Crafts, China & Capitalism

So, the last few days I’ve been at Alexandra Palace in Wood Green for the Knitting & Stitching Show. It’s a huge thing that happens every year and all the crafty people go to it, and if you’re like me, you see things you’ve never seen before. Like Luceting, which I learned, and can now do – gratuitous photo warning – and I’m making some cord with that at the moment:

Getting the hang of the lucet

…But that’s by the by, I didn’t start this blog to bang on about crafting. What intrigued me was that my dad explained that there was this really weird way of dyeing fabric – fabric that this lady was selling at the fair. It sounded interesting so I went to check it out. The stall was totally blue, and actually I found that really off-putting in the beginning, which is why I didn’t originally have a closer look at it.

It’s called Shibori, and it’s very similar to tie-dyeing – like many of us used to do as children – but instead of random knots, there are intricate ties in the fabric to create very specific patterns. There are some particularly stunning examples around, but these may give you an idea:


So, it can be beautiful, right? Tying the material takes *so* long, it pretty much wouldn’t be worthwhile to pay someone to do it. She gets the stuff from China. So, what struck me was that this lady is clearly capitalising on very cheap labour, and making a lot of money out of it. I wouldn’t imagine she pays that much for the material itself, and just imports it.

My conundrum was whether this is ethical or not (from her point of view) – but also as a country, what about China? I have noticed that Chinese goods are saturating different markets and undercutting other businesses a ridiculous amount. A quick look on eBay will show you that the Chinese can afford to sell for a pittance – and if you go to places like Camden Market, the older British-owned businesses are being driven out by rising rent and Chinese stalls selling cheap goods. Of course, the cheaper an item, the less of a guarantee you have of quality. But I don’t think people are really concerned about quality in Western society. Just look at Primark and all those other cheap shops. We love to feel like we have a bargain. Especially in the middle of an incredibly deep and long-lasting financial crisis.

On one hand, the people making the Shibori can get money – they are in a job (albeit low paid) and the lady selling the material clearly makes a profit too. Something just seems really odd about it to me, and I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable about it, as I was standing there acknowledging that the people who make the material live in poverty while the lady in front probably has much more in her life, in terms of materialistic things, than they might do. I don’t for one second equate happiness with materialism or ownership of goods and perhaps I am assuming too much but I would imagine their quality of life is less than hers? Yet they are the ones who make it and put all those hours of work in…

And I don’t think it is limited to this precise art or industry. I don’t think she should not be able to make money from it. Good on her for seeing a gap in the market and seizing the opportunity. I wish her all the best (we live in a capitalist society so I suppose in a way it is good to have made your peace with society and to embrace it). I just question the ethics of buying it (personally – as a consumer … I can appreciate that it is pretty but could I buy it knowing the circumstances of the production? No) and more generally, the ethics of a world that seems to be dependent upon goods from China made with cheap labour, yet one that will eventually suffer more because of it.

Disclaimer: I’m not interested in demonising individuals. I’m not interested in naming the company or the lady, or putting people off of buying Shibori. I hope I haven’t given that impression – I think some of the patterns were lovely and I can see why people would buy it, it just made me question how the world works.

About A Girl
Mostly writes on Half The World Is Watching. She is interested in and writes about feminist issues, politics and activism. An 80s child at heart, she loves old things, computer games, and keeping up with the development of social media.

4 Responses to Crafts, China & Capitalism

  1. Duncan says:

    Just about everything is made in China! Have a look around you. It’s the worlds factory. The best we can do is ensure that goods we buy are made in factories where the people are given a relatively good wage and working conditions. Our product is made in a factory that has been inspected by our agent, we get photo’s and film and we know that it is used by some our high profile reputable companies.
    If you think about the labour costs of most stuff we buy, it would be unnaffordable for us to buy clothes, phones, laptops, most small plastic goods. Buying them uk made would probably 3-4 times the cost.

    • Soph says:

      I agree, but I feel like a hypocrite. We are all benefiting off the backs of some of the lowest-paid people who live in relative (at least) poverty.

      • I’m not sure what the answer is. Our whole society relies on us buying cheap stuff from abroad. It does help some of them, others are exploited. People are exploited here too. Many would be in worse poverty if we did not buy from them and are desperate to trade with wealthier countries or people.

  2. Maybe you could try an experimental week of only buying stuff where you are sure that the people making it are treated fairly with a good wage. Could make an interesting project…. :-)

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