The Craft of Use

We’re not materialistic enough. Now here’s a challenging thesis. And it’s convincingly argued by Kate Fletcher, Professor of Sustainability, Design and Fashion at the University of the Arts in London. Bear with me, an incident in a different branch of the arts introduces the theme beautifully.

A strange debate recently in Belgium centred around the question whether or not it’s acceptable to destroy a piece of art – and on what grounds that can be judged.

Tuymans, The Swamp. Photo Karel Hemerijckx.

The internationally renowned artist Luc Tuymans made the floor painting The Swamp for a cultural happening at the end of which the painting would be burned. With the explicit approval of the artist, of course. But the manager of a poverty organisation objected because the painting had an esteemed market value of half to one million euros. After lots of to-and-fro-ing, the painting was not burnt but hacked into pieces. The full destruction will eventually take place out of public sight.

The point seems to be that we cannot deal with transience: intentionally planning that things change, or indeed disappear, meets resistance. But what’s demonstrated most is how we, collectively, are completely stuck in a consumption society – and we no longer understand its implications. The manager interprets art purely in monetary terms. Tuymans himself manages the market very skillfully by creating scarcity of his work. In other words, all parties in the debate are strongly embedded in the consumption ideology of our times. Yet it can be safely assumed that the manager cherishes other values. And the artist claims a kind of sanctuary, a space where different values reign.

This space is where Kate Fletcher situates her work on the Craft of Use. In fact she’s far more ambitious than Tuymans: the point is not so much to create a sanctuary and in the rest of the space continue to go along with the dominant values, but rather to explore already existing practices and ideas and see how far they will get us in the definition and realization of a radically different system.

Fletcher’s focus is on fashion. And what is so wonderful about her project is that it not only aims to reshape the way we think about fashion but also firmly places it in a much broader discussion on sustainability and the good life. I said it was ambitious.

Fashion is the poster-industry of consumer materialism, frivolous and superficial, hence rather easy to dismiss. Yet Fletcher insists on fashion as a true cultural force, in the sense both that it’s the carrier of the dominant values of our society and that it has the potential to act as a vehicle for true, deep change. Fashion fuses fundamental human needs, the provision of livelihoods, creative expression, social processes, the material dimensions of well-being and pleasure. On the downside, it fully illustrates the dominance of market thinking and the inability of efficiency improvements to outrun the negative effects of economic growth on labour conditions and climate change.

At the heart of The Craft of Use lies a very simple idea of change: pay heed to the tending and wearing of clothes, favour their use as much as their creation. And in so doing adopt a more ecological idea of fashion that recognizes what happens outside the market as rich, powerful and valuable. The subtitle makes it plain: this is the search for “post-growth fashion”. There we have it: the point is to change the entire system.

We’re all “locked-in” into dominant ways of thinking about fashion, about economics and society.  We find it normal to engage with fashion by exchanging money for product. We chase the thrill of a new purchase, only to feel deflated at home where the satisfaction rate rarely holds out. We also expect the clothes to look dated or even fall apart in six months. We don’t hesitate about discarding rather than adapting or repairing – and so we consume again. And the ever growing volumes at an ever increasing pace neutralize the ecological efforts of the fashion industry.

And how do we feel when discarded clothes become art? Monika Droste, Transfixed Clothes (1981), Collection of the Wallonie-Brussels Federation.

To return to the challenging thesis at the beginning of this post: much in the same vein that the Dutch designer Christien Meindertsma argues for the knowledge about the origin of raw materials, Fletcher claims we’re not materialistic enough because we don’t really care about the materials or indeed the garments. If we had respect and appreciation for the intrinsic material qualities of things, we would treat them differently – with attention and care. But consumer society suggests that it can fulfill our needs, for symbolic value for instance or social meaning. Hence the continuous replacement purchases. In that dynamic the clothes’ materiality, their intrinsic qualities aren’t relevant. To the industry the post-purchase lives of garments are equally irrelevant: the sooner it can seduce us to consume again, the better. 

This to Fletcher is the crux of the system: if the focus continues to lie with the product, we’re reduced to being – and remaining passive consumers. We hardly exercise our judgement. It’s hard for instance to get any information about the conditions in which the garments are manufactured. We let ourselves be distracted so that we also don’t evaluate our own needs and how they relate to consumption. We don’t actively engage with things. We don’t exercise our awareness. And thus neglect the development of our sensitivity to ethical responsibility.

When in other words consumption is such a powerful force, and it generates passivity in fashion activities, it also spreads that attitude to other domains. And we no longer see what its effects are: we’re discouraged to exercise our judgement in other areas of life too, we fail to identify our real needs, we feel powerless to act in the world. We’ve interiorized the idea that the market defines value – there is no alternative. Which also means that ideas or practices that cannot be marketed, have no value – remember the Tuymans debate.

