Middle school style in the 90s included Champion sweatshirts worn waaay too big. I was proud of mine, of course, nabbed from the nearby Tultex outlet.
Standing in the lunch line one day, a kid tapped me on the shoulder, bragged that his mom had probably made my sweatshirt. It's been more than 25 years and I still remember the quiet pride in his voice.
In southwestern Virginia in the early 90s textiles loomed large, employing more than 20,000 people. It was normal to talk about parents on first, second or third shifts. Dupont, Fieldcrest Canon, Sara Lee, Bassett Walker and Tultex huffed and puffed day and night making things like sweatshirts, underwear, T-shirts, pants, jackets and towels.
But like a boxing match where the loser never recovers from one blow before the next comes, the textile factories started shuttering in 1998, devastating the economics of my hometown.
It wasn’t until I read Beth Macy’s Factory Man that I began to think about my role as a consumer. Though the book was about the furniture industry in my hometown, the parallels with textiles are obvious. I wanted to buy clothes as cheap as possible so I could buy as much as possible.
I had yet to think about what it meant—all the things at play economically and humanistically—when I bought that $5 T-shirt at Marshalls. I also had yet to think about what I was doing with all those clothes I was buying as cheap as possible when I could no longer wear them.
Here’s what I’ve learned since: More than 10 million tons of clothing end up in American landfills each year. And, as Kristi Wooten writes in a story for the Bitter Southerner:
“To maintain our American lifestyles and afford abundance at low prices, we turn a blind eye to human rights violations, low wages, land stripping, toxic chemicals and other offenses of textile manufacturing that occur internationally and sometimes even on U.S. soil.”
Last summer, I tried to hike up a large mountain in a favorite pair of jeans. They split down the butt in a way that makes a funny story later. I couldn’t throw them away, I’d lived so much life in them. So, they flew back home with me, I folded them up and stuck them in a drawer like the old diary they were, figuring I’d think of something to do with them.
Long story short, that’s how Hem+Haw was born—a crazy hope that rethinking how we use what we have can make a dent in what we discard.