I always vaguely knew about this part of my mom's past, but having grown up working for my dad's company (elementary school students doing inventory, packing orders, making deliveries, etc.!), I never thought much about what her work actually consisted of. Now, as someone who's only recently come to realize how much work goes into a garment, I thought other sewists might also like to hear more about her experience. I interviewed her and translated her answers from Cantonese here.
|This is what the factory would have looked like. [picture]|
How did you start working at the factory in the first place?
I think I was thirteen...I had just finished sixth grade, and I needed to start working to help support the family. My dad was a bus driver and didn't make much, and our family had eight people to feed. A neighbor told my mom that a nearby garment factory was hiring and training workers, but you had to be fourteen. Since I wasn't fourteen yet, my mom borrowed an ID card from a friend's daughter to get me in. The ID cards at that time didn't have pictures, just names, so the whole time I worked there I worked under the name Yuen Yee Lee. The factory managers knew, of course, that some of us workers had stolen IDs and were obviously underage, so if inspectors came by they would tell all of us underage workers to go hide in the bathroom.
What type of factory was it? What garments did you work on?
I mostly worked on button-down shirts at the Lacoste factory. I started out working on cuff plackets, then moved on to other parts and pieces. After I became more advanced, I learned to sew jeans, but at the end of the first day I looked at my hands and they were all blue from the dye! I stopped working that shift because the sewing was too heavy duty and my hands would always be blue. I also tried a stint on knit garments, but that was more difficult because the fabric was trickier.
How big was the factory? How many other workers were there? What was the average age? What kind of training was provided?
The factory was huge! There were five or six floors, and there were at least a hundred workers on my floor. There were all ages of workers there. The younger workers would start by doing simpler pieces, then as you became more experienced they would have you work on more complex parts of the garment, and you would make more money. Actually, there were many mother-daughter pairs that worked in the same factory. As for training, the supervisor would sew one example piece for us, then we would be expected to start right away. If it turned out badly, I would have to rip it out and redo the piece.
What were the hours like? Breaks? Pay?
I worked at the factory for at least three years, maybe longer. I worked ten hours a day, starting at 8 am. I always had a hard time waking up in the morning because I also went to night school, so my younger sister, who worked at the same factory, always had a hard time rousing me. I had half an hour for lunch break, but I would eat quickly and then practice dance moves with my friends on the balcony. We could take restroom breaks, of course, but it had to be fast. We worked six days a week with a day off on Saturday. Usually factories would give you Sundays off, but our factory was owned by a Jewish man and so we got Saturdays off.
Every dozen items I sewed was a few cents, so I had to work very fast to make any money. I kept a watch next to me and told myself that I needed to make x number of garments every hour. From my pay, my mom would give me a very small fraction for lunch and bus money. If I woke up early enough, I could walk to the factory and save my money for movies and going out with friends.
What was the worst part of working there? The best part?
The worst part was when new shipments would arrive, the bolts of fabric had so many chemicals in them that I would always feel sick. The odor was so strong! Also, one time I wasn't paying attention and managed to get a needle through my finger. The supervisor had to take me to the factory clinic to get it taken care of. There actually weren't too many injuries, at least once you became experienced.
Once a year the factory would sponsor a field trip of sorts to the suburbs and we would have barbeques. Also, once a year they would offer a worker discount and you could buy two garments at 50% off. This was a big deal because Lacoste or Polo or any of these other high end brands were totally out of our normal price range.
Anything else interesting you want to share?
Some people (myself included) would steal from the company. We would bring our lunch pails with us to our workstations, and they were conveniently just the right size for a serger cone of thread. They would search our bags as we left the factory, but they never looked in our lunch pails. People would smuggle out thread, buttons, and even garment labels so that you could sew the brand name labels onto your own home-made clothes. You couldn't take too many, though, or else the supervisor would notice.
Looking back at the experience now, how do you feel about it? What is your attitude towards sewing now?
I'm glad for the experience, as I learned many skills. I still like sewing, although I don't make my own clothes anymore because I don't really have time to do so. I've also forgotten most of what I learned about pattern drafting, so now it's mostly repairing RTW clothing and easy home dec projects like curtains.
How do you feel about the growing movement to sew one's own clothing among people of my generation?
I think it's a good thing. It does take a lot of time to learn sewing, and time is not a luxury that everyone has. But if you have the time, it's better than just playing video games. However, for people of your generation, sewing is just a hobby that you do to show your ability to learn, or so that you can make cool things. For people of my generation, it was a skill that enabled you to make a living, so it's a totally different approach to the whole idea of sewing.
So there you have it -- the candid answers of a no-nonsense Chinese mom, pointing out that real sewing for a living > hobby sewing > video games. I love it. Thanks, Mom, for letting me interview you!
[Incidentally, while I was asking my mom these questions, my dad walked by and was all, "Does anyone even read what you write? Who are you writing this for, anyway?" The concept of blogging is beyond him. When I tried to explain about subscribers and such, he asked suspiciously, "Where do all these people come from? Do you know them all? Why do they want to read your blog?" Le sigh.]