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Follow your labels: There is no such thing as a blue jeans machine

The chatter of needles and a thousand workers animate a factory.

Image

Levi’s, like those stitched together in a Cambodian factory visited by the author, were displayed at a Costco in Mountain View, Calif., in 2011.This story is part of the cover story project on the global food and clothing chain in The Christian Science MonitorWeekly issue of July 22, 2013.

Paul Sakuma/AP

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The door opened, and I disappeared into an endless room of workers and sewing machines, a veritable Bluejeans Land, at a factory producing Levi's and Old Navy brand pants.

Wires and tubs hung from the ceiling. Trolleys were pushed. Needles chattered. A thousand workers wore hairnets colored according to their duty.

The assistant factory manager led me past a pile of cut denim. On each side of us, young women folded and pinched fabric, lining it up before squeezing off a few bursts on the sewing machine.

Their hands were fast and efficient. As we walked down the line, pairs of adult jeans slowly started to take shape.

At the end of the line, we stood next to a pile of Levi's, and I asked my guide: "How many people have a hand in sewing a single pair of jeans?"

"Eighty-five," she said, "and that doesn't count the others."

"The others?"

"Please, I'll show you."

Motorized grinding stones lined the walls of a smaller room. I watched as a young woman started grinding the cuffs and pockets of a perfectly good pair of jeans. Another woman ground a hole in a knee, stopping to hold it up, and I imagined her asking herself, "Will the Americans think this is a cool hole?"

She was not a machine: The realization sank in that there is no such thing as a bluejeans machine.

Near another bluejeans factory in Cambodia I met eight young female garment workers who shared lodging in an 8-by-12-foot room with one water spigot that acted as kitchen sink, shower, and laundry. The only piece of furniture was a bed that held four – the other girls slept on the floor at night.

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