By Ainsley Ross
During quarantine in mid 2020, interest in crafts and hobbies grew exponentially. Decreased work, limited social interaction, and what felt like never-ending free time all led people to pick up new activities – among those was the craft of crochet. Crochet, commonly confused with knitting, uses one hook instead of two needles. It rose in social media trends and even made its way to the runways in designer collections, such as Anna Sui’s Spring 2022 Ready-to-Wear Collection.
Crocheters often create content for TikTok or Instagram and sell their work on an online marketplace, like Etsy. Handmade crochet is worth a significant amount of money due to the high-level skill required of the work. A popular crafting blog and social media site for crafters, lovecrafts.com, has a page that can estimate how long it would take to crochet certain patterns. You can enter your skill level, how often you crochet per week, and what you want to create. For a “crochet whizz” who crochets for 20 hours a week, equivalent to a part time job, the website estimates it would take 18 hours to finish a sweater. At the minimum wage of Arizona, $12.80 per hour, the labor cost of that sweater would be $230.40. When you factor in all of the supplies used, a crafter is able to justify charging around $250 for a handmade sweater.
In reality, that sweater would be incredibly hard to sell. A seller is likely to charge closer to $100 depending on the skill and time required. This Etsy shop is selling a handmade crochet cardigan for $111, with free shipping. A buyer can select the color and size, indicating that the shop owner is hand making every item to order. The price still seems high to most consumers, and that’s where fast fashion enters the ring.
Fast fashion brands are notorious for underpaying their workers in order to create cheap products while still making a profit. We see it most commonly in Shein – a controversial company that is able to price clothes at a significantly low rate due to the fact that most of their labor comes from sweatshops. Crochet in fast fashion is a glaring problem that shines a light on the crimes committed by these companies. The problem begins with the fact that crochet stitches cannot be machine made. Although there is a machine that creates a similar pattern, it’s not a true crochet.
There are two kinds of knitting machines – the “weft machine” and the “warp machine.” The weft machine creates typical knitting stitches, something that’s been widely used in creating knitted fashion for years. The warp knitting machine is the closest to creating crochet stitches. It does use a hook similar to that of the one in hand crochet in order to create crochet-adjacent products. But it can’t fully replicate the techniques of hand crochet. According to an article published in Refinery 29, “[m]achines are incapable of creating the transverse chains that are a definitive attribute of hand crochet.”
This “DAZY Geo Crochet Shrug Cardigan” is priced on Shein for only $18; it’s made by creating “granny squares” and stitching them together. Shein is able to price crochet items – and all of their stock – at such a low point because they are extremely underpaying their workers.
A report by Public Eye, a Swiss-based advocacy group, found that most Shein workers in China are working 75 hours a week. This number goes against the Shein code of conduct for its suppliers and also violates Chinese labor laws that state that the maximum work hours per week is 40. Employees are paid per item they make – higher wages for higher quality items. So, a worker creating a hand-stitched crochet top would earn more than they would making a basic tank top, but even so the wage is significantly less than what they deserve to be paid. There is no hourly rate, and there are no employee contracts. Most small factories that supply to Shein have no emergency exits, multiple fire hazards, poor ventilation systems, and sometimes even abusive supervisors. A worker in one of these factories has no right to sue their employer or demand higher pay. All of this amounts to abhorrent working conditions for the employees while the Shein executives make a large profit.
It isn’t just Shein. Brand names like Target, H&M, Zara and Forever 21 all employ similar sweatshop conditions to mass produce items that seem reasonably priced to a consumer. A search for “crochet” on H&M yields 99 results with every item at a low price point. The difference with H&M is that they use the term “crochet-look” in their descriptions, meaning they are likely made with the warp knitting machine and are therefore a faux crochet. H&M has recently added a feature that allows shoppers to view the background of a product as a part of their sustainability pledge. In their pledge in 2013, they promised that workers in their supply chain would be paid a liveable wage by 2018. Although they’ve made progress in increasing standards in the textile industry, the company has not met their promise. Reuters reported that in 2018, most employees in Chinese factories only made about 49 cents an hour, which is nowhere near a liveable wage.
Another large problem with the fast fashion industry is its negative impact on the environment. The trend cycle is so short that clothes are thrown away after only a few months. Princeton reports that “57% of all discarded clothing ends up in landfill.” Low prices encourage consumers to purchase new clothing for every trend, and as a result they throw away items from the old ones. Producers also use cheaper materials in order to cut costs. Low quality synthetic materials are at fault for about 35% of all microplastics in the oceans. Plastic microfibers cannot be removed from the ocean and can end up in human diets. And to top it all off, the fashion industry is responsible for one tenth of all the water used in industries to run factories. Most factories are in underdeveloped countries where water is a precious resource. A single cotton shirt takes 2,700 liters of water to make, which could be enough drinking water for one person for 900 days, Florida State University said. The fast fashion industry, and the huge corporations behind it, are directly damaging an environment that is already hurtling toward irreversible damage.
Because their products are so cheap, fast fashion companies are taking business away from individual sellers. Some sellers rely on this type of work as their main source of income. A typical consumer looking at a crochet sweater for $100 on Etsy or $20 on Shein is going to have no problem choosing the cheapest option. When corporations pull in customers by charging such a low price, small business owners lose out on a purchase; even one less sale can greatly hurt their business.
. But the blame doesn’t land on the shopper. The blame lies with fast fashion executives using deplorable practices to make the largest profit. Until companies take responsibility and change their practices, fast fashion will continue to hurt its workers, the environment, and small businesses.
As consumers in a world where ethically made items are nearly impossible to find or afford, the best we can do is try. Try to purchase second hand. Try to purchase from companies that have proven to pay a fair wage and minimize their effect on the environment, such as Reformation and Patagonia. Maybe even try to make your own clothing. Because until the industry is remade, all we can do is try to minimize our own contribution to harm.