Wednesday, 26 June 2013

The Foolishness of Craft

Craftwork makes no practical or economic sense. Whatever it is that a craftsperson is making could be made quicker by the use of machines, modern materials and (in a western context) cheaper by using labour from abroad. Therefore we should not be surprised that the modern view of craft is that it is a romantic attempt to return to a 19th century world we have long left behind and which few of us would actually like to return to.

Let’s take an example and imagine it is September here in England; the short nights and slight chill let us know that winter is on its way. Two people decide that they are going to need a new jumper to see them through the winter and keep them warm. The first, let’s call him Hugo, works in mobile telephone sales and earns £15 per hour. He has seen a nice high fashion jumper from a shop called High Street Fashion Co, with the logo staring large on the front breast. The jumper will cost him £80 and so it will take just over 5 hours work to be able to afford it.

Mary on the other hand is an experienced hand spinner and knitter, able to knit herself a jumper. It will take her 12 hours to spin the wool and around 15 hours to knit the jumper. It is a simple woollen jumper, similar to Hugo’s, but with no logo.

On the face of it is it any wonder we reject craft and embrace the modern consumer dream? Both of them get a jumper, but one has to work for 5 hours, whilst the other has to work for 27 hours. Hugo could earn enough to buy 5 jumpers in the time that Mary has made just one. Surely we should get down on our knees every day and thank our lucky stars that modernity has dragged us out of the dark ages and such drudgery?

But if we dig a little deeper for a moment and examine each stage of making Hugo and Mary’s jumpers the picture is much less simplistic.

Mary’s jumper is made from local undyed organic wool, it has travelled from a field in the village (via the sheerer who worked at the farm) and has been washed in nothing more than soap and water.

The materials that Hugo’s jumper is made of are a little more complex and the main material is cotton (60%), which was grown in Kazakhstan, where the water needed for cotton production has caused the Aral Sea to shrink to 15% of its original size. This means that the local farmer no longer has any water to irrigate his food crops. The cotton wasn’t grown organically and so was sprayed with Aldicarb a pesticide so powerful that one drop absorbed into the skin can kill an adult. Nonetheless this it was applied by a man using the most basic of equipment and safety protection, because of the low price being paid for the cotton; sadly he eventually fell ill from the exposure to it and could no longer work, leaving his family in poverty. Despite government efforts some of the cotton was picked by children, paid pitifully low rates of pay.

30% of the jumper is Nylon, which is a petrochemical substance that creates nitrous oxide in its production, a greenhouse gas around 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. It was produced in China.

Finally, like Mary’s, the jumper was also made of wool (10%), but this was produced in Australia from sheep kept in huge herds, with minimum welfare standards. At the same time as the wool was removed the shearer performed ‘mulesing’ on the sheep, which is where the part of the rear of the animal is removed with sheers and without anaesthetic, to prevent flystrike (which could be prevented if better welfare conditions prevailed). The wool was then washed using harsh chemicals which had to be disposed of.

All these materials were then transported from around the world to Bangladesh for spinning together, dying and turning into Hugo’s jumper. The factory does not remove the dye from the vast amounts of water it takes to colour the yarn, so the river they pour their waste into turns the colour of whatever they are dyeing that day. Not so obvious is the heavy metals that are also in the mix, that pollute the watercourse.

So now both Hugo and Mary have got their materials for their jumper and it’s time to start work on making it. Mary, as we know, is an experienced knitter and freed up from the beginners’ desire to ‘see what it looks like when it’s finished’, she relaxes and actually enjoys the process itself. The spinning is done on a treadle powered spinning wheel that is portable and fits in its own rucksack, so that she can take it almost anywhere she wishes. Likewise of course her knitting, which simply folds up and tucks into her bag. She spends some of the time she is spinning and knitting listening to the radio or watching TV, particularly in the evening; two or three times she takes it to her local knitting group and chats to others. But most of all Mary enjoys being in the quiet (perhaps in the garden) and just focusing on what she it doing. The repetitive action of knitting in particular has been shown to have meditative effects similar to meditation and leads to Mary having lower blood pressure and heart rates.

Although Mary has made numerous jumpers before, she is particularly pleased with the way it is turning out. The time and care that she invests in it turn into a form of love for both the process and the finished item.

Of course Hugo isn’t actually going to make his jumper; his is outsourcing that to a girl in Bangladesh that he’ll never meet. But he does need to work for it. It would be true to say that when he was a boy he didn’t dream of working in a mobile phone shop, but as his Dad had told him when he left school, this is the real world and you have to do what you can to make ends meet, getting your head down to some serious work. So that’s what he had done. For the first few months it was actually quite fun, the thrill of the each sale gave him a buzz that lasted (usually) until the next. But slowly this had faded off of a bit, plus two more mobile phone shops had opened in the town, meaning that sales had dropped and heavy pressure was applied to his boss, which in turn came down on him. Every missed sale had to be explained and justified. His main strategy was to ask what phone they had currently and then, no matter how old or new it was, to gently mock it and its age and recommend that they are missing out on the latest features and to gently suggest how impressed others would be if they had x, y or z phone. To be honest each day now had become rather a combination of boredom and stress.

