Textiles, Clothing and Vessels



Textiles, Clothing, and Vessels

Mary Garrison

(with many thanks to Greg and Rebecca for all the wonderful conversations)

7.00 pm, July 23rd 2015,

Harper and Carr,

41 Fossgate





This talk grew out of the conversations I had with Greg and Rebecca whenever I visited their shop to admire the pottery and clothing. I'd walked by many times before I first came in because I was trying to get rid of, rather than acquire, clothing—but the magic of the arrangements of the things on the window sill and the table lured me in, reminding me of Kettle's Yard. Then I started to drop by regularly. I always leave feeling as if my eyes have been woken up and sustained—a café for the eyes on the best café street in York. And during these visits, our conversations about cloth and clothes, making things, pottery, always lead in all sorts of unexpected directions.  

Textiles, clothing and pottery: easy to take for granted, but the basis of so many things....really, of human culture and survival...

n my work as an historian, I'm used to the format where a talk is supposed to be a lecture conveying a lot of information, or arguing a case, or persuading; I want to depart from that mode here. I have four themes tonight, which are not so much an argument as a set of overlapping places where the ideas have crystallized.

I'll intersperse what I say with some poems and readings.

There will be a pause after section: I hope your thoughts and reactions will become part of the conversation. These are the 4 themes:

. Made things: the need for objects, design; the made object  and the essence of the object

. the long history of clothes and pots; attachment to textiles and vessels; clothing as the ocial skin

. the maker's mark; the object as a conversation

. Severed connections, the orphaned object, the ethics of clothing; the moral problem of ood and clothes




1. The Need for Objects and the made object. We are not just DNA, perhaps we co-evolved with the things we made. Essence of the object


s humans, we need things. Even nomads need things. I'm going to quote from a poem by Wendell Berry to express this by considering what we are not. (Berry is a poet and farmer from Kentucky who explores our connection with the land and the importance of good stewardship in farming in his poems, essays,and  novels. He does not use a computer, he does not write by artificial light and he composts all of his drafts. Some of Berry's other ideas will also be woven into the sections that follow.)

o because we need things, we are not like Wendell Berry's terrapin:


 The Terrapin


'The Terrapin and his house are one.

hough he may go, he's never gone.

e's housed within, from nose to toe:

door, a floor, and no window.

here's little room; the light is dim;

is only furniture is him...

e has no worries and no woes,

or where he is is where he goes.

onder this wonder under his dome.

ho wandering is always home. '


he terrapin is free of all the encumbrances of stuff. The poem also suggests that this self-sufficiency leaves him isolated: at home while he wanders, he is his house; in fact, he has grown his house; with no furniture he cannot invite anyone in. and because he has 'no worries and no woes,' he seems to live in an eternal present: no woes means no memories of past grief; no worries means no fear about the future.

e are the opposite. We depend on made things and made stories for our survival and identity. We have stuff, worries and woes. As far as I know no animal species accumulates possessions apart from magpies. Why isn't our capacity to make things and own things part of the definition of being human the way tool use, language, and the opposable thumb are?

nstead, the dominant cultural consensus now seems to be that we are defined by DNA.  In this way of thinking, everything is determined by DNA, even things that do not have it!

nd so it's become a cliché to seek explanations in DNA for all sorts of traits and behaviour.  The DNA-discourse is so dominant that people resort to metaphors about it in all sorts of contexts where it's clearly not actually present. Some businesses advertise that it is 'in their DNA' to be such-and-such a way. (So one web page, for a business called Metso proclaims: 'It's in our DNA: Feeling of Control'.  And oddly, the European Anti-Racist movement's web page uses the heading 'Our DNA' as the title for its mission statement. Odd because you'd think any movement against racism would not want to borrow a language of biology...  

his preoccupation with DNA is an ingrained habit of thought; it reinforces a notion that the most important shaping influence is the one from a microscopic molecular genetic code, one we cannot see without electron microscopes, instead of the fact that we are makers, with choices and cultural ways, dependent for our survival on the objects we make as well as the food we grow. So it downgrades the skills and things that we live by to resort to all these DNA metaphors. And that distortion is all the more regrettable now when the arts are so little supported and so few things we use are actually produced here or nearby. 


e need made objects and are sustained by them... And among made objects, perhaps there is some special quality of pottery and textiles which draws us to them?  I'm going to meander towards an answer to that question, by starting with the essential larger theme: the made object, the importance of craft and design for a made thing  which is functional, although not a tool.

