Made In China

Recently, my eyes have been opened to the working conditions in Chinese factories and the lives of their migrant workers, through books and documentaries such as Factory Girls and China Blue. Every year millions of young men and women travel from their homes in poor farming villages to the cities, in an attempt to work their way out of poverty. They are looking for jobs in one of China’s many sprawling factory complexes, in order to earn money to send home to their families and build a new life. They see this migration from the countryside as a great opportunity, a chance to better themselves and make their families proud. However, for many of these migrants, the reality is harsh working conditions, long hours and very little pay…

As a textile design student, I think it’s important that I look into the working conditions many migrant workers face in Chinese textile and garment factories. I did a bit of research, and what I found was unsettling. It seems that once someone gets a job in a factory, they are somewhat trapped. Young and in a lot of cases naïve, new employees are rushed into signing contracts, without being given a chance to read them, and most likely never given a copy. They are often rushed into the workplace on the same day as applying, and sent to work, with minimal to no safety training, just a brief run through of their responsibilities. Once employees have started working, it is immediately very difficult to leave the factory. It is likely that if an employee works less than a certain time before leaving, for example a week or even a month, they will receive no wages at all. In a lot of cases if you attempt to resign before you have done a couple of years work at the factory, you will be fined a substantial amount of money. Workers tend to work for twelve hours a day, six days a week, and sometimes even more during peak season. Payment is below minimum wage and sometimes does not cover the cost of living. In fact, garment factories in particular are apparently amongst the lowest paying in China. Also, more often than not, workers are not provided with paid sick or maternity leave.

The harsh conditions at some garment factories also pose a major health risk to workers. For example, factories are often very hot, with little or no ventilation, this can be a huge health hazard when employees are forced to work in these spaces using various dyes and chemicals, with no gloves, masks, etc, to protect them from fumes and hazardous materials. Workers using concentrated dyes in these conditions on a regular basis can end up with breathing problems and other serious health issues.

I wonder how many people here in the UK take this into account when buying their clothes? Clothes that may have been produced in factories just like this…

I did a bit of asking around, and the general response I received was that people don’t tend to check out where a garment has been made before purchasing it, where and how clothes are made isn’t something that most people usually think about unless it’s brought to their attention. I asked if people would prefer to buy clothing that had been made in the UK rather than in China, and the majority said yes for various different reasons, whether that be supporting the British economy/clothing industry, better quality garments or so they’re not supporting factories that mistreat workers. However, I then asked them if they would still do so if the British made piece were more expensive, and the response changed. People said they would pay more ‘within reason’ or ‘to an extent’.

I’m embarrassed to admit, that until now, I can’t say I paid a great deal of attention to where my clothes were made either. I had a quick look through my wardrobe the other night, and found that quite a few things in there had been made in China. I asked myself the same questions I asked others, and firstly I thought to myself, yes, I’d do my best to buy the good quality, ethically produced British product, but on reflection I suppose I’m rather conflicted. On the one hand I don’t feel comfortable supporting factories in China that take advantage of vulnerable, young workers, but then again, if I don’t, will I be putting an already poor person out of a job and forcing them back into a way of life they tried so hard to leave behind? Also, with almost every big high street clothing retailer opting to produce their stock in China and elsewhere in Asia, I wonder how easy it is to buy clothes that you can be assured have been made in the UK? As a textile student and general consumer, I find this entire topic fairly worrying and can’t help but feel guilty. It is certainly something that I wish to research further and perhaps consider when thinking about my own work.

Attitudes to China

If someone was to ask me about where the clothes I bought were from I would most likely start off by naming a local high-street store and like most people if I was asked where the clothing I bought was made, I would naturally assume it wasn’t made in the U.K. be it due to cheaper labour elsewhere in the world, more specifically “Made in China” perhaps.  Wouldn’t you say the same?

I found this interesting clip which basically highlights the amount of things that we are wearing are made abroad, it is not about Britain, it is about America, but I feel it is a similar situation anyway and states that China is well ahead in the manufacturing of clothing than anywhere else in the world.

Popular high-street stores may  include Topshop, Burton, USC, New look, River Island,primary  and H&M and prove to be favourites among students (I asked this target market),some being  more expensive than others, but all concerned with the latest fashion trends. Though the question is, are such high street  stores as conscious about the production of their clothes as they are with their image / the image of their customers and ultimately do the customers know and even care about the manufacturing of the products they are buying. In the image based society  that we live in today how much thought is actually put into anything other than the way the clothing looks and makes us feel? Do shoppers consider the wider issues regarding the manufacturing of the products they are buying at all?

