From Devil’s Dust to the Renaissance of Rags

Hanna Rose Shell


Hanna Rose Shell

272 pages | 4 color plates, 65 halftones | 6 x 8 | © 2020
Cloth $25.00 ISBN: 9780226377759 Will Publish April 2020
E-book $25.00 ISBN: 9780226698229 Will Publish April 2020
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 developing 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 was both pervasive and 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.

Introducing us to many richly drawn characters along the way, Shell reveals an interwoven tale of industrial espionage, political infighting, scientific inquiry, ethnic prejudices, and war profiteering. By exploring a variety of sources from political and literary texts to fabric samples and old military uniforms, antique and art photographs and political cartoons, medical textbooks, and legal cases, Shell unspools the history of shoddy to uncover the surprising journey that individual strands of recycled wool—and more recently a whole range of synthetic fibers from nylon to Kevlar—may take over the course of several lifetimes. Not only in your garments and blankets, but under your rug, in your mattress pads, in the peculiar confetti-like stuffing in your mailing envelopes, even in the insulation in your walls. The resulting fabric is at once rich and sumptuous, and cheap and tawdry—and likely connected to something you are wearing right now. After reading, you will never use the word shoddy or think about your clothes, or even the world around you, the same way again.
Prologue: Finding Shoddy

Old Clothes Odyssey
The Heap

Act I: Devil’s Dust

Emergence of an Industry
Narratives of Transmutation, Myths of Invention
Devil’s Dust Politics
Material Philosophy and the Shredded Self
Shoddy as Paradox and Marx’s “Excrements of Consumption”

Act II: Textile Skin
The Wear of War
Textile Skin and “the Sinews of War”
Shoddy and the Body Politic
Photography and the “Harvest of Death”
On Shrouds and Shoddy

Act III: Lively Things
Miasma and Contagion
Consolidation of Clothes and Corpses
Disinfection and Its Discontents
The Intimate Materiality of the Unknowable
Liveliness and Formlessness

Epilogue: Shoddy Renaissance
Works Cited
Review Quotes
Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age
Shoddy is that rare book that takes you from the direct experiences you share with the author (what to do with your used clothes? the feeling of ‘doing good’ when you donate them to clothe someone ‘less fortunate’) to the larger social, economic, historical, and, yes, moral universe in which those experiences live. Shell takes us on this kind of journey by searching for shoddy. Through her, we learn about the human costs of the Industrial Revolution, British Chartism, the economic realities of the American Civil War, the ideas that animated dissent—of Carlyle, Disraeli, and Marx, just for a start—and so much more, all through the eyes of shoddy. It is an exemplary book in its use of the visual record to weave a narrative that implicates current practice, not just in how we do scholarship across a range of fields in media and science and technology studies, but how we think about ourselves. Shoddy is a book that will change your mind.”
Sven Beckert, author of Empire of Cotton: A Global History
 “As textile consumption exploded in the nineteenth century, discarded cloth gained a second life; it provided the raw material for 'shoddy' fabrics that would enter the homes of enslaved workers, attire Civil War soldiers, and provide material for blankets and mattress fillings. Shell’s fast-paced meditation on the economic, cultural,and ideological histories of shoddy takes you around the world and into some of the most profound questions about capitalism—from its endless capacity for innovation to its unending appetite for ever more resources. Shoddy: From Devil's Dust to the Renaissance of Rags extends the history of the empire of fibers into the most surprising corners of our history and our modern life.”
Hazel Clark, author of The Fabric of Cultures: Fashion, Identity, and Globalization
“This fascinating book, laden with historical insights, takes us on a journey from the nineteenth-century origins of shoddy, made from reclaimed wool in the industrial heart of Yorkshire, to the wider world via contexts of politics, war, contagion, and death. Enlightened by the words of contemporary writers and thinkers and by photographic records, the author explores the many dimensions of a textile that became functionally essential for the likes of army uniforms, blankets, and shrouds. Shoddy offers a timely case study for the possibilities of material recovery and of the critical role of textiles to the human experience; it will appeal to historians, textile experts, and general readers, including those with interest in sustainability and recycling.”
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