Fletcher argues that we must resist this dominant ideology. We cannot accept that our lives are assessed by the market alone. Our aspirations and the simple (and not so simple) things that enrich our lives, the engagement with others for instance, do not connect with the economic logic of continuous growth. We thus urgently need an alternative discourse, both to solve the problems of sustainability and to realize a qualitative interpretation of human well-being.

If this sounds like a major task, Fletcher doesn’t deny it is. But she offers us the concept of use as a simple way in. For keeping garments in active use can involve something as simple as approaching a piece with attention and imagination. It’s inconspicuous consumption. It’s appreciating resources in greater detail, stretching them qualitatively and quantitatively, approaching them creatively, folding them into others’ lives, infusing them with human warmth, memory and storytelling. 

Research has revealed that the post-purchase life of a garment is the biggest source of both individual satisfaction and environmental impact. This is why use must be at the centre of post-growth fashion. 

Craft of use refers to a set of practical skills, knowledge and ideas associated with using clothes. They’re little noticed and within the current fashion system little prized. What Fletcher and her team do in the book, is bring together stories and portrait photography that illustrate and value the practice of use. And the main point is that there are already many “alternative dress codes” out there: people buy secondhand, they share use or transfer clothes between generations, they mend their garments, “open and adjust” them, cherish the patina of use, etc.

This is what satisfaction with use looks like.

Let me share my two favourites from the book. One person suggests that with a new dress you should also be able to buy an extra piece of fabric, so you could adjust the garment to your own wishes. Showing her own favourite eveningdress, the woman in the photograph on the right tells the inspiring story of a woman in her eighties who at some point had decided not to buy any more clothes. She’s worn out the rest of her wardrobe and now only wears eveningwear.

What the book illustrates above all, is that many people already have, in their own ‘ordinary’ way, broken through the dominant economic system. They listen to their own needs and preferences, they use their awareness and judgement and bring them into the world. They’ve thus become agents in their own interpretation and practice of fashion.

Fletcher insists that the designing process itself must include users’ wisdom and produce more flexible products. Interestingly, at the end of World War II, the Make Do & Mend movement already inspired material resourcefulness with army blankets. Half a century later the A-Poc project presented the fascinatingly flexible design of Issey Miyake (1998). 

This is disruptive stuff. Once beyond-the-market activity is included to stretch the definition of fashion, the power balance shifts. Production becomes only one part of the system, existing market priorities lose their dominance in favour of alternative networks that favour non-utilitarian, non-economic values.

Use is resourceful and satisfying. It infuses the system of fashion with different goals such as self-reliance, diversity and quality. To use is to act, to forge a more engaged future of our own choosing and in so doing provide us with an opportunity to develop the capacity and skills to navigate our own route not just through our fashion choices, but also through life: we become the makers of alternative routes. Consumers become citizens who bring to the fore different interpretations of identity, agency and the good life.

What I find most fascinating is that this is about ‘ordinary’ people. It’s not grand theory: it’s practical wisdom gleaned from individual, subjective lives. Its practitioners may not even be aware of it but they fulfill a pioneering role – which can inspire us, precisely because it’s so much in reach of us all. What’s more, this “clothing competence” can equally spread out and support growth in our character for instance and in our choices as citizen. Stories of “material resourcefulness” thus become tiny lessons of change – in the various domains of life.

Fletcher makes the association with craftivism which is an explicitly political approach. Obviously, there’s also a strong reference to the ideas, practices and values of craftsmanship such as I have been presenting in this blog. Or to summarize the whole argument really simply: after a garment is sold, the user is in charge. Fletcher calls all of us to use that power. The idea and practice of use is a path to approach not only fashion but life itself differently.

Let me conclude with two practices of my own. Fletcher insists that she “present[s] the practices of garment use not as a neatly packaged ‘how to’ list for using things well and with satisfaction, but as rich ground, as compost, in which ideas and practices of use can be cultivated.” With her, “I leave it up to you to care for what grows here, to train it in different directions, to enjoy its blossom, to cross-pollinate its flowers with new ideas, to eat its fruit, share it with others and replant its seed in new and different ground.”

My sister knitted one jumper in her life. And when it was finished, she didn’t like it – and gave it to me. Years later moths liked it very much.
What I could save, got recycled into a festive attire for a new member in my sister’s happy bear collection.

 

 

Note the buttons above left, the zip on the right and the fringes in the foreground, each belonging to a different secondhand skirt. 
I very much hope I can wear this new trinity in my eighties.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Textile Travels

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 in a pensive, probably gloomy mood (New York).

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.

We use cotton every day. But how many Western consumers would recognize this as a cotton field?
Or know that this plant seemingly overwhelmed by snow is in fact a cotton flower?

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.

The flax ‘rotting’ on its lot (Flevopolder, Gz 59-West) as part of the intricate harvesting process.

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.

The Linen Thread Company’s building, now home to Texture, was turned into a dovecote in the early years of the First World War.

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.