As part of the Freshman Symposium "signature experience," a group of ninth-grade students marked women's history month by exploring the history of sewing as "women's work" both at home and in factories. Students focused on the transition from homemade to factory (or "ready made") clothing during the decades from 1890 to 1920 as well as the conditions garment workers face today. They examined the economic necessity of sewing, especially for working class women and women of color, as well as the symbolic value of home-sewn clothes for middle and upper class families. "I never really thought about the significance and symbolism of sewing," Lia Bull-Krieg wrote in a reflection on her learning.
Having studied the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in 1911, students then watched a documentary about sweatshops in Los Angeles today. Campbell Adams lamented the fact that when immigrant girls at the Triangle protested abusive working conditions, "owners were willing to take action against the strikers by paying people to beat them up and police to turn a blind eye" while young women and teenagers were assaulted in the streets. Brooke Morales was surprised to discover that in Los Angeles, "some of the most popular stores that most of us shop at, like Forever 21, are using bad labor conditions and sweatshops." The global scope of the garment industry inspired Anna Dawson to wonder about the lives of women and children manufacturing clothes in China, India, and Bangladesh.
Cynthia Rusiecki, vice president of production at American Eagle (and Dr. Vikki Lombardo's sister) Skyped with students, answering their questions about the global garment manufacturing process, the production schedule of "fast fashion," and her career more generally. "I found how fashion is going to be in the future most interesting," Kriti Aitharaju wrote in her reflection on the conversation. "There will be all websites and the clothes won't be made until someone wants to purchase it. They will not make clothing until someone needs it." Allison Tarbotton had imagined that sewing could be done by machines, even robots, but after talking with Ms. Rusiecki realized that "the intricacies of the task and how tedious it is" explain "why people physically sewing is more effective."
Students spent most of their time in the MakerSpace, working with Dr. Vikki Lombardo and Ms. Alicia Testa, learning to hand and machine sew. They crafted teddy bears, pillow cases, eye masks, and zipper bags using Stuart's sewing machines while also repairing school uniforms for our gently-used uniform store, the Encore Emporium. Many students expressed an interest in continuing to practice sewing. Misha Meyer hopes to learn "how to tailor clothing that is store bought, or that you already have. Hemming skirts or pants, and making things fit more personally to yourself. Or embellishing and adding details to store bought clothing!"
Misha summed up the entire experience: "This week really opened my eyes and was a learning experience! Glad that I was a participant in this symposium, and it's definitely something I will remember."