Cymraeg

All the Rage (The Princess and the Pea)

Emily Laurens

The princess has privilege but she is vulnerable, precarious, on those piled high mattresses and feather beds. All those layers are not enough to shield her from the hard truth of that wrinkly dried pea.

This story has been on my mind since the conception of this project – an exploration of fast fashion and Wales’ garment-making past. The stack of mattresses I see in my mind's eye are not the pristine feather beds of fairy tales, but the used mattresses piled up at the tip. Stained and moldering from all the events mattresses witness – menstruation, fevered night sweats, sexual encounters, birth and death. These mattresses are objects that have been fully entangled with the human body. More on that later.

In this metaphor I am the princess. A white Western middle-class consumer of fashion. The pea, the irritation, the thing I am unable to get comfortable with, something that doesn’t directly harm me but makes it impossible for me to rest easy, is capitalism.

Sometimes I feel real grief and rage at the injustice, inequality and systemic harm inherent in capitalism, but mostly – if I’m honest – It’s an irritation. Unlike hair shirt wearing, where rough clothing was worn to induce irritation and engender repentance or atonement, this irritation is a barrier to the full enjoyment of the privileges my princess-like status brings. It makes it impossible to buy the clothes I want, the food I want, or a bunch of flowers from Kenya. Like Neo in The Matrix I have taken the red pill, I have read the articles, seen the documentaries and am unable to fully enjoy the privileges at my disposal. Like the princess, I am uncomfortable.

So, the pea is capitalism in all its horror. But there is something that is supposed to insulate me from that pea. The mattresses, the matrix. To me these insulating mattresses are a mixture of the defenses and coping mechanisms that allow us to function in this world; the aspects of capitalism that purposefully obscure its destructive harmful underbelly.

20 Mattresses and feather beds

  1. The obscureness of supply chains
  2. Escapism – the lure of luxury
  3. Company’s wooly ethical statements
  4. An inability to relate to workers in the majority world (in which racism is a factor)
  5. The cult of perfection (social media)
  6. The invisibility of the horrors
  7. The ease of spending money (contactless payment, credit cards, debt accumulation)
  8. Everybody else is doing it
  9. The perceived lack of choice
  10. The false idea of geographical distance between me and sweatshops (there are sweatshops in the UK)
  11. The ubiquity of sweatshop clothing
  12. Being unsure about how bad it really is
  13. The distraction of fast-changing fashion
  14. The joy of shopping (the dopamine rush)
  15. The addictive nature of online shopping
  16. The relationship between fast fashion brands and celebrities/influencers
  17. We’re all going to hell in a hand cart anyway (So let’s enjoy our privileges while we can)
  18. People in the majority world/global south need jobs
  19. The need for social acceptance
  20. Filling an existential chasm

We, the consumers, are not supposed to know about the sweatshops, we are fully separated from the means of production. But I live in west Wales and making clothes is embedded in our very recent history. In this project I unpicked some of that history, listened to people's stories and wondered: if we remembered and celebrated our past more fully would we make better choices around where our clothes come from? And could we envision a future where we might make clothes in west Wales again?

All the Rage is part of an ongoing exploration into cloth, clothing and the ready-made garment/apparel industry known as fast fashion*. Following this particular seam, I am looking back to the relocation of garment factories from west Wales to Africa and Asia. These factories, notably Dewhirst (formally Slimma), made clothes for Marks and Spencer’s among others from the 1960’s to the early 2000’s.

The story of Slimma/Dewhirst and their relocation is in part my story, or rather a part of my personal history. I grew up in west Wales and now live back here, in the 19th century woolen textile capital Drefach Felindre, home to the National Wool Museum. Growing up I had friends and family who worked in the Slimma/Dewhirst factories, they were a backdrop to life here. There was farming and tourism and also manufacturing. Now it feels like the only viable industry is tourism, but so much of the wealth generated from tourism remains outside of the area. Second homes create villages that are empty and desolate in winter and a lack of housing for local people to rent and buy. These are live and heartbreaking issues in my community.

