The Threads That Bind Us

I woke up the other day with an intense desire to knit. Perhaps it was the rain pattering on the roof that sparked the longing to create something cosy and warm. Or maybe I was inspired by the memory of my grandmother who taught me to knit with soft wool she’d spun herself from neighbours’ sheep. But most likely, my aspiration to make my own jumper this winter came from a more unimaginative source; m
y Instagram feed has been overtaken by a knitting frenzy. Friends are posting pictures of homemade blanket squares, fashionable knitting books and receiving comments from others crying out, ‘Teach me how to cast on and off!’ Similarly, social networks like Pinterest are loaded with DIY and craft ideas, confirming the popularity of all things homemade. Whether we’ve made the items ourselves or picked them up from stalls at local markets, there’s something deeply personal about the term ‘homemade’ and we can’t get enough of it.

And so I wonder: is there a change on the horizon that a mass manufactured world can’t anticipate? Our consumerist society has forgotten there is skill, labour and environmental impact behind every product we buy. But like lightning flashing across a dark horizon, wholesome words like ‘organic’, ‘sustainable’, ‘handmade’ and ‘fairtrade’ are suddenly shaping our purchasing habits and the lifestyles we seek to embody. Despite a synthetic culture of technology, multiple screens, and advertising, we suddenly want to do things with our own two hands again. We want to knit, make bread, and farm an urban garden on our windowsills.

Advertisers have warned us for decades that this way of life is too hard and expensive for busy modern humans. However, I recently discovered all that bread requires is my fists, an oven and four ingredients: flour, water, oil and yeast. Since then, I have made a more majestic find. By melting cocoa powder, maple syrup and cocoa butter, and then setting this decadent mixture in the fridge, I can craft homemade chocolate. It has been a revelation to discover making stuff isn’t hard! Yet billions of dollars has been spent on marketing campaigns to ensure we forget we are capable of living homemade lives. Not so long ago our great-grandparents baked their own bread, fashioned their own clothes, and grew their own food because this was the most cost effective and efficient way to live. The result was an earth that was cared for, diets that were free from preservatives our bodies were never meant to digest, and a self-sufficient lifestyle that didn’t scour the globe to exploit the vulnerable. But today, consumerism has fooled us into believing we live in an ‘un-handmade’ world of magically appearing stuff. The reality is, the unseen hands that fuel global trade are bound by injustice.

Consumer demand is met by the mass manufacturing of products, but in order for brands to make a substantial profit, the highly competitive marketplace means they need to strike dirt-cheap production deals. This is achieved through exploiting labour amongst the world’s poorest. This is how everything — electronics, children’s toys, shoes, furniture, groceries, even the cotton in our underpants — comes into being. More often than not, the threads that weave together our favourite products are spun from inhumane working conditions, environmental hazards, child slavery, abuse, poverty and even death.

Take for instance the Rana Plaza industrial disaster in 2013. The collapse of this cheaply constructed Bangladeshi building, which housed garment factories and produced clothing for popular Western labels, resulted in over 1000 fatalities, mostly young women. Though the workers noticed the roof was damaged and dangerously close to caving in, they were slapped for raising concerns and were not permitted to evacuate the building: the fashion industry stops for no-one, after all, and there were orders that needed to be met. (To find out more about factory working conditions visit globallabourrights.org). Similarly, the bittersweet currents of the chocolate industry also camouflage tales of injustice. World Vision’s Ethical Chocolate Guide states, only five per cent of chocolate is certified to be free from forced, child and trafficked labour. In West Africa, where 70 per cent of the world’s chocolate originates, a 2010 study by Tulane University revealed almost two million children in Ghana and the Ivory Coast worked in cocoa fields. Many of these children are victims of human trafficking. Though we should feel uncomfortable with this casual acceptance of slavery, I’m not trumpeting these unspoken realities to drown us all in floods of guilt. Though our daily lives may be sketched by patterns of capitalism, and though conglomerates may manipulate us with marketing campaigns; a change is here. Those wholesome words flashing like lightning should be petrifying conglomerates like Nike, Apple, Target, Coke and Mars into a more just way of doing business. This is because suddenly we, as the target market, want items that enrich our lifestyles with all that is personal, fair and good. We want the warm reassurance of all that’s homemade.

There are unfathomable benefits behind the popular rise of ‘homemade’ goods. If I knit my own jumper, it means I’m not paying a brand to exploit another human being. If I create my own chocolate from fairtrade ingredients, I can rest easy knowing this certification ensures cocoa farmers are given the support they need to provide for their families and improve the livelihood of their communities. The world of the homemade opens the door for us to appreciate the skill, time and labour behind everyday items. Could this homemade movement help us value the unseen hands behind our products? While we all don’t need to knit clothes or make chocolate, we can all make choices that benefit those who do. The Shop Ethical! mobile phone app identifies what brands are ethically better than others. Or visit Good On You (goodonyou.org.au) to find fashion labels with values. And finally, being ethical isn’t meant to weigh heavy on our wallets. Conventionally, mega bucks are spent on marketing and little on production. Therefore, by limiting advertising budgets and increasing worker’s wages, ethical products can support producers, break cycles of poverty and still be affordable. Just browse through the Oxfam online shop (oxfamshop.org.au) and you’ll find a range of products with similar prices to mainstream ones, except these are fair, ethical and environmentally sustainable alternatives.

To relish the homemade is to learn how to honour one another and the world in which we live. Whether the home in question is on the other side of the world where communities are justly supported to handcraft items, or whether it’s in our own homes where we try to impact the world one stocking stitch at a time, let’s determine that we’ll create the change we want to see. It’s time to turn the page and discover a new pattern.

Words by Amy Manners

Photo by Jess Nicole