Tuesday, September 04, 2007

A Different Kind of History

I've been looking, literally for years, for a way to share all the information I've acquired in the 20 or so years I've been mixing history, science, and textile arts.

I've never been super-creative. When I look at crafty blogs, I'm jealous. I never would have thought of making a stuffed owl out of felt, or knitting an octopus, or a uterus, or...I don't know. It's just not my thing. I love to look at them, and admire the creativity some people seem to be born with. I, however, was not. I was also not born with the ability to hear music once and play it back, or teach myself quantum physics for fun, or reduce everything I see down to mathematics and logic.

What I was born with is a fairly right-left balanced brain. (Yeah, yeah - keep laughing. I never said I was balanced, just the sides of my brain in relation to each other!) What this means for me is that I can see the forest and the trees. I see the finished product and the detailed steps to get there at the same time. I can see a single solitary knitter in a cottage making socks for sale, and I can see where she fits into society-at-large, and the social and political context of her region, and the transmission of the information that allows her to shear, comb, spin, knit, and shape that sock. I see the inter-relationships between all different kinds of things. It's almost like the 6 Degrees of Separation (or of Kevin Bacon) game, where no matter where you start you end up with yourself (or Kevin Bacon), only with me: no matter where I start, I can find relationships to the rest of anything in my field of knowledge, and sometimes outside. It's weird.

My Thought processes

I trained as a geologist; geologists are trained in seeing the Big Picture, the long time span, uniformitarianism (not some funky religion!), and cycles (water, rock, etc), as well as the minute span of time we as humans have been on this planet, and the amazing amount of change we have made in a relatively short time.

I also took numerous classes in anthropology, archaeology, and biology (with the initial plan to go pre-Med, and later with an eye for studying archaeology. Somehow I convinced myself that geology would offer a more reliable job market. This was, of course, pre-George W. and I did NOT study to drill for oil in the Arctic, but where was I…) These classes taught me much about evaluating the place within society any particular detail might fall. In my case, it meant learning how to correlate people, techniques, places, and assumptions. For example, my Biblical Archaeology class final assignment was to present to the entire class a lesson on one of the archaeological sites in the Holy Land. It was to include all the basics: geology, climate, location, strata, significant finds, history of excavation, correlation to the Bible, and correlation to each of the sites our classmates chose to do, as well as several other criteria. My study-mates and I chose Megiddo. We used an entire class hour (as opposed to the second longest presentation of 20 minutes), gave out 10 handouts, showed I forget-how-many overhead slides, showed multiple site finds in the form of actual slides from digs (we asked the prof – no one else thought to) and correlated to every other site chosen by classmates, (Yes, we were insane. We also got one of the only A+ grades ever given by that prof.) My point is not to impress you, but to show how thoroughly we were taught to integrate each and every aspect of a society.

I read history like some people read romance novels. I almost always have some form of non-fiction book on the go. They often spawn the curiosity for the next book. The most unique chain of book-spawning I’ve fallen into yet started (I think) with popular fiction by Robin Cook. It led me to reading about modern potential pandemics and epidemics, which led to reading about Black Plague. Of course, that led to Medieval sanitation in London, which led to Medieval technology (No, it’s not an oxymoron) including pumping and plumbing. That, in turn led to Roman aqueducts, which spawned interest in Roman manufacture, which led to lead (the metal, as in Pb), which led to the fall of the Roman Empire by lead poisoning, which led to lead in cosmetics, which leads to modern cosmetics and led me to stop drinking water out of plastic bottles because of the phyto-estrogens the plastics leach into the water, which made me stop buying conventional dairy, since the cows are given so many hormones and such.

Whew. (And I got into this without the internet!) So if I told you that a novel about Ebola virus made me buy organic dairy, you’d think I was being more aware of health issues, wouldn’t you? By thinking that directly, though, you miss out on all the wonderful and interesting things I learned along the way. I read that novel in Los Alamos, NM in 1995. And we stopped all conventional dairy this year.

