Thursday, June 28, 2012

Interview with a Former Garment Factory Worker

My mom is one of the most accomplished, brilliant people I know. Not only did she immigrate to the US as an adult and have to teach herself English, she also went back to college and got her CPA while raising three kids (who are all upstanding, contributing citizens, if I do say so myself). What's even more incredible is that she did all that after being garment factory worker in Hong Kong as a teen.

This is similar to what the factory looked like inside. [picture]

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.

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.]

42 comments:

  1. This is for your dad...

    I came across your daughter's blog through a link on someone else's blog and, after poking around a bit, became a subscriber. I love to follow along as she drafts patterns to make her own clothes and adds her own creative style to each one. I love when she injects a bit of geekiness into her designs (I'm a science teacher geek, myself!) and I enjoy when she is candid about her difficulties as she drafts/sews her patterns. I feel as if I'm learning right along with her. And, while I haven't attempted to draft my own patterns yet, I'm saving up for a dress form so I can give it a go soon. In the meantime, I'm stocking up on plenty of fun fabrics so I can follow your daughter's lead!

    I found this blog post on working in a factory to be rather interesting. I worked in a weaving mill during the summers when I was in college and while it was loud, dusty and tedious at times, it was interesting to see a fabric being woven from spools of yarn/thread. Of course, I worked at the pace of the weaving looms, replacing the yarn as needed, and didn't do piece-work, but the experiences were similar. Big boxes of stinky yarn would be delivered and we'd have to set up the cones of yarn on the loom so the weavers could start up the machines. Speed was important, and some of those workers could tie and clip the yarn at lightning speed. As a summer worker, I never got up to their same rate!

    Anyway, that's who I am and why I read your daughter's blog (and I live in Massachusetts, so I've never met her, and probably never will!)!

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  2. What a great interview! Your mom is very candid and honest to admit that people would steal from the factory. It's also great to hear a nonbiased opinion.

    Oh and my grandparents think the same thing about blogging. They think it is completely weird!

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  3. Thank you for posting your mother's story. It was very interesting to read. I think it's important to think about how different people can have drastically different experiences about the same thing--in this case, sewing. It's great that you and your mom can have a dialogue about this.

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  4. Wow, very cool interview! My grandma was a farm wife and sewed for her kids when they were little, and during the time I knew her sew sewed lots of craft/decoration type things and sold them at fairs... so that's kindof making a living off sewing, but not nearly as demanding as working in a factory I'm sure. It's just interesting to hear about people's lives that are so different.
    Oh, and my dad doesn't totally understand blogging either, or facebook!

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  5. Very, very interesting. Thank you for taking the time to do this interview!

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  6. Very interesting interview - thanks for posting it and thank your mom for sharing!

    In a lot of ways it reminds me of working in a costume shop (10-12 hour days with a 30 min lunch is pretty normal) only way more formally & rigidly supervised. In a costume shop, we are usually all friends to some degree and we get to personally keep a lot of the scraps and notions at the end of a build. And I am glad I don't have to do just one little thing over and over like in a factory - factory workers don't get to be creative.

    And tell your dad that you have friends all over the world even if you've never seen them in person. =)

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  7. I enjoyed reading this interview and appreciate that it's made me stop to think more in-depth about sewing and how it's classified as a luxury. Before now I'd never call myself privileged to be able to learn to sew as a hobby, but it certainly makes sense. Definitely something I shouldn't take for granted. Thanks.

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  8. thanks for sharing this interview, very interesting!

    re: your dad comments... i have this very conversation inside my head every time i sit down to write up my own blog posts, so i had to chuckle a bit! let him know you DO have plenty of people who are interested in what you write!

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  9. That was a really interesting read. Thanks for sharing.

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  10. I love your blog! I come from Nevada-land! lol.

    This is a great interview, and I think really helpful to know her experiences, and that she regards them as a good thing, that she learned skills that helped support her family. There are a lot of ideas here that all Chinese factories are evil sweatshops, but I think your Mom's interview helps explain the truth. Thank you for posting this!

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  11. love this interview! Thank you for sharing! :)

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  12. Great interview, really thought provoking, especially the last answer. Your mum sounds awesome - I like the fact that she's no nonsense, just like my mum! x

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  13. Your interview was awesome. You parents are so cute! I talk about blogs I read all the time to my mother and she is often super confused about how I "got so many new friends" when I never leave the state. It makes me giggle.

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  14. Love this!! It is always interesting to hear a different perspective and different experiences! Tell your mom I said Thank you!

    Also, tell your dad I read your blog because you are an inspiration!

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  15. So interesting. Thank your mom for doing this interview.

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  16. I just started subscribing, you can let your dad know that I personally subscribe to over 100 blogs. In the morning I read blog updates like others read the paper.

    My grandmother supported her family with a librarian's salary and sewed ALL of the family's clothing. I learned to sew as a little girl, but turned away from it as a teenager because where I grew up only poor people sewed their own clothing.

    Now I sew to alter RTW and for my hobby (historical costuming).

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  17. Have you ever shown your Dad your list of followers? If he doesn't understand blogging, maybe you should try to find a blog that shares an interest of his. He might get it then, but then again maybe not.

    I enjoyed your interview with your mom, her experience makes me feel grateful for having the good fortune to be born in North America. As a first generation Canadian I have always understood how fortunate I am to grow up here. Please thank you Mom for sharing her story with all of your readers.

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    1. make that Please thank youR Mom.

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  18. What an interesting view of how life was (and probably still is in some places). Thank you for sharing your mothers story! I really enjoyed reading it.

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  19. Wow, what an amazing interview! How cool to have a first hand account of something that seems so far away and nebulous to us here. It's also so cool that you translated it all! Man, it would be so cool to be bilingual...

