Let’s quit the race to the bottom

I’m sitting almost on top of the woodburner. It’s not cold today – though the week began in Narnia. I’m just enjoying the flames that used to be like the baby in my life – tended dawn till dusk, laboured for, loved, and with me 24/7.

 

This morning, Saturday, I walked into town for supplies: forty minutes each way entirely in mature woodland which disgorges mossily green into the town in what the French call a chaos: a dramatically boulderous little white river.

Rushing stream portrait      Murph on snowy boar pool bridge 1

Last night I talked for hours with a dedicated and inspired primitive living craftsman friend back in England. As usual the conversation ranged from our respective love stories and wishes, through weaving and making, low impact livelihood, sustainable economics and how communities organise themselves. Except that most of those are one and the same.

He’s living in – horror of horrors – a successful intentional community. The horror is all mine: he has been a periodic part of that community for some time, and is very happy there. He described the power that is distributed since ownership is shared in both financial and real terms; the rota of work that is full of choice and leaves more days’ free time than not; the minimal financial contributions made by each member; the separate dwellings with an unmarked curtilage of privacy field; the land that is full of ‘resources’ for all, and devoid of fences; the horse- and man-powered machines that minimise fossil fuel use; the separate projects that provide for the whole group; and the businesses that offer a little employment. In all, a smooth-running micro-economy – an open system linking into but softening the blows of the larger vampire economy that most of us feed with more sweat, blood and tears than we can afford.

And all of that makes so much sense that my horror of communal living is slightly reduced.

I’m temporarily in a borrowed cottage in Brittany, partly for the woodburner, but largely for the conservatory, which offers me a bigger working space in which to try out some new kit – a tiny upscale. I bartered a treadle with an Ashford dealer who (compliment of compliments) is also a weaver. My loom sits atop the treadle, which has pedals so that my hands don’t have to operate levers to change the shed, but are free to just handle the shuttle more quickly. The point is to see whether increased productivity increases sales, since sales are usually stimulated by new listings I post in my online shop. I have indeed been a little more productive so far, but financially have had the worst January – which is usually the best month of my year – out of four Januaries since I began trading. Shit.

Is it Brexit? Is it Trump? Is it neoliberalism tightening its grip of austerity? Is it me?

In creep those doubts that always hover: can I survive? Am I making the right product? What do my community want and need? More to the point, what can they afford, with the yokes of debt around their necks? Do I have to compromise by buying cheaper imported wool of unknown provenance and many air miles? Can my prices really get much lower anyway? Do I have to stretch myself and my combustion engine thin by running around after products placed in galleries on a high-hassle sale-or-return basis? Do I have to stress myself out in high-pressure teaching for a wage that is half of that I used to anxiously labour for as the lowliest band of teachers in Higher Education? Do I have to get into more debt to invest a chunk in something that might propel the business – upwards (financially)? Downwards (socio-environmentally)? Must I make more and more beautiful things that only the very richest can afford?

It might just be a blip – these worries are all pretty normal in the early years of business, and especially in the arts, and especially in a conscientious arts business – and especially in a conscientious arts business in a growth economy. Making labour-intensive goods out of ethically sourced materials that were also labour-intensive to produce in the avoidance of socially and environmentally unfriendly shortcuts results in a very expensive product. And in current global economics, these ‘luxury’ or ‘novelty’ goods are only really affordable to a richer community than one’s own. In growth model economics, my peers simply cannot afford my labour costs. And this is a problem.

Environmental and ethical shortcutting for costsaving is the race to the bottom that I am giving my life to resist. But here’s the locking mechanism of growth model economics that makes it so damn hard for any of us to resist its downwards spiral:

The almost-universal, debt-based system of money creation by corporates is described in the Bank of England’s 2014 Quarterly Bulletin. (I explained it in layman’s terms in a previous blog entry.) Regardless of whether the individual or single company is literally in debt, debt money accounts for over 97% of all money in existence. Yes, 97% of all money is debt, which means that 97% of all transactions must cover not just production costs (labour and embodied labour) but additionally, an interest component: all individuals and companies (and even most governments, though they could technically take money creation away from corporate interests and into their own hands) have also to spend extra money to service the borrowed money, i.e. to pay interest on loans.  To cover interest payments, prices will be necessarily higher than wages (in aggregate), with the result that not all goods and services produced can be afforded, because the wages (which pay the producer to consume) won’t stretch to it. This is thus a problem of built-in scarcity and compensatory infinite growth (which is in vain, even in purely financial terms, never mind the destructive social and environmental impacts).