With a few questions in mind I interviewed people gather some responses. I asked them to write their answers on a piece of paper shaped like a t-shirt to keep them engaged with the questions I was asking and somewhat preempting discussion of clothing and retail shops. I asked them the following questions:

  1. What is you favourite shop?
  2. What was the last item you bought from there?
  3. Do you know anything about where the product was made?
  4. If not, where would you guess it was made?
  5. Do you care where the product is made?
  6. What do you think of the quality of the product?
  7. What do you think about the quality of the product made in the U.K as opposed to those made elsewhere int he world.

From the responses I received I came to the assumption that the majority of people do not actually care about where the products they buy are made.  The majority did say that the clothes were probably made in “poorer countries” and/or Asia.To an extent people didn’t mind where their clothes came from however when given a moment to think about their response a few did bring up the issue of child labour, and how that did  concern them, but because they do not usually think twice about their purchase  at the time they don’t feel guilty about it. I can’t judge them on the topic discussed, otherwise I’d be a hypocrite. When I go into a shop to buy, a dress for example, I see it for what it is, a dress, a dress I can wear on my next night out with friends and look fashionable, then I would probably check the price label to see if I could afford it…Never in the process of purchasing this said dress do I think to myself, where is it made and who made it. It is said “ignorance is bliss” after all, would our favourite shops be our favourite shops if we knew all the ins and outs of the manufacturing side to them.

When I discussed with people what did they think about the quality of the clothes, they said that they could be better but for what they are paying for it suited them just fine and they didn’t mind that the clothes were made abroad rather here in the U.K . I am beginning to wonder if I should be more concerned for the lack of manufacturing  actually happening close to home,in Britain, considering I am a Textile Design student. What does the future hold for me and my designs (hypothetically speaking if… I were to become a Textile designer with such important decisions to make), must they be “shipped off” to other countries simply to make ends meet and make a possible profit and how would I feel about the wages of the people making the products, the labourers, the hours they work and the wage they are paid.

I feel that most of the shops I go into to not particularly advertise an “eco/ethical friendly” environment. There is usually no information about where the clothes are manufactured other than the labels on the individual garments. As I do study textile design I feel that this is a topic that I should research greater and could be a consideration to be incorporated into my own work.

Chinese Foot Binding

Until 1912 the ideal length for woman’s feet was a tiny 3inches. When girls turned between the age of three and six in China her mum would bind her feet. First each foot would be soaked in a warm mixture of herbs and animal blood, this was meant to soften the foot and help the binding process. Then the toenails were cut back as far as possible to prevent in-growth and infections, since the toes were going to be pressed tightly into the sole of the foot cotton bandages were prepared by soaking them in the blood and herb mixture. The help the size of the feet to be reduced the toes of each foot were curled under, and then pressed with a huge amount of force into the sole of the foot until the toe broke. This whole process was carried out without the use of pain relief, most of the bindings would be done by a professional, who made the bandages extra tight and ignored all the screaming from the young girls,  for  the poorer families the mothers would have to take care of all the foot binging. The broken toes were held tightly against the sole of the foot, the foot was held down straight so the arch could be broken. The bandages were repeatedly wound in a figure of eight, when completed the girl was made to stand to crush her feet into shape. When the bandages dried they made the binding even tighter forcing them into more of the desired shape. The bound feet required a lot of attention, every time they were unbound they needed washed, checked in case of infection or injury, they nails were always carefully trimmed but because they cause infection if in grown they were usually removed altogether. The feet were frequently beaten so the bones stayed broken and flexible. The feet were prone to infection so disease usually followed, a lot of woman died from septic shock because of the foot binding. The bound toes would often develop gangrene, which is when the tissue dies and then gets infected,  this happened because they had a lack of circulation so would end up falling off. The Chinese saw this as a blessing because it would make the feet even smaller. The girls aged between three and six would never be able to walk properly again or for a long period of time, this left the girls without a proper childhood. The practice of binding young girl’s feet was gradually stopped, the practise was banned in 1912. Many woman whose feet were already bound (already had broken bones) had to continue rebinding them to prevent the even greater pain caused by letting the feet out, the few women left with bound feet are now extremely elderly and suffer from disabilities. The older woman that bound their feet were more likely to break hip bones due to being unable to balance securely on their feet which led to them being completely immobile.