The examples will be chairs and glass...


oth chairs and glass are very modern in the long span of human history and prehistory; both seem essential today because we invented them and then adapted to need them. (Very odd: though all cultures do not train their bodies to need chairs—but once you live in a chair culture, chairs are essential for daily life, though not biological survival. —In fact, we are killing ourselves with chairs and sitting! And that is why they are such a thought-provoking example of the importance of the made object and our co-evolution with the made things...

Pottery can work as well as glass for most of its daily purposes....but we have glass as well as clay now, and have for a long time...]



The Chair


  Someone said:


“A chair is reified compassion”.


he chair foresees the need to sit; its maker works within the constraints of human dimensions to create a support for a body that needs a seat and so it is compassion made tangible, the object made to foresee the body's need.  An uncomfortable chair embodies the opposite of compassion—there is a kind of disregard, even cruelty, in a chair that is a torture to sit on.


[At this point we discussed tables and what they do, creating barriers, supports, ceremonies, hospitality...]




  'Glass is a form of knowledge.... knowledge embodied in substance and shape. It is almost alchemical' (R4 IOT).


A poem about a glass jar, perhaps a canning jar:


 allace Stevens , Anecdote of the Jar


 “I placed a jar upon a hill

nd round it was, upon a hill.

t made the slovenly wilderness

urround that hill.


he wilderness rose up to it,

nd sprawled around, no longer wild.

he jar was round upon the ground

nd tall and of a port in air.


t took dominion everywhere.

he jar was grey and bare.

t did not give of bird or bush.

ike nothing else in Tennessee.”


The jar might be a mason jar or canning jar, essential for survival on small farms in the Appalachians. But here—the poem can be about making nature into a still life from the made object;  orperhaps about the made object tamimg the wilderness, or creating order, —these are some of the possible meanings of the poem...


Clothing is social skin


 The made object is not just 'stuff' or a thing:  it is where themind and hand of the maker exert themselves on materialto meet a need.


 We can do without chairs: stones, a log, or the ground can support a sitting body. Some cultures do not use chairs at all.


e can do without glass: vessels can be made of wood, or shells or fruit skin, an apron can be used as a vessel, or even the hands.


ut cloth is different: it is a kind of second skin, a fur-substitute, a social hide, made by other people. It is a skin that enables humans to spread across the globe. Without this culturally created substitute pelt, humans in temperate climes could not survive the winter. In deserts, protection from the sun and sand is equally necessary.


 As I was considering this about cloth, that it is really an extension of an organ of the body made by other humans (the skin is the largest organ), and that we are extremely vulnerable without it, I remembered the phrase 'the naked ape'.  What was the evolutionary reason that we became hairless and got such easily injured sensitive vulnerable skin, skin which is not just fragile (though self-repairing) but is also a boring looking outer covering compared to that of many other species? —The result of substituting a hairy hide for human's skin is that we all (apart from those who dwell in equatorial climates) need an external object to make up for the inadequacy of an organ of the body whichbecame inadequate against the environment, and unable to transmit much social meaning.


volutionary biologists have a number of competing theories about how humans lost their once tougher hairier hides. The theories are: (1) incidental by product of skin pigment adaptation; (2) need for temperature regulation by sweat in order to be able to run; (3) an aquatic phase of human existence (4) an adaptation to minimize death from  parasites such as lice, fleas, ticks and the diseases they carry. (5) social bonding, and especially the pair bond.  

here doesn't appear to be a clear consensus in favour of any of these answers (or not as far as I can tell without more reading) but the evolutionary reason does not need to concern us. The really crucial point is that the relationship between cloth or clothing, skin, and society is a reason why clothing is stuff of a different category from chairs. [And it is the product of co-evolution: as we'll see when I summarize the history of cloth and weaving: we had cloth before we had domesticated herds...)


ottery vessels come much later than cloth in evolutionary terms—they more or less coincide with a middle phase of the development of settled agricultural life —but they too have a kind of integral connection to survival and culture: they let people store, preserve, carry, share food. And serve and eat it without having to bite or tear it off in chunks.


here's an idea that we humans domesticated ourselves before we domesticated animals. We got smaller jaws and teeth, smaller necks and shoulders, less hair—and women went farther on this path than men. Clothing and vessels (and knives)—help to compensate for these losses in brute strength and self-suffiency... they also imply interdependence and cooperation...

So maybe just the way some people say we are drawn to domestic animals because of having domesticated them and co-evolved with them, perhaps textiles and vessels, too, are also a deep part of our natures, an extension of ourselves, answering a need that goes back far into prehistory?



I'll return to those idea a bit later.  Now, though, I want to invite some discussion before going on to section 2, where I'll delve into some thoughts about the long history of making and objects, especially textiles, clothing, and pottery.


