Sunday, June 21, 2009

Restoring American Textiles

I've been noticing a slow but sure increase in Americans' willingness to pay more for healthier food, whether that is through a co-op, the organic food and produce sections at the grocery store, or buying directly from farmers. It is awfully encouraging to me.

As I sat watching people weave at Upstairs Studio last week, I asked if anyone thought there was hope for restoring the American textile industry. I read that 44 textile plants closed just last year.

We had a long discussion about the unwillingness or inability of the textile companies to pay competitive American wages and benefits, footing the bill for safe working conditions while competing with cheap labor overseas. It would seem that the the American consumer will have to be willing to pay more for American-made products.

Wondering if there is some middle way, somewhere in between homespun and corporate textile companies, I read up on craft guilds in Catholic Encylopedia. Here's the excerpt, titled "Craft guilds" (in England):

"Seeing that the merchant guilds had become identical with the municipality, the craftsmen, ever increasing in numbers, struggled to break down the trading monopoly of the merchant guilds and to win for themselves the right of supervision over their own body. The weavers and fullers were the first crafts to obtain royal recognition of their guilds, and by 1130 they had guilds established in London, Lincoln, and Oxford. Little by little through the next two centuries they broke down the power of the merchant guilds, which received their death-blow by the statute of Edward III which in 1335 allowed foreign merchants to trade freely in England. In the system of craft guilds the administration lay in the hands of wardens, bailiffs, or masters, while for admission a long apprenticeship was necessary. Like the merchant guilds, the craft guilds cared for the interests both spiritual and temporal of their members, providing old age and sick pensions, pensions for widows, and burial funds. The master craftsman was an independent producer, needing little or no capital, and employing journeymen and apprentices who hoped in time to become master craftsmen themselves. Thus there was no "working class" as such, and no conflict between capital and labour. At the end of the reign of Edward III there were in London forty-eight companies, a number which later on rose to sixty."

Does anyone know of such a guild operating today? I know that Harrisville Designs will take your fleece and spin it into yarn for you, and I once bought a wool blanket from a Louisiana farm that sent its raw wool somewhere and had it turned into blankets. These kinds of activities are a step in the right direction, but still a long way from a functioning medieval-type guild. If any one knows of individuals who have organized textile co-ops or have other ideas for restoring small-scale American-made textiles, please comment with the information.

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