The Amazing Technicolor Localcoat: The Economics of Etsy

The Etsy blog just posted this story about a woman’s quest to completely locally source a coat.

It’s presented as a great success, a doable thing (even though the coat cost $900) and a harbinger of, or at least an indicator for a possible mechanism for a new economy.

And here’s where your humble narrator goes: hrmmmmm.

Because if you read that article, you may or may not notice the several things that I did. Now, I’m not saying this lady is wrong and should feel bad–she’s fine, she went on a journey and this is what she found. But the triumphalism is a little odd. Look:

Just fifteen minutes from my front door, mills used to transform locally-grown fiber into beautiful fabric. All that capability is gone now, off-shored in the 1990s.

Yep, me too. Except…she’s in Sonoma Country, which was wine country by the 1990s, and not mill country in the way, say, the entire state of Maine was. But ok, sure, there was a mill there. But the vanishing of the textile industry (which went down in this country LONG before the 1990s, hell, Kerouac wrote about it) is presented as a tragedy here. A lost time of beauty and care, the creation of exquisite, handcrafted items loved by all.

That is not what a textile mill does. The idea that we’ve been expelled from the Eden of…mass-produced textiles that probably didn’t spend one second in Sonoma County before being shipped who knows where is fascinating, and indicative of where the local movement is going a bit awry. Yes, things were made there. No, they did not stay there, and if you’re longing for the Xanadu of early 90s manufacturing in California, well, I don’t even know. Sonoma County has become vastly rich doing exactly what locavores delight in: making wines. Locally. Charging a lot for them. I don’t think anyone there would trade the money of yuppie wine lovers for the return of the textile mills, with their cancerous fumes and river-polluting and punishing working conditions. BUT IT WAS LOCAL.

You know what part of the country would love to have the textile industry back, though? New England! Because in its wake, it left a hugely economically depressed region that has not been able to recover due to damn near perfect growing conditions for expensive wine! So I feel like I have a little bit of a handle on how to make a local coat, given that I live in Post-Apocalyptic CoatWorld USA. But back to that in a moment.

Because she doesn’t make her coat locally. If you pay attention, she admits that they “could not” locally source the following items: the silk liner for the coat, cotton thread, and magnets to use as a coat closure because the designer didn’t want to make buttonholes for some reason. I presume the olive oil soap used to clean the fiber was also not local, nor the muslin used to make the pattern.

Alright, so this is only a locally made coat in the loosest sense, isn’t it? In that: the alpaca was local. The felter and carder were local. The designer was local. That’s it. Every other aspect of the coat was made somewhere else, and in the case of the magnets, probably somewhere very else. And it cost $900.

Normally, I wouldn’t say anything, but this is specifically touted as “dress locally” and a new economy success story. All the comments are supportive of that read on it, and it’s the thesis of the article. Apparently this “new economy” still needs all the trappings of the old economy, but as long as you don’t think about it, it’s still morally pure.

So I started thinking about this, because I am a fiber artist who makes some of my own clothing. Because if asked the question: can you make a single locally sourced garment if price is no object? The answer is: of fucking course. (At least where I live. I find vocal locavore evangelists sometimes forget that not everyone lives in California, the Pacific Northwest, and other areas of highly fertile land and an affluent population that can support all of these high-priced, handmade, local $900 coat movements. If you want to eat locally year-round in Maine, I hope you really like dried beans, because the winter CSA will airlift a freaking crate of them to your door.)

So: I am a knitter. I have the most rudimentary of sewing skills. I still think I can make this happen for under $900 and be, you know, actually local.

So, first, the yarn. Nothing to it. I can drive 15 minutes out of town and get all the alpaca fluff I want, in pretty much any direction. I can card it myself, and though my spinning skills are probably not up to making the fine yarn needed, there is an amazing spinner on this very island I could give it to to turn it into yarn for me. While she’s at it, she can spin some thread that I can send to the nice lady in California. I am baffled at the notion that thread must be cotton, or that cotton is somehow not a crop that grows and is for sale in central California, the most fertile place on earth. If the spinner is not available, I suppose I could just practice a little more and do it myself.

I am fully capable of designing my own pattern and knitting it–I highly suspect the lion’s share of that $900 went to the clothing designer and the three fittings, not to the alpaca farmers, though of course I could be wrong. I am capable of this because I’ve spent four years knitting and learning, and the article is absolutely right that that knowledge is always factored into any price. But I promise, you can do it, too.You can also felt your knitting in your washing machine for approximately $0.

At this point, we come to the lining. Now, I question the need for it to be chiffon silk to begin with–when attempting high-grade localness, sometimes you have to make do with linen like a plebe. But ok, sure. Let’s pretend it has to be silk, because it’s not just a local movement, it’s an affluent local movement, and what would the other Whole Foods moms say? Well, a quick Google search did not turn up any silkworm farms in Maine. Sad face! Turns out the state subsidized silkworm farms in the mid 1800s but since they only eat mulberry leaves and mulberry trees don’t dig the frigid cold, it didn’t take. Hilariously, though, searching for silkworm farms in Maine turned up as the fourth hit a silkworm farm in Fallbrook, CA, which is a bit rough for the local tag at 500 miles from Sonoma, but you can also contact the UC Davis cooperative, as they farm them, too, and that’s not even 100 miles from Sonoma. (Also I went to high school there. Go Aggies!)

