Saturday, September 10, 2011

Repair or replace, part 3

You know, this whole question of whether to repair things or replace them hinges on the idea that it's actually possible to get them repaired. I'm beginning to wonder whether that's true anymore.

A couple of years ago, I bought a fall coat at the Goodwill store—a short one to wear during the months when my winter coat was too heavy and a sweater not heavy enough. The sleeves were too long and it had big, ridiculous 80s-style shoulder pads, but it was made of good, dark-grey wool and fit me well in the torso, so I figured it was still a good deal for six bucks. I just took out the shoulder pads, rolled up the sleeves, and wore it like that for two years.

This year, with the chilly weather approaching, I decided to take the coat to a tailor and see how much it would cost to alter it so that it would fit me properly. It might seem silly to spend $40 on alterations for a $6 coat, but I figured it would still be cheaper and less wasteful than buying a new one. So on Wednesday afternoon, I took the coat to a tailor shop I'd passed by often, about half a mile from my house—only to find that it had gone out of business. I remembered another shop a few blocks away, but when I got there it was closed, with a sign in the window saying that during the month of September they'd be open only from 8am to noon. (What kind of business closes at noon?)

This was starting to get frustrating, but I decided to give it one more try. The next morning, I showed up at the tailor shop well before 9am, carrying my coat. I showed it to the seamstress and explained what I needed done to it, and she said, in effect, "That can't be done." As best I could make out from her broken English, the only way she knew of "taking in" a coat was to remove fabric from the back seam, which would make the coat too tight and leave the shoulders as big as ever.

Well, I knew that what I was asking for wasn't impossible. I don't have the skill to reset a sleeve myself, but at least I know that it can be done. So I took the coat down the street to a dry cleaner that had a sign in the window saying "tailoring and alterations." Once again, I showed the coat and explained the problem. This time, the proprietor didn't actually say it was impossible, but she said it was "probably no good." Her English wasn't very good either, so I didn't quite understand what the problem was, but I did manage to grasp that the whole job would cost me $80 and they still couldn't guarantee the coat would fit afterwards. Given that I could buy a whole new coat that would definitely fit for less than $80, that didn't seem like much of a bargain.

The whole experience left me feeling sort of baffled. I admit, I find it frustrating that it should cost more to repair an existing coat than to buy a whole new one, materials, labor, and all. But I can at least understand why it's the case: the new coat is made by unskilled workers earning a pittance for their labor in Thailand or someplace, while the repair is done by skilled workers here in the U.S. who expect a reasonable fee for their efforts. But can it really be possible that these skilled laborers don't even exist anymore? That nowadays, people who call themselves tailors and charge $80 for a repair can't even manage to reset a pair of sleeves? Has our society really come to the point where, at least where clothes are concerned, throwing it out and buying a new one is the only option?
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