Lexicon 97: preliminary findings



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pre-owned t-shirts

and for that reason, 97 t-shirts —instead of a hundred, instead of 96— participate in the Lexicon as first conceived. 

In the thrift shops I visited, the most abundant article of clothing was the t-shirt, many of which had custom designs  for local school sports teams, professional organizations, promotional advertising free give-aways, church groups, family reunions, etc., implying the low-cost for such customization, and it seemed reasonable to assume that affordability of customization was probably linked to less socially and ecologically ethical manufacturing options as those options could charge less based on lower wages and poorer factory conditions.

Of course, low wages or not, unsafe and/or unsanitary working conditions or not, now that those jobs exist, dependency on those jobs also exist.  The comparatively low wages from an economic vantage point where wages are super-inflated, especially in entertainment and sports, and the highest executive business echelons, may not be not as low as they seem when considered in the context of the local economies.  These wages, low and unethical in  most of Europe and  most of North America, may be, not just on par with other wages available in the local economies, but may actually be higher than other wages available locally.  This is meant not as justification, but as a configuration of some of the complexity that forms this system of collaboration, a system in which the fiber itself is also a participant.

Now that workers in garment factories all over the developing world are t-shirt collaborators, maintaining the health of the interaction does not permit the removal of the manufacture from those developing locations.  Outcomes of such factory closure would have negative impact on those whose living standards depend on those comparatively low wages.  Social structures have been built on these jobs; they are the foundation of new-found possibility of economic stability and a hint of the less-distant power of consumerism to one day acquire unnecessary stuff so as to live better.  The entanglement is profound, and every tine tangled in these complex collaborations and interactions is also a lifeline.

And monetary pipeline, as reported in Wired magazine, in a Clive Thompson article explaining the big business of t-shirts, and their role in keeping online content free.   

But a problem right now in the complex system of collaboration with the fiber itself is the complex cost of the fiber.  In the Impressions special report The Cotton Crunch, the following is offered under the heading Cause for Concern:


Cause For Concern
As of press time, cotton prices have risen 56% in the past 90 days and 101% year to date, according to The Wall Street Journal. And Business Recorder reported that Pakistan, the fourth-largest producer of cotton, had more than 30% of its cotton crop destroyed by floods. This disaster will impact its productivity for several years to come. Thus, Pakistan is being forced to import 3 million bales of cotton to contend with local manufacturing demand. Bad crops from Southeast Asia to western Arizona have combined to increase concerns about supply.

These are only the headlines of the story. There are several other long-term factors combining to create real pressure on cotton prices to cause the most dramatic cost increase since Reconstruction. Cotton consumption is at 1997 levels — the highest on record — and cotton supply has been flat since 2005. As of Nov. 1, 2010, 85% of the U.S. cotton crop had been sold when typically only 30% is spoken for by that date each year (author’s research).

China’s demand for cotton is insatiable and that demand, in part, is export driven. The country now is the leading producer of cotton and has the largest manufacturing base dedicated to it. China has a fast-growing middle class that is increasing demand for the product as well. And for much of 2010, India implemented a ban on raw cotton exports because of cotton shortages in its own textile mills due to Chinese demand. 



early interpretations of

 Preliminary Findings


Only 1

of the original lexicon 97 t-shirts

was made in China!

At first, I was surprised by this, thinking that most clothing was made in China and that some Central and South American factories were suffering from a shift to Asian, in particular Chinese, garment production.


At first, I was overlooking some of the complexity of t-shirt acquisition of donation or discard status.  Most of the t-shirts in the thrift shops I visited had histories of being acquired and worn.  There was evidence that the t-shirts had been laundered; the smell of soaps and detergents, the wrinkled folded tags, the misalignment of cloth so that seams were no longer straight, the fabric wasn't crisp, faded graphics, etc.  I could not tell how many times the t-shirts had been washed, only that washing had occurred.

I could assume acquisition.

I could assume that there a time, a circumstance in which the discarded t-shirt had been acquired.  I could assume that the t-shirt had once been new, but I could not assume that the donor had acquired the shirt new.  I could not assume only one past owner.
I could assume a reason for acquisition. I also assumed that for most of the t-shirts, possession lasted longer than a day.  I assumed that the t-shirts had been worn.  I could not tell which t-shirts may been favorite t-shirts, but I assume that some of them were.  I assumed that most of the discarded shirts had been part of a relationship with the person who wore it.  I assumed that the t-shirts had been on some ordinary days, and that it was possible they may have been during circumstances that departed from the ordinary pleasantly or unpleasantly. 

Some of the t-shirts may have been owned for years before a decision was made to discard it.  I assume that the length of time between acquisition of a t-shirt and the discarding of a t-shirt could help explain why in 2010 only 1 of the 97 discarded t-shirts was made in China while 27 were made in Honduras; the t-shirts could have manufactured years before their discarding and acquisition for re-purposing as a source of lexicon, becoming t-shirt skeletons after lexicon extraction.  I plan to tally manufacture location of graphic t-shirts currently on sale in Wal-mart, K-Mart, and Target in Ann Arbor for comparison.  I expect that the outcomes will be different.  I expect to find more than 1 shirt manufactured in China.  If not, I will need to examine some my assumptions about garment manufacture in China.  I still assume that there are reasons that a t-shirt was discarded.

I assume a decision to discard. 

I assume that there are ways to extract some of history, some of the experience of the t-shirt from the t-shirt.  I assume that some donors could share some of the stories of a t-shirt's experience, especially some of the story of the decision to discard the t-shirt.  I hope to find ways to collect some of the story of experience shared with a t-shirt when the t-shirt is discarded.  I assume that some of the experience occurs within the fiber.  I will be using a microscope to capture images of -shirt skeleton fiber at the locations of lexicon extraction.


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