The making of clothing: book reviews

Over the last few years I’ve managed to read several books which have changed my views about the manufacture of clothing, and which have influenced my choices when sewing. I’m going to do a quick and dirty review of four of them in case anyone is interested.

The first book, The travels of a T-shirt in the global economy, by Pietra Rivoli, I read many years ago for work, and reread it last year as a sort of mental preparation for my 1 year 1 outfit endeavours.


It is a fascinating book, written by an economist who wanted to discover where her t-shirt came from. The book explores free trade and protectionism and the author delves into the history of cotton (did you know that calico was a banned substance for a while in England and people were required to be buried in wool shrouds?), and the use of slaves in the production of cotton. She talks to farmers, manufacturers and wholesalers. We believe that the cotton manufacturing and t-shirt factories that have disappeared from the US have reappeared in China, but this isn’t the case – there is a lessening in the global demand for cotton being replaced by synthetic fibres, which are deemed as “better” due to their colour retention and crease resistant properties. Little is said about the fact that polyester lint is a massive polluter of the environment, making its way into our waterways through the water excreted from our washing machines.

Does it sound a bit turgid? Well it’s not, it is fascinating, and will give the reader a real insight into the way history, politics and economics are intertwined in the world of fashion – even if it is casual fashion.

The second book is The Pink Suit, written by Nicole Mary Kelby, and is about that pink suit worn by Jackie Kennedy as she sat next to President Kennedy on the day of his assassination.

pink suit

The story weaves fact and fiction together into a tale of the production of an iconic suit recognised the world over, and the people whose lives the suit touches – particularly those of the garment maker and a butcher, who embark on a rather strange and strained relationship (in my opinion anyway!). The insights into the garment industry of the 1960s and the making of a Chanel suit (even if it is a knockoff) are fascinating. The suit was completely handsewn and uses either 12 stitches to the inch, or 20 stitches to the inch. I tried and utterly failed to achieve even 12 stitches to an inch. This is painstaking work. Once again history and politics have been interwoven with fashion to produce a remarkable tale.

Most people interested in sewing have seen The Dressmaker, but I wanted to read the book first.


Written by Rosalie Hamm, it is a tale of revenge in its ultimate form, but it is also a romance, and, set in Australia, some of the cultural references will either be very familiar to readers, or completely alien. It is a dark story but the descriptions of the fashions of the 1950s are rich and evocative and I am now keen to see the film, to see how they were dealt with. I was a bit bemused that Tilly, the heroine, imported luxury fabrics and notions from all over the world, but seemed fairly unfazed that the townspeople were reluctant to pay for her wonderful couture. She did retrieve her money in a fairly creative manner, however, and some of the things she did were quite amusing. I love the idea of the cross-dressing police officer who secretly made his own glamorous clothes to wear, but who managed the community with a mixture of compassion and common sense. I don’t know if the book is worth reading if you have already seen the film, but I suspect that it is. It is well written and entertaining.

The last book here is one I’ve just finished reading and it’s the book that made me think I should tie all these books together. It is The Coat Route: craft, luxury, and obsession on the trail of a $50,000 coat by Meg Lukens Noonan. I was put on to this book by Dawn, one of my Facebook comrades, who was offering the book to Canadians in the group, to be read and passed on. I immediately bought it (not being Canadian), and loved every word. Unfortunately my version is for my Kindle so I can’t pass it on to eager Australian readers – sorry!


