Thankfulness and the value of things

In the Gospels, we find Jesus using repair as a teaching illustration. If you’re patching your clothes, he says, do you use un-shrunk cloth? Of course not, laughs his audience. The patch will tear away from the cloth and make it worse! Nobody would do that.

It’s a bit of rhetoric that assumes a familiarity with repair. His listeners would know a thing or two about patching their clothes, mending their fishing nets, and taking good care of the very few household items that they owned. In pre-industrial times, both in Israel and well beyond, everything had to be made by hand. Every object represented hours of somebody’s time – sometimes a huge amount of it. And they were thus fiendishly expensive.

It’s a theme we see elsewhere in the Bible. Honoured people are given ‘fine linen’ and ‘costly garments’. When Joseph is given a coat of many colours, it makes his brothers angry enough to want to kill him.

How expensive are we talking about, if a cloak can become a matter of life and death?

In his book Stuffocation, James Wallman attempts to add up the labour that would have gone into a medieval chemise – a linen under-shirt worn by men and women, rich and poor alike. It’s a thousand years on from Bible times, but the technologies are not so different and it’s a decent indicator of the value involved.

According to Wallman, a tailor could sew a shirt in a day. But each one needed four yards of cloth, and that’s where it starts to get expensive. A weaver might take 90 hours to make four yards of cloth. And that cloth, in turn, required 5,400 yards of thread that would take 400 hours at a spinning wheel. There could easily be two months’ work sunk into a single shirt, and so a fair price would have to reflect that: around £2,000 in today’s money.

You can see why people would be familiar with repair.

You can also see the impact of spinning machines and steam-powered weaving looms in the industrial revolution. By mechanising those tasks, thousands of hours were cut out of the process of making clothes. Costs dropped dramatically. Ordinary people could afford a wardrobe of clothes, not just their workwear and Sunday best. In time, fabrics became so cheap that people could consider things like tablecloths and curtains – extraordinary luxuries that only the richest could have dreamed of.

It might seem hard to imagine soft furnishings as a kingly luxury, as we walk the hallowed halls of Ikea or Dunelm Mill today. But that’s why it’s worth reminding ourselves of these stories.

We live in an age of plenty and even of excess. We have moved beyond the pleasures of owning nice things and built our economy around the more specific joy of acquiring new things – even though that means the endless expense and endless waste of ‘consumerism’.

There is a horrendous dark-side to this, from the soil pollution in the cotton fields to the sweatshop labour behind the fashion industry. And that is sadly nothing new. The cheap cotton of the industrial revolution came from slave plantations, the luxury for Europeans paid for with the stolen labour of Black people. Even today, consumerism relies on a social and environmental ‘elsewhere’, still divided along racial lines, to keep the goods flowing and the true cost of them hidden.

This is lamentable, and our faith calls us to work against these injustices.

At the same time, if we jump too quickly to how terrible consumerism is, we might miss one of the most useful tools for addressing it: thankfulness.

Pause to consider how remarkable it is that most of us have so much. Consider the enormity of the progress between your wardrobe, and the disciples discussing shirt repair on a Galilean hillside. Think about the expanding access to goods, the way that so many of us can literally live like kings, the democratising effect that cheaper things has had. Think about the growing reach of this abundance, from a privileged few thousand, to millions, to billions.

Consider the unfathomable total of hours freed up by machines, the human lifetimes liberated from boring and repetitive work at looms and spinning wheels – the kind of work that was often left to people with little choice in the matter, including children.

Yes, the waste of consumerism should call us to better stewardship, a greater appreciation of what we have, and concern for the rights of those in the supply chain. But the benefits of plenty can also be responsibly accepted as the gift that they are. We can choose an outfit and get dressed in the morning with thankfulness, open the curtains with gratitude for a new day – but also with gratitude for curtains!

In taking that moment to be thankful, consumerism is disarmed. The call of novelty, at any human or environmental cost, is silenced. Look at what we have already. What is to be gained from more? With so much already, what can I give? Who is going without, and what can I do about it?

This is the joy of enough, and it can change the world.

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