Community is often a starting point for me. I like to start with lived experience, experience other than my own, and I began the project by interviewing garment workers and ex garment workers who live locally. This was not a huge oral history project, although I followed the protocols and ethics of oral history collection and paid each participant for their time.

I spoke to six women who had worked in the garment industry in Port Talbot, Cardigan and Goodwick. Most had worked at the Dewhirst factory in Cardigan when it closed in 2001, making around 400 people redundant. What they had to say surprised me.

I expected them to berate Dewhirst, the company who relocated to Morocco and then Bangladesh and is now part of complex “third party” supply chains that allow high street stores to wriggle out of ethical and environmental commitments. It is the relocation of factories from the west to the majority world that has enabled fast fashion to become the social justice and environmental nightmare it is today.

But the women I interviewed loved Dewhirst, they felt taken care of.

Elin on Dewhirst, Cardigan: “the opportunities within the factories was amazing, it didn’t matter about your grades from school, it was how hard you could work.”

Siân, on Morris and Cohen, Port Talbot: “It’s tiring work, the noise, yes, because they didn’t have ear defenders or anything like that and they’d have the music blaring as well, but happy, happy workforce, they were characters, real characters… oh the banter… they were a good bunch… Christmas do’s, they were a hoot.”

 The contrast between this and first-hand accounts I had read from the sweatshops of India and Bangladesh were stark:

Sakamma, 42-year-old mother-of-two working for Gap supplier Texport in Bengaluru, India: "It hurts us to be paid so little. I have to do this and they sell one piece of clothing for more than I get paid in a month. We cannot eat nutritious food. We don't have a good life, we live in pain for the rest of our life and die in pain. Low wages is the main reason. How much burden can a woman take? Husband, children, house and factory work – can we manage all these with such a meagre salary? So we are caught up in the debt trap. Is there no solution for our problem? The targets are too high. They want 150 pieces an hour. When we can't meet the targets, the abuse starts. There is too much pressure; it is like torture. We can't take breaks or drink water or go to the toilet. The supervisors are on our backs all the time. They call us donkey, owl [a creature associated with evil], dog and insult us … make us stand in front of everyone, tell us to go and die."

From a Guardian article by Gethin Chamberlain (2012) 

This is the story of where our clothes come from.

From the Welsh women I interviewed I was expecting stories of resentment and financial hardship, but instead what they lost when the factories closed was kinship “it was very sad, it was like a bereavement”.

They found other jobs, in fact they were very employable and many set up their own businesses. But they lost something intangible, the factory was the village, the extended family, with its characters, systems and rituals. And there was nothing like it.

This is a reminder that material things are not important. That the ‘stuff of life’ is the bits in-between, the stories, the memories, the relationships. It is also a reminder that clothes and inequality and misery do not have to go hand in hand. Here were women in Wales, making clothes and enjoying their work, being paid a fair wage and producing high street goods, clothes for ordinary people.

But what if the real actual stuff is important too, but not in the ways we think it is, not in terms of monetary value. Have Western modes of thinking made unnatural separations between us and stuff? Much has been written about this. In Bill Brown’s Thing Theory he quotes Maurice Merleau-Ponty, how people are “caught up in things” and that the “body is a thing among things”[1] and Terence E. Rosenberg writes compellingly “The made envelops all that we are and all that we may experience, including what we try to differentiate as the natural.” [2]

I can’t throw away the shoes my sister wore, she died seven years ago. They are the shape of her feet, molded to her, you can see the imprint of her toes on the insoles. They carried her. This is what I have of her now, materially, clothes and shoes and other stuff.

Like me, the Dewhirst workers were entangled with the stuff, things, and objects around them. Tracy said that when the Dewhirst factory in Cardigan closed the thing “that really got” her was the sight of the sewing machines being loaded onto a container to go out to Morocco where the factory was relocating. After seven years in Morocco those machines were shipped to Bangladesh, but no Dewhirst staff went with them “They didn’t need a production person” said Elin who had spent seven years in Morocco managing the factory “So I was made redundant… In Morocco everything had been done the same as it was in Cardigan.” But we both know that in Bangladesh, where Dewhirst still operates, this is not the case.

