In the old textile recycling days, everyone knew ‘the game of unspoken truths’. It belonged to us. We had our heritage and we all knew our roles. Contracts were not necessary – deals worth many thousands were made on ‘just’ a handshake. We were ‘just’ trying to make an ‘honest’ living. Let me tell you a story about heavy industry, revolutions and ethics.
The textile recycling industry is over 200 years old. It began in West Yorkshire as Northern England harnessed the power of steam and (later) electric with engineering and the craft of automated textile production, despite the Luddites’ apocalyptic protestations of ‘progress’ as unethical and unfair. The demise of the cottage worker eventually came to pass, but their prediction of large-scale unemployment was unfounded. As cottage industries faded, cottage workers became different kinds of employees in factories, as opportunities for employment changed. On one hand, the industrial revolution brought mass-production that exploited some yet provided opportunities for others outside families of privilege to gain from their creativity. This new technology brought prosperity to Great Britain, but it also assisted their colonisation across the world and subsidised the nation’s military growth, clothed in serge - much of which was (ironically perhaps) made of recycled wool.
Across the land ‘tatters’ (rag and bone men) collected old clothes amongst scrap, whilst entrepreneurs began to experiment with discarded textiles as alternative raw materials using emerging technology. Pure new wool was expensive and supply could be unpredictable, fashions were different, there were no synthetic fibres with which to compete, people needed warm clothes and blankets for unheated homes and factories. The ingredients for change were present.
As an alternative to new wool, textile waste was sorted into shades and grades, then ‘shredded’ (in West Yorkshire, called ‘pulled’) back to fibre. It was cheaper than dyed pure new wool and more readily available as periods of war interrupted supplies from overseas. This ‘old’ or recycled wool was called either ‘mungo’ or ‘shoddy’, depending on whether the fibres had been recovered from woven or knitted garments. The quality of fibre recovered from knitted garments is ‘shoddy’ and, perhaps paradoxically, considered the better of the two. The word ‘shoddy’ meaning ‘made of inferior material’ probably refers to its processing limitations when compared to some grades of pure new wool. Nevertheless, manufacturers knew that selling yarn or woollen cloth at cheaper prices was likely to mean higher volumes for them. The stakes were high and so were the risks. Buying the ‘right blend’ from ‘trusted’ reclaimed fibre manufacturers, then creating the ‘right blend’ in a ratio of this reclaimed fibre to new fibre was crucial for efficient production and the desired character of yarn and cloth before continuing their journey into finished garments to begin a new life. There were multitudes of ways in which things could go ‘wrong’ in creating the illusion of new from old.
Aside from production risks, an ethical problem for yarn and cloth manufacturers was what to declare, how to label: pure new wool, pure wool, 100% wool, wool, mixed fibres or fibre from someone’s old tat? On the other hand, as a fibre manufacturer supplying them, I felt absolved from the ethical responsibility of labelling the cloth, even though I knew someone else would carry this burden further down the line. Did this make me exempt from responsibility? My own ethical considerations were, how much ‘extra’ water to mix in with the processing oil (since we sold by weight) and what (cheaper) ‘mungo’ might be blended in to (more expensive) ‘shoddy’ products.
I entered this dance of craft, commerce and ethics so long after its birth that I could only be there to witness its ‘slow’ demise in West Yorkshire some 200 years later. At work, I had only ever known being a reclaimed fibre (shoddy) manufacturer, trading with many of the last bastions of a heavy industry sinking to its dark satanic knees, bringing with it my first professional turmoil all of its own.
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