Not Too Shoddy

Like so many industries struggling in the midst of the storm that is the COVID-19 pandemic, fashion suffers. 

Retail stores, clothing subscription services, online shops, and supply chains at all points in the process are being affected.  Stores and services have halted in some parts of the world and workers are getting laid off (“COVID-19 Impact: H&M Announces Mass Layoffs, Scraps Dividend,” WWD, 3/23/20).  The devastation that first affected China continues to ripple outwards.  China is both a major manufacturer—of clothing, zippers, thread, buttons—and the giant behind a more than billion dollar consumer market, including for luxury items.  As of yesterday, all Italian luxury goods production had come to a dead halt (“Fashion industry faces up to Covid-19 disaster,” Vogue Business, 3/23/20).  While some luxury retail shops are re-opening in China, there will likely be product shortages. 

In the short term, some manufacturers are re-directing the production of goods to stitching up much needed masks.  Though many of these masks will not be of the highest medical grade quality needed, they can offer some protection.  A number of Italian luxury labels have promised money to hospitals while others, including Prada, have offered to manufacture not only masks but also medical overalls for healthcare workers (“The Fashion Industry is Now Producing Masks and Other Necessities in Bulk to Combat COVD-19,” Esquire, 3/23/20).

Will Prada’s overalls look anything like Italian Futurist TuTa’s jumpsuit, which launched in 1920?

Tuta 1920 coveralls
The Italian Futurist known as Tuta designed these in 1919 and manufactured them in 1920.


Meanwhile, American manufacturers such as Hanes and Fruit of the Loom are offering to supply doctors and hospitals with masks, which are in short supply in the US as well.  Fashion designers Christian Siriano and Brandon Maxwell recently offered to produce medical-grade gowns and masks (“Fashion, Textile Cos. In U.S. Start Producing Medical Face Masks,” WWD, 3/21/20).

I can’t help but wonder what the long term effects will be.  Will the industry shift away from fast fashion as people begin to reconsider the viability of wearing something once or twice and then tossing it in the trash?  Perhaps consumers will give greater consideration to ways they can reduce waste and make do.  This recent moment of disposable clothing is but a tiny blip in the history of dress.

When we use the word “shoddy” we generally mean something that is of poor quality either from excessive use or inept craftsmanship.  Yet according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term was initially used in the 19th century (about 1813) to refer to a method of wool recycling.  Wool scraps and fibers were ground down and then re-made into weaker wool yarns, which could then be re-woven with other fibers to create inexpensive cloth.  When Australia served as a British penal colony between 1788 and 1868, six percent of the convicts shipped abroad had committed the crime of stealing clothing (Robson, The Convict Settlers of Australia, 1965).  As historian Robert Hughes points out, this is a good reminder of “how ill-clothed the English poor were in the days before cheap, mass-produced clothing” (Hughes, 1986: 163).

Eventually shoddy production shifted from Britain to Italy outside of Florence in the late 19th century.  In the 20th century Italian recycling machinery was exported from Italy to northern India where much of this type of recycling now takes place.  Of course, one does not need to create entirely new fibers or cloth to re-purpose scraps and clothing.  Scraps and second-hand clothes can be re-worked into new household goods such as chindi rugs (“Sustainable recycling: from textile waste to chindi rugs,” 10/1/18, Specialty Fabric Review).

Chindi rug
A retailer's photograph of a chindi rug.  Chindi commonly means "torn cloth" in India.

The students I teach in the Fashion Program at Stephens College often tell me that sustainability is one of the primary issues they want to address when they enter the fashion industry.  At the risk of sounding like an optimistic dreamer, why wait?  Sustainability can be addressed right now. 

I have long been preternaturally indisposed to wastefulness.  One recent statistic asserts that the average American only wears a garment seven times before tossing it out.  Scandal!  I can’t imagine.  Not in my house.  No way.

A couple of months ago I re-purposed the already-recycled fibers that served as cushioning for a package’s contents into insulation for a pot holder made from a well-worn pair of twenty-year-old jeans.  Seven wearings my eye!

Jean pot holder
Old jeans and recycled fiber packaging are transformed into a pot holder.

After cleaning out my dresser drawers recently, I couldn’t bear to simply throw away all those old pairs of tights.  I’d been stockpiling the ragged things for a few months and this morning decided to make a braided rug.  It came out so well that I decided to add some fringe and call it a wall hanging instead. 

Braided rug
It's a rug!


Chair cover
It's a chair cover!


Wall hanging
It's a wall hanging!



I can’t wait to see the beauty and resourcefulness that will surely emerge from this crisis.




Suggested reading:

Hughes, Robert.  The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding, Vintage Books: New York, 1986.

Tranberg Hansen, Karen.  “Helping or Hindering: Controversies Around the International Second Hand Clothing Trade” in The Visible Self: Global Perspectives on Dress, Culture, and Society.  4th ed.  Eicher and Evenson, eds.  Bloomsbury: New York and London, 2015. 

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