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Last week, I wrote about the true cost of apparel, and why good, high-quality outdoor apparel can be so expensive. It was already pretty long, but there was something I really wanted to touch on, so I saved it for this week 😊

A couple of years ago, I talked to a potential investor who insisted that I should have spent more time on my pitch talking about the robots that make our clothes.

While I hope many of you are also having an “I’M SORRY, WHAT?!” moment, I realize that some of you might genuinely question the validity of this statement.

No, Johnny, clothes are not made by robots

Let’s just get it out there right now: robots don’t make clothes. Sewing is a highly technical skill, which takes years to develop expertise. Industrial sewing professionals are carefully trained to do repetitive tasks while also being able to identify the nuances of the materials they’re working with. 

Robots are excellent at doing repetitive tasks, it’s true. But they’re absolutely terrible at nuance. Sewing professionals are constantly on the lookout for issues with the materials they’re using (like replacing a faulty zipper or spotting a tear in the fabric) and tackling tricky sewing operations (like sewing sleeves into armholes).

There have been amazing advances in machinery that can do complex sewing maneuvers, like this welt pocket machine, which certainly helps reduce the chances of repetitive strain injuries and getting product out the door faster. But these machines are programmed to do one thing over and over again, after which humans double check their work before moving on to the next stage.

Yes, I am actually a robotics expert

I have worked on some of the coolest robots you’ve never heard of, which were the predecessors of some you have: I wrote code for the first generation of autonomous cars, developed models for medical robots, and helped start an entire movement of javascript-powered robots. I’m not an armchair robotics enthusiast; I have hard-earned experience as a robotics engineer.

I also now happen to be an apparel production expert, so I feel personally qualified to kindly explain how insulting it is to assume clothes are made by robots, and not by hard-working, often grossly underpaid humans with incredible skill.

The mechanical requirements to simply sew a sleeve into an armhole are beyond the ability of a robot. Sure, you could get them to sew one type of sleeve onto one type of garment, but extending its ability to sew sleeves onto garments in general is not going to happen anytime soon. It would cost too much to program it, not to mention figuring out the hardware needed for all of that nuance.

For example: every fabric has different properties, which affects the handling of it. Silk is slippery and doesn’t have any recovery, meaning every needle hole is pretty much permanent. There’s no room for error. Cotton, on the other hand, is quite stable and recovers easily, so it’s easier to sew and fix any errors that might occur. Add stretch into the equation and it gets even trickier. Humans are innately able to learn how to handle each of these different types of fabrics relatively easily. A single sewing professional can work with multiple different fabrics each day and hop between them with a little bit of training early in their career. A robot, on the other hand, would need to be programmed to tackle each type of sewing operation, for each type of fabric, for each type of garment… it gets very complex, very quickly.

But what about AI? Wouldn’t that help?

I won’t say anything is impossible, but I really don’t think AI is the tool to revamp industrial sewing. The training data needed to “teach” robots how to sew at the same level as sewing professionals is simply impossible to get: there are trillions of variations involved in sewing! Furthermore, the mechanical side would require some serious engineering research and development, costing billions of dollars (at least). 

As a culture, we’re pretty terrible at valuing things that we don’t think are “hard.” Apparel has become such a commodity that folks don’t think very much about how it’s made or how it got into stores/onto their bodies. There’s no financial or societal incentive to do the research needed to replace humans with robots on the sewing room floor.

We should instead be advocating to recognize apparel sewing as the skilled labor it really is, while accepting the cost increases that will come with that recognition. Most apparel brands have moved overseas for production because US-made apparel is simply too expensive, even if we pay sewing professionals minimum wage. 

In conclusion

Next time you get dressed, please take a moment to thank the people who made the garments you’re wearing. They’re real humans with stories, families, and dream vacations. The most valuable commodity we all have is time - the people who made your clothes spent time they will never get back to help you express yourself through fashion and protect your skin from the elements. You will probably never meet them, but every time you wear their clothes you honor their work.

Small acts like these make a monumental difference in how we all interact, whether we’re conscious about it or not. 💖

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