Here’s how it plays out in practice for makers/producers:

In order for our own goods or services not to be the ones left on the shelf, we must engage in a constant battle of noveltising, undercutting, shortcutting and bargaining; we are more or less compelled to compete in ever more vicious ways. If we want or need ordinary folk in our own economies to afford our wares, we have to get things made or done more cheaply, which generally means outsourcing labour to places where working conditions, rights, pay and environmental practices are worse – which means that our local ordinary folk are further deprived of work, which means that they cannot afford our wares, which means that we have to get things made or done yet more cheaply… and so on.

This race to the bottom is a vortex: with all its spinoffs of more and more ridiculous novelty items and worsening production practices, our current monetary system is like an autopilot driving capitalism to its extreme and wrecking life and the planet.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Over in the Green Cloth Collective, where we believe in making things closer to home for greater sustainability, we are discussing alternative economics. As a group we’re still grappling with understanding the problems, and then articulating them, before we can really envisage solutions. But as far as I can see, part of the solution is likely to involve breaking our dependency on money and developing networks and communities in which collaborative credit and other barter-related schemes can grow.

Wouldn’t it be different if you all could afford my labour, and I yours. As attributed to philosopher Alan Watts, saying that trade is difficult because there’s not enough money is like saying that building is difficult because there aren’t enough inches. We all have needs and wants and we can all produce goods and services, even when the money has all been hoovered up. So how can we all get on with our business a long way away from the corporate moneymaker machine hellbent on its race to the bottom?

–:–

 

 

 

The impressive folk at lowimpact.org are addressing these issues too (along with alternative economists around the world). And, honouringly, they have asked me and the Collective to be their advisers on low impact clothing production. My shop is now in their directory too, and proudly sports their logo.

Wave small w lowimpact logo

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Inklings of renaissance

Happy New Year! Well, I had the sweetest Christmas, how was yours? Always exhausted at the year’s end, I crashed before getting to the end of the working year, but was able to do a little more, if not round off the batch of seascapes I was in, and stave off a proper bout of lurgy.

In a lovely Devon pub I met a beautiful, high-powered friend who works for a big NGO and we talked about how localism had left her discourse but how that was probably because it was by now a given in her development projects, so that ‘developing’ countries don’t just ‘develop’ in the same fatally flawed way that ours have done. Instead, like a good un, she’s getting anti-neoliberalism and post-neoliberalism on the table at talks with bigwigs from multiple southern hemisphere nations. We egged each other on and made a toast.

And in a lovely Devon café I met a gorgeous, bright woodman who’s looking for a smallholding partner. We had a dimpsey walk by the river, visited a printing press, sung into a mini-amphitheatre, enjoyed coffee and cake and a harp recital and browsing the right-on books for sale. We are also egging each other on and making toasts (and porridge).

However, I did then leave Devon regretfully to come to Brittany (optimistically), where a borrowed cottage affords me the comfort of a woodburner, beautiful extensive forest and a bigger workshop space. This last gives me room to try out my new treadle that I bartered in the Green Cloth Collective, where – compliment of compliments – another weaver and Ashford dealer traded it for a bluebellwood shawl of mine. I’m hoping that higher weaving speeds will increase productivity and thus sales, because sales tend to happen when new listings flurry my shop. This year, despite an excellent November/December thanks to BBC Radio 4, sales/orders have dropped off more over the Christmas/New Year period than they have done in the past. That’s nailbiting since the ferry and cottage cost a little more than staying in my van – which still costs, nonetheless.

I finished the batch of seascapes and found a Breton beach to rival the most stunning Cornish, Hebridean and Connemara ones. The bitter squalls rivalled the most stinging Cornish, Hebridean and Connemara ones too, and the breakers were bigger than the islets in the bay.

But in between  horizontalpours I crabbed around patches of virgin sand, leaning in as far as I could to place a weaving on the clean canvas, occasionally falling on an elbow and spoiling it, then following my tracks back around to move to another virgin patch, one eye on the rising tide, fingers freezing, admiring the view, missing the shot of sunlight, getting back to work, positioning everything perfectly, waiting for another shot of sunlight, running out of camera battery, replacing the camera battery, returning to catch the blowing-away garment, anchoring it with rocks and weed, awaiting another shot of sunlight, readjusting my metre, greeting the sunshot, cursing Murph who was clingy and cold and casting a shadow, getting him out of the way, awaiting another shot of sunlight, and throwing my arms up in the air at another dog hurtling towards us and skidding into my vignette, and crabbing around to another patch of virgin sand… And so on.

