I watch her stitch each and every stitch with intentionality. Not slowly, she’s been doing this for years. Her hand moves up and down precisely. She leans over the sari, colored cream with designs of yellow leaves and blue stems; a finger on her brown hand is wrapped in black tape protecting her skin against the tiny needle she directs with her other hand.
Stitch by stitch, slowly, methodically it becomes a blanket. The fastest women can complete a blanket in two days; maybe 14 hours of stitching. Others take four days to finish, stitching for 7 hours a day.
The same stitching happens with scarves of all colors. For bags and purses, when the stitching finishes they are sent to the women at the sewing machines, four women at four machines sew on handles, zippers, linings. I watch them stitch, I watch them sew. I look down at my own clothes – navy blue pants and a red-grey-white plaid shirt with snaps instead of buttons – and wonder.
I know about sweatshops in Bangladesh and India, where women are paid unfairly at risk to their health and family and safety to make my clothes. I’ve even preached on it. But not until I watched these women at Sari Bari have I actually considered the hands directing my navy pants or the pockets and buttons on my plaid shirt through the sewing machine. Someone has made my clothes. A person made these.
At Sari Bari the women are paid fairly, they have health care, holidays, savings, they can feed their families and send their children to school. Twice a day they break for tea and biscuits. Their hour lunch is spent eating together and sometimes napping. Often they chit-chat, sometimes they tease each other and sometimes they bicker in a language I don’t yet understand. They comfort their colleagues who need comforting. Every month they gather for biryani and soft drinks to celebrate the anniversaries of those women who have been stitching with Sari Bari for years. I watch these women stitch and stitch and sew and sew, and I see the value of their work, the beauty that comes in the form of scarf or blanket.
I don’t know who made my clothes, how they were paid or the fate of their children. I don’t know if their employers treat them well with breaks or make them work unhealthy hours and refuse to let them leave when their building is crumbling, if they sense the value of their work or find dignity like the women at Sari Bari. But I look down at the grey strings that hold my shirt together and I know whomever did this deserves my respect and my gratitude; and depending on their circumstances, maybe an apology.