[[ conclude this section: intimacy and integrality—textiles are a second, social, skin, made by other humans. Vessels are also what allow us to share, preserve, not eat and drink with our hands—they are part of us and part of culture, ancient and necessary... discussion...]]



2. Long History of  Textiles and Vessels

(this section is mainly a summary of Elizabeth Wayland Barber's book, Women's Work, about the history of spinning, weaving and costume—the summary will be interspersed with asides to develop ideas about textile making and community; the crucial interplay of functional and symbolic; fabric and the social fabric... the point of the history is not history for its own sake or for a message about how things should be, but: how it has been; and the fact that it has been this way having, perhaps, imprinted itself on us...)


rehistory is conventionally divided according to a scheme based on the substances people used for tools: stone, bronze, iron. And each of those is divided into phases.


ach is characterized by a particular kind of subsistence:

an age of hunting and gathering (which is the Old Stone Age, orpalaeolithic) then an age of agriculture (which is the new stone age, or Neolithic) and then ages of Bronze—the beginning of city-dwelling, writing, complex social organization and inequality  (really, copper then bronze)  and Iron. The technological changes that define each age didn't occur at the same time in every place, and some places borrowed some of the technology of a more 'modern' age while retaining features of an older social pattern.



he most crucial threshold is the 'neolithic revolution' the beginning of the last phase of the stone age when settled life and agriculture replaced itinerant hunter-gathering. It is associated with permanent dwellings, storage pits, and quite far along in it, the beginning of POTTERY; and increased inequality and greed.And the domestication of dogs. (Pottery is too heavy for nomadic or itinerant populations...)


lizabeth Wayland Barber characterizes the Neolithic as ' the beginning of 500 generations of uncontrolled acquisition and child producing.' (p. 70)  'Acquisitiveness is a neolithic invention' Yuval Hariri, in Sapiens,  sees it as the beginning of the adaptations that allowed humans to exploit each other, and the planet, in the ways that we now see leading to destruction (from the intro to his book Sapiens).


A way to summarize this long trajectory would be:


he first stone club

he first knapped flint

he first arrowhead

he first axe

he axe of stone,

 the spear of bronze,

he sword of iron..


Even though they could not know this sequence, classical poets' stories of a golden age capture this awareness of a human story where technological advance leads to violence and exploitation.


vid, Metamorphoses 1. 89-151


 No pine tree felled in the mountains had yet reached the flowing waves to travel tther lands:

uman beings only knew their own shores. ((ie no boats or exploration)

 There were no steep ditches surrounding towns, no straight war-trumpets, no coileorns, no swords and helmets.

ithout the use of armies, people passed their lives in gentle peace and security.

he earth herself also, freely, without the scars of ploughs, untouched by hoes,roduced everything from herself.




What if we tell part of the story of technology in prehistory a different way? There is another sequence, that begins part-way through that scheme, perhaps focussing on the time just before the transition from itinerant hunting, gathering, and herding, to settled agriculture:


 the fibre,

 the twist,

 the first thread

 the first spindle

 the first loom,

 the first cloth

 the first stitch...( --actually the first stitch comes before cloth...when people stitched animal skins together. The ice-manOetzi was mainly wearing skins sewn together..)


Next I'll give a slightly fuller summary of the history of cloth and clothing from Elizabeth Wayland Barber's book Women's Work. A great book! The key moments, now, not a  blow by blow summary of the whole prehistory...


One crucial point—before the industrial revolution, spinning, weaving and sewing had been womens' work forever, compatible with childcare and often done communally.  'Most hours of a woman's day would be spent in textile activity' ( Women's Work, p. 31). (Why no innovation till very late? too risky—this work was done by women and the possible failure of any innovation mean no attempt.....)


The String Revolution


n the late old stone age, while people were still nomadic, hunting and gathering for subsistence, Art, string, new tools, cave painting, carving images of animals and sewing, all emerge at the 'same' time.

An amazing moment! Though this 'moment' may have lasted centuries.


The innovations are:


(Wayland Barber page 42)—awls, pins, burins, sculpted bone and string. A huge change, massive moment of  creativity. Of these, string is the earliest.


But no actual string survives.