Tracy felt protective over the sewing machines “they were OUR machines” she said. Tracy and Jean talked about how they could tell if someone else had used their machine. Industrial sewing machines are metal, the greyish beige of Caucasian skin, they get warm, they hum and whirr as the fabric is pulled through stitch by stitch. The beat of the needle is redolent of life. The women in the Dewhirst factory were so attuned to the manufacturing process that they could tell if jeans in the shop had been made at ‘their’ factory just by looking at them. I asked how, “I don’t know, something to do with the stitch length, tension maybe, I don’t know.” Something intangible.

As well as interviewing garment workers I visited the textile collection at St Fagans Museum of Welsh Life. I took one of the interviewees, Siân Conti, with me. When I visited St Fagans I kept thinking “why am I here? What does this have to do with my work? With fast fashion?”.

The stuff, objects, things at St Fagans are in a state of full separation. Everything is out of context, isolated, each garment separated from its original owner and place and function. The labels and stories attached seem to increase the feeling of deadness. Each item laid out in a drawer, with tissue paper winding sheets. In this morgue for stuff you cannot touch anything, as if you, as a living being, are contagious. The items can only be handled with gloves, photographed, talked about, marveled at. Even the senses have a hierarchy, and touch is low down. And yet isn’t touch the most basic? The most wonderful? Isn’t that what stuff is all about? Touch, tangibility, tactility?

But at St Fagans there is a recognition of the importance of relationships. In conversation curator Elen Phillips discovered that Siân had worked for J.J. Seaton knitwear. The Seatons, founders of high-end clothing company Toast, had recently donated their archive to the Museum, and Siân will now help catalogue the archive. Siân is also going to be interviewed for the museum’s oral history collection. For me this is an important project outcome.

We, in the West, worship material things and revel in the acquisition of new stuff. By stuff here I mean material goods. Fast fashion is driven by the acquisition of stuff, and it’s quick and careless disposal. People in the UK spent £59.3 billion on clothing in 2019 (Statista.com), and around 350,000 tonnes, that’s around £140 million worth of used but still wearable clothing goes to landfill in the UK every year, more than 30% of our unwanted clothing (WRAP report Valuing our clothes 2017).

I sometimes feel that my art practice might enable me to push my hand through all the dirty layers and get to the hard pea-like heart of capitalism and grasp it, understand it. Not only understand it but retrieve some kind of key, a holy insight that will solve it all, end it all, open up a new path. I understand that this is partly white saviourism speaking, looking for a quick fix, and that this kind of thinking is wrapped up with what got us to this point of injustice and destruction. But I need to acknowledge it nonetheless, in order to put it to one side.

After my interviewing, and making, and thinking and visiting, and mentoring sessions with a collection of exceptional artists including Angela Maddock, Peta Lily, Persephone Pearl, Rachel Porter, Daniel Trivedy and Bedwyr Williams, I made a short film.

The film explores: the absurdity of fashion and capitalism; its lack of a human shape; the out of control, rampant, disease like quality of unsustainable growth; the discomfort of wearing clothes made in a sweatshop; the emptiness of consumerism; the cult of perfection; the desire among liberal white persons to do some kind of penance, hair shirt wearing to assuage guilt; the need to unravel and repurpose, put things on in different ways, find a new pattern, blueprint. But have I also, unconsciously been demonstrating the ridiculousness of trying to tackle the inequalities of this world through this medium? The futility of trying to comment on huge and entrenched global systems and effect change in this world?

But this is all I have and for all of us there is only ever that. And we must make do with it. We must cobble together the scraps and broken pieces that we have, make something with them, and put it out there. Then that collection of fragments has the opportunity to coalesce with another collection of fragments. All these broken pieces do not make a whole, but they make something, a movement. Where we recognise the value of stuff beyond its monetary value, and where the connections between things are more important than the things themselves, where, as adrienne maree brown says “relationships are everything”. [3]

Heulwen Reynolds talked about “the stretch in-between the stitches” she suggested that it was the space between the stitches that allowed the stretch. In fact it is the structure of knitted fabric that allows the stretch, the loops, all connected, unlike the grid like structure of weaving. I chose Heulwen’s words about the closing of these spaces, when knitted fabric felts, for the film soundtrack “it goes over and you’ll never get it back”. There is something haunting and claustrophobic about felting, the closing of those gaps, the loss of stretch. But you can still use this “gone over” fabric, it has use, function. In fact, it is tough, and soft, it doesn’t fray, it is resilient and flexible.

