Travelling is what many of us do this time of year. It’s a period to relax and fill those depleted sources of energy. We can of course also use the time to reflect on our lives, to imagine how to improve them – and what action might be needed to achieve that. And why not combine things and reflect on travel itself?
Let’s start with a quirky novelette written by James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851), the favourite author for generations of Americans and best known for his historical romance The Last of the Mohicans (1826).
In the Autobiography (1843) it’s a Pocket Handkerchief that travels through contemporary society. The object’s “clairvoyance” or “magnetic induction” enables it to know the thoughts and feelings of the humans in its neighbourhood. The handkerchief tells its own story and comments on events in France and America. We learn about its time growing in the Normandy flax fields and all the actions that result in high quality linen, including embroidery and lace embellishment. Because the author makes it travel across the Atlantic ocean, he can use the handkerchief as a lens to compare the manners of the old and new worlds.
Cooper was essentially preoccupied with social stability. He also believed society had to grow through three stages: after the frontier stage America had now entered the second stage where “the struggles for place” became so predominant that people abandoned important principles such as equality and good fellowship in favour of the influence of “mere money”. Rather than evolving towards the third stage of ordered society Cooper feared that America was being taken over by self-interest. Chaos and the destruction of liberty might ensue.
Hence the scathing satire in which an exquisite handkerchief is paid a pittance in revolutionary Paris but creates “a general buzz” at a New York party where the nouveaux riches gawk over “the first hundred-dollar pocket handkerchief that had then appeared in their circles; and had I been a Polish count, with two sets of moustaches, I could not have been more flattered and ‘entertained’.”
The handkerchief serves well as a symbol of the changing social conditions, especially in America. Cooper condemns the effects of early consumerism and its selfish struggle for social status: he considers the increasingly materialistic climate detrimental to sounder values such as harmonious social relations and civic engagement.
With its Atlantic travels the handkerchief also enables the author to consider both sides of the economic spectrum and equally condemn the capitalist exploitation of the workers: “Those who live on the frivolities of mankind, or, what is the same thing, their luxuries, have two sets of victims to plunder – the consumer, and the real producer, or the operative. This is true where men are employed, but much truer in the case of females.”
In short, through the narrative voice of a handkerchief we see the ideal of an ordered society being disrupted by the globalizing of production, distribution and consumption.
Considered as the first ‘commodity novel’, the Autobiography may well be the precursor of what is called commodity historiography. In order to offer a different perspective on world history, historians have been using the focal point of a single commodity, such as sugar and coal, to explore the origins and the vicissitudes of globalization.
A fine example is Empire of Cotton (2015) by the Harvard historian Sven Beckert. He argues that cotton is the first real globalizer in the sense that its commercialization made the world in which we live today.
Beckert makes at least three important arguments. First, the global network of cotton growers, harvesters, spinners, weavers, merchants and manufacturers was the first grand act of economic globalization in the history of the world. The very idea of the global marketplace is the result of the enduring demand for cotton.
Second, violence is an intrinsic part of the early capitalist development which Beckert therefore renames “war capitalism”. This also means that from the start there was no question of so-called “free enterprise”: the capitalist system received powerful support from the modern states – with the building of the necessary infrastructure (canals, railways, etc.), military practices, secure financial instruments (credit, insurance), and a legal framework (e.g. intellectual property). In sum, capitalism is, as the historian puts it, “joined at the hip” with state power.
Third, the increasingly global character of capitalism depends on the continuously growing prolitarization of countrysides around the world. Subsistence communities, with a variety of crops and local exchange systems, are increasingly replaced with wage labour in monocultures. This entails an immense loss in diversity, in terms of both ecosystems and local cultures. People lose their productive independence and are at the same time reduced, however imperfect the circumstances are, to become global consumers.
Already between 1000 and 1700 cotton was the most important productive sector. Today around 350 million people across the globe are involved in its manufacturing industry.
In between lies a relatively short period in which the British East India Company bought fine cotton textiles in India, that were sold in Africa in exchange for slaves, who then were transported to the Western hemisphere to work on the American sugar and cotton fields to supply the European markets.
Cotton was thus at the core of the Atlantic trade triangle. When by the end of the 18th century British technological innovations enabled domestic production, slave labour was no longer essential to the further development of capitalism and was replaced with wage labour. Today there are virtually no regions left that do not participate, however imperfectly, in the global system. The continuing quest for ever cheaper sources of materials and labour also embodies disturbing inequality.