The evidence that lets us infer its existence is poignant:


irst, there are rows of small beads in graves, their arrangement indicating that they must have been sewn onto garments (42).

nd then from Lascaux cave in France, famous for its paintings of astonishing paintings of  bison and deer and colouredhands, there is the oldest preserved evidence of vegetable fibre.But not in the form of string itself.  Archaeologists found clay wads on the floor which, split open, show the imprint of a twisted 3-ply cord of vegetable fibre. It seems that this cord was laid all along the floor of the huge cave as a guide to help people find their way around. (Like Ariadne…)


tring is also known from small sculptures of women, so-called Gravettian Venus figurines, with a string skirt. (These string skirt not a functional garment in our sense of the word, providing neither concealment nor warmth—rather, it was a fertility or sexual symbol—survives in modified form in folk costumes of peasant cultures in the Gravettian heartland.) These uses of string are cultural and symbolic.


ut the practical uses of string make it an incredibly powerful extension of human capacities. For String is the basis of nets, traps, lines, leashes, seams; it makes it possible to tie things together, to make more complex tools and containers.  To capture animals.  An incredibly powerful and versatile technology: (Nets and traps: consider that even today fishing with nets has to be very closely regulated to avoid ecological disaster. Line caught tuna.)


In all, a  very big deal.


 Elizabeth Wayland Barber writes:



'So powerful, in fact, is simple string in taming the world to human will and ingenuity that I suspect

it to be the unseen weapon that allowed the human race to conquer the earth...to move into every econiche in the upperpalaeolithic.' (p. 45)


String was in invented just before the Neolithic revolution, before settled agriculture. A bit more about that neolithic revolution now:




Now we come to the Neolithic revolution.

The Neolithic Revolution

as noted above: permanent dwellings, humans not itinerant; gradually farming—first storage of wild grain then domestication of plants, eventually also of animals.


Women continue to make textiles. Life is 'courtyard economy'--settled and with shared space. No war yet. Women have to spin all the time. It takes 7 times as long to spin a single thread as to weave that same length of cloth.


Neolithic—language and archaeology point to just two basic garments: a belt and a covering, generic item, word related to garment and hearth... The tunic, word and thing, was borrowed from Semitic peoples.


  A.   Major craft change: Invention of the Loom. Whereas twisting thread is universal and was perhaps invented many times, the loom seems to have been invented once as the bandloom and then that, by two separate inventions, became the horizontal ground loom in one area (Catal Huyuk) and the vertical warp-weighted loom in another (W Europe). Both inventions are in Flax growing territory. Both kinds of loom make it possible to producemuch larger pieces of cloth. But at this stage, all cloth would be made from vegetable fibres. Thousands of years after the invention of the loom, the heddle was invented. It makes it possible to thread the weft through the warp much, much faster...


B. pottery-- begins now. Because it is so heavy, it is incompatible with nomadic life, yet essential for settled life. (storage, cooking, serving...)


C. Dairy revolution of domesticated herds comes only at the very end of the Neolithic period. This does not immediately make wool cloth possible, though, because sheep needed a huge amount of genetic change to produce useful wool.


So plant-fibre textiles and vessels precede animal domestication, dairy economy and textile wool by thousands of years. We co-evolved with pots and linen long before wool…


Bronze age. (really, first copper, then bronze—copper is soft, hardened into bronze only by addition of rare time. But that is the tool chronology—we can go back to 'the first thread the first loom the first cloth the first stitch and add: the first wool.


Animal Fibre Revolution

Bronze age: sheep at first did not have hair that could be made into wool: too short, thick, stiff... eventually they were bred to produce useful wool. And this brought other novelties:


Two key changes:  (1) wool can be made but because it is scratchy, a base-garment chemise becomes necessary

(2) Because wool takes dye better, clothing can become brighter.


Beginning of regionally distinct costumes.


The elements of clothing now become fixed as: a base garment/tunic of plant fiber plus an outer garment or wrap of wool based on one or more rectangles. That might be a single apron worn in front, two aprons, front and back, or a tunic at the waist, where eventually the two aprons are sewn together, or a rectangle they might be raised to the level of the armpits andwrappred or sewn kind of (pinafore or jumper).


The three basic ingredients of European peasant woman's costume are, strangely enough, the same elements as a modern women's business garb:

for the peasant, a white tunic or chemise, an oblong or tubular over-wrap, whethe skirt or jumper, and a belt.

For modern: a white blouse, a wool skirt, a belt.


Latest and last bronze age innovation is a short skirt or wrap for men.


Trousers come still later: tubes for the legs, come much later, ca. 1000 BC. First used by nomads for horseback riding to protect their bodies and spread only gradually. Regarded as a bizarre curiosity in 9th C Western Europe.


--West now: a monoculture of the Western business suit. Why should all clothing be based on idea of tubes for the limbs andcylinders.

Today: Almost all politicians wear the ube-based garment, the business suit—its ubiquity a mirror of Western capitalist cultural dominance; the exceptions are revealing:

Mandela and his African shirts, Ghandi, Aung San Su Kii. 


o—as a species we were reared to the sound of the loom and the activity of spinning, spinning done all the time......


xtravagant , lavish decoration of Neolithic cloth, and cloth of traditional societies today:  defies modern economic ideas—they no idea that time is money. They have all the time there is; the decoration and art that is symbolic—but it is not merely symbolic, symbolism is also functional, meaningful...whether for fertility, protection, or status...


