Steampunk Singer and Contemporary Textile Industry ‘Ustopias’

Singer 160™ – Limited Edition Machine (www.mysingerstory.com)

Singer 160™ – Limited Edition Machine (www.mysingerstory.com)

‘Ustopia is a word I made up by combining utopia and dystopia – the imagined perfect society and its opposite – because in my view, each contains a latent version of the other.’

(Margaret Atwood: “The Road to Ustopia”, The Guardian, 15.10. 2011)

In 2011, to celebrate the 160 years of the company’s commercial success, Singer launched the 160™ Limited Edition Machine. The design reflects back on the years of the brand’s worldwide growth and if unaware of the image source, some of us might suspect this machine belongs among the last creations by “Jake” von Slatt of steampunkworkshop.com. Thus, a temptation arises to ask: What is Singer® trying to communicate by this Victorian retro design? And why right now – with its 160th anniversary? Wouldn’t such a nostalgic look back on the company’s famous history have been more appropriate for say the 150th anniversary?

Without a doubt, over the years of its existence, Singer® has become synonymous with home sewing,
self-sufficiency and individual creative expression. Singer machines have from the time of the patent issue for the first Singer brand machine in 1851 enabled many a woman around the world to make her fashion dreams come true for an affordable price. “Singers” have also been helping families to get by on limited resources, and, very often too, a home sewing machine would have been a source of some extra income for those able to offer their sewing skills to repair, alter or even make clothes locally.

Coming from a post-communist country, I remember how these skills were still essential for households there thirty years ago. I learned how to make my own clothes for the simple reason that to make one’s own was much cheaper than to buy them from a shop. Also, not less importantly, what was actually available from shops, would hardly ever please anyone’s eyes… With all this in mind I then recollect a story of a friend, who shortly after the fall of the communist regime, went to visit her family in the United States. At one point of her stay, she asked her hosts to advice where to buy a nice fabric that she wanted to bring back home to make a skirt. They seemed rather puzzled by her enquiry and asked with a great surprise: Why would you bother with making a skirt if you can get one for $15?

This story certainly isn’t meant to glamorize the make-do attitude rather unfortunately imposed on people by the communist regimes. Yet, I believe, it points to one of the crucial roles craft has to play in re-thinking the contemporary textile industry. No one who has ever tried to find and buy the material, made or copied the pattern for and sew a skirt, would ever expect it to cost $15.

In this sense, our lost skills make us unaware of the real cost of things and enable the ever expanding textile industry to produce garments sold at $15 whilst polluting lands and waters worldwide and employing very problematic work policies in countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, China or India (and many others).

Here, Singer® comes in again. The economic report of Singer India Ltd from early 2004 announced:

New Delhi: Singer India Ltd is restructuring its business operations which would see it generating more revenues from its non-care area of consumer durables in future. As the domestic sewing machine market is stagnating due to changed consumer aspirations, Singer is now focusing on home appliances and consumer electronics while entering the industrial sewing machines business, which is expected to boom in the coming years due to the Indian garment sector…
(Economic Times, January 16, 2004)

At the same time, during the last couple of years, Singer domestic machines market in the US or the UK has been gradually growing. Craft writer Cat Rossi in her thought provoking post ‘All Sewn Up: Antique Singers and (De) Industrial Aesthetics at All Saints’ (29.1.2012) draws attention to the UK clothing brand All Saints that uses displays of vintage Singer sewing machines (mostly imported from India) across its shops as a branding signature. Rossi proposes that the philosophy of this branding strategy might aim to ‘to show off the fact that in an increasingly intangible world and service-led economy, All Saints actually make stuff, that they rely on craftsmanship and old fashioned quality manufacture.’ This then serves to ‘suggest a redundancy of the mass, industrial production in which these machines were complicit and the oft-cited advent of a new, localised, small-scale manufacture system.’