Petrol blue alpaca infinity scarf in landscapePetrol blue alpaca infinity scarf ring 2dark royal blue sea cowl round knotsBlue snug knots

Two blue snugs

Vertical seascape cowlDark royal blue snug round close

Largest all-Shetland sea cowl round on beachSea lettuce scarf knot

Grey green sea cowl ruffledGrey green sea waves weed detailSea remnant detail blurGrey Shetland sea scarf flotsamFoggy Atlantic purple grey green cowl blown open

 

I think 2018 is going to bring renaissance. Be at the heart of it. Join the Green Cloth Collective, for a start. It’s wicked.

The cats who walk by themselves

He of the lavender field blanket requested splashes of marigold. My mother remarked on how clashing colours sing in perfect proportion, and out of the remaining warp, I weave her idea of buddleia.

Budleia scarf 3 flower colour
BudleiaBuddleia, like nettle, is another one overlooked: a lurker in decaying industrial landscapes, abandoned dwellings and railway sidings; a post-apocalyptic pioneer; resistant; home always to a million butterflies. (Vive la revolution!)

The rest of the warp speaks to me of bluebell wood, and though weaving the wrong season is uncomfortable, my wool stash can always do bluebell wood. Were I a slicker marketing operation I might save these for the right season, but since it’s hard to sell anything at all in bluebell May, the hunger patch, I offer them now: a breath of Beltane for winter warmth.

Bluebell wood kidsilk scarf foldsBluebellwood shawl large baby alpaca grass closeBluebellwood dual weavingBluebell wood scarf foldsBluebell wood scarf end landscapeBluebellwood shawl large baby alpaca furry friendBluebellwood shawl large baby alpaca swirlBluebell wood tweed shawl folds

A coven of weavers (would that be a ‘wuvven’?) gather in a flat in a converted mill. And then with a beauty who unexpectedly walks into my life straight from the farms of the nettle-weavers in Nepal, and just at a moment when we both need a friend, I trek across the country to a darker wood, whose colours are muted, whose tall trees let only a little light slant in to catch the smoke of the continual fire in the early morning.

Some people are gathered there I’ve known I need to meet, spinning, weaving, dyeing, retting, scutching, hackling. A bunch of cats who walk by themselves, for a number of years they have nonetheless co-ordinated something lovely: yurts, looms, wheels, scutch horses, distaffs, flags, maps, tarps, trucks, tents and trivets make a productive and roughly poetic camp. Many visit, get involved, do their first weaving and wonder why it’s taken them a lifetime; one has even visited the derelict Welsh mill I’ve had my eye on. Ideas swirl beneath the activity, not ready yet to crystallise, but we agree that this could well be the embryo of the Green Cloth Fair I’ve had my mind on. We who walk by ourselves are nonetheless plugged into the currents of the collective: enough practice for a critical mass and the zeitgeist will soon be ours…  

And if you’re still reading, you’re probably one of us.

I’d like to say that I take the fleece I’ve been harbouring and finally learn to spin; that I take the skeins I’ve been storing and finally vegetable dye them; that I learn all the steps in plant fibre processing; that we cook up plans for fairs, caravans, festival acts, co-operatives, community interest companies, outreach work in inner city schools and prisons…

However I just dip my toe in this time. In helping clear up though I do learn how to assess whether flax has been over, under or perfectly retted (that is, half-rotted – I think – ready for fibre extraction).

And I do meet the human spirit there firegazing: worldly, wounded, reconstructing, loving, sharing, rapping and cursing. We sing, and a new song of mine on its first outing goes round and round. We laugh, and it’s more than I have in years. And though we dream of connection, partnership, collaboration and community, off we drift individually on our solitary journeys perpetually doing our solitary thing.

But like my own kin here and abroad; like the folk club in Stornoway; the selkie family at Husinish; the other families in the Highlands and islands on the road and those rooted in the Irish hills, these people in these woods are clan, tribe, home.

Honest cloth

My uncle is dying of a brain tumour in a nursing home, and I’m on the way with hound and accordion having promised him a tune. Radio 4, which sometimes irritates the hell out of me when it does its privilege-preening BBC establishmentism that is abhorrently irrelevant to most of society (or should be, IMHO), is on form today.

Imagine knowing you’re in the path of the ‘perfect storm’, battoning down the hatches and praying they’re strong enough; or stuffing your car and praying you get to shelter in time; or turning away from the evacuation aircraft because they won’t take your dog; or tethering your livestock to trees as if holding them down will save them from hurricanes and floods. Imagine knowing that you’re not quite in the path of the storm but that the path of tornadoes cannot be predicted at all. Imagine knowing they’re coming but not knowing where.

Imagine being a Muslim in Myanmar, where the state for years denies ethnic cleansing, and the world doesn’t know.

Imagine being cleared by fire from your village because the land you inhabit is to be enclosed for the grazing of sheep for wealth to conquer other lands.

