Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Women's work -- Not!

Ever since Elizabeth Barber published her work, "Women's Work, the first 20,000 years" in 1995 -- fiberistas have been decrying the low value of their "art" to society and blaming the fact that it is "women's work" and so has little value.

Pash-sha! First of all, to relegate the production of cloth to the realm of women's occupation flies in the face of fact and evidence. I submit that the production of cloth within the family has always been a household occupation -- one that demanded the skills of all family members.

I present to you the coat of many colours that Jacob wove for Joseph. I present to you the generations of scottish peasants that worked in the fields during the growing season and wove at their looms in the winter -- linen weavers all -- our own ancester John Brown of Carpow for example. I present to you the British navy, where every recruit was issued knitting needles and yarn and expected to knit his own socks to keep his uniform in good repair. I submit to you the children -- male and female -- who carded the wool and walked the muckle wheel in Scotia, Ireland, and Wales for centuries -- until the Industrial revolution removed them from the land. Then there were the shepherd boys and girls who spun on their spindles as they lead the sheep, to knit their own clothing in the evening hours. I present to you our Scottish forebears who knitted with greater complexity than their wives -- Alexander Crum Brown of Edinborough our Great Grand Uncle, perhaps the best known, knit complicated mathematical models using dpn's and wool.

Every male in our family line learned to knit as a child and taught his skills to his wife, if she knew them not. Knitting was such an essential skill for the comfort of the family that no child could sit idle while he could be knitting (or carving, or carding, or spinning and all the other many tasks necessary for comfort and survival). That is, until our own children -- where the notion that knitting was a feminine occupation overroad common sense, to our own loss.

I submit to you the weavers, knitters, and dyers of the middle ages -- guild members and men all, although home production also occurred.

Look to the Americas -- the mexican and andean men are as involved as the women in textile production, as in many other cultures. In some, but not all, cultures spinning is considered women's work, while men weave. In some cultures dyeing is only done by menopausal women because of the mystery of the dye vat. In other cultures men are the wardens of this great art.

In the middle east, women care for the goats, spin the yarn, take it to a dyer and then weave the beautiful, and valuable carpets -- part of the family's wealth. Men also weave carpets in workshops -- but they are not the same, and have less value, produced as they are for the tourist market.

This false belief that fiber arts are the realm of women has robbed a generation of men of the beauty and satisfaction of producing thread, cloth and clothing by hand -- while at the same time robbing women of the same satisfaction -- as they strive to be feminist.

What has truly devalued textiles is our access to abundant throw away textiles.

  • Cheap synthetic yarn that pills, attracts grease, and doesn't wear well in proportion to the hours spent in knitting the sweater.

  • Mass produced cloth towels that wear out in a year -- due to the nature of the weak cotton threads used to make them.

  • Blue jeans that are pre abused to wear out in 6 months or less.

  • Fashion styles that are dictated by the runways and the corporate culture far removed from real life needs.

  • Synthetic cloth that can not keep a body warm and attracts grease so that cleaning becomes impossible and the garments are disposed of and replaced frequently.

  • Industry access to cheap labour, at home and abroad, cheap materials, and expensive marketing that convinces the consumer to part with their cash for disposable clothing.

These industry ideals fuel a consumer driven economy -- unsustainably.

Clothing has value as a basic human need. Slow clothing -- whether created as a one off by an artisan or made by hand at home, has value and will stand the test of time if created with quality materials. Slow clothes made from natural fibers are also sustainable and renewable -- dyed with natural dyes, they are "green"-- ethical. Created from a fibre friend they have a story.

Hand spinning, weaving, knitting and dyeing also have value as they work within an economy that values real warmth, quality materials, enduring wearablility, and natural aesthetics. Not everyone can afford this value and so some must buy their textiles over and over again each year -- and discard the worn out purchases of the previous season. But this is not because textile production is "women's work" but rather because their budget is disposable. Isn't that why its called "disposable income"?

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