The power of Beckert’s account is above all that it raises our awareness. Textile has always travelled. And the particular and changing nature of its travels reveals a lot about how the world we live in came into being. Also, the global economy is not a recent creation. And its development is not a natural but a politically promoted process. It’s thus not because contemporary large corporations have emancipated from the state, that there is no alternative. For the state has to a large extent voluntarily withdrawn from the economic sphere. And that is no natural process either: as with the support of early capitalism, it’s the result of political and ideological choices. This also implies there are alternatives – if there is political will. For our own part of the world it seems likely that an alternative stance to political economy will be developed within the European Union, rather than the individual nation states.
At a more individual level Beckert strengthens recent awareness for the circumstances in which textiles (and other consumer goods) are produced. Fast fashion relies on labour conditions that don’t vary much from the early days of the Industrial Revolution. The advantage of this so-called information age is that we know of the often deplorable lives of the wage labourers who enable our consumer behaviour. Add to this a heightened awareness for the ecological consequences of both those productive conditions and the global textile travels – and there may be room for individual agency.
To make that room more visible, and enlarge it, is at the core of the work of the Dutch designer Christien Meindertsma. She’s one of those designers who’s not so much interested in products but in processes: she researches the raw materials, people and techniques involved in the various stages of production. Striking is that she doesn’t talk explicitly about sustainability. According to Meindertsma it’s transparency that will lead to “better products”. She wants to foster more respect and care: if people know “the story” behind a product, they will connect with it and value it differently – which will also make them different consumers.
When Meindertsma was commissioned to work with a traditional rope maker, she tried for a year and a half to discover where his raw materials came from. Flabbergasted that she couldn’t find any answers, she redefined the entire project: in close collaboration with one of the few remaining flax farmers she documented the process of flax production in the Netherlands from start to finish. Eventually she had the chance to buy the lot’s harvest – and to her own hilarity ended up with over 10 tons of flax.
Part of it has become the raw material for beautiful, unbleached damask table linen. And Meindertsma remains close to her mission of transparency. Her designs themselves make sense: they’re based on the plant, the layout of the actual field and segments of the complex harvesting process.
Here’s a designer at work who uses design to explain something that she considers important. She doesn’t lecture people. But she offers a different way of looking at things, of asking relevant questions. Why for instance are some producers so reluctant to reveal the origin of their raw materials? What is the sense (and the cost) of making textile travel around the globe? And will making the productive processes visible change our interpretation of consumption and thus our sense of agency?
Texture, the Museum of Flax and River Lys in Kortrijk, West Flanders, is a delightful example of how deep respect for craftsmanship, regional textile traditions and entrepreneurship can be combined with innovative technological displays and awareness of the contemporary visitor’s interests and expectations. In TEXLAB the museum offers its history and collection as inspiration for new creations.
Meindertsma’s project for TEXLAB beautifully links the history of the museum building with her own interest in travelling textiles. In 1914-15 hundreds of travel pigeons were locked up in the building by the German occupier out of fear that they would transfer delicate information.
Meindertsma returned 200 pigeons to the museum, in tufted linen this time, manufactured with her own flax by one of the last yarn spinners left in Flanders, filled with flax seeds and sewn together by Texture’s volunteers.
And the designer pursued the travel theme further: below the pigeon wall the global travels of different linen variants are visualized, for instance from Belgium to China and back again.
Meindertsma explores the possibility of “transparent” products. But wonders herself whether such production, in bulk and at affordable prices, is feasible. She continues to hope that telling the story behind consumer products can make a difference. But her sense of urgency seems to grow. In her recent installation for the inaugurating exhibition of the renewed London Design Museum, Meindertsma presented colourful heaps of fibre originating from 1000 discarded woollen jumpers, thus visualizing the senselessness of throwaway fashion.
In conclusion then, textile travels can accompany us towards higher awareness. We may want to think about the origin and history of the raw materials of products that often, almost thoughlessly, get thrown away. We may want to think about our own consumer behaviour and how to align that more with the good life, both for ourselves and for the “operatives”, both male and female. James Fenimore Cooper, Sven Beckert and Christien Meindertsma each narrow our focus to a single object or raw material and offer it as a lens to see more clearly the global scale of consumer products and its implications. All three are critical of contemporary practices, the underlying system and its guiding principles. It would be nonsensical to expect from them quick and or easy solutions. They do demonstrate that disruption and globalization are man-made phenomena that are susceptible to human agency, collective and individual. They also confirm the omnipresence of textiles and their connection not just to commerce but to politics and culture as well. And to urgent underlying issues that reflect the state of the world.