The realm of making garments and processing cloth has a mysterious element in fairytales, often veering towards the dangerous or unsettling. For me, this fearful aura gathers around the spinning wheel, probably owing to the story of Sleeping Beauty pricking her finger on the needle and being drawn into an endless slumber. I am also reminded of the mysterious and threatening story of the princess spinning cloth into gold every night for Rumpelstiltskin. Then there’s Hans Christian Andersen’s Wild Swans, wherein protagonist Elisa must knit shirts for her brothers out of nettles she must forage, lest they stay transformed into the titular swans forever. Fairytales are often littered with arduous tasks in the realm of garment production that involve sacrifice, struggle, or menace: you must give away something precious or go through difficulty. These stories tell us of the toil involved in the slow process of spinning and weaving and sewing together garments, and within this space and time things can be imbued with secret properties or mysterious materials. The one who spins has this power, even alongside the toil and sacrifice often included in the tales; there is magic here.
Yet in the world beyond the fairytale, the worth of spinners and weavers was dismantled by the development of the capitalist system, where machines in factories replaced this slow process of garment production. Carole Scott, writing on this, states that “manipulative pressures of the capitalist systems reduced the prestige and status of the spinners so that they became simple tools of production owned by parents or husbands” (1996: p159). This took away a huge portion of valued women’s work, and not only was economic worth diminished and subjugated to a patriarchal, capitalist mode of production, but the psychic worth of women was also diminished. This has only progressed through the extreme growth of fast fashion in the past few years. This process, so full of depth in narrative, from sacrifice and toil to a kind of mysterious sanctity, has been disrupted and fractured by the way we understand and live with our clothing.
So how can we connect to that mysterious and sacred realm, realistically and practically, in today’s world? How can we imbue our own clothes with a sense of magic – of psychic worth? It’s care. Caring for our clothes is accessible, and already in our lives in some form: putting clothes in a washing machine, hanging them up to dry, maybe ironing, and putting them away. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, writing on the close links between clothing and our psyche, argues that washing something is a form of ritual that means “to drench, to permeate with a spiritual numen and mystery… It means to make taut again that which has become slackened from the wearing. The clothes are like us, worn and worn until our ideas and values are slackened by the passing of time. The renewal, the revivifying, takes place in the water” (Estés, 1992: p91-92). Washing our clothes can be a mundane process but also brings us into close sensory contact with the cloth, touching fabric and slowly folding each item. Hand washing delicate garments feels caring (to me, at least, a big laundry fan). These haptic interactions can be imbued with a form of intention that is actively enchanting them through repetition. The floral dress is eventually placed back in the wardrobe. The jeans have the mud washed out of them and come home to the drawer. Every time, through care, the clothes come back renewed. And often the most enchanted items are the ones we have the most interactions with: our favourites, the reliable ones, the well-made and easy to maintain ones.
We care, over and over, for our favourite pieces of clothing, and that brings me to another form of enchanting care: the mending of clothing. We can actively enchant clothing through the slow process of mending it, giving up time to care for garments that we don’t want to replace or needlessly throw away. Here, I’d like to mention the example of a pair of jeans that have been mended countless times by Katrina Rodabaugh, transforming them from an everyday item into a completely magical garment. The repairs have become a kind of pattern on the denim: patches, embroidery, contrasting stitches all adorn the jeans. Rodabaugh points out that, in the past, visibly mended clothes has been considered shameful or embarrassing because they highlighted reuse and resourcefulness not associated with wealth. However, in her book Mending Matters (2018), she argues that this is now shifting towards something subversive and intentional, born out of a growing discomfort with the fast fashion industry and its global impacts on people producing the clothes and the resources used. This also speaks to psychic repair, like the idea of washing clothing as a process of renewal: we build the relationship with the garment through slow processes of care. However, as this slowness is so vital to the enchantment of our clothes, what comes with it is sacrifice. Sacrifice of other pursuits to spend time mending, yes, but also the sacrifice of the ease that comes with fast fashion. It centres living with clothing, something to be remade and refashioned and revitalized.
Sustainable fashion, then, is enchanting if the elements of care are there. And that brings with it the elements of sacrifice and toil. Not foraging-in-the-woods-for-nettles-to-knit levels of sacrifice and toil, but the sacrifice of fast fashion as a solution. The sacrifice of time to instead spend it washing or mending clothing. There is toil involved in those efforts – it’s hard work. The emphasis becomes on caring for what we have and renewing it, revitalizing it, rather than always replacing. And this goes for ‘eco’ fashion too, which has seen a wonderful growth over the past few years. What I am wary of with this is the idea that we must replace our entire wardrobes, immediately, with ethically produced garments. It’s still the conveyor belt of new fabric and resources being processed through the wardrobe. And, if we go back to the idea of clothing and psyche being totally intertwined, it gives us nothing to ground down with if we’re always replacing our clothes. Through processes of enchanting care such as washing and mending what we already own, we are metaphorically taking good care of our selves through caring for our clothes.
Hans Christian Andersen, 1845. New Fairy Tales.
Clarissa Pinkola Estés, 1992. Women Who Run With the Wolves.
Katrina Rodabaugh. 2018. Mending Matters.
Carole Scott, 1996. ‘Magical Dress: Clothing and Transformation in Folk Tales’in Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 21 (4)