On the Margins: Theorizing the History and Significance of Making and Designing Clothes at Home

Today's new experiment: making herbal teas for my sore throat and headcold using herbs from my garden.  I've planted them all on purpose in recent years, but until now I've only used the culinary herbs.  Today, mindful of the rising price of the various potions I buy to scare away lurgies, I opted for some diy, using and checking the knowledge I already have on the properties of specific herbs.

I gathered some thyme, lemon verbena, bergamot bee balm, borage, sage and lemon balm and put it in a tea pot and covered it with recently boiled water.  The resultant brew was quite nice.  Maybe we will survive peak oil after all.

I carried on a little with my kelly green scarf.  After I saw this in a recent Press article:

I decided that I will make scarves (or at least this one green one) which I will eventually stop using as scarves and sew into a big blanket for our bed.  The picture above is of some yarn bombing which took the form of loads of pieces of knitting sewn together to make a giant cover for a container in earthquake scarred Sumner, a suburb of Christchurch.

Also, I lay in bed, cough mixture and tissues at hand, and had another look at The Culture of Sewing.  This excellent book is one I read last year but have never written the responses to it which formed in my head as I read.  The chapter I am most interested in is by Cheryl Buckley: "On the Margins: Theorizing the History and Significance of Making and Designing Clothes at Home". 

Buckley's mother and aunt were sewists and Buckley draws on their life stories and that of an older woman, Mary Skelton (1897-1982), all from the north east of England.  Buckley addresses some of the theoretical demands of the questioning (erosion?) of the subject, noting of her peers:

"Most of these writers have tried to conceptualize female subjectivity and the place of the female subject in historical writing within a contemporary theoretical context which is indifferent if not hostile to the notion of the subject."

This book was published 14 years ago and in that time I've read approximately no new studies of feminist theory, so please speak up in the comments if I'm missing significant new paradigms. 

Bucklet is conscious of writing in a style which "connects with women outside academic discourse" and I think she is successful.  Not all the writers in this collection exhibit the same commitment.  I felt a strong sense of identification with this woman who had gone to university and loved it and then in her subsequent research career had found a way to link the lives of the working class women who people her family with the theoretical and historical perspectives of academic gender studies.  Of course, Cheryl Buckley went on to become a very highly respected and successful academic and I went on to live in suburbia in a small South Island town and make herbal tisanes.  Post-modernism may hate the idea of a central subject, but for me the lived experiences of women in history and women historians are both fascinating and also anchors to which I am drawn.  In a world where women are constructed against ideals and inevitably, always found wanting (e.g. the skinny beautiful girl ideal, the perfect mother ideal), real women who are flesh and brain and action and story, not fragments of someone else's fleeting judgement (the bludger, the ugly one, the crone, the man-hating feminist) are valuable, special, interesting to me.

Hopefully, more on this another day.  I'm off to make some more herbal tea and scoff some more vitamin C.


Annanonymous said…
My contact with postmodernism actually isn't much more current that yours, but I think sewing (as a female form of work done at home) is a particularly interesting case study.

In the years in which I (and probably you) studied feminist theory and postmodernism, neoliberalism was in the ascendent - and it insists on a fairly crude empricism/objectivity that is hostile to the idea of the subject, and particularly the gendered subject. At the same time, neoliberalism was associated with big changes to both paid and unpaid work. Women headed into the workforce, by choice or compulsion, in greater numbers. We started purchasing the goods we used to make at home - and because trade barriers had been dropped, clothing got a lot cheaper and more impersonal. The subjective component of clothing manufacture got lost when we began to buy it en masse from the Warehouse.

All of which sounds pretty abstract - but I still remember when mums used to spend hours making sponges for community gatherings and smocking the dresses of little girls. I'm not necessarily saying that was a better world; but women's work, like sewing, had a different quality and expressed women's subjectivity in a way it doesn't anymore ...
Sandra said…
Thanks for your comment Anna. I agree on neoliberalism and there is so much to say about the shifting of creating memories and identity from making things vs buying things. I'm keeping something handmade from each of the grandmothers for my children to take into their adult lives.

I was so looking forward to home made pavlova like from my childhood at a largeish family gathering about two years ago, but now they just buy bought ones (except for my mother, who has given up home sewing but not home cooking). So I went home and made one myself, only no one wanted to eat it. Did I really just want to taste childhood again? Why shouldn't my aunts who had been endlessly rearing children as I grew up decide they have better things to do in the 21st century than whip egg whites and sugar?

The notion of individualism as a good which has come with neoliberalism seems paradoxically to have created a world of material goods (particularly clothing) which is anything but individual.
Isa Ritchie said…
Reading this post reminds me how much I love your written reflections! I've been out of the bloggosphere for a while, but I feel I'm being drawn back in.

Me and sewing don't really mix, it's like one of those could-be friendships that just don't happen because of apprehension and unnamed tensions despite good intentions. I do knit (rather creatively because I can't follow patterns and make it up as I go along) and recently I've been making fruity hats with green leafy bits and stalks. I find, in the creation of something useful, a slow, warm personal satisfaction that I would never get from any purchase.

It is ironic that the neoliberal obsession with individualism leads to conformity and homogeneity.

Also, have you ever thought of turning your blog into a book?

Aroha nui
Sandra said…
Hi Isa, you are too kind. Mostly while you've been away I've been writing drivel. I'm thrilled to see you blogging again. I'm taking the rest of my comment over to your recent blog post on the beginning of your PhD.

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