From Devil's dust to the renaissance of rags
HANNA ROSE SHELL
272pp. University of Chicago Press. $25.
HANNA ROSE SHELL has infused the history of shoddy--a cheap shredded material nowadays often used to fill mattresses--with a keen sense of drama. There are three "acts", rather than chapters, and a heavyweight cast of thinkers. Theoretical sophistication combines with narrative thrust in a remarkable story that moves from nineteenth-century England to today's global ecological concerns around fast fashion. Travelling through modern Britain, Shell spots "mini-Matterhorns" of pulped wool heaped along motorways, relics of the once thriving textile industry.
From the early nineteenth century, shoddy was made by mixing threads from reclaimed wool with new yarn to make suits and other garments, an effective way of recycling. Several West Yorkshire cities were known as "shoddy towns", where people were employed by mills to sort, shred and card old woollen fabrics with the help of special machines. The fabric quickly became loaded with cultural meaning and turned into a divisive political issue. "By mighty tooth cylinders", the Westminster Review commented excitedly in 1859, "the much-vexed fabrics re-enter life in the most brilliant forms."...