So, they could have gotten locally sourced silk, but I cannot. However, there at least five or six serious weavers on my island and I’m pretty damned sure I can get a nice piece of fine linen to line my jacket with and I would somehow be able to face my silkless image in the mirror every morning.

For buttons–and I cannot comprehend a designer that, knowing the goal is to make as locally sourced a garment as possible, decides she doesn’t want to cut the fabric and make buttonholes because fuck buttonholes I guess, and goes for magnets. Which they didn’t even try to locally source–even though Southern California boasts several magnet manufacturers (remember, mills are awesome, so it doesn’t matter whether those magnets are made in terrible conditions, they are made in-state) and the Mountain Pass Mine, the largest rare metals mine in the United States–specifically metals used in the creation of magnets. Now, that mine just opened last year. Maybe it won’t be as rich as we think. But you can make magnets in middle-school science class, for reals, guys.

Yeah, I’ll think make some buttonholes.

Then I’d go to my local yarn store (owned by an islander!), who carries beautiful pewter carved buttons from a Portland metalworker. Or I’d make glass buttons myself with my lampworking setup at home. I can even manage the olive oil soap, as there is actually an olive oil press outside of Portland, and they make soap.

I would estimate my total materials and someone-else’s-labor cost for the coat at about $150, much less if I spun the fleece myself, maybe $220 if I had to buy the yarn already spun up (which I could still do locally). Does the experience and knowledge of 2-3 humans plus my time knitting the coat add up to a $700 markup? I don’t know. Maybe. Probably not, if we’re really trying to show what local economies can do.

Her coat wasn’t knitted at all but felted straight from the fleece. Knitting takes longer, but knitting for felting can go pretty quickly. Call the whole thing $300 to sell, not to make–which is being very generous, because I’m positive that with my New Economy shoes on, I could barter for the weaving and the spinning. 66% off, and not far from what you’d pay for a good alpaca coat from the mall. Still not cheap, and I didn’t support any local clothing designers except, I guess, me. (Designers do good work, too! But the experiment here was simply to have a locally-sourced coat, not a runway-ready one.) I’m lowballing the profit margin…because I recognize that people do not have that much to spend. I don’t make coats for a living, obviously. I believe strongly that the benefit of localness has to be weighed against the cost to that very community, and we can’t all sell each other $1000 clothes. Again, the issue was never to make a fashion-forward coat of awesome that would make the drag queen angels weep. It was: can you dress locally. And the ease with which the affluent can insist a pricetag like that is reasonable and scalable enough to change the way our economy works bothers me on a deep level.

Normally, I wouldn’t make such a stink. I would maybe Tweet about it. Locally made garment. Cool. But this article made such a big deal about the very special localness of this experiment in the new economy, when really, only one item used in the making of the coat was locally sourced. What the word “local” means has always been a sticking point for me as this movement has grown–often the big showy items are local, but the invisible stuff, cookware to prepare that meal, spices, salt, thread, magnets, plates, require the entire apparatus of the industrial economy to be in full swing. Yes, it’s a good thing to invest in your community and get things locally, in no small part because it often tastes a hell of a lot better if it’s food, but to pretend like this is the New World while benefiting greatly from the presence and continuation of the Old World puts my nose out of joint. It also ignores that people in other communities also matter, and need jobs, like to be able to make money off of their farms, their art, the work of their hands. I assure you, much of the state of Maine would be happy to make your coat with the love of the common man in their hearts, weeping righteous tears right into the fabric. But that wouldn’t be local if you live in California. And the word, the dare we say label, has become more important than anything else.

What I think we want when we say we want localness is story. We want to know about the things we use because we’ve become very disconnected from those things. We want to feel some affinity with what we use, what we eat, what we wear. We like knowing the names of the people who made it, because that makes us feel more human, more invested in the world. It makes us happy, because we are creatures who seek company, tribes, and depth. And if you can get those things, maybe it matters a little less how few miles they came to get to you. I got a necklace from Etsy today. It came from Sacramento. Not local–but still made by a human girl whose name and face I’ve seen, if only in a photograph.

But the pricetag of the coat gets in my grill too. Nothing that involves a $1000 coat is a harbinger of a new economy. It’s the old economy, where the rich can afford to have beautiful handmade things and the rest of us are priced into manufactured t shirts. There’s a crack in bloody Gosford Park about that little socio-economic turn of the tide. It happened around the year 1900. It is OH SO Industrial Revolution. The article admits this, but, because it’s the Etsy blog, asks whether you wouldn’t want to be paid $900 to make a coat? Well, we all want things. But if your new economy of local, communal friendship and cooperative manufacturing relies on someone else being wealthy enough in the old economy sense to want to pay you in cash during a Depression what a goodly portion of us pay in rent? Then you’re not out to change the world. You’re just out for your share from the bad old system as it is.

And that’s fine. It really, really is. We all need to make our way. But it’s not an Etsy-messiah triumph of local economies nor does it prove anything about a new way of living.

That article asks: Can you make a locally sourced garment? It believes that it has answered yes. It is super excited about the answer being yes! My point is that the story as presented actually says no. But the real answer is still yes, it just takes a little more research and time. But not more money, necessarily.

Some of this may have seemed harsh, and I really have no beef with the author of the article. She seems really nice and enthusiastic.

But she’s not wearing a locally-sourced coat.

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