As I was working on V2 of the business plan last week, it became apparent that one of the big arguments I make for investing in higher end sewing in the U.S. is that this work will not be replaced by robots in our lifetime. I had confirmed this with a number of experts I have consulted with over the years including Manufacturing Solutions Center and the Center for Applied Research and Technology, Inc., yet, like a good student, I felt the need to track down documented evidence for my business plan.
So I took my search for evidence online. Rather than find resources that had articulated what I had learned in the field, I came across article after article, extolling the elimination of humans from the sewing equation. Here are a few examples:
In a Fast Company article on Sewbo, a sewing robot start-up, Atnyel Guedja–a purchasing manager at a global apparel manufacturer, Delta Galil Industries– comments on the work:
“Guedj admits that a technological advancement such as Sewbo “is very exciting” and a step in the right direction. At a certain point, he admits, the hunt for cheaper and cheaper labor must come to an end. Technology is the only way out. “[Automation] is the only way forward, and maybe the only way for the industry to save itself from itself,” he says.”
Or this quote from a Textile World article on automation in the sewing industry from the CEO of Software Automation Inc. CEO, K.P. Reddy:
“With time-to-market, customization, and cost being the primary drivers in sewn goods production — especially in relation to apparel — it is only a matter of time before low-cost, technologically advanced robots replace traditional seamstresses around the world.”
Not only did these articles not jive with what I had been learning, but the tone was that the elimination of jobs was as joyful as it is inevitable. It left no room for another possibility. Robots will replace humans for sewing. That is something to be celebrated, now lets start planning for it.
So someone like me comes along with an idea. I think, perhaps the higher end sewing is safe. My partner is really into high-end, hand made knives and he confirms that the best quality is still done by human hands, not by machines. As I begin testing and talk with many different experts about manufacturing and sewing, they confirm that the high-end sewing is not going anywhere. But if you were to stay at the surface of the conversations taking place in the news media you would think that doubling down on sewing expertise in America is like trying to train people to build a boom box with a tape player.
In my most fatigued moments I questioned what I had learned: Am I crazy? Is this really worth investing in only to see a machine do it better, faster and cheaper? Will other people be willing to invest in something made by a human? Will I find support for this work?
When I dug out of the doubt, I got angry. I am tired of letting the people who want to eliminate jobs with robots dominate the conversation around what the future holds for us, what is worth investing in now. I am not against technology. Indeed, for my made to measure endeavor I see technology as a tool to eliminate waste and create a much more valuable, better fitting garment for women that is more accessible than previously possible. In other words, technology allows us to do more with our gifts and be less wasteful. It is an extremely useful tool. But I think we need to take a serious look at our values around human work and the quality of what is created when people transform things.
I have learned enough over the years to know that what I read in these articles was very likely wrong. Human hands are going to make magic with beautiful garments well after I’m gone. Yet the narrative that dominates the news media about the inevitability of automating sewing jobs entirely is going to make getting support for this work more challenging. The only way to combat the nonsense that says training sewers in the U.S. is not worthwhile is by demonstrating that they are wrong. Going out there and doing something different.
I am cheering you on as you go out there and do something different. If something you read doesn’t sound right, no matter how many times it echoes around the chambers of the Internet, dig deeper. Talk to people who have real experience doing the work. Come at it from all angles. There is a future for us where technology supports people to create revolutionary approaches to sustainability, to create beauty and innovation. But it is going to take sustained effort to challenge the assumption that technology will make us obsolete so that it does not become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Go, fight, win.