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  20. I love it! Thanks for sharing this interview with you mum, it was very interesting to read. My mum says the same thing, that sewing hobby is better than playing video games or going out drinking... but i do love a drink!! hhehe!!!!!

    It was so good of your mum to work to support the family, at the age of 13! wow!!!!

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  21. That is FASCINATING! thank your mom so much.

    I interviewed my grandma about sewing for my blog... I'm not sure she understands what it was for, either. :)

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  22. That was such a great read - much respect to your Mother for what she has achieved and wow, working 10 hour days at the age of 13!!

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  23. Thank you to both you & your Mom for sharing this story - a fascinating read; I hung on to every word!

    Does your Father read newspapers? Tell him it's like a well-written newspaper article, but much more interesting, fun to read, and with color pictures to boot! ;-D He probably won't get the interactive thing, so no need to go there....

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  24. Thats an awesome interview :-) Its so cool that you can ask those questions. I wonder if the industry your mum learned in has changed a lot since she was young.

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  25. This was so interesting and thank you so much to you and your mum for this! XxxX http://thesecondhandrose.blogspot.co.uk

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  26. This was really interesting! Thanks for sharing.

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  27. I worked in a sewing factory in Canada. To my knowlege there was no stealing but I could be wrong on that. The ladies were pretty tight and wouldn't let me into their group (so it isn't likely they would have told me if they did steal). That was a worst thing...I was lonely. The other worst thing was sewing the same thing over and over and over and over. I was "sew" bored. I think that killed sewing for me for 25 years! My job was to sew the little cuffs that go inside ski pants. We used to call them mouse skirts. Interesting to see the differences between China and Canada. There would have been no under aged workers. The laws are tough...sinply hiding them in the bathroom wouldn't have worked and you would need more than a non photo ID!

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  28. Thank you for posting this Cindy! (and thanks to your sounds-pretty-great Mum for sharing). I've done a lot of reading about conditions in garment factories and your mom's account is thankfully not as harrowing as some I've heard, but still, makes you thankful we are not chained to our sewing machines for 10 hours a day because we HAVE to be.

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  29. excellent interview!!! there is so much to glean from knowing that aspect. thanks for sharing :)

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  30. Really fantastic post...thanks so much for interviewing your mum....she sounds like a great lady (and btw. love your dad's comments...made me chuckle).

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  31. This was fascinating and humbling. Thank you and please thank your mother for sharing. I admire her for talking so candidly and with so little self-pity about what must have been a very difficult childhood. To imagine her attending night school after working all day, or saving her pennies or skipping her lunch break just to be able to spend some precious time with friends... It's heartbreaking and heartening, at the same time. What a strong, clever woman she was and is.

    P.S. Tell your father you have at least one reader in Israel. :)

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    1. Make that two ;) Come for tea, Dora, will you?

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  32. This is an amazing story. I'm pretty dead inside but I totally started tearing up as I read this, thank you so much for sharing this story, and thanks to your mom for being willing to talk about this time in her life. I am so humbled and impressed with her life and they way she approached it. Thank you. You have the best mom.
    strugglesewsastraightseam.wordpress.com

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  33. Thank you for sharing this interesting story - and tell your dad, that I'm from Austria (Europe) and that I really love your blog ... and Walnut! ;)

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  34. An echo of thanks for sharing, and to your mom for her willingness to offer up her experiences. I love her candid answers. It's quite true that sewing one's clothes is a privilege in many ways now, rather than a necessity (like many "back to basics" hobbies). My mom worked in a very small shop as a seamstress, though as an adult. The hours were long, the pay was little (definitely not a living wage, though not cents per item). There are some similarities, yet many striking differences.

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  35. This was a really cool read; garment factories are something that I think Western people have a lot of misconceptions about, and I always appreciate being given a bit more understanding about things that we have very little first hand knowledge about :)

    I love your mum's candor, and your dad's comments too - thank you so much for sharing this! :)

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  36. Thank you for taking thetimeto do this, and to your Mum for sharing!ive only just foundyourblog from Tanit-isis and have just subscribed. You can add a Brit to your list too! Don't worry about yourDad, mine gets blogging but my Husband doesn't!

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  37. This was a great and touching interview - many thanks to your Mom for sharing, and also to you for sharing with the rest of us! It definitely gives me a new perspective on the garment industry, and I appreciate that very very much.

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  38. Thanks for sharing this story! I love your dad's comments at the end, too.

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  39. I just stumbled on your blog today and have really enjoyed it so far. I just had to comment on this post in particular after reading your Dad's responses. As a non-blogger myself it startles me at at times to realize how many people read/comment on a blog post and just randomly find each other on the internet.

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  40. Amazing story- thank your Mom for sharing. Tell your Dad that your following has everything to do with your wit, intelligence, geekery, and your problem solving skills that include argument simplifications such as real sewing for a living> hobby sewing> video games. However, this argument implies that sewing ≠ life skill and earning money>engaging in a hobby. While a source of income is a given (necessary), it follows that other non sewing activities such as cooking might follow a similar pattern--- cooking for a living>cooking at home ("hobby cooking" for friends and family). Cooking or sewing on deadlines for companies/clients can certainly take the joy out of the activity (equation?). If your income can buy the services that you desire - here, perfectly executed meals or fabulous well-fitting and stylish clothing, and your hobbies are limited to other pursuits, then earning a living > these hobbies. But not, perhaps, for the hobbies that are ultimately chosen.
    Besides Walnut and your adventures, your blog provides a teacher's finesse for guidance in navigating design and construction for those sewists who have had no other "Each One Teach One" resource while learning to sew. So, thank you for your time and generosity.

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