coat route

Just like the first book, this is a work of non-fiction – there is a story, but it is presented documentary style. This is a story of a coat; a very expensive, bespoke coat, and its making. Although the tailor lives and works in Sydney, this book takes us all over the world, as we explore fine fabrics, linings, buttons, and gold engravers; and most importantly, the people who craft all these things. This particular coat is made from Vicuna, an animal from the highest altitudes of Peru, and again is completely hand sewn. Once again we are taken on an historical, political and economic journey, and I have to say that it is a rollicking tale which had me completely enthralled from the opening page to the last word. Meg is a beautiful writer and her use of language is most engaging and entertaining. Her writing is so vivid that it is easy to imagine the scenery on the freezing Peruvian mountainside as the Vicuna are corralled for shearing, or the Dickensian factories that have been replaced by modern monoliths. There is a hint of sadness for all the businesses that have died, and we follow the fortunes of the button factory, where the horn buttons for the coat are made. Meg also gives insights into the progression of Chinese manufacturers into the world of bespoke tailoring, and it gave me considerable pause as I considered the many buttons in my possession which were doubtless made in less than satisfactory conditions in China. This is a book for anyone who is interested in the quality of what they wear, interested in rejecting “fast fashion” and “disposable clothing”, and interested in seeing where we have come from and where perhaps we are going in the world of bespoke tailoring.



20 thoughts on “The making of clothing: book reviews

  1. I actually picked up the copy of The Pink Suit that I reserved from the library this morning. It has been recommended, and I wanted an easier read after finishing The Women’s Room. I will look out for the other books you have reviewed. The two informing us about the real cost of creating clothing sound particularly interesting.

  2. I just started reading the Coat Route yesterday and am loving it! As you said, Meg Nooan is an engaging author. In a similar vein, I have lately been pondering the whole vegan outlook on life as I work with a colleague who won’t even wear wool as it is taking advantage of the animals and depleting the world of natural resources. I do find it funny though that she will don a pair of plastic shoes made by various processes that deplete our natural resources even more. Anyhow, thanks for sharing some new to me titles.

  3. Thank you for the list.I have read and enjoyed The Coat Route. I’ve also recently read Overdressed:The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. It sounds like it covers some of the same ground as Travels of A T-shirt. It has a lot of information,but rather uncritically regurgitated and arranged,so that it was an interesting but not very satisfying read. So I will seek out Travels of A T-shirt for another perspective.
    And I recommend the film of The Dressmaker-clothes are gorgeous and the actors are obviously having a lot of fun.

  4. These four books all seem fascinating and I’ve already made a reservation for “The pink suit” at the public library. I love a good reading about fashion, especially with a history and/or conciousness-raising content (I’m curious: can you tell me why calico was banned in England, or would it be a spoiler?). Besides, I just watched two delightful documentaries in Netflix regarding fashion : “Bill Cunningham New York” (about the ever popular street fashion photographer) and “Iris” (about the eccentric NY stylist Iris Apfel). These two elderly and wise characters certainly have clever points of view on fashion and creativity.

    1. I must get netflix – I might have more time to watch stuff now. I think calico was banned because it threatened the British wool industry, although they did have quite a few cotton mills. It was hard to review these books without revealing too much!

  5. Thank you for bringing The Dressmaker by Rosalie Hamm to my attention. I haven’t seen this movie advertised in my part of the US at all. It’s now on my to read list (it’s onAudible!) I read the Pink Suit and while I enjoyed it, it wasn’t what I’d call a 5 star read. There are several books called by the same title. I loved the one by Elizabeth Oberbeck. It is about an “old-school” dressmaker in Paris. Love sewing books of these kinds!

    1. Thanks for the comment. You will love the Coat Route, it really is a jolly good read. I have seen other versions of the Pink Suit so may get the one you recommend.

  6. Thanks for taking the time to review these books Sue. It’s nice to read a review from a sewers point of view. These all sound like very interesting reads and I will add them to my list.

  7. Very interesting. I would love to read all of them! I’m sure my library has them. I watched The True Cost last night which I found very alarming and even more of a reason to sew my own clothes, although now I’m wondering about the travels of my fabrics…

    1. I think we have to approach the idea of sustainability a baby step at a time. I decided that if I made my own clothes and avoided polyester, then that was a good start. Now I try to source fabrics from places other than China, but it’s really hard!

  8. I really appreciate the reviews. A couple of the books were on my list but not yet read. I was unfamiliar with the others. I’m quite inspired to read them all now.

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