In my last post, I considered some of the biblical imagery behind my choice of “whole cloth” as my title for this revamped “texts and textiles” project. Today I want to talk about what this project might mean on a practical level: I want to talk about our relationship to textiles, especially the clothing we wear each day.
For several decades, similar conversations have been happening around food. In a city like Austin, Texas, where I live, organic farming and locally-sourced ingredients are common talking points (whether they are a significant share of food purchases is another matter, of course). Wonderful cookbooks help us eat in season, and I’m just around the corner from an amazing organic farm and pick-up spot for raw milk.
Even for folks who don’t have a rigorous environmental ethic or theology of farming, there are lots of incentives to talk about food product, transportation, and more. Each meal presents a new opportunity to examine our food choices, and food advocates have done well to link the “farm-to-table” dynamic to events such as farmers’ markets, which in many communities become weekly festivals, opportunities for fresh air and community-building.
Additionally, if one becomes convinced that growing without pesticides is important, or that they don’t wish to purchase factory-farmed produce that must be shipped cross-country, there are lots of options for putting these convictions into practice. Buying good food can be expensive, but a backyard garden can simply and inexpensively supplement organic eggs or meat purchases — not to mention all the corollary health benefits of spending time outside in the garden.
Alongside food, clothing is one of our most basic human needs: not only does it protect us, but from the earliest days of human civilization, it has been a creative medium. For thousands upon thousands of years, humans have used clothing and textiles to communicate religious belief, social status, worldview, festival seasons, mourning, celebration, group membership as well as individuality.
Like food, the ways we obtain and use clothing can reveal not only our tastes, but our fundamental values about human labor, human culture, and human stewardship of earth’s resources. This relationship, of its own, argues that we ought to consider carefully how our clothing not only participates in our personal or community stories, but whether our clothing is just, sustaining and creating a better world.
For a Christian, as I am, the argument to consider the relationship between ethics and textiles is even stronger. With Christmas approaching, we remember the Incarnation: the embodiment, in human flesh, of God the Son. The reality of God becoming flesh is a central tenet of Christianity, witness to the goodness of creation. The ancient Israelites were called to proclaim God’s covenant through their most basic activities, beginning with food and clothing. Christ, then, came not to abolish God’s covenant as revealed through the law and the prophets, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). This means that Christians, too, are called to make even the most mundane, material choices in light of God’s law: love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22: 36-40).
What does this mean for clothing and textiles? I hope to use this blog as a way to explore this question. Advocates for sustainable fashion and fiber systems say that their movement is at least 20 years behind the sustainable and organic food movement. I am sorry to say that a Christian ethic of clothing is even further behind–if it exists at all.
By way of beginnings, then, I submit a first draft of what I am calling the “Whole Cloth Manifesto.” I hope that you will offer your input, both in the comments here, and in dialogue in the weeks and months to come. I welcome all voices to the conversation, whether or not you are a person of faith, though I do ask you to recognize that my primary aim is to discern an ethic from Christian faith and tradition.
Whole Cloth Manifesto
Our textiles should tell God’s story.
Throughout the Scriptures, God ordains significant material and metaphorical uses for textiles and clothing. Our own textiles should, likewise, participate in God’s story, turning our hearts and mind toward God’s eternal love for his creatures.
Our textiles should tell our communities’ stories.
As we live in a lonely and atomized age, textiles have a unique power to connect us across time and space to our families and communities. We should create and cherish goods that quicken memory, commitment, and affection.
Our textiles should tell our story.
In a world where “everything is for sale,” clothing and textiles should be a site of resistance; a statement against the illusory “authenticity” of mass-produced goods. Cultivating true selfhood instead of consumerist self-fashioning requires that we reexamine what we wear, and what our clothing says about who we are.
Our textiles should exhibit craftsmanship.
Like the scarlet yarns and rich embroideries that adorned God’s tabernacle, so also should our textiles exhibit fine craftsmanship. Such skilled work points to the wisdom whereby God created the heavens and the earth.
Our textiles should inspire craftsmanship.
The skilled work of the weaver, embroiderer, tailor, or seamstress should not end in praise for the maker or the thing made, but should but should instead encourage other hands to take up a skilled craft. Thus might textiles sustain ancient traditions, inspire new economies, and defend the idle from mischief or despair.
Our textiles should protect the poor and the needy.
The manufacture, distribution, and disposal cycle of contemporary textiles is fraught with sin. From corporations that ignore the exploitation of workers, to dyes polluting the world’s waterways, to “fast fashion” brands encouraging gluttony and waste, our clothing calls us to repent. Our textiles should guard the poor and needy, not through superficial changes, but through fundamental re-imaginings of our supply chains.
Our textiles should support just economies
As manufacturers, designers, and distributors explore new ways to approach clothing, we should, whenever possible, support alternative economies through our textile choices.
Our textiles should look forward to the fulfillment of God’s covenant through Sabbath and Jubilee.
Whereas the textiles in our stores and closets most often represent a “race to the bottom,” we should strive to clothe ourselves in the radical promise of God’s covenant. As material objects and speaking metaphors, our textiles should embody the goodness of creation, care for the poor, the richness of the household, and the mission of the Church.
As I said above, this is very much a draft. I hope that it will become a document to inspire dialogue and action. For now at least, I’ve said my bit. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
 To site only a few examples, the first appearance of the Hebrew word for “wisdom” comes in Exodus 28:3, when God gives specific instructions for the weaving of the priests’ seamless garments. In John 19:3, Christ is stripped of his “seamless robe” by his executioners, and in Revelation 19:8, the Church, triumphant Bride of Christ, receives “fine linen, bright and pure,” which represents “the righteous deeds of the saints.”
 Exocus 36:37