When we got ready to move from our three-bedroom house in Portland to our one-bedroom apartment in San Antonio, we must have donated about ten heavy duty garbage bags worth of clothing. Much of the stuff we never even wore. They were mainly mine–clothing that offered versions of me that I wanted to be: clingy dresses I would wear if I had a ton of cocktail party invitations and were 20 lbs lighter; “adult” outfits so that I could appear more professional; and shirts and pants with funky prints that were more playful than I actually was. I rationalized these purchases because they were cheap even if they weren’t entirely me. But the real me won out and I wore the same things day in and day out while these more exciting possibilities got jammed in a plastic bag then left in the basement.
While we stuffed the garbage bags full of clothing, readying them for donation, news broke of the garment factory collapse in Bangladesh, killing over 1000 people.
As I write this, I think about my daughter sleeping in her bed, and about how soon I will be joining her, snuggling beside her sweet sleeping form. For the hundreds of garment workers who were crushed in the collapse, they did not get to return home to their children. I can’t seem to stop thinking about how the huge pile of clothing that we donated is connected to the pile of rubble and concrete that crushed the workers. Their lives were deemed disposable too. Working for $38 a month barely kept food on the table, and they worked despite the warnings about the unsafe building for the fear of losing their jobs or a day’s wages.
I’m still trying to figure out how this culture of disposability translates into disposable lives. “Disposable” has become normalized in our lives–even a selling point. Disposable diapers, disposable mops, disposable razors, etc. Trendy clothing are meant to be worn for a few short seasons. The convenience of disposability means that we don’t have to wonder where the things we dispose of go nor do we have to wonder about the people who make these disposable items.
Today is the third day of a massive protest outside of Dhaka, Bangladesh against low garment factory wages. It has shut down over 100 factories. And it has also become violent. The collapse of the Rana Plaza made headlines, but the conditions for many remain the same: low wages and long hours making clothing that will then be shipped to enormous chain stores that offer them for a steal. Recently in Geneva, there was a meeting of the various retailers supplied by the workers of Rana Plaza to discuss how to compensate the victims of the building collapse. Only nine out of the 29 brands supplied showed up, and to this date, only one company has compensated the victims.
To suggest that knitting may be a kind of intervention seems somehow disrespectful and grandiose. If anything, knitting can be a “pause” button on over-consumption, a reminder that plentiful cheap, disposable clothing comes at someone else’s expense. Every knitter knows the time and effort that goes into knitting a project. It is usually cheaper to buy a sweater than to knit a sweater, and it is certainly more convenient and faster. I don’t really have an answer or a neat and tidy point here. All I know is that cheap, fast and disposable seem to be the antithesis of knitting, and there is oppositional value in that.