High Street Fashion Co would rather we didn’t know too much about who or how Hugo’s jumper was actually made and will not reveal details of the working conditions in any of the factories they use or the steps they take to ensure that their standards of factory conditions are maintained, stating that these are company secrets. However, from undercover reports and statements from those who have worked previously in these factories we can build up a clear picture.

It will come as no surprise to learn that it was a young woman who made the jumper. But how young? Well, despite companies promising for years to stamp child labour, there are enough regular reports of it happening to assume that the average wardrobe contains a number of garments made by them. Invariably when it gets uncovered producers react shocked and promise to, yet again, stamp it out. The problem is child labour is cheap and people like High Street Fashion Co want cheap clothing.

In actual fact, although young, the woman who made Hugo’s jumper wasn’t a child, and indeed has a young family of her own. She is paid for 8 hours work a day, but must make a certain number of jumpers in that 8 hours before she will get paid. Almost always she has to work an extra hour or two, unpaid, to make the target. Because of the low wages she will then have to start work doing paid overtime, to help pay the families bills. This means that everyday she will start work at 8am and will not leave until between 8pm and 10pm, before walking home for just under an hour and starting her domestic chores. On ten occasions in the last month she had been informed by her boss that she would have to do a night shift that evening, working until anytime between midnight and 3am. No food or drink will be provided and because of the risks of walking home at that time she instead chose to sleep at the factory. Her wage is £32 a month, whilst it costs £74 a month to run a basic household.

No jumper made at 2 in the morning, when you haven’t eaten for hours, your boss is shouting at you because you are going slower and all you can think about are your children at home, is made with love. It’s just another bloody jumper between you and being able to sleep on the factory floor.

When it is made the jumper is packed with up a thousand identical ones and shipped from Bangladesh to England. From there it is taken almost past Hugo’s house on its journey to a central distribution hub in the North of England, sorted into a delivery for Hugo’s local High Street Fashion Co store and then driven back down the country to a smart looking store that could easily be confused for a nightclub entrance.

Hugo had had a pretty rough day at work; you never sell many mobiles on a damp Tuesday afternoon in September and so he’d sat bored at the counter looking out through the window. He wasn’t allowed to read, in case it put off customers and he had played all the games on all the phones. Time passed so slowly. His boss was grumpy and had shut himself away in the office after a phone call from the area manager. There was only one thing Hugo could think of and that was that tonight he was going to get that new jumper from High Street Fashion Co and frankly that would make everything all right. Actually better than alright.

Mary sat in her garden and put down her needle, she had just finished sewing together the panels of the jumper. It needed now to be pressed, but it was complete. She held it up and assessed it. It wasn’t 100% perfect, to her experienced eye she could see one or two stitches that were a touch looser than others, but no-one else would notice. Yes, she was pleased with it; content.

The winter came and both jumpers kept their owners warm over the colder nights. Then one day in early spring a strange thing happened to both jumpers, on the same day. Hugo was running a little late for work and rushed through the store in the hope that his boss would not notice. He caught his jumper on a sharp edge of a display rack and pulled one of the threads of his jumper. He cursed, but actually forgot about it for the rest of the day. It wasn’t until later that evening as he was undressing that he remembered it. He looked at the jumper; it hadn’t washed well as the colour had faded in the first few washes and because it was cotton it had also misshapen quite a bit. Oh, well he thought, I have wanted to get that new one anyway, it only cost £80 and I got a winters use from it. He threw the jumper into the bin and it joined the 900,000 tonnes of clothing waste that gets thrown out every year in Britain. Its final resting place was in a landfill site; the cotton and wool disintegrated into the soil, but the nylon stayed just where it was for at least a 1,000 years.

On that same day Mary was walking through her garden when she too caught her jumper, this time on a rose bush. She too cursed, but wasn’t about to forget damaging a jumper she had spent so long working on. She went inside and repaired it using some of the same yarn she had knitted it from. The repair was invisible and as strong as the original knitting. Despite regular use Mary’s jumper lasted for almost 10 years, before finally one day she decided that it had really seen better days. She placed it on her compost heap where it rotted down into an excellent soil conditioner, which she eventually spread on her rhubarb.

Viewed in this way craft becomes a modest, but achievable and practical response to a whole host of global issues and problems. It allows us to provide for our needs without doing so at the expense of others on the planet. The act of making becomes a gift not only to our own creativity and emotional wellbeing, but also a gift of love towards the rest of humanity. I care for you, even though I have never met you, so I am not going to ask you to work in such conditions so that I can have a jumper to wear. I’ll make it myself.


  1. nteresting article. Thoughtful enough to realise the situation of the western consumer is not necessarily of his choosing. Surely it's the financial/legal environment that makes all that transportation cheap, and forces us to sit 'at work' all day doing nothing that's the root cause? I'd argue it's a perversion of the natural division of labour. But how can we allow that honest trade without it growing into an international sweat shop industry?

  2. Great Post. Thanks for writting this