Victoria Day 2017 has been a research day spent in bed. I took two breaks to watch the new episodes of Twin Peaks and to do laundry. The latter is the inspiration for this blog post.
Studying folklore has taken me on all kinds of journeys. Somewhere along the way, I was introduced to http://www.folkstreams.net, an archive of documentary films exploring informal/expressive/material cultures as well as performance (and) traditions.
My favourite film from this archive is Clotheslines by Roberta Cantow (1981) which explores women’s relationships to laundry and ‘domestic’ labour, or body work at home. Among other things, the women in the film grapple with family dynamics, laundry and technological change, and the work of washing clothes by hand. Intimately, this documentary shows women reeling in a clothesline to collect and fold socks, shirts and dresses into a basket. Yet, I experience these women attach and reel emotions back out on that line, letting them get air for the first time. In doing so, they allow themselves to breathe, centered. Until this point, these women had never been asked to share their experiences and memories of doing body work at home. Like washing and drying, their emotions spin in patterns of two, frustration and pleasure.
I enjoy doing laundry, although I’ve never washed clothes by hand. At the same time, I have shared many intimate moments with clothing through touch.
My first experience with fieldwork took place in my second semester of my undergrad when I did a study of thrift store cultures. While a significant portion of my analysis focused on economic relationships to used clothing, what fascinated me most were the stories that clothing can tell. As an avid thrifter since I was 15, I had never considered clothes as objects of memory and history. I had overlooked their ability to narrate their wornness.
After I had collected and analyzed the data from that study, I started to wonder where and who my clothes came from: who had touched them, had worn them, had made memories in them, and had grown out of them enough to give them away.
Somewhere amidst bins and racks and piles of used clothes, I realized that the stories told by the objects we wear are touchable. Over time, and with a giant and always shifting (archive?) closet, I have learned to pay attention to all the things said by every hitch, snag, hole, stain, smell, repair, and customization.
Smell is particularly capable of evoking significant and imaginative meanings/memories. While some thrift stores in St. John’s hang their donated goods for sale just the way they were donated – smelling like perfume, or cigarettes, or a complex blend of scents that cannot be described using words – other stores give them a good wash, and by the time they are touched by someone combing through a bin or rack, they smell only of detergent.
It isn’t always a bad thing. Certain detergents remind me of my childhood home: laundry washed, dried and folded by my mom, the special step perched on the patio so that she could reach the clothesline hanging way above her, the bright orange laundry basket she has had since before I was born.
This evening I called home and asked her to share her own feelings about laundry. “It was a part of my daily routine,” she noted. “And it never bothered me because I just thought it was something I had to do as a mother.”
I asked if laundry ever frustrated her. She laughed and told me, “the only thing that frustrated me was when I folded it all up and put it on your bed, told you to pack it away, and you didn’t do it.”
Would the clothes on my bed have told me stories? Would I listen?
My own experience of laundry, or body work at home, is a pleasurable mix of touches, smells, and memories. With each encounter, I can never think about clothes the same. I am aware of their voices and histories.
Thank you, mom, for doing the critical work of cleaning.
Thank you for teaching me how to do that work myself.
Cantow, Roberta. Clotheslines. 16mm. Directed by Roberta Cantow. San Diego: Buffalo Rose Productions, 1981.
© Daze Jefferies (dsj272 @ mun.ca), 2017.