today i shall talk about the mythical gilded ox we have come to know as "finnish quality of days past". it comes in many forms in conversation: cheers such as "let's bring back the finnish clothing industry!", complaints such as "domestically produced used to be quality compared to this..." and factual statements such as "the loss of jobs to asia has diminished quality." i am referring to the often cited idea that finnish industry used to provide us with high-caliber products which is often uttered in combination with 1) the lament that after work was exported quality has diminished and 2) the desire to perk up the industry in order to regain quality.
after less than careful thought i suggest that there never existed such a phenomenon as "finnish quality", so entertain me: fact or myth?
let me start by stating some obvious points: first, i am writing this wearing a dress from samu-jussi koski's early line for marimekko produced in china. the weave came undone at the shoulder during the first wear, but otherwise the dress has been alright. you've got to take my word for it – there isn't a place for shooting pics in our pre-move apartment hell of boxes. second, i own a comparable vintage marimekko dress from my mother's collection from the late 60's, still in immaculate condition and obviously made in finland. thus, i could state that finnish manufacturing quality is better than chinese. but that would make me a simpleton with a preference for bubbles and i choose not to be one.
another point is the question of unemployment which i will not deal with here. on a personal level, i, as much as anyone, want my friends to have work they enjoy. on a larger scale, i cannot find a solid ethical reason why we should prefer a finnish laborer over a chinese one: call me an unpatriotic nomad (and i'll take it as a compliment), but if it was either marja-terttu or xiu ling facing unemployment, i could not decide between them. (if you can, i'd be incredibly interested in your chain of reasoning. feel free to elaborate in the comments section below.)
i would not feel this aggravated if the discussion revolved around claims such as the overall disappearance of quality products. the addition of nationalism that echoes at the level of "negros [sic!!] are great dancers because of their natural sense of rhythm" is what irks me – especially because i find the area of fashion a place of sanctuary from such irresponsible prejudice. at the most basic level the idea is that "made in finland" equals "good quality" as if domestic production by finns was essentially inherent in the latter.
so let's get on with it, now shall we. myths? right.
artisans vs factory labor? first of all, we must differentiate between artisans and skilled factory labor. artisan manual workers are a steadily diminishing breed since industrialization: there are a rare few who nowadays can create by hand. on the other side are skilled factory laborers who are responsible for industrial production. they are a very different and varied kind of a bunch whose efforts are directed towards providing standardized results. the first group has been overtaken by the latter and the phenomenon itself is not domestic, but global.
together with the decrease in artisan labor we have witnessed the emergence of romanticized appreciation of handmade products. the trend has accumulated to an extent where all sorts of crap is sold to finns who – in addition to some tourists – are hoofs enough to buy into the "handmade in finland" sales pitch. i sometimes wonder whether it is because we're sadists who take pleasure knowing that someone wasted precious time in producing something meticulous by hand and will never be compensated accordingly... and then we glee under the halo of supporting yet another "young designer". my point being that handmade does not equal artisanship. my point is not that all (young) finnish designers produce substandard handmade creations.
which brings us to the next point...
quality vs trash? the quality of items comes down to a set of limited basic requirements: design, material, skilled work and, most importantly, selective control according to accepted standards. product inspection takes time, time costs money, and spending money diminishes profit unless the price is increased. simple.
one of the popular arguments against pricing differences between brands is the observation that the same factories produce brand-name and no-name products, and therefore, the claim goes, brand-name items differ only by profit margin. well, it ain't quite that simple, really. if we ignore material selection, there is another important issue. before a pair of sneakers makes it into a nike box, it is inspected several times. compared to the nondescript pair the time consumed in quality control makes a huge difference. obviously it does not explain the entire price difference (or even the majority), but it is naive to say we're sold the same products and are just paying for the swoosh; the selection process does differentiate between products in regards to quality stability.
nevertheless, standards of quality have lowered overall, and we're each to blame, both consumers and producers. at the most fundamental level, we're not willing to pay for the time it takes to produce a high caliber garment. nevertheless, there is still careful production in addition to haphazard production but the latter seems to be taking over. again, this is a global phenomenon.
which brings me to the next point...
national vs global? was finnish industrial production before better than production abroad is nowadays? sure it was, but it hardly comes down to locale, but the fact that industrial production in general was better globally. actually, to put it more accurately, the slice of superior industrial products from the whole was larger than presently.
the diminishing quality has created distorted beliefs in people's minds: we associate chinese merchandise with low caliber. are we really trying to claim that the company that orders the product does not provide standards for the products they agree to receive? the reason we receive crap from china is solely due to the fact that we order and accept crap from china. if we were to order the items from finland, there is no guarantee whatsoever that the outcome was any better unless we adjust the standards.
my argument being, when factory labor is considered there aren't differences between nationalities: marja-terttu in lahti near helsinki and xiu ling in a small town of 18 million near beijing can produce garments of the same grade. the fact that nowadays xiu ling seems to get the job of marja-terttu comes down to such socialist fantasies (oh, the irony!) as strong union laws that prevent marja-terttu from being exploited to the extent of her colleague in the communist workers' paradise of china.
i may be going towards blasphemy here, but despite the fact that finns love to cherish the memory of good olden finnish factories producing amazing domestic quality, the reality is that our primary business partner was notoriously uninterested in quality and after the fall of the soviet, the crap we created could not be sold anywhere else. naturally, this does not mean that there wasn't quality production in addition to the spew.
which leads me to my final point...
re-establishing finnish clothing industry? would the effort to rebuild our factories improve the products we receive? hardly, unless we're changing the standards of impressiveness we demand and are willing to pay for. finnish production by itself does not equal quality work, materials, design or control – they are universals of quality and can only be achieved if strenuously demanded. the time of a finnish seamstress is more expensive than the time of her chinese colleague from which we can deduce that for the same input we are bound to get less – the uneasy result of global exploitation.
i am not denying that having factories available would not be beneficial for many people in addition to those who find work there. i understand that the endeavor of creating a line of clothing comes down to finding people for the execution, and because our domestic industry is nonexistent, only those with lots of funding or artisanal skills can succeed. a talented designer, like my friend jaakko and the nationally famous antti asplund, whose personal manufacturing skills are not up to the standards they wish their final products were, suffer from the fact that it is difficult to find laborers. moreover, a desire to expand and grow is hindered by the lack of makers. but would the reopening of local factories improve anything else except the availability of work force, i.e. would it mean better quality than they'd receive from china (provided there was funding)? i hardly believe so because whatever financial potential they had for investing into the production, the turnout would be relative and quality comes down to investing into time and control.
my points in short are that quality comes down to universal standards and inspection, the downfall of quality is a global phenomenon, the history of finnish industry is not as evidently superior as one might be lead to believe, and the general rules of industrial production apply here as they do everywhere else. if we do not demand quality and show intent to pay for it, it makes no difference qualitywise where the production takes place. therefore, the idea that domestic production could save us from inferior products seems to be a romanticized idea derived from a myth, rather than a fact.
the myth of finnish quality of days past – busted?