Steep steps led higher into the Potala Palace in the already heart-poundingly punishing altitude of Lhasa.
This Tibetan woman wasn’t stopping for breath as she stepped confidently up ahead, her red shoes revealed briefly as she climbed. The colours and symbols of Buddhism had been cleverly woven from plastic on the path beside her, turning a no-entry barrier into a celebration. Inside the Potala, the quiet susurration of chants and prayer wheels created calm.
But travelling to such places inevitably brings dilemmas…the tensions in the region are well documented and visible on the streets. Police checkpoints surrounded the traditional circular worship routes that hug the ancient Jokhang Temple. Soldiers with guns watched the procession of prostrating Buddhists from the roofs.
We got there by train…three nights and four days from the south of China – the route itself a controversial development across the pristine Himalayan Plateau. The stars were crisper and brighter than I’d ever seen. But they lit up the mass movement of Chinese trucks leaving Tibet, laden, a fellow passenger said, with quarried minerals.
It was winter-time, so many Tibetans had come in from the countryside to the city. It was vibrant and lively and intensely colourful. Even teenagers were in full Tibetan dress, although with jeans on underneath against the sharp, dry cold. The air was ripe with the smell of yaks. Huge slabs of yak butter and cheese were being carved from cloth-wrapped blocks in the market. The smoke from butter lamps and incense seeped into our clothing.
Modern life was evident too. Today’s Tibetans have added mobile phones to their traditional dress and many have replaced old-style stiff leather boots with soft, Ugg-like synthetic replicas. Local crafts are being kept alive, however, with the support of some fair trade artisan organisations and new markets. We took home several thick, Tibetan rugs. Made for the harsh Himalayan climate, they seem quite at home in Shetland.
When you live on an island, stuff matters. The sky seems bigger somehow; the sea horizon more intriguing; the elements more powerful. Islands bring out the poet, the artist, the philosopher, the inventor.
They are creative places inspired in no small part by the distance that everyone and everything must travel to get there. Limitations of climate and geography must be considered in almost everything from building homes to running a business to educating a small and scattered population. When you live on an island, you are always aware of it.
Self-sufficiency takes on a new importance when high shipping costs are added to every purchase. Whatever is brought in – from cars to washing machines to mail order clothes to groceries – has to have some sort of exit strategy attached for when their usefulness is spent. Better, then, to think up ways of reusing junk and cutting down on waste. Or buy less stuff.
Islanders the world over have had to become experts at upcycling, recycling, and reimagining all kinds of articles that in bigger places are often shoved in the bin or left on a street corner for collection. The old boat becomes a shed roof; the fish boxes are vegetable planters; salmon cages are turned into greenhouses; old enamel baths are water troughs; seaglass becomes jewellery.
I live in an archipelago which is quite good at recycling and self-sufficiency but not yet brilliant. The charity shops are plentiful. The art, the music, the poetry thrives. The hills support sheep and cows, the sea gives fish and many people grow a few vegetables.
Most food, though, is shipped in by supermarket chains, its journey and its packaging adding significantly to the costs.There is still an over-burdened landfill, although a waste-to-energy furnace provides some power, and one of the UK’s biggest district heating schemes pumps hot water throughout the main town.
Beaches vary between stunning shards of silvery sand and mad tangles of rope and plastic and old junk, depending on the tides. Some of the rubbish is seaborne from further afield than these islands, but too much we generate ourselves. There’s a community-wide spring clean of shores and roadsides, but a few windy days and a tide-mark of debris is left once more. Careless consumerism has a visible impact here.
Even so, when your home is on an island living lightly seems to come a little more easily, nudged as it is by need and neighbourliness as well as environmental concerns. There’s a shared sense of responsibility that can be lost in the noise of urban life.
Since moving here from a flat in Berlin, I no longer buy clothes on impulse, drink coffee from disposable cups or work in a place where I don’t know everyone by name. Instead, I grow a few veggies, plant a few trees, use the same mug all day and teach in a small, two-classroom school.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s no idyll. The weather can be harsh and the winters long and dark and there are days when I desperately miss city living. But here, everything just seems a bit closer to home; cause and effect of modern life more obvious. If I drop a plastic bag in a ditch near my house, it will sit there for a dozen years or more unless the wind gets to it first. No-one cleans up after you on an island.
The photo above shows a common scene in a small city in southern China. That day there was a group of elderly people – two women and a man, sitting hunched on plastic chairs and surrounded by hundreds of pairs of jeans. They looked to be finishing zips and pockets and were all squinting at the fabric, although none were wearing glasses.
The jeans seemed to spill and tumble from a hatch in the side of the building, just out of this shot, right out onto the roadside. The sheer scale of their workload was daunting. I could not imagine my own grandparents having to toil like this.
I took this photo four years ago, when I was working as a teacher, and it made me determined to seek ways of showing another, more positive, side to Chinese craft-making and manufacturing. The “Made in China” stamp has long been associated with poor work and cheap labour. But that is not the only story in a country so vast and varied. Organic and fair-trade companies exist too and there are hundreds of examples of local workshops and artisans producing beautiful, natural products using methods that have been practised for generations.
But there is no doubt that millions of people are working in awful conditions around the world, forced by circumstances to accept low pay, scant benefits and denied a voice to bring change. Thank goodness organisations exist to scrutinise and hold to account companies who operate this way, putting profit far, far above people. A quick search shows report after report on factories in China and other places, despite the existence of labour laws, minimum wage, rights to education and international agreements.
