A few years ago a friend and neighbour gave me a gift. In return for sending some curds and whey her way she hand knitted a stack of face washers, which proved useful for the routine task of cleaning udders every day before I milked the goats. I have dabbled in various handicrafts over the years, so I appreciated someone taking the time to make something by hand to give away.
Last week the final surviving teat rag disintegrated, so it was time to find a replacement. I considered going back to cheap disposable cloths, but they fall apart almost instantly: a horrible waste. So I looked around the house and found this:
This is a doily that I made a while ago, back in the days when I still bothered to pick flowers to bring inside (and even then I rarely used the doily). It only took me an evening to crochet it. However, the reason I kept it hanging about the house so long, and story behind the many hours it took to make it is worth sharing.
When I first bought the farm I was interested in getting some alpaca to spin and weave/knit their fleece. As a test I bought some alpaca yarn and made a scarf, and promptly discovered I overheated in it after the one week of subtropical winter was gone. So I scrapped that idea in favour of more useful goats, but the urge to spin and weave didn’t completely vanish.
I tried growing perennial cotton. There are four main species of fibre producing cotton and only one is an annual. The species I managed to locate (Gossypium arboreum) grows into a shrub around 2 meters tall that persists for about 5 years once established. They need decent conditions when young, but stand up to just about anything once they get some height. The peachy flowers are followed by pods that split to release tufts of white cotton wool, that the birds love gathering for their nests (birds of a feather think alike and all). There are strain of the species with naturally green or brown fibres, which I tried without any success, but that may have just been bad luck. In the end I decided the white variety was enough for now (with some scope for dying later, though cellulose is more of a pain to dye than wool).
Years ago, before the recent floods, I grew a row of cotton bushes and harvested a few shopping bags of fluff. Timing is sometimes an issue- during wet spells the quality of the fibre drops rapidly if not harvested quickly. Next I had to figure out what to do with it all.
After doing some research I bought a simple drop spindle, though with the short fibre length of cotton this is not the ideal approach. The upside was it allowed me to start getting a feel for the material without spending too much. To compensate I needed to produce very chunky fibre, a slow and tedious process compared to finer fiber once you get the technique right. In traditional fabric production the spinning phase consumes the vast majority of the labour, and used to be a major focus of pre-industrial households if you didn’t want the family freezing in rags. This sample of chunky, single ply thread was what I turned into my unfortunate doily: my very first attempt at producing fabric from scratch (and hence why I didn’t throw it out despite it being useless).
The problem with drop spindles is that the growing thread needs to support the weight, which means more delicate/short fibres like cotton are not really suitable. In India they get around this by resting the spindle in a smooth bowl, a technique that requires a lot of practice to master. I experimented with disassembled egg beaters and fishing rods to make a mechanism for horizontal spinning (similar to how a great wheel works) but couldn’t find anyone willing to turn the handle while I drew out the fibres.
The final solution came in the form of a kick spindle, a considerable investment imported from a craftsman in the USA. It took me a little while, but soon I was churning out decent quantities of thread about the same thickness as commercial knitting wool. I toyed with double plying it, but found it wasn’t necessary with thread this thick. It might be worthwhile if I get better at creating thinner thread one day.
This thread was then turned into beanies, using a simple circular knitting nancy. Once again spinning the thread for a single beanie took about 5-10 hours, while the final step of knitting took maybe an hour to complete. Going through this process really emphasised the incredible impact industrial spinning mills had on society. I now have to stop myself from going into the fetal position when I throw out a cheap tea towel or (heaven forbid) a tattered bed sheet. The amount of material, energy and skill/technology needed to produce them is staggering, yet we consume cheap cloth like it is no big deal.
When I first made the beanies, even I was sceptical about how useful they would be. They were pretty thin and full of holes, so I was surprised to discover how warm they were. Initially the thread was quite tightly spun, but over time the fibre frayed just enough to make them incredibly soft and comfortable to wear. And despite my fears of them disintegrating the first time I washed them, they are going strong after wearing them non stop, every winter, for several years. The durability of homespun thread was the biggest surprise. My worry about all those hours spinning being a waste evaporated. Instead my biggest problem was explaining to friends why I wasn’t in a hurry to put aside ten hours to make one for them (would you pay $200 for a beanie that should last a lifetime? That my friends is the essence of the trap of industrialisation).
The whole experience keeps making me reflect on a bit of history I picked up. When Romans conquered southern Britain it connected the island to the vast trade networks of the continent. Cheap, mass produced, high quality ceramics were imported from specialist regions in France and beyond. The local pottery industry on the island vanished as a result.
When the Romans finally abandoned their possession, the people left behind found themselves with a big problem. Nobody knew how to make ceramics. For quite a while examples of pots turned up in the archaeological record, so crude you would laugh at them if your child brought them home from arts and crafts lessons. It took the migration of skilled potter families into Britain to restore the skillset.
As the high tide of industrialisation and global trade continues to wind down, a similar dynamic will likely play out around the world in a wide range of products and materials people rely on day to day. Fabric is likely to be among them, given the extraordinarily stretched supply lines that pass through multiple countries. Even third world nations mostly rely on cheap clothing imported from far away.
Spinning fibres and making cloth is one of our most fundamental skills, something I felt twitching in my fingertips my whole life, unexplained until recent years. We shouldn’t all be expected to pursue such strange hobbies as growing our own underpants. But the amazing thing about humanity is how rapidly skills pass from one person to another, provided there is a person to start the chain.
If ancient Britain had retained just one local potter family they might have saved themselves a whole lot of bother. Likewise, if a few among us (a few oddballs on the margins are more than enough), if those few people invest the necessary hours in rediscovering these old techniques, then perhaps one day we will have something precious to share.