Maybe it is in places that are in-between, gone over places where we will find kinship, find our village, feel like family, feel at home among the broken things and develop new systems and rituals. Maybe that stack of mattresses can have another use, maybe even that pea can be laid to rest, planted in the soil. And maybe with time we can reconfigure, relearn, re-member, and find different ways of being in the world that do less harm.

*Previous to this project I examined the relationship between Welsh wool and trans-Atlantic slavery and how colonialism laid the foundations for extractive capitalism through a Located Residency funded by National Theatre Wales. (link)

Interviewees

Siân Conti

Morris Cohen underwear Ltd. Port Talbot (1980 – 1982), Welsh Brides, Cardigan (1982 – 1984), J&J Seaton knitwear, Llanfynnydd (1984 – 1991)

Jean Day

Slimma/Dewhirst Cardigan (1984 – 2001) Hiut Jeans Cardigan (2011 – present)

Elin Evans

Slimma/Courts/Dewhirst Cardigan and Morocco (1981 - 2008), Gina Shoes London and Hiut Jeans Cardigan (2011 – present)

Tracy Jones

Slimma/Dewhirst Cardigan (1984 – 2001) Hiut Jeans Cardigan (2011 – present)

Gill Kynoch

Slimma/Dewhirst Cardigan (1981 – 1999) Hiut Jeans Cardigan (2018 – present)

Heulwen Reynolds

Slimma Goodwick (1970 – 1972), Hiut Jeans Cardigan (2017 – present)


[1] Bill Brown, Thing Theory, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 28, No. 1, Things. pp. 1-22. The University of Chicago Press. 2001

[2] Terence E. Rosenberg Intermingled Bodies Distributed Agency in an Expanded Appreciation of Making, Vol.6 Nr.2, Art. 4, 1-18, Goldsmiths, University of London, 2013

[3] adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy, AK Press, 2017

Comments(3)

Debra jackson-Jones
25 December 2021, 11:16
As a white woman of Welsh decent born and raised in Canada I find this project captivating. As Canadians we are trying to come to terms with our colonial past and privilege and it is extremely uncomfortable. Our communities too are being eroded by capitalism and the inequities are now slapping us in the face as we see increased homelessness while second homes sit empty. This is a brilliant body of work, and far from being a ridiculous means of tackling the inequalities of this world. Thank you, Emily Laurens, for cobbling together the scraps and broken pieces and putting it out there.
Lois Rita Helmbold
24 December 2021, 22:13
Wow, Emily, outstanding! You hit so many notes that I also sing, about textiles, capitalism, women's work, globalization. I love the metaphor of the pea as capitalism.

I aim to be a guerrilla seamstress, making political quilts. In the US, quilt shows attract a broader range of women (race, age, class, etc.) than I see elsewhere. One of mine, on the centennial of US women's suffrage, is at https://www.centuryofwomensprogress.com/ (I'm in Gallery, with a written description, and Juror's Choice, with her analysis).

I'm also a retired women's studies professor/US historian, focusing on women and work. My book Making Choices, Making Do: Black and White Working-Class Women during the Great Depression is coming out in October from Rutgers UP.

I'm constantly looking for ways to combine my politics and intellectual, political, and practical/artistic skills to educate the world. I'd love to meet and talk, but Covid is delaying so much. Keep on keeping on!
Roddy Maude-Roxby
21 December 2021, 09:08
I studied N L P. Neuro Linguistic Programming with the premise, to contribute to a world in which we would like to live. There is a chance that the shut down over Christmas and isolation ,already experienced ,has had many review how they live and look to wards a change. The arts and creativity mostly ignored by politics and education, demonstrates a change of opinion. All the rage expresses this , the pea below the bedding. xxx
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