The Song of the Skirt by Carole Richmond

(Inspired by The Song of the Shirt, by Thomas Hood in 1843)

“Do you have a skirt that we could make a pattern from” he said. And, I replied yes. A denim skirt with a low waist, two patch pockets and sixteen kick pleats. I bought it eight years ago; I think it was the last thing I bought there. I didn’t buy it to wear on a bike because I didn’t own one then

The skirt started out smart and has since become useful. Here the shadow of a saddle, there the smudge of oil. The pleats let me kick my leg over the bike. The low waist settles snugly on my hips. The fitted shape keeps the skirt close as I fight coastal winds on my way to the office. The skirt protects my modesty when that’s the last thing on my mind.

I package the skirt up ready for its sacrifice to the gods who make grass into multi-hued cloth and I ponder its fate. It will see Islay before I do. I toast the skirt with BruichLaddich, and wish it well on its last journey.

I’ve learnt a lot in the eight years since I bought my denim skirt. I’ve learnt to ride a bike. I’ve found freedom. And I’ve started to question stuff and the nonsense that goes into the making of it. I found out about denim.

I discovered that cotton is a sickly plant greedy for water, greedy for pesticides, greedy for fertilizers. At last it becomes strong enough to dye. So indigo is added to the cloth and the surrounding rivers become so blue that they can no longer reflect the sky.

I discovered that pumice is hacked from the earth and transported to the place where denim demands to be weathered without going outdoors. The pounding of the cloth creates dust which is happy to venture outside and pollute rivers and streams. And that same water is used to wash those jeans, time and time again, to give them a patina of age, a hint of authenticity.

I still love my skirt but I won’t be buying denim again. I’m reluctant to buy anything blind any more. I want to know the story of what of what I buy. I want to know if I’m on my way to a happy ending or a tragic one.

A single malt whisky always warms the heart. I am sure that a single malt skirt will do the same.

Carole Richmond

The Song of the Shirt is a poem written by Thomas Hood in 1843.

It was written in honour of a Mrs. Biddell, a Lambeth widow and seamstress living in wretched conditions. In what was, at that time, common practice, Mrs. Biddell sewed trousers and shirts in her home using materials given to her by her employer for which she was forced to give a £2 deposit. In a desperate attempt to feed her starving infants, Mrs. Biddell pawned the clothing she had made, thus accruing a debt she could not pay. Mrs. Biddell, whose first name has not been recorded, was sent to a workhouse, and her ultimate fate is unknown; however, her story became a catalyst for those who actively opposed the wretched conditions of England’s working poor, who often spent seven days a week labouring under inhuman conditions, barely managing to survive and with no prospect for relief.

The poem was published anonymously in the Christmas edition of Punch in 1843 and quickly became a phenomenon, centering people’s attention not only on Mrs. Biddell’s case, but on the conditions of workers in general. Though Hood was not politically radical, his work, like that of Charles Dickens, contributed to the general awareness of the condition of the working class which fed the popularity of trade unionism and the push for stricter labour laws.

Following is the first stanza of the poem:

With fingers weary and worn, With eyelids heavy and red, A woman sat in unwomanly rags, Plying her needle and thread – Stitch! Stitch! Stitch! In poverty, hunger, and dirt, And still with a voice of dolorous pitch She sang ‘The Song of the Shirt!’

Courtesy of Wikipedia

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