Similarly, Neolithic pottery is highly decorated, far beyond practical needs.


nd the crucial point: pots and cloth long predate the domestication of animals...are both for survival and highly symbolic, with social meaning created by their appearance and in their production; and they are  a communal womens' activity. (compare today: knitting circles and quilting bees...)


onclusion—the big themes that emerge from looking at the development from string to plant fibre cloth to animal fibre —the time and preciousness of textiles. Textile production, spinning and weaving, were going on all the time, they required more labourthan getting food; slow changes; they predate the domestication of herd animals and the dairy economy...

community, communal women's work; limited forms; symbolism and social meaning are not decorative but just as important as function of keeping warm. The social skin is social social social.




3.                     The Maker's Mark

More abstractly: the object is where the maker's mind and hand exert themselves together to produce an object, to meet a need.


he object itself is where the mind of the maker, the maker's hand, and the material all meet. The maker's mark: the brushstroke, the thumbprint, the hand stitched seam, the letters written with a brush or a pen, so the each a is not quite like any other a. When we hold the pot, or see the writing, we have a visual, even tangible connection with the making and the maker.

The maker's mark creates the connection with the making, it is the tangible reminder of the hands of the maker and of a network of relationships with people, planet, economy


  raham Taylor is a potter in Northumberland who makes replicas of the pottery of distant eras.  (His work is available at the Crown Gallery Rothbury) (He says: 'I specialise in Prehistoric, Roman and Anglo-Saxon pottery of Britain and Ireland but can also cover the Medieval and Post Medieval periods.  I have also successfully created replicas of Ancient Greek and Egyptian pottery.')




He writes:





“When I handle an ancient pot it’s a little like shaking hands with the original potter; a andshake across thousands of years. I can feel the impressions made by their thumbs, thressure of their fingers pushing the wet clay into the palm of the hand to swell out the belly f the pot, the sweep of a tool to decorate the surface. All of these movements are like frozen,r possibly more correctly, fired moments in time, preserved and waiting for me to decode. hen I come to emulate their actions and re-create one of these prehistoric masterpieces, I et to know the potter a little better. A conversation takes place … “Oh I see why you did hat” ….”What did you use to make that mark?”.........”Now that’s clever, decorating it like hat”. The conversation may seem a little one sided but the answers come back to me from he clay. Above all the act of making a piece gives me a deep sense of respect for a fellow raftsperson.”



Patina and the thumbprint


hen we talked about some of this yesterday, Rebecca said:  'an object is a conversation—between the maker and the user.'  On other visits, Greg and Rebecca introduced me to Tanizaki and his In Praise of Shadows, an essay on Japanese aesthetics that explores food and architecture, celebrating the subtlety of 'laquerware under candlelight' --'japanese food is to be meditated upon, a kind of silent music evoked by the combination oflaquerware and the light of a candle flickering in the dark.'Tanizaki inveighs against the bright light and harsh whiteness of, for example, a Western style bathroom (actually since he wrote, that is going out of fashion... if you ask for white tiles your builder might comment that it could look clinical or like a butcher's shop). So if the object is a conversation, then it's not just the imprint of the maker's hands or gestures that speaks to us (hand to hand) but also the quality of the surface for the eye, the gentle sheen of lacquer, the patina of wood polished by the touch of hands. And the wrinkles in the worn garment are also part of that conversation with use and light, the object's memory of its handling.. 


f the object is a conversation, it might also be an embodiment of memories of its material and its making.


ere are Wendell Berry's thoughts about that from an essay explaining why he refuses to use or own a computer written after people accused him of exploiting his wife, who types up his handwritten drafts. The essay is called 'Feminism, The Body and the Machine.'   )


“The well-crafted table or cabinet embodies the memory of (because it embodies respect for) he tree it was made of and the forest in which the tree stood. The work of certain

otters embodies the memory that the clay was dug from the earth. Certain farms contain ospitably the remnants and reminders of the forest or prairie that preceded them. It iossible even for towns and cities to remember farms and forests or prairies. All good human ork remembers its history. The best writing, even when printed, is full of intimations that it s the present version of earlier versions of itself, and that its maker inherited the work and he ways of earlier makers. It thus keeps, even in print, a suggestion of the quality of the andwritten page; it is a palimpsest.

