Jewish Handmade Resistance: Why Ethical Fashion Is About More Than Boycotts
Jewish women’s use of fashion as a powerful force of resistance is much, much older than a ‘buycott.’
While many feel that how your spending reflects your values is important, we can choose to spend little or no money. We can still make our political views known.
In one of the oldest Jewish examples, Yocheved, Moses’ mother, followed the letter of the law by putting her infant son into the Nile river.(Exodus 2:3) However, if you read carefully, you see that first, she made the basket waterproof by sealing it with bitumen and pitch. Also, someone (probably Yocheved or another unnamed woman) wove that basket in the first place. She wove it so tightly that all it needed was a bit of caulk to be safe enough to carry a baby down a river.
Yocheved used her skills to resist without breaking the law.
In other parts of the Torah, you can find multiple references to women’s amazing spinning skills. Check out the construction of the Tabernacle, in Exodus 35 and 36. Every hand spun yarn and every piece of handwoven cloth was a privilege. Only the most skilled were invited to contribute. Only the most beautiful materials, made by the most talented weavers and dyers, produced that cloth.
Why is this relevant to the current use of mass-produced fashion to show our political choices?
Some argue that how we spend our money is relevant, and it is, but it goes beyond whether we support one department store or brand. Those who are truly living their Jewish values are thinking beyond to things like this:
-Was the person who made this paid a fair wage? -Was child labor used to produce this? -Did the production of this textile pollute or use excess energy? -Was the cotton used in this tee-shirt grown organically? Did pesticides and fertilizers used to grow this pollute our water, air or land? -If there is wool in this garment, is there also linen?
Is it a position of privilege to think about these? Perhaps, but I know many people who don’t have a lot of money… Thinking about these political issues is free. They choose to buy from a thrift store, to mend and sew and create rather than buy something they feel violates Jewish ethics. They would be uncomfortable about using something that did not respect people’s human rights, wasted precious resources or polluted.
Someone who chooses to make do or mend may come from two financial positions. One is indeed a position of privilege. That could be the person who spends a great deal on a length of perfect organic Belgian linen in order to make her sundress, using her hobby to create something beautiful that might cost as much (or more) as what she could buy in the store. It would fit properly, reduce waste, and represent her values.
The other position is the old-fashioned form of thrift — the person who purchases a bed-sheet from Value Village to remake into curtains or clothing. That person saves a lot of money to invest time and skill instead, and it would also fit correctly, reduce waste, and represent the person’s values.
At the worldwide women’s marches in January, people all over the world sported hand knit or crocheted Pussy Hats. Those hats relayed multiple messages. Some suggested that the hats reclaimed pink as a feminist color. Others suggested a powerful message against misogyny. Still others integrated messages of diversity, racial equality, and economic justice into their creations.
Nearly all of those hats were handmade. Each different hat, whether it was simple stockinette stitch or double crochet, knit cables or hand sewn with polar fleece, demonstrated the great power we can wield as makers. Our choices, handicraft, hands and skill can be a form of political power. It can create a holy space or a watertight baby boat. We can knit hats for a women’s march or a scientists’ rally. We can resist supporting child labor, pollution, or worker exploitation, in ways that go far beyond avoiding the purchase of one piece of Ivanka Trump merchandise.
Our dollars and our values can be used to create, make do, mend and express Jewish values far beyond boycotts or commercial gain. These are strong Jewish hands. We can make the change we wish to see.
Joanne Seiff is a knitwear designer and the author of a new book: From the Inside Out: Jewish Post Columns, 2015-2016. This column collection is now available for digital download, or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her on her blog: www.joanneseiff.blogspot.com.