I make no claim to inside knowledge on these places, but I lived for some years in Guangdong Province, in Southern China, where a huge percentage of all manufactured goods and clothing that are sold in the West, are made. I would pass mile after mile of massive factories on my way to the train station at Dongguan. As work shifts changed, hundreds of people in identical uniforms would stream out along the wide boulevards of the industrial province, seeking out the noodle shops and restaurants along the roadsides.
From the outside it was not possible to tell if their working conditions were good or not. Certainly, many thousands of young people move to the region from rural parts of China every year seeking work, often staying for years and returning with family members to the same factories. This human side of China’s economic growth is described so well in “Factory Girls” by Leslie Chang (published in 2008 by Picador). In it Chang portrays the living, sleeping and working lives of factory workers in Dongguan, many often struggling to cope with social change and life far from the rural villages they grew up in, while at the same time loving their new wealth.
Chang’s stories may be changing a little as world economic growth slows down and the West slowly wakes up to this awful inequality. The elderly lady in my photo would, I expect, no more want to be sitting sewing mountains of jeans than my own granny. But this same tale will be told for as long as high streets continue to encourage fast, cheap fashions and we continue to live disposable lives.
While factories can be inspected and legitimate supply chains verified, it is so much harder to monitor the mass manufacturing work that happens away from the big, new premises. It was commonly said, although I never saw them for myself, that whole villages – men, women and children – were routinely engaged in producing one product or one small part or pattern piece, often for large, Western companies. Of course, no-one was going into each home to check on the ages of the workers or to ensure they took breaks or worked safely.
Changes have begun, but it will be up to us, as consumers, to ask questions, support those organisations who check workplaces and supply chains and to take responsibility for knowing which companies to trust. I know that there are many, many people in China, as elsewhere, who want to see positive changes and who are quietly doing their bit to work fairly and without harm to the environment or people.
China, like anywhere, is a land of contrasting stories: rags and riches; kindness and cruelty; big dreamers and small minds. Next time you see a “made in China” label, have your eyes open, but please don’t always assume the worst.
KW, ShetlandThank you to Trusted Clothes for inviting me to be a guest writer. http://www.trustedclothes.com/blog/2016/02/22/n/
Susurrus silk is environmentally-friendly, of superb quality, and chemical and pesticide free. The silk farm has created stable jobs for the local community and has led to improved and protected natural habitats for wildlife.
Panda Country. Our silk is created in Sichuan Province, in Western China, an area of diverse and beautiful natural landscapes from bamboo forests, home to the world’s only wild pandas, watery rice terraces and mountainous Himalayan terrain.
All organic. All aspects of the silk production, from the organic mulberry farm, through the harvesting, preparation, weaving and dyeing of the silk, to the finished silk articles, have been rigorously inspected and awarded the Global Organic Textile Standard. GOTS Certificate.
Organic does mean best quality. There is a direct relationship between the quality of the mulberry leaves that silkworms are fed and the quality of the finished silk filament. Our silk is created from the best quality, organic mulberry leaves. This means the cocoons grow big and strong, leading to extra-long silk filaments that can be unreeled in almost endless threads and spun into silk that is even in texture and colour.
Socially responsible. The GOTS certificate is the world’s leading textile processing standard for organic fibres. It is backed up by independent certification of the entire textile supply chain and includes social criteria as well as ecological criteria. http://www.global-standard.org/the-standard.html
The company which runs the organic farm, the silk production, the dyeing and the product manufacturing, Alkena, provides stable employment for local people, from farmers to skilled tailors. They have also planted many trees other than mulberry to create nesting sites for birds and to encourage wildlife diversity.
Human connections. We try to make connections with the people who are involved in producing our gorgeous fabric and turning our designs into products: sharing photos; asking questions and finding out what we can about each other’s lives.
This organic approach is unusual in China’s silk industry. But at Susurrus we believe it is the only way to make sure luxury products like ours feel great for everyone.
Seasonal survival tips…#2 Lie down in a shop and pretend to be an art installation
Choose a time when the shop is quite busy with seasonal shoppers and make sure you strike an interesting and unusual pose. Try not to look like you’ve just fainted, or you may find yourself explaining abstract artistic concepts to a paramedic, who might not be appreciative. With luck the shop assistants will think you have been recruited to mollify the crowds when the card machine stops working.
The more time you spend as an artist, the less you’ll spend as a consumer. Go on…own the space. You know you’ve always wanted to. Semi-reclining on an organic silk pillowcase is recommended, but make sure your facial expressions differ from the shop’s own models, or you may find your vintage charity shop #30wears maxi-dress being exchanged for something altogether too trendy.
This is the very first blog by Susurrus Organic Silk Pillowcases. So let’s start with an apology. Our name is hard to say and harder to spell. The meaning is a bit obscure too. Sorry about that.
Su-sur -rus. Say it like this: soo – sir – riss.
It means a low murmur, or whisper, like the sound of the sea brushing across the sand or the wind rustling through the trees. Or the hushed sigh of soft silk as you lie down to sleep.
Can you hear it? It is that most calming of sounds; that slowing of the heartbeat, that deep breath of relaxation. Stick a shell to your ear and that blood-rushing sea sound is susurrus. Lie down in the long grass and that humming and thrumming of insect wings is susurrus. Sit in a city cafe and let the gushing, pulsing noises of the other customers wash over you. Susurration.
No other name would convey the totally relaxed, natural luxury of our silk. We were advised not to use it. It will put people off, we were told. But at Susurrus we are not always great at following perceived wisdom. You will find we can be a little rebellious that way. Uncompromising, if you like.
That’s why we choose to run our business slowly and sustainably; it’s why we choose to support other companies who are trying their best to be socially and environmentally responsible. We could buy cheap silk and churn out pillowcases. It would certainly be simpler. But we choose to use the best quality organic silk we can source, with the highest standards for protecting land and people.