I think leaving out the journey is like leaving off the bread on a sandwich. The filling may be great, and some people might like it better that way, but it’s kind of hard to handle without the bread.

Learning from Galina? Got me thinking of the techniques used to spin the finest Egyptian cloth (only 3 fibers at the thickest point of each thread), and wondering what weight of spindle they were using, did they use a bobbin or a ball or another spindle after reeling it? When and where did spinning originate? Who figured out the spindle? Was supported first? What was the first fiber tried? Who first tried to chase down a goat in Russia and comb it? Were they laughed at? Who figured out how to comb?

Dozens of questions pop into my head in the course of reading or learning anything. Then they scatter even further: into the realm of human history where until fairly recent times it was not possible for a man or woman to live alone, as there was only so much a single person could do to support him/herself, when you start to think of everything that had to be done in a day. Someone had to plow, plant, weed, gather, feed the critters, feed the people in the household, harvest, thresh, clean, bake, go to market (if necessary), spin, weave, sew, and knit (when evolved). None of these things are quick. Not when you're talking about history.

How could one person, alone, expect to do all of these things? Sure, some did. But for the most part, sharing the work makes life a little easier. Now if you add in some of the social mores, the gender expectations, and work restrictions (i.e. guilds were for men in Europe for several hundred years; women were restricted/excused from society during their monthly bleeding in many cultures and time periods; Christians didn't bank in the Middle Ages, etc.), it was extremely difficult to do it alone.

In modern society we tend to forget the cyclical nature of living that our forebears took as natural and normal. With the advent of sustainable cities (i.e. sewers, water plumbing, shipping of produce and products), cheap, good nighttime lighting (first gas, then electric), and reliable low-maintenance heating (no longer having to cut trees down yourself for winter heat) came the dismissal of nature and its rhythms. We no longer (at least in US cities, and increasingly in other countries around the world) plan our activities around harvest, planting, preserving, retting (flax), shearing, butchering, or putting up food for ourselves and our livestock. This is known, in general, as Progress. So, too, is ignoring the fact that winter days are shorter than summer days (ever wonder if SAD existed pre-electric lighting? I'm guessing not), that tomatoes don't grow in Michigan in January (at least not without LOTS of help!), and that there really are changes in people and critters at the full moon (including that women who live in touch with nature usually get their periods on the full moon, hence it was called being "on the moon"). Also in the name of Progress comes artificial sweeteners (because we get fat eating too much sugar - itself a product of Progress), machine-made clothing (which makes it cheap and disposable), pesticides and herbicides, office-work, driving cars, plastic, and the entire category known as Technology. [Interesting, isn't it, that when Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women, Progress was what people did in their search for God. Now it's what we do trying to be God]

In and among all these things that people have done for themselves and their families and their farms and their animals, they made their clothes. Sure, it doesn't sound that hard, does it? Just sew up what you need, your grandmother did it for her family, didn't she?


Did Grandma make her fabric? Did Grandma raise her own fiber? Did she spin each individual thread in the fabric? All of it? And sew all it by hand? Because that's what I'm talking about. Men and women, living together, and doing work that complements each other. I'm not talking about Victorian feminine idleness, I'm talking about rural, "primitive" subsistence. [And I'm not using "primitive" in a derogatory sense here - there are still a large number of people in the world who raise their own fiber and make their own clothing! You might be surprised! Their numbers, though, are shrinking with Globalization, and we're rapidly losing their knowledge and skills - kind of like the thousands of species of insect that go extinct every day...] When women and men both worked hard, went to bed when it got dark, slept soundly, and rose with the sun, when they made their clothing and food and homes, and did not accumulate objects like we do (and tended to have children who were born in the autumn…go figure). They used what they had, and had what they needed. Only the rich, until quite recently, knew excess. Then, in the time before now when people worked for what they needed, the humblest of items was frequently in need of repair and replacement: the stocking.

Your homework

Before I move on to discussing stockings, I want you to go to wherever you keep your clothing. Open all the drawers, cupboards, closets, bins, whatever. And look at it. Really look at it. How much yardage in fabric is there? How many miles of thread? Now what if you had to make all that?

