Real Handmade Clothing
THERE WAS A TIME when what you wore signalled to the world where you came from, who your people were and who you were among them. The colours, the materials, the weave, the tanning, the embroidery and elaboration all were part of an intricate and complex code of meaning and belonging.
Certain Eastern European embroidery motifs are direct descendants of paleolithic carvings and drawings. Designs on Central Asian felts can be maps of ancestry, kinship and migration. Great significance was placed on certain colour combinations and pattern placement, often only showing up on garments particular to certain stages of life.
When clothing was handmade in this fashion, every colour was not only beautiful in its own right but could be read as certain plant combinations that went into the dye, where the flax was grown could be read in the nap of the weave, the leather tells the age of the animal and when in the year they were killed and by how skilled a hunter. For peoples the world over, there was a time when clothing meant all this and more.
Clothing is a visual language made of the natural world, who’s fullest expression is the achievement of meaningful beauty attuned and adapted to place and time. As with all languages, its meaning is inherited – not intended-and herein lies the conundrum of modern clothing. Aesthetic value cannot, try as we might, be divorced from the modes of production, the people and the places that made them. Clothing tells stories, true ones, and in these times too often troubling ones.
Smoke-tanned leather clothing, being as old as humans are to the cold, has behind it a long and rich history that barely survives to this day. Since the 1970s, in great debt to those indigenous tanners who kept it alive here until then and beyond, North America has seen a small but palpable resurgence of “brain-tanning” – of making leathers in these old ways.
Somewhere in there is the recognition that smoke-tanned clothing is beautiful-in all the manners of preparation, the alchemy, the regard for the animal, and how all this can blossom into a garment so deeply serviceable. This type of vast and intricate beauty, made of a truly human approach to living inside the natural world, underlies the best of motivations in the movements towards healthy, real food and all manners of environmental protection. As real things become scarce these days, the longing for them seems to grow.
As a soft, breathable, and extremely strong material, many of the wearing qualities of smoke-tanned clothing cannot be found elsewhere. Smoke-tanned mittens and footwear still cannot be beat in the real cold due to the combination of insulation, wind protection and breathe-ability.
No other material is strong, thin and supple enough to provide both clothing and durable footwear in the same relative thicknesses. Smoke and fat-tanned clothing was worn for tens of thousands of years, and still is, for good reason. Strangely and mercifully, this way of making leather remains staunchly adverse to industrial production and processes – to this day smoke tanned leather can only be made one at a time, slowly, and may that continue.
“As surely as modern [people]’s machines pollute the environment, so does [their] costume pollute the aesthetics of the world. This is a crisis as serious as the upsetting of our physical ecology, for only the continued existence of the aesthetic realm will make life worth living. In this realm, one person’s or one culture’s idea of beauty is not commensurate with the whole of [human]kind.