From the industrial revolution of the mid-nineteenth century, when production processes begin to adopt Taylorist theories with the standardization of time and the definition of discrete steps for each production process, two systems in particular are introduced: · 

Progressive Bundle System (PBS), in which each worker is specialized in one, or at most a few sewing operations · 

Standard Allocated Minutes (SAM), in which a specific time of execution of a given step is defined. 

PBS provided apparel manufactures with a means for improving labour productivity along with adaptability to day to day variations in shop-floor conditions. 

SAM allowed time-study engineers to calculate the standard allocated minutes for an entire garment for an experienced worker as the sum of the number of minutes required for each operation in the production process, including allowances for worker’s fatigue, rest periods, personal time, and so on. Since the 1930s, PBS and SAM continue to be the most widely used systems. 

Despite these efforts to make the production process more efficient, improvements in weaving, cutting, and knitting have historically been greater than those in sewing.[1] Translating from Italian a classic manual for dressmakers[2]: The basic technique of apparel production has remained essentially unchanged over time; it is still based on the use of the needle and the tread; the sewing tool is still the sewing machine, invented in the mid-800’s and from then improved in terms of operational speed and variety of achievable points. The sewing operation is thus the focal point of technical developments, but so far has resisted several attempts to introduce a high degree of automation. The other operations in clothing manufacturing, especially the operations prior to stitching, proved more accessible for new technologies. While the PBS-SAM approach could not increase the effective productivity of the garment production process, it did allow the introduction of lower-skilled labour, given the repetitiveness of the tasks assigned, leading in turn to lower wages and a decrease in the cost of production. In parallel, the stages of weaving and cutting saw substantial increases in productivity with the introduction of new and more sophisticated looms and cutting devices, leading to higher wages for these operations. Recent years have seen the effects of cost pressure on this unbalanced situation, with increasing investments in innovation for all stages of production except for garment production, which instead has witnessed a continuous drive towards the exploitation of low-wage workers with productivity still at 19th century levels. In this context, the unionisation of labour in Western countries led to delocalisation in the search for ever cheaper labour. Citing an article in the Guardian a year after the disaster of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh[3] Through the 50s and 60s, producers hunted cheaper labour in east Asia – first Japan and then, in the 70s and 80s, in the so-called Asian Tiger economies of Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. Employment in the garment manufacturing industry in the west has declined steadily decade on decade – despite attempts to protect local industries with quota systems and tariffs. Production in newly industrialised China, as well as in Indonesia, Turkey, Mexico and India, has increased exponentially. 

The Fast Fashion Model

In parallel with these trends, and driven by the increase in sophistication of the logistical management systems that accompanied this globalisation of production, emerged the industrial model known as Fast Fashion: “a term used to describe cheap and affordable clothes which are the result of catwalk designs moving into stores in the fastest possible way in order to respond to the latest trends”[4] Citing again the above Guardian article: For the consumer, of course, this has all meant that while prices of everything else except communications have risen, clothes cost less. In 1900, 15% of a US household's income was spent on clothing. In 1950, it was still 12%. Even as late as the early 1990s, major purchases of clothing – a suit, a dress, a coat – marked a special occasion or a rite of passage. But by 2004, the total amount spent by households on clothes had dropped to just 4%. By 2010, according to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, clothing cost the average American family only $1,700 (£1,017), 2.8% of their income. And for that money the consumer gets much more. Cheap no longer means nasty; it just means affordable. In 1997, the average woman in the UK bought 19 items of clothing a year; in 2007, she bought 34. As the price of clothing drops, the end effect is simply to buy more, leading to ‘overflowing closets’. The Fast Fashion model drives the consumer with a desire for accumulation more than a choice of quality. By now, the ability to recognize a good fabric and good workmanship is fast disappearing. The enjoyment of a purchase is a restricted act in itself, perhaps extended to the test at home in front of the mirror, but then the adrenaline ends. The remaining manufacturers who produce quality garments are at a crossroads; they must either lower costs and thus product quality or search for increasingly scarce niche markets. The production bottleneck of sewing also raises issues for cutting fabric. It makes little sense to cut tons of clothes at once, if production is bottlenecked in the sewing phase. Cutting thousands of clothes at a time is also a business risk, because a mistake in design or sales forecasts can have disastrous economic consequences. Moreover, cutting too much also carries an environmental cost, since the unsold fabric is thrown into landfills (multiplying the already negative impacts of dyeing and finishing). According to Eileen Fisher, a clothing industry magnate, fast fashion is the second dirtiest industry in the world next to big oil.[5] 

