Hi, welcome to String Revolution. I'm Léan, I live in Dublin with my husband and two little boys, and I am a dangerous stringy subversive.
My job is to radiate my creative truth, and to help you radiate yours. I create, without exception, every day. I write here when I have something to say.

(learn more about me).

String! It’s Important!

Hop aboard – I’m riffing again on the theme of string politics.

Because string is so important, and we take it so deeply for granted!

Important? Really?

Yes! It’s so important that it’s practically invisible.

You know this already. String is everywhere. If you can’t name five stringy things you’ve encountered today, I’ll go so far as to say you live an unusual lifestyle. (Either that, or you’re really unobservant.)

Here’s my list:

  1. Bedding
  2. Pyjamas
  3. Carpet
  4. Curtains
  5. Towel

And that’s before I even came downstairs.

We live in nests that are strewn and draped with string in its various arrangements. We wrap our bodies in fabric, woven or knitted, by hand or machine. We use string to fasten things, attach things, hang things. We sleep in it, sit on it, walk on it. As children, we play with toys made from cloth and stuffed with fibre. We transport our possessions using bags and ropes. We use nets to keep pests off our crops and to catch fish. We carry our babies in slings, or wheel them around in fabric structures hung from frames. Our vehicles are lined and padded with string. We wrap our dead in it.

And that’s not even half the story. The technology of textiles underlies so much else in our world, too – obvious things, like surgical stitches and the fan belt in an engine, and less obvious things, like paper and electrical wire.

Subtract string, and our lives change out of all recognition.

Last time I went on about the importance of string, the lovely Josiane pointed me at a brilliant article, Should Everyone Spin? Another Yarn Manifesto, by Abby Franquemont. It’s a beautiful polemic about the importance of preserving the basic skill of producing yarn. If you haven’t read it yet, do so – seriously!

So yes. String is important.

What I’m wondering about today, though, is why it feels so odd to point that out.

String Politics

String and power have a curious relationship in Western society, it seems to me. The more powerful you are, the less likely you are to be personally involved with textiles.

The same is true of a lot of things, of course. The higher your status, generally, the less likely you are to have hands-on responsibility for things like food production (or distribution or preparation), construction, maintenance and repair, care work, hygiene, fuel supply, fighting, or manufacture of all kinds of goods including textiles. (That’s the list I brainstormed when I was making notes for this post – feel free to add to it!)

These are activities to which mainstream cultural discourse usually pays very little attention, except where they intersect with topics that are considered properly important, like The Economy, or Fashion, or Public Health, or War.

They are, in a very real sense, culturally invisible. And so are the people who do them.

Which is a bit weird, yes?

Because you’ll notice that these areas actually cover most of the things we need to maintain life-as-we-know-it. (Yeah, I’m uncomfortable that “fighting” is on that list, too. But it kind of has to be, the way we’ve got things set up at the moment. And the parallel between “brickie/property developer” and “private/general” just wouldn’t get out of my head.)

So, to reiterate my sweeping generalisation, the higher your status,

  • the less likely it is that your work directly contributes to the fundamental needs of your community,
  • the more likely it is that your work is valued in the dominant discourse,
  • and the more “visible” you are in society.

Meanwhile, the lower your status,

  • the more likely it is that your work directly contributes to the fundamental needs of your community,
  • the less likely it is that your work is valued in the dominant discourse,
  • and the less “visible” you are in society.

These are truths so trivial as to be barely worth restating, but I’m still hung up on why.

Why do we denigrate the very people who perform the work on which our society so centrally depends? Why do we elevate the people who seem furthest removed from that work?

Is it just because it’s hard work? Hard, physical work? Hard, repetitive work? Hard, dirty work? If that were all, rugby players and coal miners would be socially on a par.

Is it because it’s hard, physical, repetitive, dirty, and useful? Is that it? High-status people avoid useful work? That doesn’t seem quite right either!

To put it another way, why are powerful, visible people so very unlikely to be doing work that exercises fundamental survival skills? Is status a substitute for basic skills in our society? Does that make sense? Is it a Maslow thing?

Or is it more about how we tend to elevate mental work far above physical work? What’s that about? Why is design privileged above implementation? Why is asset management privileged above childcare? Does high status allow us to relax in the knowledge that all the really important stuff is taken care of, whether we feel like going to work or not?

On another axis, how do these questions intersect with gender – specifically, with the fact that much (if not most) of the world’s hardest, most repetitive physical labour is done by women? Does work done predominantly by women acquire a lower status, or are women predominantly assigned the lower-status work?

