Old skills have real value

The Redwood blog
Published:  03 December, 2013
Mike Redwood

On the wall in my kitchen is a picture of a cow with a sewing machine on its head. It is a poster from Poor Richard’s Leather Shop in Denver. I bought it there when a student in 1968. I do not know if the shop exists today, but the link between leather and sewing machines certainly does.

Almost every item that uses leather has to be put together with a sewing machine at some stage. As tanners we rely on people with such skills in making footwear, garments, gloves, upholstery and almost every other leather article you can think of. Given this it is hard to believe that the New York Times ran an article at the end of September bemoaning the fact that the US textile industry is struggling to meet the demand for garments because it cannot find people with sewing skills. “The sad truth is, we put ads in the paper and not many people showed up” one factory manager in Minneapolis said in the article.

It is a point not lost on Elizabeth Cline in her must read book on cheap fashion “Over-Dressed”. In this she has a whole chapter entitled “Sewing is a Good Job, a Great Job”. The United States currently has about 135 million workers in what it describes as non-farm jobs and it is creating about 180,000 new jobs each month. Yet of these huge numbers only 142,000 are employed as sewing machine operators according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As the New York Times pointed out learning sewing as opposed to graphic design, web programming, or robotics “can seem a little old school, students say. But Elizabeth Huber, 22, who took a break from the University of Minnesota to take the sewing course, said that can also be a selling point. 'I like getting back to making things, to touching and manipulating materials rather than just pushing buttons or tweeting all day,' she said.”

In other parts of the world the situation is similar. Aston Martin, the luxury UK based automobile brand was recently offering $48000 a year for skilled sewing machinists to make their car seats. The point is that sewing is a skilled job. Yet governments such as the British refuse work permits to skilled operators on the basis that it is not. Indeed apart from splitting and shaving many governments do not permit any leather related job to be defined as skilled; yet if we want to enhance the craftsmanship that consumers love about everything to do with leather we need to change this negative perception. The whole beauty of leather is the mysterious mix of science and craft that blend so perfectly together.

Elizabeth Cline points back to times when every housewife could make the family garments, when things were repaired rather than junked, when stitching was intricate and garments were consequently well tailored and lasted. A much more desirable state than everyone buying the same cheap, simply sewn items in a race to the bottom. As a consequence it is a struggle to find anyone in the world today who can use a piqué machine to sew a glove - the best way for a short full hand glove made from medium weight materials.

If the global recession has shown us any one thing it is that the old skills have real value. If we want a world with full employment we need to maintain and respect them. And in our leather industry we need to revere all the hand crafted work, which both makes our leather and turns it into such wonderful articles; in all countries across the world. 

Mike Redwood

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

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