RESHORE #1 – Interview with Alice Holloway from the London Urban Textile Commons

Welcome to the first newsletter from RESHORE, a new project I am running, housed in the Department of Geography at LMU.

I was really heartened by the response to my initial sharing of the project website, so thanks for being here. If you know someone who you think may be interested in conversations like these, please forward this message to them.

Given that the idea of RESHORE is to navigate debates across various schools of ‘local’ thinking, in these rollercoaster times we live, my hope is that each of these occasional newsletters will offer something different. We’ll look at the different forms of economy which can underpin localisation and regionalisation, and how these can be shaped by the communities affected. While it’s early days, I really hope these can lead to an opportunity to interact in person and hold conversations on these topics. As always, please reply or get in touch with ideas or thoughts.

In this newsletter I wanted to highlight the work of Alice Holloway, who is part of the London Urban Textile Commons. She is also the founder of Little Black Pants Club – a subscription-based lingerie business – and has completed an MA in ‘Design for the Cultural Commons’. In general, she is an extremely eloquent commoner and activist in favour of commons-based approaches to local manufacturing. She has also authored a couple of insightful essays online, including ‘Healing the Trauma of Mass Production’.

In the following extract from a longer conversation, we discussed her own work, as well as initiatives like Fibresheds for local textile production. What I found really wonderful in this conversation, apart from the obvious and inspiring practical implications of her work, was how she formulates localisation as a horizon of ‘drawing in’ or ‘drawing close’, beginning from where you are right now.


TS: Before we get to the London Urban Textile Commons (LUTC), perhaps you could tell me something about the Little Black Pants (LBP) Club? The aim of it was to work out a new model for supporting local makers?

AH: We have run LBP as a subscription service so that, if people want to buy something really ethical but they can’t afford it straight away, they might be encouraged to engage through paying a monthly amount rather than paying in one go. For instance, work like No Logo by Naomi Klein has been really useful at showing how many fashion businesses in the global north are really just marketing – they stopped making stuff, and they stopped really developing stuff a lot of the time. Instead, they’re selling things designed in the factory and they’re just purchasing and then marketing it. So if you’re starting without capital and you don’t have that huge capital that you’re going to devote to marketing, how do you retain someone as a long-term part of what you’re doing? We started off with a credit system so you could buy very plain underwear  that you needed and then save up credits at the same time to buy something extravagant that you wouldn’t normally buy. Someone would buy plain black pants or quite simple black pants, paying 10 pounds a month, and they’d get a credit every month. Then, when they had 12 credits, they could then have something made that was more extravagant or coloured or whatever.

TS: It gave people a closer connection to the clothes they were wearing every day?

It was sort of encouraging people to buy luxury things for themselves or buy stuff that was a bit more interesting in terms of the aesthetic, but while they were just getting something that they would normally buy anyway. I thought that’s what clothing should be, it should be made on the body – on the scale of one body – because when you make for bodies you realise they’re all different, with different tolerances or needs. Even the idea of coming in and solving needs from the outside feels less and less appropriate – you end up going through an interactive process with people where you draw out really what it is they want. 

TS: What did you learn about the flaws in fast fashion that led you on to the LUTC?

AH: The failure to meet the needs of real human bodies is what we might have called on my course ‘a crack in capitalism’, where it’s just obvious that it’s not working how it is right now. On the one hand,  you could see this demand for an individual make or fit as entitled, that the individual feels like their needs should just be met, but obviously this whole system has been set up to say ‘You’re not going to know how to do anything, but your needs will be completely met, so you don’t need to know how to do anything’. And then, when it goes wrong, people are obviously hugely frustrated and come looking for our help!
For me, that is the opportunity for people who love what they do, love their craft, love their commitment to materials, love making, but also want to see a different society emerge. That crack in capitalism is a great place to jump in, even when dealing with people who probably never use terms like ‘mass production capitalism’ to describe it. So you can open up interesting conversations and from that critical approach, we developed the LUTC.

TS: And how does LUTC differ from other sustainable fashion initiatives?

AH: For us, immersive learning is crucial to things changing; One of the big parts that’s missing from people’s understanding in the global north is ever seeing anything being made, or ever knowing anyone that works in a factory, or ever seeing a fibre crop being grown. That’s really starting to disappear from people’s imagination. Sure, there are other movements that talk about the ‘local’ –for instance, there’s the Fibreshed movement, which is probably the most famous, about growing fibre crops locally. But as people who live in an urban environment, we found the Fibreshed movement wasn’t really about bringing people into the process. I’ve still heard people described as ‘consumers’ and that does create this kind of ‘we’re the ones making it, you just buy it’ mentality. I think ethical consumption is a bit of a non-starter because if people really have no idea how something’s been made, if they’re not brought into the process of its making at all, then they don’t care why they should pay more for this one or that one. And when you start bringing them into the process, you really are moving them away from being a consumer – you’re disrupting that ‘taking-using up-getting something new’ cycle.

TS: So where are you at right now, and where are you hoping to take that idea?

AH: At this stage, it’s all about strategizing in the right order, so that it builds slow and strong and it doesn’t implode on itself at any point. So we’re looking much more at questions like access to machinery for experimentation with fibre. I know that there are big blockages on innovation with fibre because minimum order quantities at mills are in the tens of thousands usually, and for small makers like me that doesn’t make any sense. It also means that they just churn out what makes sense within the whole large-scale system, whereas what makes sense within the small-scale is uniqueness, vibrancy and potency of design. So being able to access the machinery and then create this much more unique and exciting approach to textiles is crucial, rather than just endless organic cotton jersey or the perfect white t-shirt, over and over again forever.