Issues for Relocalisation

Fortunately, in recent years there has been a trend to return production to Europe, especially for niche markets.[6] There are different causes for this: difficulties in quality control, increasing wages even in areas with a low cost of living, the risk of seeing products rejected due to their environmental impact and even toxicity, and finally a growing awareness of consumers demanding quality and transparency. It appears that the tragedy of Rana Plaza was a tipping point in swaying public opinion.[7] Businesses who decide to return production to Europe must face one of the consequences of two decades of delocalisation: the problem of recovering what in Europe has become the lost art of sewing.[8]. Talented tailors are now getting old and have not transmitted their art to the generations that have followed, especially since young people perceive sewing as boring and outdated. Companies who want to keep production in Europe must look to Eastern Europe (e.g. Romania), where it is still difficult to engage workers under the age of forty. The reason for this is that sewing is not an art that can be learned in a short time. Even at the hobby level, although the market offers Do-it-yourself (DIY) kits and patterns, many become frustrated before getting to the satisfaction of a job well done. More popular leisure activities are easier to learn, while handbooks for sewing are generally outdated, with unnecessarily rigid procedures. In addition, terminologies, rules, conventions in body measurements and other fundamentals of sewing can vary significantly from one country to another, even from shop to shop. In sum, the field of sewing has the potential to offer new job opportunities for youth and the recently unemployed. But more than a mere increase in demand is required: the market itself will have to shift towards new business models with a more humane and efficient trade as well as innovations in the organisation and distribution of work. In addition, it is necessary to explore new methods of learning with new technologies (video tutorials, augmented reality, online forums and video-conferencing), re-examine traditional sewing techniques, restore dignity to “slowness” (when necessary), establish a common glossary, and keep an eye on new developments such as body scanners, laser cutting, and 3D printing.  

Experimentation with the Organization of Production 

Throughout the twentieth century Taylorism has been called into question, in particular by labour psychologists such as David G. Myers, Elton Mayo, and Elliot Jacques[9] affirming that greater worker involvement improves productivity. The debate is still going on, but in the case of the highly specialized activities in clothing production, it would be useful to experiment a greater involvement of employees and a more harmonious arrangement of workstations, so as to foster the exchange of knowledge but also social interaction and suggestions about the work that is being carried out. Although highly specialized, sewing leaves a gap in the mind that, if not filled by conversation or by listening to audio books and music, can lead to alienation, which means a loss of interest in the job and a greater tendency to make mistakes. Given that Taylorism has not brought the desired results, other approaches in labour psychology could be experimented, including the recovery of elements from the environment and organization of artisan workshops. A new attention to the complexity of sewing, rather than being simply nostalgic, could suggest new business models to experiment. For example, some steps such as hems and finishes, could be carried out by the end customer. “I want a quality garment and I cannot afford that? Then I’ll finish it myself to lower the price.” (In essence, the IKEA business model). DIY kits and unfinished products could be a solution for the future, provided they are accompanied by very clear, step by step instructions accessible to all. The short-lived pleasure experience of fast fashion could be replaced with a new interpretation of the “tailor/dressmaker experience” of previous generations: imagining a dress for weeks, choosing from a catalogue, attending fitting sessions, choosing custom accessories, relishing the tactile and olfactory sensations and the human relationship with sewers. In conclusion, new business models in clothing manufacturing could, on the one hand, deal with more human and sustainable production processes, and on the other on offering consumers new knowledge, new awareness, and new experiences.    [1]   [2]   [3]   [4]   [5]   [6]   [7]   [8]   [9] Ashleigh M., Mansi A., Di Stefano G. (2014) Psicologia del lavoro e delle organizzazioni, Pearson.       re