Fabric

I’ve been compulsively reading this beautiful blog featuring Japanese folk textiles. Many of these items are mended on top of mending on top of mending–a legacy of rural poverty but also of a culture and an era that disliked waste. When you harvested, spun, wove, and died fibers yourself, fabric was a precious thing.

Economies around the world adopted mechanized spinning and weaving at different paces. In England middle- and upper-class women had completely outsourced making woven fabric by the mid-1830s (in pre-industrial England, weaving was usually sent to a skilled tradesman, but threads were spun at home.) Other European countries held on to skilled weaving a bit longer, especially in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. Asia is sadly outside of my historical purview, for now. There are various hand spinning and weaving (or knitting) cultures that still exist today, although a culture would need to be quite remote to subsist on 100% locally hand-produced fabric.

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried spinning, but it is not fast. A good hobby spinner with a wheel might turn out a few hundred yards of wool knitting yarn–which is much heavier than most weaving yarn–in a day. Wool is the easiest fiber to spin. Cotton spinning is considered too tedious and technical for most people who are spinning by choice. This article lays out some of the process of preparing and spinning linen fiber. Hemp and linen have the added bonus of being hard on your hands, at every stage. Knitting from a commercially prepared linen yarn leaves red gouges in my fingers; I can’t imagine spinning it. The spinning wheel is, by the way, a vast speed improvement over the older (but concurrently used, and still used by many indigenous fiber cultures) drop spindle.

And that’s one phase of fabric production. There’s a reason time is so commonly envisioned as a thread.

The fact that modern women in industrialized societies can live their entire lives without doing any part of fabric or clothing production is literally stunning when you put it in a historical context. We’ve picked it up as a hobby, of course, but for our entire clothed history, minus the last two hundred years, making and processing fabric was the primary job of almost every woman in clothes-wearing cultures.

Not only do we not make clothes, we don’t maintain them once we have them. Darning, patching, and mending are skills that are even rarer than spinning, knitting, and weaving. Many modern fabrics aren’t even really capable of being mended, and are in fact designed to be worn for only a short time. I’m looking at you, Lycra that looses its stretch after a year.

I’m not in a hurry to make all of my own clothes, don’t get me wrong. This is just food for thought in our culture that throws away prodigious quantities of textiles every year. If that shirt represented a month of your life, instead of $15, would you do something besides put it in the trash bin? Would you have bought it in the first place?

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