An Elegy for the Weavers

From heroes and heroines to the nameless ex-factory workers who haunt this city’s bars, the fate of textiles in a society that shrugged.

Apart from the story of Abraham nearly sacrificing his son, Isaac, the first myth I remember hearing when I was a kid was the story of Arachne besting Athena in a weaving contest.

I appreciate the way my memory splices those two stories together. One, the sadistic loyalty test of a G-d I still acknowledge, the second, the story of a woman whose own goddess finds her work to be on equal footing, and punishes her for it.

So many tears are spilled these days over fairness and benevolence (at some point since associated with the divine). Yet the ancient world was full of deities who demanded and took blood. In some ways I think I relate to Arachne more than I relate to anyone whose gawd is love.

Theology aside, the story of Arachne is one of many myths that designates weaving as a notable if not also magical craft in the cultures of the world. In Homer’s Odyssey, Penelope fends off her suitors by unraveling her shroud every night, buying time for her husband to return. Ariadne enables Theseus’ defeat of the minotaur with a ball of string which allows him to find his way through the creature’s maze. And in a later Germanic fairy tale, a magically animated thread likewise guides a bachelor prince back to an orphaned spinning girl who he decides to marry.

In Sleeping Beauty, the princess pricks her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel. And in Rumpelstitskin, an imprisoned girl strikes a bargain with a magical creature to spin straw into gold. Textiles have captured human imagination for millennia. And our stories about them remain unspoiled despite a society absent the threat of malevolent fairies and goblins, minotaurs, and goddesses who regularly turn people into spiders.

In the 1930s and 40s, Gandhi used spinning as a political act to encourage a textile economy independent of British goods. And just over a century before him, the Luddites fought back against the declining conditions of skilled weavers by destroying the textile machinery industrialists brought in to replace them.

Perhaps it’s fair to say that the British Empire, industrialism, and capitalism became our new wicked fairies and magical antagonists in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But did we ever slay the minotaur, or are we still wandering through its maze?

I come from a long line of weavers. Truly to call it a line is an injustice. I come from a family tree of textile workers. From Łódź and Manchester itself, to Wamsutta Mills in Massachusetts and countless mills in the U.S. South whose names are lost to all but the most local of historians, my family has worked the factory floor for generations, woven, and dyed in the global movement of textiles and their attendant laborers.

This is the industry where my political consciousness constricts into a thick knot I am still untangling. It’s what my father intended to do with his life. I likely would have followed. And the flight of capitalists to cheap labor pools overseas effectively reset the parameters of our lives for the last thirty years in ways I just can’t even compare to the typical experiences people name when they talk about oppression.

Every aspect of our relationship, the dynamics of our family, the communities we entangled with, the politics we grew into, the alienation we experienced as migratory poor folks coming to the big city — it’s all tied to the policies that left Southern textile towns devastated in the 90s. Hundreds of plants were closed down. Hundreds of thousands of jobs lost.

People talk about these industries coming back now, but they leave out the convenience of automation that renders laid off workers still irrelevant, and requires an entirely different skill set to operate. Hanes laid off hundreds of workers when it shut down a factory in its hometown of Winston-Salem just a decade or so ago. Fruit of the Loom did the same in its home state of Kentucky a few years later.

When you’re laid off in your 50s and lose your home to the bank, you don’t just go back to school and get new training in repairing the machine that does the job you and a guy overseas used to do before you were replaced. Some young buck in the right place at the right time snags that job before you. And you wind up a depressed alcoholic sleeping on your parents’ couch, as guilty as Arachne for a youth spent showing up to work and doing a great job.

People disconnected from this industry and its workers just have no concept of the loss of dignity and chronic poverty experienced here. I know I sound like a broken record going on and on about this, but I wish someone outside of here would get it, would understood these are the conditions of the working class in the U.S. South, no bullshit, no hiding behind theory. This is real life. This is the pain. This is the wound that every worker wants sewn up, by someone, by something.

We can’t talk about why workers fear unions without talking about industrial flight and automation as retaliation, and without talking about a total lack of regional opportunity grounding generations of communities in one destitute place where they can’t afford to care about all the woke left’s pet causes before their own survival through the end of the year, or hell, even just to next month’s rent.

When you have seen how capitalists can cut apart your family, beat your father and uncles off the picket line, shatter your future, and leave you a dumb redneck nostalgic for the dusty hum of a now ivy-swallowed factory in a town the highway forgot — you learn to take what you’re given with gratitude. Rumpelstitskin, you want to shout. Rumpelstitskin, you want to believe. Rumpelstitskin, you read over and over again and pass along to every potential radical you meet. But communist revolution isn’t coming to America.

I met that man in his 50s the other day at the park. Drunk as a skunk and still ready to cry the whole tale again to any stranger willing to listen. My father was an Argonaut too, I want to tell him. But that’s the wrong tale.

My father fought and sailed with Odysseus.

Caught between Scylla and Charybdis, he built a raft of his ribs and a mast of his spine so that I might one day sail back to the land we call home. The suitors have long since ravaged and abandoned her, leaving behind their empty banks and empty research campuses littered across the lots where the unions once marched.

Merely a mile away the socialists preach and chant a revival to the buildings and streets emptied of all congregants save the beggars whose names and jobs only their old supervisor still recalls. Some of the men gather in the shelter of a paper bag to laugh and cry instead. The history of the union men in these parts is told by hands stained with tobacco and splintered on cotton, cast out left and right like demons.

All through the forest are the spindles no one burned strewn among the homeless camps, some abandoned and picked apart, some occupied and guarded by little girls wielding pocketknives. Thousands of dead reach out from the roots to pick at your ankles and call you down to them. Huddled together around the recently departed for one last cigarette in the rain before calling for help, they cower and hiss so ashamed of themselves have they been left by the exorcists who know these parts.

I’m not using metaphor. This is where I live. This is every town where I can afford to move.

I can tell you how half a dozen socialist parties relate to Trotsky. I can tell you how Democrats and Republicans conceptualize race and gender. I can tell you how CRT is being taught in schools. And I can name more gender identities than real men left to rot in the South. But I can’t point you to one political movement anywhere in this country with a discernible plan for the tradesmen, the factory workers, the millers, the miners, and the farmers who give you a country to theorize about changing or protecting.

Every answer will be more of the same. More broken promises of renewal. More imported workers with new skills not taught here, bringing with them disdain for the men and the families they replace. More resentment between men all headed for the same trash bin. More profits for the wealthy already living good. More opiates and antidepressants when they leave.

I don’t know how to hide this anymore. I don’t know how to keep listening to the managerial class whine between zoom calls and day-drinking in their pajamas, celebrating the end of the pandemic with brunch dates and vacations like the families down the street who lost everything have already killed themselves and left them no guilt or shame at all.

I don’t have the patience to wait for an angel to pull back this country’s knife. I am your son, you feckless barbarians. I could be your world. I could be your life. I could weave you such fine and precious cloth. All of us could. Do you no longer remember a time when you could look at us without just seeing white trash? Without seeing men to throw away? Without seeing whole regions of the world to just forget?

Follow the thread back, Theseus. End the sacrifice.

What’s a culture without its weavers?

Look around.

Find out.

Part of the Medium ecosystem? Follow me for more content like this.