Journalist Dan Saladino takes us to Georgia, at the crossroads of Western Asia and Eastern Europe – and here my tale beautifies, for Dan Saladino is a poet, and his programme is about wine.

We hear Orthodox Christians sing their prayers, and we’re told that wine here is truly sacred, exalted in love. But as the programme unfolds I observe that this sanctity is not religious, and this love not holy. This sanctity and love are heartwarmingly political and personal.

Georgia’s survival down the centuries, and therefore its identity, has depended on winemaking. Birthplace of wine some 8000 years ago, it has been the livelihood of a disproportionately high number of citizens. Caught in the crossfire of empire-building, her warriors tucked root stock from their vines under their tunics when they went out on the war path to defend their territory. Not religious or superstitious belief (although maybe it was that as well), but pragmatic: if, whilst out fighting, our villages are sacked, we can replant our vines and rebuild our livelihood.

Light enough to travel: your loom, your yarn, your computer, your accordion, your hound, all in your van. Your livelihood: freedom and resilience both.

Eloïse of These Isles portrait by Alice Carfrae, courtesy of Etsy, Inc

Saladino visits a family who’ve been making wine for generations. Their vineyard is more like an untended garden, where vegetables and nettles entangle beneath the vines. The vintner, with a vesselful of chagrin, admits that this began with laziness but became culture as the grape thrived, and through the foreign tongue you can hear his grin.

My unplanned cloth colours, warp improvised with impatience, impulsiveness and a reckless glee in spontaneity. A deliberate practice in organicness: chaotic emergence of landscape inspiration; only slightly stylised, and often then by luck. And people kindly say I’m great with colour. We are but conduits: the wove weaves itself, as a song writes itself, as a story tells itself. Less choice than we like to believe; less control than we wish we could have.

Longest green shawl 4

The vintner describes a handful of a grape: difficult to grow, unpredictable as a plant and as a wine, changeable even through the day according to unknown factors. His wife, who has known him since childhood, names it after him, and laughs with great love in her voice.

With a qvevriful of pride, the vintner describes his zero-compromise approach. Non-judgmentally he criticises farming practices that correct and over-correct in constant compensation: put this in the soil, do that to the plant; do this to the land, spray that on the plant. A process of refinement that can easily go too far.

Every artist knows this one, and everyone else too: the table-leg job. Crazy artificial.

Every weaving has flaws, and I have a constant dilemma of which to correct, if any, and which to leave. As a bit of a pedant, this is good practice. My rule of thumb is whether the flaw compromises the structural integrity of the cloth. Will a mis-threading result in a constant crease along the length? Will a missed pick result in a loop of thread that will snag? My other rule of thumb is whether the colour arrangement  is enhanced or compromised. If I’m working a neat geometric pattern with colours symmetrical (which is rare), I feel to correct everything. If I’m working a landscape with twenty organically-blended colours and a thread breaks, I sometimes like to tie on a new colour in its place – whatever is to hand, just for the sake of it. (Ooo, the rebellion.) Sometimes there are flaws which I take days to correct. Sometimes there are flaws which I haven’t time to correct. Sometimes there are flaws that I can’t correct. And sometimes there are flaws that I choose to leave. For Allah. Or someone.

Flawed cloth

Saladino talks with an American Gospel singer in her twenties who’s emigrated to Georgia. We hear her soulful voice soaring in praise above the congregation. Gladness and gratitude. She’s also got Wine, and has learnt to make it. She laments that Georgian wine is referred to as ‘natural wine’. Chemical free from good, simple, time-honoured, clean farming, she prefers to call it simply ‘wine’.

I think of ‘organic cloth’, ‘pure wool’ and so on. Cloth. My colours are chemically dyed. They are cheaper. Yesterday I bought some yarns imported from Peru. They were the most beautiful. I use wool. I love it, and it’s better than petro-fibre. Perhaps my own zero-compromise tendencies need the practice of compromise, even if it’d be better to avoid it.

Of wine and wool

But I’m hoping that a Green Cloth Co-operative might emerge from the Nettles for Textiles group. Maybe individual foragers around the country would do the first steps in processing plant fibres and then send the fibre to be spun in a waterwheel powered, co-operatively-run and commonly-owned mill. (Yeah, ok, the idea needs a lot of interrogation, and there may be better ones. But it’s one beautiful dream of many.)

The Gospel singer says every bottle of wine is different – some amber, some cloudy, some white with the character of red. I think of my accidental elderflower champagne: one magical bottle in a batch of cordial of very variable drinkability.

She says she’s not looking for perfection. She’s looking for honesty.