A lot of us think that recycling is a modern conceit — something that arose as a reaction to the produce/consume/discard culture, whose toll on the earth is evident everywhere we turn. But “mend and make do” has been around a lot longer than “it’s cheaper to just buy a new one.” But even if you’re doing everything you can to reduce, reuse, and recycle, you probably still have nothing on the Victorians. Let’s take clothing as our example.
The Old Clothes of St. Giles
In his book, Victorian London Street Life in Historic Photographs (1877), John Thomson describes the process of clothing production and recycling, from sheep to beer. Sheep to beer? How does that work? Like this.
- First, wool is harvested from sheep and made into fabric. This fabric is used to make clothing.
- The wealthy buy the new clothes and wear them for as long as they choose, before passing them on.
- Once passed on, the second-hand clothes find their way to a “clobberer.” The clobberer patches, mends, and uses various chemicals to remove stains, smells, and other unwanted additions to the fabric. Eventually, as Thomson says, “old garments are made to look new.”
- Sometimes the clothes are rendered so skillfully that they make their way back to the wealthy, who mistake them for brand new. Other times, they continue down the social scale.
- The next person to work on the garment is a “clothing translator.” The translator converts garments from one form to another, for example, makes a skirt into a waistcoat, or a jacket into caps for workers.
- Once garments have gone beyond the help of a translator, they go to mills, where the wool is torn apart, mixed with new wool, dyed, and turned into brand new fabric, and the cycle starts all over again.
- Alternately, the wool, rendered to fluff in the mills, is sold to hops-growers. For used wool, as it turns out, makes a top-notch fertilizer for certain kinds of hops.
“And thus,” writes Thompson, “are old clothes converted into foaming beer!”