You know, I am aware that it’s not as simple as I’m making out. And I’m sure I’m just rehashing stuff that’s been far better expressed elsewhere (please, point me at things to read if they occur to you!) – but honestly? I don’t get it.

I mean, I get the desire to outsource unpleasant or dangerous work: it seems natural to me that people would avail of opportunities to avoid such experiences where possible. (I know I do.) What I don’t get is the necessity to devalue that work after you’ve outsourced it, and to denigrate the people who do it.

Keeping it Stringy

Most people in the society I live in have only the faintest awareness of how textiles are actually produced. I wouldn’t say I know much about it myself – many of you probably know far more than me – but my knowledge is encyclopaedic compared to most people’s.

I mean – look, make sure you’re sitting down for this – I believe there are even people who don’t check the fibre content of a garment before they buy it. Shocking. I know. Take all the time you need.

In Western society, unless we’re concerned with textiles as a hobby, or nobly preserving an ancient tradition (I’m thinking of Belgian linen weavers), we mostly seem to want to outsource the work as far away as possible – even unto the ends of the earth – where we can forget about it.

(This is a profoundly colonialist approach, by the way: in the period of history when empires were overt, the colonies were seen as a source of notionally infinite raw materials and labour – and for at least a couple of centuries, as a result, the entire Western economy seems to have been obsessed with the patently impractical idea of infinite growth. Hooray!)

The drive to outsource may have its roots in the Industrial Revolution: one of its effects was to relocate the bulk of textile production from homes and workshops into large, dangerous factories, where nobody would ever willingly go unless they worked there. (Textile mills were possibly the first buildings designed around the requirements of machines, rather than people.) As I pointed out when I sang you “The Weaver and the Factory Maid”, the factories removed textile workers from the quotidian spaces of the community, where they had been for millennia.

And there they remain: removed, invisible. When I make a quilt, for instance, I know essentially nothing about the people who work the machines that spin the yarn, and the machines that weave the fabric, and the machines that print the pattern, and the machines that roll it onto bolts. (Is that part even done by machine? I don’t know.) When I buy a T-shirt, I know nothing about how the loom for jersey fabric is different from the loom for plain weave, or about the people who cut out the pieces and sew the seams and turn the hems and add the labels.

This ignorance unsettles me. It seems like an all-round bad idea, quite frankly. I don’t want to know so little about where my string comes from. I don’t want to be so totally cut off from the people who produce it.

What can I do?

Well, a few things.

I can give my custom to small artisan producers or otherwise clued-in companies who recognise the importance of human connection and demonstrate broad congruence with my ethics. (The ability to do this is a huge privilege, and one I can’t often justify financially.)

I can research the mainstream industry, find out how the textiles I use are made, find out what the lives of the workers are like these days. (Depressing and enraging research, I suspect, from what little I’ve read.) I can try to discover which of the major companies take the greatest care to avoid harm, and reward them with my custom. One day, I could even maybe visit a textile factory.

I can acquire the skills myself and make some of my textiles from scratch. This idea excites me, but the obstacles are considerable. I don’t see myself producing a high proportion of my own string any time soon.

Finally, I can do this. As in, this, here. I can say to everyone who’ll listen, “String! It’s important!”

(Help me out? Spread the word!)

3 comments to String! It’s Important!

  • Ailbhe

    You need an underclass to do the scutwork so that the upper class doesn’t have to either do the work or pay its actual value for it.

  • It’s such an important subject! Thank you for sharing your reflections on it, and also for sharing Abby’s post. I had a feeling you’d enjoy it; I’m glad to know you did.

  • Interestingly someone recommended a programme on RTE the other night to me about the knitting industry in Ireland, which mostly annoyed me with its rose tinted view of “wasn’t knitting great, giving women a job…” sortathing. It pisses me off how knitters are NEVER paid an hourly wage for their work, never mind a minimum one. One woman did say she gave up knitting as it was too tough and too much work, but others were still at it, again, for very low pay. Sad how people then undervalue themselves.

    It is completely bizaare how one form of work is valued more than another. Something I quite like about LETS systems I suppose – that an hour is worth an hour, yours or mine. But that was also limited – how do you fairly equate effort and time with money? An hour I spend sewing as opposed to an hour spent tiling or talking or drawing, they are not all worth the same to me.

    Incidentally, I also like Bishopston Trading Company for Fair Trade cotton fabrics by the metre. Like yourself I cannot always justify affording it… but nonetheless its good to have them as a choice. They have lots of stuff on their site about the people who handloom the fabric.

    Anyway, enough waffle!
    Good post.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>