Material Strangeness

Hanna Rose Shell, Shoddy: from Devil’s Dust to the Renaissance of Rags

Chicago University Press, 272pp, $25.00, ISBN 9780226377759

reviewed by Nell Whittaker

Charles Dickens’s 1865 novel Our Mutual Friend opens with the poor but upstanding Lizzie Hexham in a skiff on the Thames with her father, who’s busy hauling waterlogged corpses from the water and removing the contents of their pockets. The river mud — the boat is ‘begrimed’ by the ‘slime and ooze’ of the river — is a form of primordial sludge, an undifferentiated mass from which may emerge wealth, with all its transformative promise. The novel — which is about money, class, and dirt — also contains a lot of dust, which coats the walls and houses and accumulates in vast ‘dust-heaps’, piles of household refuse: ‘coal-dust, vegetable-dust, bone-dust, crockery dust, rough dust and sifted dust, — all manner of Dust.’ This dust would have been picked over for its recyclable value; after the Napoleonic war, an enormous dust heap at King’s Cross was sold to the Russians to make bricks with, for an alleged £20,000.

Dust is a key component in Hanna Rose Shell’s Shoddy: from Devil’s Dust to the Renaissance of Rags, a material history of the recycled wool industry born out of the English wool trade in the early 19th century. ‘Shoddy’ was the method and product of recycling wool scraps into new fabric by grinding discarded bits of wool in a machine called a ragpicker. This machine, fitted with metal teeth, teased apart the wool and was nicknamed ‘the Devil’, probably for its ferocity; the quantities of dust which it produced were, therefore, ‘Devil’s Dust’. The wool was then either re-spun into new cloth, including Civil War uniforms and blankets, used as fertiliser (wool contains high levels of nitrogen) or as stuffing in mattresses or saddles. Shoddy is a vibrant account of a process and textile which speaks to wealth’s sordid attachments: the ghosts that make up our interrelated world.

Dust represents monotony, homogeneity, the transfiguration of the particulate into the mass; a ready metaphor for the way in which industrial capitalism organised Victorian working class life. Shell makes the striking point that rags and rag-picking may have been foremost in Marx’s mind at the time of writing Capital (contemporaneous to the introduction of the Devil in northern England, and to the publication of Our Mutual Friend) noting that the term ‘lumpenproletariat’ comes from textile origins: Lumpen means ‘rags’, Lumpen sei means ‘to be in rags and tatters’. Shell is getting at what she calls the ‘simultaneously anonymizing and deeply personal aspect of shoddy’ — that it was able to represent the individual and the systems which the individual belonged to (and was abstracted by). This quality lent it particular potency in America, supposedly the ‘melting pot’ of cultures and histories, where the process of national assimilation is not unlike the carding and flattening of the shoddy machine. Shell writes that shoddy represents ‘America’s particular kind of promise and product’: the generation of something singular from disparate particles.

Shoddy is made of individual pieces of clothing or blankets, mashed together and reformed: a disquieting origin story, and Shell ably unpicks some of those anxieties. Early, she writes that ‘in a deeper psychological and moral sense, wearing someone else’s old clothes so close to one’s own skin was discomforting . . . especially when that person might have been anyone or, in the case of shoddy, a motley assortment of people whose clothes had been ground together like chopped meat’.

The comparison is revealing, and indicates that what is disturbing about shoddy is its ability to represent the body itself. Our bodies are made of tissue, like a chicken’s or a cow’s: Maggie Nelson writes that ‘the spectre of our eventual ‘becoming object’ – of our (live) flesh one day turning into (dead) meat — is a shadow that accompanies us throughout our lives’. As Shell points out, after the war the probability of wearing clothing that had once belonged to a now-dead person increased exponentially: ‘A World War I veteran might have been sleeping on a mattress. . . [made from] a whole contingent of dead enemy soldiers overcoats’.

