Fingerprints on jeans, illustration by Alice Payne
In op shops you can immediately tell home made clothes, and not just because there’s no label. Whenever I wear them, I’m conscious that someone like me made them. Her fingerprints are all over it.
Maybe I see how she zigzagged the inside seams and pressed them flat (she didn’t have an overlocker). I know she ironed the fusing under the facings on herself (she’d have an old padded ironing board, the kind that collapses if you press too hard).
She stitched the hems by hand at the exact height to flatter her, using neat criss crosses, just grabbing a skerrick of cloth on the outside, so that the the front of the garment just shows tiny dots (where it comes loose I repair it, not quite matching her thread).
In contrast, the new clothes I look at in store are pristine. If I compare the same style and size by rifling through the rack, or even spreading them out and turning them inside out, they’ll be identical with barely a flaw to distinguish one from another.
Because they’re so perfect, it’s hard to remember that all of them were hand made by someone, following a process not dissimilar to that of the home sewer. A machinist sat there, turning and feeding the cut cloth beneath the sewing machine presser foot. Throughout the process her or his hands were all over it. But the most we’ll ever know about these makers is the country they’re from.
Since the Bangladeshi factory collapse in 2013, around the world people have been thinking about the makers of our clothes.
The recent short film Handprint reflects on this theme. It shows a young woman dressing for the evening, her clothes being smoothed and fastened by anonymous hands. In the mirror, confronting her, are the reflections of all the people who mined the diamonds she wears and stitched her clothes and shoes.
It’s a poetic idea, that the maker’s handprint remains on the garment. But in fact it may remain more literally than we realise.
Kitty Hauser wrote in 2005 about the fingerprints of the people who make our clothes.
According to forensic evidence, each pair of jeans bears a specific pattern in the flat felled seams. The three layers of denim, walked by hand beneath the machine’s presser foot, have a unique pattern to them that can be traced back to the original machinist.
In one notable court case, Hauser describes how this seam pattern helped the criminal in a bank heist be convicted based on the seams of his jeans. Using the ‘fingerprint’ of the seam, the jeans could be traced back to the exact factory they were made in and presumably, back to the maker her or himself.
What’s powerful about Hauser’s story is the suggestion that even in the anonymity of mass-produced goods, traces of the maker may remain. Next time I’m looking at jeans, I’ll try and see if I can make out these patterns.