omething of this undoubtedly carries over into industrial products. The plastic Clorox

 jug has a shape and a loop for the forefinger that recalls the stoneware jug that went efore it.  But something vital is missing. It embodies no memory of its source or sources ihe earth or of any human hand involved in its shaping. Or look at a large factory or a ower lant or an airport, and see if you can imagine—even if you know—what was therefore. In such things materials of the world have entered a kind of orphanhood.”


et's take Wendell Berry's ideas farther.


hat other objects have this sort of orphanhood besides aclorox bottle, which is admittedly a bit of ugly plastic?


ometimes, perhaps it is a simple aspect of design of an object a bit nicer than a clorox bottle: a mug may be a perfectly formed smooth surface, a vehicle for decoration or a slogan, mechanically produced, so smooth that it fits the hand without evoking the conversation with the hand of the maker, the material, and the source of material. There is no tangible connection with the maker's thumbprint, no conversation between the object and the user, the kind that comes when the hand cradles a handmade mug.


his orphanhood of the mass-produced object or the brutal functional building that obliterated its connections to its setting, maker and material, brings me to the final theme, another kind of severing and orphanhood: the economic and ecological ties that link us to objects, their makers and their material—and the effects of severing those ties, so that makers and matter become invisible and disregarded, exploited, labour alienated. (I'm alluding toMarx..alienated labour and the creation of orphaned objects and buildings often go together...)




4. This is the last section of these reflections: The severed connection and the ethics of clothing. There's no real conclusion that ties everything off—it frays in a fringe, because I hope that the discussion will make the conclusions.


I'm starting with a poem about things and stuff and acquisitiveness: the neolithic traits.


  endell Berry


e who Prayed and Wept


e who prayed and wept

or liberty from kings

nd the yoke of liberty

ccept the tyranny of things

e do not need.  

n plenitude too free,

e have become adept

eneath the yoke of greed.






The Moral problem of food and clothes


lmost everyone is aware of the economic and ecologicalramifications of food production—what we eat, where we get it, how it's been processed and distributed—all tie us into relationships that can stretch across the globe. And unless you try hard, and are very well informed, these relationships  implicateyou in the exploitation of humans and damage to the planet on a large scale, near and far: nearby, the effect on small scale dairy farmers of milk as a loss leader for the major supermarkets; across the globe, the poverty of coffee and cocoa bean farmers. No one would want to steal from a poor person, or make them work for almost nothing, but buying non-fairtrade coffee from a non-fair trade high-street chain does just that. Near and far:  pesticides, harmful fertilizers, airmiles. The strongest repudiation of these ethical costs of large-scale food production and distribution would be to opt out by becoming virtually self-sufficient. One person's food self-sufficiency would remove a minute amount of profit from the multinationals if s/he is in the habit of shopping at them, but at another cost: the loss local of the local relationships and the local agricultural landscape created when you buy and eat what has been locally grown.


or textiles, the general public's awareness of the human and ecological cost is less advanced: But clothing is just as much an outcome of agricultural production as food.

Unless you are wearing nylon, polyester or fleece made of recycled plastic bottles, all from petrochemicals, the fibres of your clothes were also produced from the land, either directly,  in  case of the plant fibres (linen, hemp or bamboo) or indirectly (wool is a byproduct of sheep or goats or rabbits; silk, from mulberry leaf eating worms.)  (Even rayon/viscose is made of wood pulp.) Not just food, but also cloth has been farmed.


ith clothing, however, apart from the fairly well publicized concern about child labour, the the public awareness of problems with fair wages and sound production practices is not at the level of organic/free range/red tractor designation for food. Most retailers do not have a separate section for ethically produced clothes. Yet, arguably, this is even more important for clothing than food, since every garment implies a much longer chain oflabour and transactions, impact on people and the planet, over a longer time-span, and larger area, than food crops.


cotton shirt began in a field, a non-edible crop grown on agricultural land, 'the most pesticide intensive crop in the world' and also, by the way, a very thirsty one: the kilo of cotton in a t-shirt or a pair of jeans might have needed 20,000 litres of waterfor its production. Cotton has been, and continues to, ruin large-scale river-basin ecosystems across the globe. Just because we do not ingest our clothing, and so are less likely to be affected by the pesticides used in their production,  is not a reason to exclude them from the moral responsibility of the consumer.

Our clothes are farmed before they are designed and made. And both phases of their origin deserve scrutiny and need ethical standards.



o conclude, I'll quote Wendell Berry again. (He is the mad farmer, I think):


he Prayers and Sayings of the Mad Farmer  


9. Sewing the Seed, my hand is one with the earth

Wanting the seed to grow, my mind is one with the light,

Hoeing the crop,

my hands are one with the rain

Having cared for the plants,

my mind is one with the air

Hungry and trusting,

my mind is one with the earth

Eating the Fruit,

my body is one with the earth


1. By the excellence of his work the workman is aneighbour. By selling only what he would not despise to own the salesman is a neighbour. By selling what is good his character survives the market.