And so it is the specific connotation of ground in Shell’s formulation that belies shoddy’s specific unnerving viscerality. By the middle of the nineteenth century, several patents existed for industrial meat grinders in the United States, and the hamburger was beginning its ascent as another symbol of America’s particular promise: substance conjured through graft, the protein-rich product befitting a virile and hard-working workforce, the amalgamation of the many in service of the whole. Perhaps both shoddy and the burger represent something disturbing about nascent American capitalism: that it is ready to reduce the labourer and the soldier into undifferentiated meat, grist to the mill. This is another of America’s psychic legacies, the transfiguration of person into commodity: the long shadow of slavery.

Shell touches briefly on slavery in her discussion of ‘negro cloth’, a fabric initially manufactured in the UK and then (after the patent for the ragpicker was smuggled out of the country) in the North American states for sale in the South. The Southern ‘slave code’ stipulated that enslaved people must be supplied with around three pieces of clothing, or ‘sufficient’ cloth per year, at the total discretion of the slaveowner or agent. Broccoli Productions’ podcast Human Resources expounds on this use of wool as a tool of dehumanisation, humiliation, and indoctrination; Shell writes that the poor quality cloth was deliberately provided by some slave owners to keep enslaved people ‘in their place’.

The sale of shoddy during the Civil War undermines the idea that the conflict was, principally, about liberation versus enslavement. As Shell notes, ‘many of the selfsame manufacturers who claimed moral outrage at slavery were, at the same time, doing brisk business producing and selling shoddy wool blends to plantation owners’. Shoddy, characteristically mutable and uncontainable, transgresses the supposedly moral distinction between North and South: it exposes both the everyday violence and murky moral relations that preceded, sustained, and outlived the war.

The book, at its close, brings us back to where we started. Shoddy still exists, and the Woollen Triangle in Yorkshire has become ‘a locus for the collection and sorting of clothes donated to charities from all over the United Kingdom’. Clothes are now often shipped to Poland to be sorted before being shipped back to Yorkshire for grinding up. Then, ‘this new shoddy makes its way into carpets, carpet backing, mattresses, speaker systems, padding for automobiles and that multicoloured padding in envelopes’.

The ‘problems’ of the contemporary supply chain have been fuelled by British and American societies: underpaid and overworked manufacturers in the global south produce clothes at a grotesquely accelerated rate to match the trend rate engendered by sophisticated advertising and logistics systems. Nothing can be pure potential and pure product both; always it carries with it ghosts of old violence and contemporary suffering.

Yet the networks of relation, and their realisation in the physical world, are often expressed in commodities, the lives of which are far weirder than any sketch of a supply chain might be able to express. In a lovely passage at the book’s close, Shell describes the different buttons and wildflowers that collected in the fields outside the Yorkshire town of Batley, stowaways from the woollen clothing and fleeces that were spread in the fields as fertiliser. There are little traces everywhere of different lives, remnants of the previously enclothed. The relations between people exploited by capital are still infused with meaning; they carry potential to be transmuted into solidarity. ‘Things move with a vibrant materiality’, Shell writes, and shoddy ‘continues to wear the traces and bear the burdens of an environmental and political history in progress’.

Shell ends her book with a characteristic equivocation concerning the pain and possibility of capital’s future. She questions — but does not answer — whether unfettered capitalism creates ‘robust’ societies, or whether it ‘diminishes cultural and environmental diversity’. The binary doesn’t quite hold (are robustness and diversity comparable qualities?) but the point is worth making: that amidst capitalism’s uniquely destructive and violent machinations, opportunities for solidarity and communality bloom amidst the waste.

Shoddy is a sophisticated history that attends to the rich network of interrelation that is inherent in even the most familiar of our things. Shell writes that ‘shoddy’s constantly shifting manifestation in space, time, and states of decomposition and recomposition binds nature and artifact, found and forged, wasted and wanted, in the unseen bits and inscrutabilities at the core of objects of our everyday existence.’ Shell gets at the heart of everyday life’s essential material strangeness, and the intimate relation one has with the ghosts from which it is composed — break it all down far enough, and everything is dust, everything is molecule, surrounded by its wandering threads.

Nell Whittaker is a writer and photographer living in London. She is on Instagram at @_nell_whittaker_.