The H in EMPATHY: Handmade

The H in EMPATHY: Handmade

In this new article series, we wanted to dive right into our current rationale around each of our EMPATHY values to provide you with more transparency but also helpful information that you can take with you on your next purchase.

This is also a great exercise for Ethi as we’ll be able to set a baseline to continue to improve our knowledge and criteria for each value as we grow. As with sustainable fashion in general, we are a work-in-progress so any feedback will really help!

I made your clothes

This week we look at our Handmade value, which has actually been the toughest of all EMPATHY values to define, so here goes; we define as clothes that have been made entirely by people who have some creative input or freedom to craft rather than simply assemble. Call these people artisans if you may.

We also want to note that we do not necessarily advocate against the use of machines to produce clothing or products, and there have been beautiful examples of haute couture blending the two such as an Alexander McQueen dress in 2009.

Having said that, we do discourage factory-pumped clothing that is produced with synthetic material by workers in substandard conditions. The detailing and care required to hand-make clothing is still unrivalled, with each piece produced unique in its own way, whilst also promoting sustainable smaller batches, employed skilled designers, whilst also potentially protecting traditional skills and knowledge in garment making.  

Who Made Your Clothes?

The current situation
  • Only 10% of clothes donated to charity or thrift shops get sold - whilst that figure alone is extremely low and a cause for concern, a consequence of surplus donated clothing is that they end up in landfills or flood markets in third world countries such as Haiti. This sudden influx of clothing by the cargo load stifles local industries and traditional artisanal clothing that cannot compete with essentially free clothing.
  • Mass production of clothing can be costly in first-world countries and are typically outsourced to third-world countries where labour can be exploited.
  • Mass production of clothing typically uses synthetic materials that lends itself to the use of more chemicals that workers are then exposed to.

These are just some issues that arise when the industry chooses mass production over handmade. We also want to stress that this is a generalisation of the current state, there are exceptions to this and mass production or machine-made can lead to less human error, injury, more stringent QA, etc.

How does this affect YOU?
  • Mass production lends itself to poorer quality materials, fit, and comfort.
  • If you were interested in pursuing handcrafting clothing, you may find it becoming a lost art with fewer professionals out there.
  • Affordability of handmade clothing becomes harder to obtain with fewer options out there in the market.
Where does handmade fit in fashion now?

Demand for handmade is increasing  

Using this as a proxy, since 2007, Google searches for “handmade” has more than doubled worldwide, whilst the term “machine made” has plummeted since its peak in 2004 (Harper’s Bazaar). The fashion industry is beginning to shift its focus to more personalised, customised, and individualised items.

Handmade has a huge impact on employment in developing countries

Handicraft artisan production is attributed as the second largest employer across developing countries, behind only agriculture. Millions of people - mostly women - participate in the artisan economy, practising traditional crafts as a means to earn income and sustain livelihoods ( If artisans can be empowered and rewarded appropriately for their craft, this could be a powerful way to drive economic growth and sustainability in developing countries.  

Certifications protect the integrity of handmade

Certification providers such as Ethical Clothing Australia certifies cut, make and trim for Australian-made clothes. Other certifications such as Fairtrade and GOTS certify the supply chain and labour conditions in cotton production and textile manufacturing. Whilst these certifications are broader than just handmade, they can help provide greater transparency around labour conditions.   

Embracing a new paradigm of hand and machine

Fashion can be at the forefront of an industry where hand and machine can work in tandem to create impossibly beautiful clothing, whether it be haute couture or ready-to-wear. This may be a great opportunity to simultaneously nourish traditional artisanal skills with the creation of new skills and jobs.

Alexander McQueen machine sewn and hand embroidered

What does it mean for a brand to qualify for our ‘Handmade’ value?

Brands that make their clothing in-house at small-scale are a quick decision to meet our handmade value. Brands that outsource or work with artisans that honour the artisan’s traditional artisanal skills would also be a great match for handmade. Some boutique factories can also qualify for handmade though this would require closer inspection by us, with certifications such as Ethical Clothing Australia providing assurance of the handmade value being met.

Olaf Designs Studio - Brand example at Ethi

Olaf Designs Studio

Olaf Designs Studio is a Brisbane based label where everything is designed and made under one roof, using fabrics that are friendly to animals and the environment. They look better, feel better and wear longer. Simple, classic staple pieces that never go out of style. Olaf Designs Studio’s hope is that by creating and consuming mindfully, it will discourage the pervasive view of clothing as disposable.

Christina Lombardi, designer of Olaf Designs Studio says, “Every piece is cut and sewn locally in my Brisbane studio, using only the highest quality cloth. High quality cloth is more durable, feels better on your skin and lasts for many years and washes. By blending timeless yet modern design with sustainable, ethical fabrics, I aim to produce clothing that you can feel good about and which is flattering and beautiful.”

At Olaf Designs Studio, Christina will also be able to tailor her pieces according to your fit, or even custom to your design style.

You can find Olaf Designs Studio pieces here on Ethi.

So, what can we do?

  1. Be sceptical of really cheaply priced clothing - there is a lot of work required to create this piece, is the price a fair representation of this?
  2. Ask the brand! Usually they are more than happy to talk about how they hand make their clothing.
  3. Look on the brand’s website - they will usually provide information about how they make their clothing on their about page or blog. If they have a certification this is normally displayed as well.
  4. Head onto our Handmade values products page on Ethi to browse through clothing that has been made with transparency.

A Final Note:

Ultimately, we want to encourage people to buy sustainable because of its quality, its aesthetics, accessibility, and affordability - not because they have been guilt-tripped toward buying sustainably. We honestly hope that the words “sustainable” or “ethical” will be dropped in the future because that will be the new norm and fashion will simply be “fashion”.


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