.et me wake in the night

nd hear it raining 

nd go back to sleep. 


f the crop of any one year was all, a man would have to cut his throat every time it hailed.

ut the real products of any year's work are the farmer's mind the the cropland itself.


f he raises a good crop at the cost of belittling himself and diminishing the ground, he has ained nothing. He will have to begin over again the next spring, worse off than before.

he finest growth that the farmland can produce is a careful farmer.

ake the human race a better head. Make the world a better place.


Textiles are grown, they  farming too...



The sources of this essay and further reading


Elizabeth Wayland Barber, Women's Work, The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in  Early Times (W. W. Norton, NY and London, 1994)

– a lucid and fascinating account of spinning, weaving, cloth-making and costume in prehistory written for a non-specialist reader. The book relates developments in textiles and clothing to other aspects of society and economy. Highly recommended.


Wendell Berry is a Kentucky farmer who writes poems, essays, and novels. He advocates localisism, ethically sustainable farming and production, good stewardship of the land. A radical compelling critique of the excesses of capitalism,commodification, and exploitation runs through his work. He does not own a computer and composts his drafts every year.


 The poems quoted here are from his collection The Gift of Gravity: Selected Poems 1968-2000 (Golgonooza Press, Cambridge, 2003)

 I regard this as most appealing introduction to his verse; it's available cheaply on abe books, but is unavailable or very expensive on amazon.


The concept of the orphaned object and the memory of the object come from Berry's essay:

'Feminism, The Body and the Machine,' reprinted in his: The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, (edited with introduction by Norman Wirzba) (Washington & Berkeley, 2002), pp. 65-80. The essay can also be found online at:


Berry wrote this essay as a response to people who had accused him of exploiting his wife because she types up his handwritten drafts. It's a wide-ranging and very thoughtprovoking exploration of themes ranging from marriage and the household to making, writing, education and objects.


Junichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows translated from the Japanese by Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker(Vintage Books, London, 2001)


In Our Time, May 28th, Radio 4: The Science of Glass



Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (1988)

--the source of the idea that a chair is reified compassion


Ideas of the golden age in latin poetry

Ovid, Metamorphoses

for an online translation, see:http://ovid.lib.virginia.edu/trans/Metamorph.htm#488381093

There are many wonderful poetic translations of the metamorphoses,  including one by Ted Hughes


Also, Virgil (Georgics, Book 1: 125–28)


Graham Taylor, the historical reconstruction potter, based in Rothbury:http://pottedhistory.blogspot.co.uk/



After I had been working on this for a while I discovered that there is a recent branch of anthropology called 'entanglement theory about humans and objects.

Ian Hodder,  An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things

(NY, Wiley-Blackwell, 2012); certainly worth pursuing, but for the time and themes here,

I found Wendell Berry's beautiful formulations of his ideas more relevant.


for a short article, open access, by Hodder, see:

'The Entanglements of Humans and Things: A Long-Term View'Ian Hodder

New Literary History, Volume 45, Number 1, Winter 2014, pp. 19-36 (Article)Published by The Johns Hopkins UniversityPressDOI: 10.1353/nlh.2014.0005




Outline—the big ideas here in a nutshell...


1. The need for objects.

Essential; we need objects, perhaps we coevolved with textiles and vessels and that is why we love them. Survival and culture, interconnection...the need is not just material.

We are not terrapins. We need and use stuff, but end up with too much of it.

Wendell Berry's poem, the Terrapin


History of clothing

fundamental importance, intimacy and social connections—of  (1) textiles and  (2) vessels


(1) Textiles are a second, social, skin, made by other humans.


)2) Vessels are also what allow us to share, cook, ferment, and store food, instead of having to get it all the time and eat by grabbing or drinking each mouthful. (I am leaving out lots of other implements like knives...)

A knife is basically a super clever tool-version of an animals tooth or claw. A vessel is entirely different.


clothing as vessels: an apron

Summary of key points from Elizabeth Wayland Barber

weaving long prcedes domestication of herds

thread revolution


preciousness of cloth

neolithic creativity

use of both animal and plant fibres leads to basic costume of chemise and overgarment

slip and apron, apron as vessel


3. The object itself: where the mind of the maker, the maker's hand, and the material all meet

the handmade object that shows the character of the maker and the material.



