December 08, 2010

Lessons from the Doukhobor

You can read Burnham's Unlike the Lilies, which I wrote about yesterday, just for interest's sake.  But there are people out there trying to establish programs and courses of action for ecovillages, social enterprise, Transition Towns, cooperatives, intentional communities, and individual efforts to create low carbon or zero carbon or carbon-neutral, low-pollution, fair-trade, resilient, locavore clothes.  So what potentially useful things could the book tell us about the Doukhobor and their grassroots textile production?

One, their attitudes and their operational setups boosted their textile accomplishments.  Yes, they practiced regular, skilled use of appropriate technologies like handlooms and spinning wheels.  But it wasn't just what they did, it's how they were.  As a people, they were dedicated to an extraordinary degree to what they were doing.  They practiced a high degree of cooperation amongst themselves.  While their people had overall a good level of know-how regarding production of fibre tools, clothes, and rugs, they had particularly skilled workers who could barter their products and services.  Burnham writes, "the exchange of skills was a way of life."  Communal living fostered transmission and teaching of textile production because people lived in close quarters, modeling the skills and working together.  Burnham puts the textile proficiency rate, as it were, at 100 percent for women among the Doukhobor in the early twentieth century and notes that a girl would have many textile mentors.  Communal schedules of chores gave women uninterrupted time to work on textiles.  Both the men and women were skilled, ingenious, resourceful, and productive.  The specific fiber tools and techniques of the Doukhobor are worth a look.

Two, while they were very much a closed society bent on self-sufficiency, they used some inputs that originated elsewhere.  The men worked for wages off the farm.  Doukhobor women in Saskatchewan sheared sheep for area farmers and brought back wool.  The Doukhobor in British Columbia got wool from the prairies.  They gleaned canvas from a mill and turned them into pants, used flour sacks for linings, and made shoe soles out of rubber belting from farm equipment.  They cut knitting needles out of umbrella spokes and rigged some spinning wheels out of metal pipe and sewing machine wheels.  They bought commercial dyes and cotton yarn.  The Doukhobor received donations of money and supplies (including spinning wheels) from a number of sources, including author Leo Tolstoy, the Quakers, and the Canadian Council of Women.  Land was initially obtained through the Homesteading program run by the Canadian government.  As an organization, the Doukhobor took out loans from commercial banks.

Three, the book states that the loans with which the Doukhobor leveraged themselves left them vulnerable to the shocks of the Great Depression, and eventually resulted in them losing title to their land.

ETA: you may also be interested in another post that shows cloth and tools used by the Doukhobor in British Columbia, from a museum I visited.

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