My first real job was in a blackboard factory.

On Monday morning, the boss handed me a block of sandpaper, nodding toward a stack of 12’ x 4’ sheets of particle board. “I want that as smooth as a baby’s bum by lunch time,” he said.

It was a long week.

It got better when a woman from the office came down with a pay packet on Friday afternoon. For a moment it seemed I wasn’t wasting my life away.

I read Camus and listened to Dylan after work. Siren songs for another life. The factory gnawed at me.

Manolo Blahnik didn’t start off in a factory making blackboards, but he’s spent a lot of time around people who make shoes. It’s how he learned to love them.

But he’s not sure that many of today’s young designers have the same kind of fascination with the production side.

“[D]esigners don’t even go to the factories any more,” he said in a recent interview. “They send the things on the computer, most of them. I just tell you that it’s sad.”

I heard Siki Im make a similar point last year, lamenting the decline in US apparel and textile manufacturing standards. He pinpointed a number of reasons, one of which was that not all designers care about high quality.

What’s the point of training a person in a factory to sew better, he argued, if designers don’t notice or want “consistency in garments and stitching”? He’s gone overseas looking for quality.

Do designers visit factories any longer? Sometimes they do, like Siki Im, but Manolo’s mostly right.

No wonder artisans are making a comeback.

People who want quality are prepared to pay good money for it. Hand-stitched jeans. Handmade boots. Hand-knitted jumpers. Anything. The list is endless.

My Instagram is full of this sort of thing. It’s evidence that some of us value the grime-under-the-fingernails work sitting between designers and retail shelves.

Going to the factory was how Manolo learned to make the kind of shoes people want to die for. It’s part of the reason why some customers save for months to own one of his treasures.

Because he knows shoes; from the drawing board to how a woman looks when she puts them on. But just as important, he knows factories.

Here’s the thing. I didn’t last long in that factory, but I can never look at a blackboard in the same way as before I started there. I mean a real blackboard, made by pouring a small waterfall of paint over a piece of particle board, then sanding it smooth.

Whenever I see one, I always feel something approaching a sense of pride. Or self-respect at least.  

Factories are remarkable places where people work and sometimes, just sometimes, get a chance to be part of something bigger. Like collaborating with Manolo.

We all lose out when designers don’t go to the factories any more.

(Image, Seth DoyleCC0

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