put my thoughts into words much more eloquently than I'd have ever been able to :-)

Diana said...

This post expresses so many things that I have been thinking. I hate how disposable our culture has become. How we expect the things we buy to fall apart after a year or two. I've been trying to focus on quality over quantity, and I support local shops and artisans whenever I can.

Alwen said...

One of the most interesting things I heard from a local asparagus farmer was "If we don't import the labor..." - meaning minimum wage labor done by mostly-Mexican migrant laborers - "...we export the production."

And then we get asparagus grown in South America, because if Mexican labor can't come here, work, and then go home to Mexico, it's cheaper! to produce it there and fly it via jet to Michigan.

Where I live literally across the road from an asparagus field.

It's a question as complicated as a dropped, tangled skein of silk.

Cami Cort├ęs! said...

Hi! Sorry to contact you here, but couldn't find your contact info on DIY. Are you still selling the PBS1000? If so, I'm interested in it. I live in Chile, how much would the shipping cost? Thank you and, again, sorry for posting here!

Cindy said...

Very interested in this topic. Textiles/clothing as disposable items is such a modern concept. Not only are the majority of clothes now made cheap quality and will fall about in a few years (or less), but we have a fashion industry based on buying an entire new wardrobe every season. Can't wait to hear more.