Think about it.

Do you spin? Knit? Weave?

To put it in perspective:

I'm a fairly fast spinner. And I can, and do, spin a lot. I spun for quite a few hours the other day, on a wheel (which was not the norm...) and used up about 2 ounces of silk. That I bought prepared. So I didn't grow it, didn't clean it, didn't card it or comb it. Yet I spent a good 6 hours, spinning fairly quickly and uninterrupted, to make roughly (I haven't measured yet, so I'm guessing) 400 yards of fairly fine singles. That's fine for weaving warp, and would produce about 1 yard of fabric warp. At 15 threads in each inch of fabric width, we can expect roughly 24 inch wide fabric. There's no weft yet, either. Weft usually requires less yardage than warp, so I have more hours of spinning. Then get those 400 threads on the loom (warp it), get them ready to weave (thread the heddles, tie it on, etc), and then I can weave.

But then what? One yard of fabric doesn't do much good...or does it?

Does it give you an idea of what kind of work went into dressing?

Does it give you a different perspective on your closet?

If you were to go through all that, in addition to providing for food and shelter needs for your family, would you be more mindful of your clothing?

Or would you consider it disposable and be as subject to the whims of fashion as you are now?

You think you're not affected by fashion changes? Think again. Fashion changes were once measured in centuries. Then when the rich got richer and man-powered mechanization came about, it was measured in decades. With the Industrial Revolution came faster and faster fashion cycles, culminating in our current speed of seasons. Now, if you're out of fashion, you're wearing last spring's clothes this summer. That concept didn't used to exist. We couldn't afford the time or effort to keep up with changes like that. It was enough to keep in clothes.

Think about it.

Then let us know what you think.


Julie said...

AH! I think we are long-lost sisters, separated at birth. Or at least our brains are. In my case, not only do I see everything as one big subject (I'm trying to get a botany degree - and I bet I can relate it to as many other subjects as you can with geology), but I also relate New Information with Stuff I Already Know. Apparently that's odd. I remember sitting in a horticulture class, hearing about rootlets, and I said "So they're like intestinal cilla, only different." and the prof stared at me and then started asking me to explain things back to her on break. She used my final project idea (with my permission and her own research) to do her own presentation to some master gardener group she was a member of. My geography and algebra professors were equally boggled. The Algebra prof in particular enjoyed my concept of "math class answers" and "real life answers".

Anyway. I don't think cashmere or orenburg goats were combed, originally, I think they were rooed, like in the Shetland Islands - basically finger-combed. Stands to reason. Then someone probably said "Hey, if we made a wooden thing, like fingers..."

If you haven't read "Women's Work" by Elizabeth Wayland Barber, check it out. It covers a LOT of information about the Egyptians, and other spinning and weaving details in history. She's a little light on knitting, but the eras she concentrates on existed before knitting did. (And, incidentally, they found linen pillows in that new tomb, KV63, that were woven at 80 threads per inch, during the Amarna Period.)

I have thought a good bit about woven/knitted clothing vs. leather, and how it would make a good book, to illustrate the massive shift in population and natural resources (including man-hours and industrilization as resources) from the stone age to today. As you know, back in the day, it was weaving that was expensive (in terms of the value people placed on it), not leather. It's done a 180 degree turn. Anything that dramatic needs a book, but I've never found one.

Anyway. If you want to continue this discussion in e-mail (I think this comment is quite long enough), I'd love to. JTheaker@sc.rr.com


BAAbins said...

Well said! People often say they would like to live in the past; in simpler times. It was not simpler. Settlers on the prairies had shorter lifespans because their bodies wore out from exertion and exhaustion. I've often wondered how in the world they were able to achieve everything they did. It is truly amazing.