By restricting movement bound feet stopped woman from leaving their home and her husband, and stopped wives from being unfaithful, this was a great appeal for men, and they felt like they owned their wives. Bound feet were once considered intensely erotic in Chinese culture, a woman with perfect lotus feet was likely to marry into a rich family. Feng Xun was recorded saying “if you remove the shoes and bindings, the aesthetic feeling will be destroyed forever”, men understood that the symbolic erotic fantasy of bound feet did not match the unpleasant physical appearance of the feet which is why they were kept hidden. The primary erotic effect of the lotus feet was how the woman walked with them, the tiny steps and swaying walk of the woman was bound lotus feet was only because they had to walk on their heels, placing all the weight on the back of the feet because they were so deformed. The uncovered feet would give off a horrible smell from the unwashed folds, which was another reason they were usually covered up.

I think the fact parents were whiling to do such a terribly painful process to their three to six year old daughters is disgusting, it is a lifetime of punishment for anyone, they were keeping their daughters from having an enjoyable childhood and giving them to a life of pain. Every day for the rest of their lives they have to go through the pain of rebinding their feet for something Chinese society perceived as beautiful. A three inch foot is not anatomically correct, so there is no need to change it, feet are never a particularly attractive body part so the fact men only found the lotus feet attractive when covered by shoes seems ridiculous. They liked the way woman walked, tiny swaying steps, but the excruciating pain meant they could not walk very far at all. Things have not changed that much though, people may not be binding feet but they are having plastic surgery, sun beds, tattoos, all just to fit in a be more like what society thinks is beautiful.


China were the innovators in the production of silk many centuries ago and  managed to withhold the secrets of  how the material was made. Silk  therefore only traveled to the western world through the many trade posts stretching from China  all the way to Europe, known as “The silk road”(although not actually just one road).  Silk was grown, harvested and weaved in China and in the early years were only to be worn by Royalty as it was an extremely rare material, but as China developed their techniques it soon become available to people of “social status” /”aristocrats” then to the masses. Asia is still to this day the largest producers of silk, China being the largest then followed by India and imports  travel worldwide to reach popular demands. When Europe finally  did find out how to make silk  the production increased in Italy for a long time, but as mentioned, today Asia are the largest producers, this could possibly be due to the combination of skilled a workforce and cheaper labour in the countries compared to other countries.

Silk is a natural(protein) fibre that is obtained from the cocoon of the  silkworm which is native to China (hence their innovation in this material).  The silkworm’s main food source comes from Mulberry leaves , but it is possible for different species to feed on different types of leaves and therefore produce different variations of silk raging from fine to coarser silks. Non-mulberry silks, as they are known, include Tasar, Eri and Muga silks and they have distinctive colours and properties.

Once silkworms eat the mulberry leaves and reach their full growth they then begin to spin a cocoon around themselves. After they hatch into moths the cocoons that are left behind are collected to produce silk.  The cocoons are boiled in water then spun into threads and/or weaved into silk. Silkworms have been completely domesticated and do not exist in the wild, so essentially they are only bred for the production of silk.

Silk is the strongest natural fiber that there is, it is extremely versatile and strong which makes a practical material to use in many products. It is also luxurious, delicate, smooth, shiny and simply a beautiful material  that can also be easily dyed and these properties make it extremely attractive to different industries.Having so many   incredible qualities allows  silk  to be such a popular material. In both the fashion industry and interior markets silk is used in their products from clothing to fine furnishings. Silk is a popular material for clothing (for both womanswear i.e dresses and menswear i.e ties) as it can keep you warm in the winter and cool in the summer and it is extremely light and flexible, so is therefore comfortable to wear. To add to the attractiveness of silk, it can be dyed different colours to fit changing fashion trends and beads or embroidery can be easily added to the fabric.

Alongside the “boom” of silk production the Chinese artwork and crafty embroidery styles also developed. Working into the silk with fine embroidery threads produced incredibly beautiful and detailed designs whither it be of people, animals/mystical creatures, flowers or objects. As an ancient form of artwork there are four major styles that developed in China which were “Su embroidery”, “Xiang embroidery”, “Yue embroidery” and “Shu embroidery” and all had slightly different techniques. “Su embroidery” was known to be very intricate, “Xiang embroidery” used many colours emphasising tonal changes,” Yue embroidery”  was complicated and used very bright colours and “Shu Embroidery” was very neat. As well embroidery another popular art form developed  in China and applied to silk was “silk painting” as silk was “invented” before paper so it was a popular material to paint on to.

