It’s true, twenty yards of linen can make more like five coats.

But, back in the mid-19th century when philosophers and economists were trying to make sense of emergent capitalism, industrialization, urbanization, and social change, Karl Marx wrote this book called “Capital”.

“20 yards of linen = 1 coat” is repeated throughout the first chapter of Capital vol. 1 to explain how commodities gain both use value (coats keep us warm), and exchange value (20 yards of linen can be exchanged for 1 coat, or is worth the equivalent in money value). The exchange value represents the labour time embedded in the commodities; however, exchanging goods can obscure the social relations and human labour behind the commodities. Marx called this “commodity fetishism”.

Why get all Marxist in my blog title about sewing and crafts?

I love that the online community of people who sew, refer to themselves as “sewcialists”. It’s obviously word play with “social”, but it also got me thinking about socialists,  Marxist theory and what that has to do with sewing. Both in Marx’s day and now, textile mills and clothing factories were and are especially exploitative places to work. Marx’s linen and coat exchange remains a salient example of how we can become so removed from the people who make our clothes (and other sewn commodities). When I buy clothes it looks like a relation between my credit card and a coat, not me and the person who sewed the coat (packed it, shipped it, etc), even though it really is a human relation (because only in Tom Robbins novels do objects act on their own accord). One of the reasons why certain economic exchanges are continually exploitative is because they appear as relations between things instead of people, and thus we distance ourselves from responsibility to others involved in the production of things we consume.

Sewing my own clothes, quilts, and gifts for friends and family is a way (albeit limited) to disrupt this distancing. Putting my own labour, time and effort into sewing something infuses it with a personal value and productive (not just consumptive) connection. It doesn’t get much more locally-made than in my house. Although, granted I’m not spinning the fabric… yet. Also, here’s an article on “Slow Fashion” from Colette Patterns.

Those are my initial thoughts as a newly self-declared “sewcialist”, and why I thought it appropriate to reference twenty yards of linen in my blog title.

My name is Katherine, and I’m an urban planner, runner, sewist and doctoral student in a geography and planning department. I also write a running blog: http://runtempo.wordpress.com. I occasionally tweet about planning, cities, running, sewing and books at @kathperrott.

Blog header credit:  fabric “VeloCity” by Jessica Hoggart for P&B Textiles. I just bought a bunch of fat quarters in this series and love the design (as an urban planner would).