The fashion industry is powered by women. But, those stitching, knitting, sewing, and embroidering the world’s clothes remain, for the most part, un-empowered. Thousands of skilled seamstresses are maltreated by the trade every year: exploited, over worked, and under-paid. Indeed, it has been only 4 years since the Rana Plaza disaster, in which 1,135 garment workers (80% of whom were women) were killed , and thousands more were injured.
The industry needs to change, but how plausible is the ethical business model in the current moment? Is it possible for women to knit themselves out of factory life and into financial independence? I spoke to Elizabeth Gleeson, founder and designer of URSA textiles, a luxury feminist knitwear brand based in Buenos Aires, to find out.
Speaking to Elizabeth in her apartment, which is spattered with beautiful colored textiles, I began to realize how complex the ethical business model actually is. It demands yards upon yards of emotional labor, time, money and patience, and I was continually taken aback by the number of compromises that Elizabeth makes to keep the business running (‘I don’t really pay myself’ she told me when I asked about the financials).
She works on a one to one basis with all of the women whom she employs to knit woolen clothing: meeting them each week, providing them with their materials, and restructuring their working pattern so they can manage their cash flow. She also pays them upfront in cash, in order to pre-empt the rise and fall of Argentina’s unstable inflation rates. Navigating the structure of an ethical business is not easy, as Elizabeth makes clear.
The women she works with are, for the most part, living in ‘very complicated situations’, whereby they rely heavily on welfare, or run kioscos during the day, care for children and grandchildren, and knit during their spare time. When I ask about the difficulty of maintaining a business relationship with the artisans, while staying attuned to the difficulties of their personal lives, she laughs, and tells me ’sometimes I feel like a psychologist’.
“MY NATURAL INTEREST IS TOWARDS WOMEN WHO HAVE BEEN EXCLUDED FORM THE FORMAL ECONOMY, AND FROM MORE STANDARD WORK OPPORTUNITIES. AND THAT – OF COURSE – IS WHO IS ATTRACTED TO DIFFERENT TEXTILE COOPERATIVES OR N.G.OS.”
And the unfortunate reality, so Elizabeth tells me, is that knitting more than 2 or 4 handmade sweaters a week is ‘for most people unthinkable – its lightening speed!’. And despite 2/3 of the cost of production of each sweater going to the artisan, ‘it just doesn’t generate enough income to be able to move out of a particular situation or move into another level of quality of life, or a different income bracket.’ Although Elizabeth runs the business entirely around the artisanal women – she now considers it a social project, rather than a solely creative endeavor – the reality of the present moment is that hand-knitting is not yet viable as a means to total financial independence for artisans.
But some light filters through the heavy-knit. Elizabeth is now working with a large cooperative of indigenous Wichí women in Formosa who work with plant fibers, in a technique called chaguar, and together they have found a way to mingle Elizabeth’s own design aesthetic with their indigenous craft, in a way that generates a higher profit margin, meaning that she can pay the artisans more per piece. ‘I would like to contribute to prolonging that heritage’ she says, ‘and while I design everything, its a collaborative process. I’ll say: “we’re gonna make this design in this stitch and we’re going to embroider it all here” and they’ll just look at me like “you can’t embroider on that stitch” and i’m like “ok, well you guys tell me what we’re going to do!”‘ she laughs. ‘I rely so much on their expertise’ she emphasizes.
And later, in the studio, I see what she means. Looking at Elizabeth’s vibrant drawings of the jumpers, and then at the finished product, its clear that she encourages the women to use their creativity, embroidering and knitting in colors and shapes that they choose. As a non-knitter, her ethos is to trust the wealth of artisanal knowledge that these women possess: ‘I can make a drawing, or show them a sample, and they just do magic.’
Difficult and unworkable as it may sometimes seem at the moment, collaborations between artisan and designer must become the future for the fashion industry. Improvements in carbon footprint, women’s welfare and empowerment aside, ethical brands like URSA facilitate almost instantaneous wealth distribution, with the sale of each jumper transferring $250 (the average cost of an URSA sweater) from customers who are (usually) based in the US or Europe into the hands of artisanal Argentine women.
The sector has a long, long way to go before ethical, feminist fashion is the norm, but companies like URSA, producing beautiful, stylish, conscious clothing leave little excuse to those who can afford it, for shopping unethically.