I did a course called Design for Cultural Commons which is an MA at London Metropolitan University. During that, I studied some of the history of the commons and developed a relationship, if you like, with peasants or peasant culture that I hadn’t had before. And I just think that it’s so fascinating and constantly inspiring what people were making with no huge infrastructure or big industry. And I think that’s an exciting future, you know, when people in some particular town outside of Birmingham, say, have got these really cool clothes that you don’t really see somewhere else, because they only make them there. So the hope is that once people are engaged in it that way, it makes sense for them to not poison their own river or degrade the quality of their own soil, because their livelihood is linked to regenerating their environment  and they’re able to see the effect of what they do, and negotiate that.

TS: How do you envision such a commons being built up and governed?

AH: I suppose the basis is that if you do something to your bit of land, that affects me; if you do something to the river upstream from me and even downstream, that affects me; if you do something to the air that affects me. The commons for me is a governance structure – therefore I should be allowed to negotiate with you about what you’re going to do on your land, in your river, in the air. At the moment, private property means that we have no means for negotiating, and representative democracy is just the worst way of trying to negotiate that stuff too. I don’t see commons so much in terms of ownership rights, I see it more as a negotiation around use rights. So our idea at LUTC of accessing machinery is about being able to use it. We’ve talked about various ways of how we might crowdfund machinery or how we might build the commons around the machinery, and I feel like the people who own it will probably be different to the people who use it. So there will be a negotiation where you put forward what it is you want to do with that piece of machinery. It’s all obviously hugely experimental and I think what we need is thousands of people trying out lots of different things at this stage, until something gets through.

Something else that we are quite keen on is this idea of Deep Work, which we use to describe that in order to enter into negotiations like the commons, your own mental health has to be at a certain level of stability. And you have to keep working on that. So you’ve got this spiritual-therapeutic element to any of these kind of practices, around how a group makes sure that people’s trauma doesn’t come out in massive ego displays or aggressive behaviour, or wanting to destroy positive developments.  If we look at capitalist bureaucracy, a lot of it is failing for those reasons: it’s people’s egos getting thrown around, people are not dealing with their emotional past, they’re bringing all of that into workplaces. So we’ve got to make the space to work through trauma with the people that you’re going to be negotiating with, so there is a re-establishment of ideas like ‘emotions affect things’! All of those things which obviously destroy businesses, can also destroy commons enterprises.

TS: And tell me about your outreach work so far – what is the LUTC Sweat Shop?

AH: Drawing people in and growing something is often the hardest thing, I think. So with Sweat Shop, we’ve made a piece of machinery which is a bike-powered overlocker – a sewing machine that you use to sew stretch garments, like sweatshirts and hoodies, and double-knit jerseys and so on. We take it to festivals and make sweatshirts on the street and it’s an immersive performance piece, a really simple ‘this-is-how-this-is-made’ that people can take part in it.

I think the project itself touches off a lot of people’s trauma and a lot of people’s feelings of identity and status. It’s interesting to try and interact with that in a public setting, while obviously asking people ‘why don’t you just make your own clothes?’ It’s not just a question of time or skill, clothing and how it’s made and how we distribute it reflects real power structures and hierarchies that impose on people’s lives.
I think what’s interesting is for people to literally see how simple it is to take a flat piece of fabric and create something from that. You know, there wasn’t a robot, there wasn’t a computer program. We literally just did this with some scissors and an overlocker. So in future I’m really excited to then be able to take jersey that we’ve knitted ourselves, so that when we do Sweat Shop we can say ‘and we even made this fabric’. Sweat Shop is trying to convey that ‘things are made, things are always made and this is what is incredible about humans, and you can take part in it’.

TS: One term that you and others have used is ‘hyperlocalism’. What does that mean to you and where does the ‘local’ start and end?

AH: I find it easier to think in terms of the journey that you’re going to take, rather than what’s the end point. So local becomes dynamic – the question is ‘what’s the closest I can get it now, and then how can I get it a bit closer?’ And then how can I get it a bit closer again. So what’s the smallest group that I can interact with now, and then how can I take steps to shrink that down and down and down? So I don’t feel like it has a boundary as such. It’s more of an open question – ‘what’s the most local?’ That is maybe more of an interesting way of thinking about it, because everything has to have its strategy and its steps forwards. I really like the idea of emergent enterprises or emergent technology, whereby you build the conditions for something to exist and then wait to see what comes into that space. I’m not a big fan of top-down systems design. It is useful to have an inspiring vision but also people need to have their autonomous part within that inspiring vision. You’ve got to make space for difference and interesting diverse thought, and having lots of space for things to branch off is really important. So, I think ‘local’ is more of a sort of a drawing in, let’s say, like a drawing close and interacting with things differently, rather than a mile boundary.

My understanding of the commons, through the Ostrom lens, is that it has to be adaptable and it has to be tailored to very specific local context. Any strategy or any knowledge base is more about how you think around this, how do you troubleshoot with other people, how do you run tests and then properly analyze them, what’s the appropriate scale, what’s the time scale to say ‘no, that definitely hasn’t worked’. A lot of the time you might give up too early and then you try it another time, with all of the groundwork that you’ve put in, and then it does work. That’s something we’re working on in this area of Deep Work – trying to build networks with other creative people or even people who don’t think they’re creative, where they start to consider for themselves what role they might play and and be nurtured into that role through a process of building resilience and building critical awareness.

Thank you for reading! Next time, we’ll move to the national level, to discuss national economics and a recent ten-point plan for how Ireland can take back control of its economy.