4. the maker's mark—the physical connection with the process of making. But also the mark is the tangible reminder of the person and network of relationships with people, planet, economy

  Potter's blog

  Wendell Berry

patina answers the the thumbprint: Rebecca: an object is a conversation—between the maker and the user


5.  Severed connections, the ethics of clothing, alienatedlabour







Metamorphoses 1. 89-151


Bk I:68-88 Humankind

    He had barely separated out everything within fixed limits when the constellations that had been hidden for a long time in dark fog began to blaze out throughout the whole sky. And so that no region might lack its own animate beings, the stars and the forms of gods occupied the floor of heaven, the sea gave a home to the shining fish, earth took the wild animals, and the light air flying things.

     As yet there was no animal capable of higher thought that could be ruler of all the rest. Then Humankind was born. Either the creator god, source of a better world, seeded it from the divine, or the newborn earth just drawn from the highest heavens still contained fragments related to the skies, so that Prometheus, blending them with streams of rain,moulded them into an image of the all-controlling gods. While other animals look downwards at the ground, he gave human beings an upturned aspect, commanding them to look towards the skies, and, upright, raise their face to the stars. So the earth, that had been, a moment ago, uncarved and imageless, changed and assumed the unknown shapes of human beings.

Bk I:89-112 The Golden Age

    This was the Golden Age that, without coercion, without laws, spontaneously nurtured the good and the true. There was no fear or punishment:

there were no threatening words to be read, fixed in bronze, no crowd of suppliants fearing the judge’s face: they lived safely without protection.


No pine tree felled in the mountains had yet reached the flowing waves to travel to other lands:

human beings only knew their own shores.

There were no steep ditches surrounding towns, no straight war-trumpets, no coiled horns, no swords and helmets.

Without the use of armies, people passed their lives in gentle peace and security.

The earth herself also, freely, without the scars of ploughs, untouched by hoes, produced everything from herself.


Contented with food that grew without cultivation, they collected mountain strawberries and the fruit of the strawberry tree, wild cherries, blackberries clinging to the tough brambles, and acorns fallen from Jupiter’s spreading oak-tree.

Spring was eternal, and gentle breezes caressed with warm air the flowers that grew without being seeded. Then the untilled earth gave of its produce and, without needing renewal, the fields whitened with heavy ears of corn. Sometimes rivers of milk flowed, sometimes streams of nectar, and golden honey trickled from the green holm oak.

Bk I:113-124 The Silver Age

    When Saturn was banished to gloomy Tartarus, and Jupiter ruled the world, then came the people of the age of silver that is inferior to gold, more valuable than yellow bronze. Jupiter shortened spring’s first duration and made the year consist of four seasons, winter, summer, changeable autumn, and brief spring. Then parched air first glowed white scorched with the heat, and ice hung down frozen by the wind. Then houses were first made for shelter: before that homes had been made in caves, and dense thickets, or under branches fastened with bark. Then seeds of corn were first buried in the long furrows, and bullocks groaned, burdened under the yoke.

Bk I:125-150 The Bronze Age

    Third came the people of the bronze age, with fiercer natures, readier to indulge in savage warfare, but not yet vicious. The harsh iron age was last. Immediately every kind of wickedness erupted into this age of baser natures: truth, shame and honour vanished; in their place were fraud, deceit, and trickery, violence and pernicious desires. They set sails to the wind, though as yet the seamen had poor knowledge of their use, and the ships’ keels that once were trees standing amongst high mountains, now leaped through uncharted waves. The land that was once common to all, as the light of the sun is, and the air, was marked out, to its furthest boundaries, by wary surveyors. Not only did they demand the crops and the food the rich soil owed them, but they entered the bowels of the earth, and excavating brought up the wealth it had concealed in Stygian shade, wealth that incites men to crime. And now harmful iron appeared, and gold more harmful than iron.   War came, whose struggles employ both, waving clashing arms with bloodstained hands. They lived on plunder: friend was not safe with friend, relative with relative, kindness was rare between brothers. Husbands longed for the death of their wives, wives for the death of their husbands. Murderous stepmothers mixed deadly aconite, and sons inquired into their father’s years before their time. Piety was dead, and virgin Astraea, last of all the immortals to depart, herself abandoned the blood-drenched earth.


Virgil (Georgics, Book 1: 125–28)



Fields knew no taming hand of husbandmenTo mark the plain or mete with boundary-line.Even this was impious; for the common stockThey gathered, and the earth of her own willAll things more freely, no man bidding, bore.


ante Iouem nulli subigebant arua colonine signare quidem aut partiri limitecampumfas erat; in medium quaerebant, ipsaque tellusomnia liberius nulloposcente ferebat. (Georgics, Book 1: 125–28)








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