Shirt pins make fashion victims of buyers and factory workers

May 31, 1992|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

Ouch! Darn it! Missed one!

One of life's verities is that whenever a man opens a new shirt, he finds a thousand straight pins -- or at least eight or 10.

They are simply a fact of sartorial life, taken for granted except when a forgotten pin delivers a pointed reminder of its presence.

Then it's "Why are all those*! pins in new shirts and how do they get there?"

The pins are there because, industry sources say, no better way has been found to keep new shirts folded crisply and neatly, and they get there by the grace of people like Michelle Anderson, Agnes Green and Tina Bhatt, who emplace them -- by hand -- eight to 10 per shirt, depending on fabric and style.

"There are no machines to do this," said Sol Offit, president of the Aetna Shirt Corp., a Baltimore County company specializing in dress shirts. "I've been in shirt factories all over the world, and it's done exactly the same way."

Dick Yardley, director of technical services for the American Apparel Manufacturers Association, said, "Packaging and presentation is very important in the marketing process for shirts; they are not hung on racks like slacks. A very polished package makes a big difference."

There is even a degree of specialization, said Ms. Green, 47, of Essex, who for 12 years has been buttoning shirts top to bottom and carefully pinning the cuffs to the body of the garment.

Like her co-workers, she carries the marks of her trade: fingertips scarred by countless pin pricks. White tape on several fingertips eases the pressure and pain of pushing more than 750 pins a day through five layers of cloth. "Sometimes it really hurts," she said.

Inevitably, the pricks lead to occasional blood spots on the snowy fabric. Bloodied shirts, and any that pick up dirt after leaving the sewing shop, are popped immediately into a special spot-cleaning machine, said Ms. Bhatt, the supervisor. "They have to be spotless," she said.

A 17-year Aetna employee, Ms. Bhatt, 46, has worked every job in the shop and now does the last pressing before Ms. Anderson and another woman do the folding and final pinning.

Ms. Anderson, 20, a Hamilton resident, said she is under the gun constantly because the women are paid piecework, and everyone's wage depends on "whatever we've [she and another pinner] done at the end of the day."

Ms. Anderson, who has worked in the factory two years, said her one-day record is 32 dozen shirts, which means more than 2,300 pins pushed through eight or 10 layers of fabric, depending on the type of cloth and style of shirt.

She demonstrated folding and pinning an individual shirt in just over 30 seconds but said she could not maintain that pace for an eight-hour shift.

"My fingers are shredded by Friday," Ms. Anderson said. "They ** get sore from rubbing on the fabric and from the pins. They're pretty good today because we're just back from the long holiday weekend, but by the end of the week . . ."

After pressing the shirt body -- the collar's having been pressed earlier on a special machine -- Ms. Bhatt passes the garment to Ms. Anderson, who locks the collar in a special clamp operated by a foot bar.

Holding a cardboard-and-tissue filler in place on the back, she operates a lever that folds first one sleeve, then the other. Ms. Anderson quickly emplaces a pin to hold them. Next she pins the cuffs to the shoulders. "That's the hard part because there are so many layers. Sometimes I have to use wax on the pins to get them through."

More pins hold the sides of the shirt together, and the final one goes in, next to the top collar button.

According to a Philadelphia shirt manufacturer, however, the prospect of pinless shirts is the equivalent of inventing the better mousetrap.

"The guy who can automate it [the finishing] can make a fortune, and the guy who can figure out how to do away with the cardboard, tissue paper and the pins can make another fortune," said Ed O'Mara, president of O'Mara Industries.

"In 35 years in this business," he said, "I've made hundreds of thousands of women's blouses, priced from $60 to $120, and never put a pin in one of them. But somewhere, someone started to put pins in men's shirts, and it became the accepted practice."

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