When I went on a field trip with my daughter to Sauder's Village last year in Archibald OH, the woman in the spinning building showed a great wheel or a "walking wheel". She explained that a woman walked a minimum of 8 miles back and forth, to get her daily spinning done at that wheel. To process linen for a one linen dress for an adult woman from start to finish took on average one year. Children were taught to knit their own stockings early because Mom didn't have the time.

I love that you express your inquisitive nature and that one thing leads to another on your quest for answers. My husband just shakes his head at me because he knows that my mind is what I call, "multitangential". One thing always leads to a million other things for me. I love having questions; I love that the more we learn, the more we realize how much we really don't know. And above all, I love the idea that some things may never be explained.

I think most people live "on" this world not "in" it. Myself included. I am trying to become more mindful of life and more in tune with nature and my surroundings...and more dedicated to my "excursions" into learning new things. Knitting and spinning is a wonderful area. It amazes me that someone, somewhere, decided to make a few loops in string and developed fabric! I love the endless possibilities.

May I recommend a book to you? "No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting" by Anne L. Macdonald. It was published in 1988 but you can still find copies on the internet.
It is a wonderful book and you've just inspired me to reread it.


Beth said...

O.K. Unlike the other tow very smart commenters, EriKa, I am stuck on one point. I have been very interested in Ebola and have read a couple of books on the subject. I cannot, for the life of me, figure out what ebola has to do with nonorganic dairy. I'm actually almost afraid to ask you cause we use a lot of milk and chees in this house.

I have however been considering lately the length of time people used to keep their clothes because I'm reading the Little House books to the kids right now and they get one dress's worth of fabric per year! Then their good dress becomes the every day dress and the new dress is for Sunday and special occasions. Now, if I wore the same shirt and pants every day people would start looking at me funny.

Ali said...

Yes yes yes. I'd like to add, though, that the work was not just hard graft, it was an important engaged, creative, problem solving process. Humans evolved to where they are by creative response to their surrounds. It's my theory that modern life, by turning activities into products, has taken away creativity, and we seek to get it back by consuming more and more. 30 years ago, if you wanted a new dress, you probably bought it at a local store, where the act of buying it engaged you in your community. 40 or 50 years ago, you bought the fabric in your local store (engaging you in your community) and made the dress yourself, an act of creative problem solving. 150 years ago, you spun and wove the cloth yourself - so the finished dress not only kept you warm, it satisfied your need to create, to problem-solve, to be in touch with nature, to nurture something through from nothing. We are still seeking all these things when we shop, but we don't get them - so we buy another and another trying to get back what industrialisation has taken away.

I made a shirt for my partner last year, and he offered to pay me what he would have spent to buy the shirt (about $60). I did some sums based on the hours of work to do finish the shirt, and the cost of the cloth and buttons, and the electricity to run the sewing machine, and worked out that he paid me $4 an hour for my labour. About 10% of what my employer pays me. One thing about making your own clothes is you realise the skill involved, and how little the people who do the making get paid for difficult and tiring work.

excellent discussion, by the way. Nice to see the craft-blog-community talking about something other that 'ooo pretty!' occasionally :)

Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm ladyjane. This entire blog post is UTTERLY FANTASTIC! I post over at supernaturale.com, and mod at the ThreadBanger boards. I linked here from your Wardrobe Refashion post.

I have a creative brain, not analytical, but I'm always curious about how people "did stuff way back when..." My brain is like one big movie when it comes to this stuff. Like, I mentally see the looms, think of children who worked in factories, visualize the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, see women hunkered down at sewing machines, imagine nomad women spinning thread on a spindle outside of their yurt, see seamstresses re-vamp her ladies' last season's ballgown with new sleeves and lace, think about handmade lace...

So as you can see, my thinking is WAY non-linear! But you can see that I still kind of get to the same subjects you touch on. My brain is a huge video montage and library, arranged by subject and alphabetically by first name. (What, it makes sense to me??)

I really LOVE that you have the entire big historical picture. It's like a mini-history of textiles.

Oh! If you're a math geek, you should totally read about the Jacquard Loom. It was programmed with punch cards, and inspired Charles Babbage's machine. :-D