More recently the lust for cheap clothes contributed to the deaths of over a thousand people, mostly women, in the Rana Plaza fire in Bangladesh. Servitude in the pursuit of our appetite for cloth has not disappeared, even though parts of the process have been mechanised. Don’t take it for granted. Look before you buy and think about how the garments you wear, or throw away, were made and by whom. However cheap a piece of clothing is, there is always a person at the end of that process, unseen, but linked to you by the threads that hold your garment together, and there is always a cost to them, and to the earth of your clothing. Around 40 million people worldwide produce textiles today and it remains the world’s second biggest polluter.
Making cloth has been at the heart of human activity for so long that it has shaped our language, but just as the London mudlarks have to burrow into the banks of the River Thames to find the treasures lost or discarded there, so we have to excavate a little to unearth the words it has given us. Unmarried women still bear the name of the occupation all of them devoted so many waking hours to, spinsters. Women in Europe of the Middle Ages worked hard to make all the yarn their households needed whatever their status. So critical was this activity that time spent on horseback wasn’t lost – there are pictures of women riding and spinning on a drop spindle at the same time.
There’s a wonderful picture in margins of the Luttrell Psalter, created around 1330, of a woman about to beat a man with her distaff, the stick that held the wool or linen she needed to spin. Look closely at the distaff, it’s bound with a red ribbon, women were said to bind their distaffs with blue ribbon, except when they were looking for a husband, when they would bind it with a red ribbon. This gave us the expression flying the red flag. We can assume that this was not the man she had in mind, perhaps he was being sleazy, originally a word to describe a weave that was too open, so that it wasn’t good quality cloth. Maybe she found him shoddy, the meaning migrating from the word that describes fabric made with recycled, or shoddy yarn, or maybe he had been pulling the wool over her eyes. Safe to say he hasn’t driven her to ‘rhapsodies’ from the Ancient Greek rhaptein, meaning to sew together, and oide, meaning song.