It’s Hobson’s Choice. Nosalgia for an economic model whose time has passed, whose time has come again.


I watched an excellent documentary from the 80’s on The Shakers the other night.  Contained within it was a quote from a Shaker made shortly after the Civil War, when mass produced cloth became so common it was cheap.  Too cheap in fact.  He lamented that it’s cheaper to buy cloth than to make it.  But it’s cheaper to weave it than buy it because of the quality of the hand made so exceeds the quality of the mass produced.  Thus, garments and items made from the cheaper cloth must be replaced sooner and mended more than those made from hand woven cloth.  He went on to say basically, that it’s a predicament for which there are no good solutions.

140-something years later and this is still a true statement.  A hand woven dish towel will last 20 years easily; the dish towels bought from Costco, even though of ‘higher quality’ than the dollar store versions, will last no more than 5 at best.  But you can buy at least four dollar store towels for less than even one hand woven one.

For clothing, the difference is even more striking.  There is an additional problem though, at least in industrialized parts of the world; even the majority of hand weavers are afraid to cut their cloth because they do not know how to make cloth that is meant for clothing.  Daryl Lancaster is one of the few American weavers – Laura Frye is another (Canadian) – who has kept that knowledge alive and is passing it on to other hand weavers.  Cloth that drapes well isn’t necessarily cloth that will make a garment that will last more than a few washings.  Our body-conscious culture prefers lycra to fitted linen; it requires a good understanding of cloth manufacture from an engineering standpoint to make hand woven cloth that can be used for quality garment construction and still both look attractive and be durable.  The word ‘sleazy’ referred originally to sheer cloth or cloth made poorly; somewhere along the line it became a word used to mean cheap/tacky/vulgar/low class/whore.  It can mean any of those meanings, or all of them depending on context.

I try not to romanticize the past; our ancestors mostly lived hard, short lives and  I have already exceeded my probable life expectancy compared to 100 years ago.  I would not have even survived to bear children were it not for antibiotics.  I do think, though, that in many ways living standards for the average person, as compared to the wealthy, have declined since the Middle Ages.  It seems to me that while a serf might have been effectively a slave, it was also the case that the lord was perfectly aware that their wealth derived from the work of the serfs on the land they all shared.  Not shared in the sense that the serf owned it, but that they were entitled to live on it, they were entitled to work it, and their time was basically their own once the work for the lords was done.  Work that didn’t require hours of time every single day but rather sporadically and in bursts as the seasons dictated.  The lords did not have access to much better medicine or treatments than the serfs; they didn’t live much longer lives, and they didn’t live (too much) in a way that was drastically better than the serfs.  The plague took as many of the gentry and nobility, percentage wise, as it did the serfs, just as an example.

The Industrial Revolution finished the decline that began more than 200 years previously.  It destroyed sustainable peasantry, their leisure time, their self determination (within limits, of course), and concentrated wealth in the hands of a few who DID live drastically differently and better than their peasants.  This is the time in history when money became essential to life for all classes. Which, of course, puts the poor at a serious disadvantage and effectively makes them slaves to the wealthy in a far more dehumanizing way than serfdom ever did.

I think perhaps this is why Jane Austen’s novels are so beloved by so many knitters and crafters in America.  They romanticize the time without realizing how very destructive that time was to their ancestors, those who were lucky (or unlucky) enough to survive the final destruction of an entire way of life.  They see the leisure of Jane’s characters as indicative of a time gone by without stopping to think that, for the vast majority of us, we would NOT have been the ones with the leisure time, we would have been the ones working 7 days a week as a servant, going without adequate sleep for the entirety of our lives.  Or we would have been factory workers, working 7 days a week in a dark workhouse, straining to see by candlelight, being always hungry.  The grace and beauty of that time period belonged only to the wealthy.

In the Middle Ages, even noble-born women were expected to spin, to weave, to sew and embroider, and to mend, as well as manage their households and act in the name of their husband.  They did not — could not — leave those tasks to their servants.  It was expected that all people in a household, nobility included, would contribute to the production of household goods.  Just as a late example:  Queen Katherine, Henry VIII’s first wife, continued to make his shirts for him until Anne Boleyn demanded he stop accepting them.

Distributism is the technical term for the economic model that arises from re-localization.  And it is an economic model that allows for hand woven cloth, the economy of chickens, and of small farms, and community self sufficiency.  It does not require money as the only coin of exchange.  It is the model of the Middle Ages, the model of the Shakers and other religious communes of the 18th and 19th centuries, the model that was destroyed in favor of savage capitalism.  It is the model that values the economy of hand woven cloth, and the clothing and items made from it, over mass produced inferior cloth.  If we rely on money alone, hand woven items are something only the wealthy acquire and value.  If we rely on interconnectedness, on trading within and among communities for those things we don’t or can’t produce, it is the only affordable choice.

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