Okay, I didn’t really “suffer,” but I did spend an afternoon completing menial tasks in a Brooklyn-based industrial work space. My daughter, Kelly, owns a start-up company manufacturing menswear-inspired clothing for women. When we visited several weeks ago, my wife, Katie, and I were given the “opportunity” to help out in the sort of “all hands on deck” efforts that are the hallmark of a hungry, new company.
Along with a potential for carpal tunnel syndrome in my right hand, I gained appreciation for an oft-overlooked or taken-for-granted object, namely: the extra button that is included with new shirts. Would you believe attaching such a button, when done manually (Ralph Lauren and the like doubtless use machines), can be an eleven-step process?
Some background is necessary. Kelly and her wife/business partner, Laura, are necessarily detail-oriented. They shaped, tested, modeled, designed and discussed every aspect of their line of shirts for nearly a year before the first thread hit the first sewing machine. They aspire to provide their customers nothing less than the highest quality, sustainable, and affordable (but not too affordable) garment possible. In that way, they aim to build a following that will endure and grow.
The buttons I attached to 150 shirts, or so, were, therefore, not ordinary buttons. Sourced from the nut of a tagua tree harvested in Equador, and milled elsewhere in Latin America, they are delivered to Brooklyn in recyclable packages. Each of the company’s three styles of shirts sport a different button, naturally, selected specially for their particular color. While an undiscerning eye such as my own could not easily distinguish between buttons, I learned that buttons are to be taken seriously.
Here’s the process: (which Kelly promises will be streamlined in the future)
- Take an appropriate (as designated on a computer printout referencing each shirt) button from the bag after figuring out which are “ivory” which are “bone” and which are “plain old white.” (In doing so, I felt I nearly understood, after forty years of wondering, what Procol Harem meant by “whiter shade of pale.”)
- Take a two-inch by one-inch paper envelope from a box of such envelopes and apply the company name, Kirrin Finch, using an ink stamp, making sure the writing appears dead-center in the front of the envelope;
- Place the button inside the envelope;
- Punch a tiny hole in the top of the envelope using a small hole-puncher;
- Place an adhesive tag dead-center on the back of said envelope promising: “A button and a smile from Kirrin Finch”;
- Disentangle a four-inch thread from a pile of such threads, akin to separating one piece of spaghetti from a plateful;
- Thread the thread through the little hole in the envelope;
- Open the second button from the top of the shirt;
- Trim any extra thread from the opened buttonhole with miniature scissors;
- Pull the string through the buttonhole, tie a knot to secure the baby envelope, and re-button the button to secure the string.
- Breathe a sigh of relief and… repeat.
Note that several entries combine functions. I didn’t want to list fifteen or sixteen steps, but I could have. Please forgive me, but I couldn’t help thinking that if there WERE a task appropriate for child labor to complete, this is it.
In the interest of family comity and all-around “good guy” behavior, I completed my extra button task with sufficient efficiency to be offered another task. Thus, confirmation of the axiom: “No good deed goes unpunished.”
Job number two involved separating groups of buttons into plastic sandwich bags in groups of ten. These would be used for the eventual manufacture of future shirts. Again, I had to separate the now-familiar piles of stunningly similar-looking buttons and count to ten, like a pharmacist counts pills. Unlike a pharmacist, however, my efforts would not be “life and death.” Or so I thought…
After I’d completed ten bags, Kelly chose to double-check my counting. How this happened, I don’t know, but the first two bags she checked had twelve and eight buttons, respectively. This calamity represented the low-point of my career as a no-wage worker.
“If the seamstress gets a shirt order with the wrong number of buttons attached,” said Kelly, distraught, “the whole process stops.”
I pictured myself with Lucy and Ethel stuffing my face with chocolates as the assembly line sped up. Though the rest of the bags contained the correct number of buttons my fate was sealed. “You’re fired from this task,” she said.
I shook my head with sincere regret and embarrassment, but at the same time, my mind drifted towards retirement from clothing manufacturing. I pictured the delicious Italian dinner that approached in just a few hours like the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.
Kelly interrupted my reverie, however: “I have something you can’t possibly screw up.”
“Oh, good,” I said, sincerity draining away.
“You’re tall, and these shirts have to be put up away,” she said, indicating several piles of shirts and several empty cubbyholes high up in a wall unit behind a table.
“I can do that,” I said, with enthusiasm. I recalled the task my father often assigned me in his clothing store, fifty years earlier, to break down empty boxes. What satisfaction can be gleaned from a simple-minded activity that cannot easily be messed up!
I distributed the shirts by size to their appropriate spots and chastened from the button experience, double-checked my own work. After fifteen minutes, all of the shirts were put away and Kelly finally called it quits for the day.
“You’ve shown yourself semi-competent with buttons,” she said. “The next time you visit, maybe we’ll try you out on collar stays.”