Hanna Rose Shell
Shoddy: From Devil's Dust to the Renaissance of Rags
University of Chicago Press
This publication is part of artist Tenant of Culture reading list, selected on the occasion of Soft Acid at Camden Art Centre, 2022.
You know shoddy: an adjective meaning cheap and likely poorly made. But did you know that before it became a popular descriptor, shoddy was first coined as a noun? In the early nineteenth century, shoddy was the name given to a new textile material made from reclaimed wool. Shoddy was, in fact, one of the earliest forms of industrial recycling as old rags and fabric clippings were ground into "devil's dust" and respun to be used in the making of suits, army uniforms, carpet lining, mattress stuffing, and more.
In Shoddy, Hanna Rose Shell takes readers on a vivid ride beginning in West Yorkshire's Heavy Woollen District and its "shoddy towns," and traveling to the United States, the third world, and waste dumps, textile labs, and rag shredding factories, in order to unravel the threads of this story and its long history. Since the time of its first appearance, shoddy had become both pervasive and politically and culturally controversial on multiple levels. The use of the term "virgin" wool--still noticeable today in the labels on our sweaters--thus emerged as an effort by the wool industry to counter shoddy's appeal: to make shoddy seem shoddy. Public health experts, with encouragement from the wool industry, worried about sanitation and disease--how could old clothes be disinfected? As well, the idea of wearing someone else's old clothes so close to your own skin was discomforting in and of itself. Could you sleep peacefully knowing that your mattress was stuffed with dead soldiers' overcoats? Over time, shoddy the noun was increasingly used as an adjective that, according to Shell, captured a host of personal, ethical, commercial, and societal failings.