China was fortunate enough to innovate the production of silk all thanks to the silkworm native to the country and are innovators in techniques that can be applied to silk. As a textile student I enjoy using silk as I am aware of course it’s great properties and  of course it’s  popularity. I can easily add my printed design onto the fabric and work on top of them to add more texture(embroidery), all things that the Chinese developed centuries ago are still being applied today.

Chinese Embroidery

Embroidery is one of China’s traditional styles of decorating fabrics, especially silk. China was the first country to develop and make use of silk fabric which eventually lead to embroidery. I’ve chosen to look at Chinese embroidery as i feel it’s quite a distinct feature in Chinese textiles and artwork. Some of the oldest pieces of Chinese textiles were created using embroidery techniques. Chinese embroidery has a long history dating back thousands of years to Neolithic times and they always used silk because of its strength and durability. There is not a precise date when embroidery was first practiced in China but many pieces have been discovered at archaeological sites. Some pieces have been discovered in tombs which date back to as early as the second century B.C.  One of the oldest and largest pieces of Chinese embroidery was the image of Shakyamuni preaching on the Vulture Peak ( see below).  This was discovered in Mogao, Gansu Province, 8th century AD. This piece of work was made from hemp cloth which was then embroidered with very fine woven silk.

The images used in Chinese embroidery can symbolise and represent lots of different meanings. Images such as animals, dragons, birds, florals were embroidered onto various items including robes, theatrical costumes, purses, shoes, wall pieces and interiors etc. Embroidery is a very skilled and intricate style of artwork and some pieces could take up to several years before they were completed. Finest pieces of embroidery were very expensive and only wealthy men and women could afford to buy them.

There are different styles of embroidery used in china. These are the 4 major regional and historical styles of Chinese embroidery.

Suzhou Embroidery ( Su Xiu )

This style dates back 2000 years and originates from Suzhou, Jiangsu Province. Suzhou embroidery was one of the first embroidery styles to be developed in China, but its detailed needlework and intricate images are still produced today. Some of the distinct features of Suzhou embroidery is that it was often two-sided, where the image was embroidered on both sides of the silk. Its beautiful patterns and images, subtle colours, variety of stitches were very skillful and time consuming (in some cases taking years to finish). The images used on this style of Chinese embroidery were quite typical using nature and environmental themes-flowers, birds and gardens with pastel colours. I’ve noticed that the main animals used in chinese embroidery are tigers, pandas and dragons.

Hunan Embroidery ( Xiang Xiu)

Xiang embroidery was created in Changsa, Hunan Province and has been used for hundreds of years. This style has been influenced by other embroidery styles however it has many characteristics which make it unique. The embroidery uses a lot more loose threads compared to the Suzhou style. There are several distinct needling techniques used in embroidery but the Xiang style uses a more ‘random’ way of needling, where the randomness results in colours and textures being mixed togther. Its distinct features include black, white and grey colour palettes with strong focus on the contrasts between light and dark. There is also a strong use of tigers and landscape scenes used on Xiang textiles. Xiang embroidery is still practiced today and has become very popular around the world being used on clothing, interiors and art pieces.

Guangdong Embroidery ( Yue Xiu/ Guang Xiu)

This originates from Chaozhon, Guangdong Province and dates back 1,000 years. This style of embroidery contains intricate and symmetrical patterns, using strong contrasting colours and varied stitches.  The main influence of this style was national folk art and the images most commonly used were of flowers and plants.

Sichuan Embroidery ( Shu Xiu)

This style originates from western areas around Chengdu, Sichuan Province. This is the oldest known embroidery style in chinese history and has been used for thousands of years.  As with most embroidery they always used silk and satin, as they were very strong and would last a lot longer than other materials. The distinct features of a Sichuan style piece were- emphasis on even stitching, pastel colours using, images of young women and the environment. Sichuan embroidery is used to decorate interiors such as quilt covers, pillowcases, curtains, fashion garments, shoes and painted screens. All of these embroidery styles are extremely beautiful and have characterisitics which make them very unique and interesting to look at.