Is it possible that there was a very similar rationale behind the Singer®’s launch of the retro Singer 160™ Limited Edition Machine on the occasion of the company’s 160 years anniversary in 2011? And if so, what does this [so far] wishful trend for a shift from quantity to quality mean for the future of the textile industry?

In fact, can we really look forward to better quality clothing and more sustainable textile industry when most of us desperately lack the practical experience that would help us distinguish between the well and the poorly made and between good and poor quality material? Most importantly still: Are we ready to pay for clothes the price they are really worth? Or would we still rather own pairs and pairs of ill-fitting $15 mixed fiber jeans instead of a pair of real denim pants famous for their comfort and durability?

The decision is ours to take. Denim jeans might then once again become a symbol of freedom and revolt against the status quo.

William Morris versus Steampunk, Steampunk versus William Morris?

 

Steampunk is the intersection of technology and romance. www.steampunkworkshop.com

Daniel Kreibich 'William Morris' 2006 (combined technique on cardboard 100 x 70cm)

Daniel Kreibich 'William Morris' 2006 (combined technique on cardboard 100 x 70cm)

Top hats, corsets, chugging steam engines and adventurous gentlemen merrily exploring yet undiscovered secrets of the ever expanding Empire – all that William Morris hated with a passion. Yes, contemporary steampunks have built their dream world on glorifying the very same lifestyle and aesthetics that William Morris despised and spent his life revolting against. Does this mean, however, that there is no connection whatsoever between the two?

Could there be some bond between Morris’s interest in the Middle Ages and Steampunk enthusiasm for the Victorian era? Is it ironic perhaps, that with a time gap of almost one and a half century and all the disparities, there still seems to exist an enemy common for them both – ever-accelerating progress? Further connections might start springing to mind.

There is much in common between Morris’s nostalgia for genuine medieval workmanship and Steampunk longing for ‘the days before machines were build to build other machines’ (as Ele Carpenter comments in the current JMC issue, p 148). In both cases, their romanticization of a historic period is tied to a desire to opt out of the dreary reality.

Steampunk has been accused of glorifying the past. Fictional author Paul Jessup criticizes Steampunk as ‘escapism that tells us Empire is grand.  (Indeed one could say with Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray) that ‘the one of the charms of the past is that it is the past.’ Escapism and its troubled relationship to utopianism would surely make a fascinating topic for a discussion. Let’s try to approach this from a different angle for the moment.

The portrait of William Morris by Czech artist Daniel Krejbich reproduced here hints that there is more to Morris than the black and white picture we’re often presented with tells. As Edward Palmer Thompson brilliantly noted, Morris was “absorbed in a world of “romance””, however, “the world of “romance” was not incompatible with the closest observation and study wherever his interests directed him…” (E. P. Thompson William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary Merlin Press, London 1977, p 17).

It has often been suggested that Morris was a Luddite. This is quite true after all. Morris, just as Luddites, was revolting against replacement of human power and creativity by machinery. Positively, though, this didn’t mean he wanted to ‘go back to some rose tinted vision of Middle Ages’ – to borrow words from Robin Wood’s comment to the previous post on Craft and Utopianism. Morris’s position is quite clear from his lecture Art and Its Producers:

I do not mean…that we should aim at abolishing all machinery: I would do some things by machinery which are now done by hand, and other things by hand which are now done by machinery: in short, we should be the masters of our machines and not their slaves, as we are now. It is not this or that tangible steel and brass machine which we want to get rid of, but the great intangible machine of commercial tyranny, which oppresses the lives of all of us.

In short, what he despised was not machines, but the human drive to move forward at all costs without any forethought for consequences. Similarly, today’s Steampunk does not object against technology. Let the Steampunk computers, Steampunk ipod cases or Steampunk electric guitars speak for themselves. However, their retro style gadgets have their own way of suggesting, that although time flies, it doesn’t necessarily need to fly as quickly as our obsession with all things new makes us believe.

Here then, unfolds the connection between Morris’s medieval and Steampunk Victorian nostalgia. Neither Morris nor steampunks want to stop the clock. Yet, if implicitly, they’re asking what it is that is driving us forward this fast? And, more importantly still, do we want to be driven there?

In his Social change with respect to culture and original nature (1922), William Fielding Ogborn coined the term “cultural lag” to describe the common phenomenon when the changes in material culture (technology especially) often outpace the changes in the non-material culture (ideas, beliefs, symbols etc). Adaptation to new technology thus becomes difficult, as one part of culture virtually lags behind another. Although the term “lag” may suggest so, this doesn’t mean there is no choice and we should simply adapt to and be constantly dragged by technological innovation. The possible misreading of Ogborn’s concept was thus addressed in Alvin Toffler’s famous book Future shock (Random House, New York 1970), where Toffler makes clear that rapid change is not inevitably beneficial and that it might be for our own good to slow down “the future” and adapt to innovation at our own pace. He writes: “… we need neither blind acceptance nor blind resistance, but an array of creative strategies for shaping, deflecting, accelerating, or decelerating change selectively” (p 331).

Perhaps Morris and steampunks are doing just this.

Craft and utopianism

“Many things would be easier if we could eat grass”, remarks Ernst Bloch rather unexpectedly in his monumental work The Principle of Hope. Indeed, this sounds very timely in the face of the hardships of current ‘economic slowdown’ and it doesn’t take too much to imagine that many would heartily agree. As poignant as Bloch’s momentary groan might sound though, it is as far from the central message of this magnum opus of utopian scholarship as it possibly can be.

The Principle of Hope is all but an account of the easy ways to get by. Quite on the contrary, it draws us into the labyrinth of imaginative curiosity, anticipation and the aspiration to cross over the limits of the up to now experience and explore what lies beyond. Utopia, in Bloch’s terms though, is not a country that no one has ever been to. Rather, it is the hopeful, if often intricate, journey from our deepest (day-) dreams toward their possible realization.

Is it possible then, that utopian thinking and craftwork might actually have a lot in common? Do craft and utopianism, perhaps, share the curiosity and also the courage to ‘begin to imagine, to think, to try to do anything worth doing’ as Ruskin writes in Stones of Venice. Or could their willingness to take the risk of thinking and working at the limit of one’s own competencies be a connecting point too? The history of social and political debates in which craft played a catalyst role for re-imagining the status quo suggests that craft and utopian quest for a better future have often walked hand in hand.

Let’s think of the significance of craft in the history of intentional communities – Quakers, Shakers or Amish people – to name several obvious examples. Remember craft’s crucial role in utopian socialism and in the reform started by Ruskin, Morris and continued by the Arts and Crafts Movement later on. Moving on to the twentieth century, start with the emphasis put on craft in guild socialism, craft’s importance for the Indian Independence Movement and its role in the late twentieth century DIY culture. The most recent examples would surely include the craftivism movement, that has, quite fittingly in this context, been given a whole recent issue of Utopian Studies – the journal of the Society for Utopian Studies, and perhaps even steampunk phenomenon – the theme of the current JMC issue.

Surely, another analogy between craft and utopianism could be exemplified on the never ending tension between the ‘make do’ and ‘make better’ -the dilemma between the instantly practicable solutions versus the desire for the ideal, that has long been haunting not only social reformers and activists but generations of craft theorists and practitioners alike.

In short, neither utopian thinking nor craft necessarily offer the easy way scenarios. But, shall we agree that the common strength of both might lie in a determination that is well illustrated in the following extract of one of the stories from the 2008 anthology of steampunk literature (Brown, Molly: The Selene Gardening Society, in: Vandermeer, Jeff and Ann eds.: Steampunk, Tachyon Publications, San Francisco 2008, cited in: Steampunk Magazine n7, 2011, p. 3)?

“Calm down, Maston,” said Mr. Barbicane. “I merely said it was impossible. I never said we wouldn’t find a way to do it.”