Something is nagging at me re: scalability. Is the work I am creating and advocating for – the work that I envision – with all these small textiles efforts supported by centralized efforts of support – training, work facilities, business services- is this scalable? And as I envision this – as I think about and propose support for quilters, small designers – and the like – I think – but is their work scalable? – a question drilled into my head more than a decade ago when I was feverishly (and misguidedly) working alongside other sweaty palmed entrepreneurs in a Durham, North Carolina based start-up incubator. If it is not scalable, is it sustainable?
West Virginia has an extreme history with large, exploitative and extractive industries. In these enterprises so often the owners, the leadership is at odds with the employees. They want to make more of a profit – even if it means automating away work, or firing older, higher paying employees for young workers etc. Yet it seems large enterprises seeking to scale as big as possible will always have a place – but it may end up being done almost entirely by robots. So where does that leave the rest of us? How does that help the very human condition of the rest of the American population? Or in this case I think about small town Princeton – which perhaps has been left so far behind that there is a real opportunity for us to try something new in our own little corner of the world. Maybe we can use it as an opportunity to take or leave what it is about the rest of the world that has blazed forward towards an ugly looking sort of progress, and chart a different path.
And I am careful to say pick and choose what we want from this modern world of ours because I do not harbor any illusions about making stuff the old way – and deciding to forgo modern technologies or learning about this modern – technological world of ours. Indeed we must connect with this world to sell stuff and use technology as we are inspired to to further evolve in our work. For example, in my creative work as a pattern maker – I relish in the use of technology to be able to fit someone across the country with my designs – giving them the opportunity to finally find something that fits and meets their preferences, while enjoying working with the unique form of each client. And I relish in the fact that computer cutting services may reduce the cost of making garments in such a way that a greater share of customers can have access to this work.
But this is me picking and choosing. Could I choose to cut sewers out of the equation entirely and get a 3D knitting machine? Sure. But the human powered sewing is what I love about it. The craftsmanship and the skill it takes to fit a woven garment to an individual body. And yet it is less scalable. Paying people will eat into my profit. But what if I look at it differently? By paying people in my community and in other parts of West Virginia it will give them more money to spend which will help more businesses grow and thrive, expand and evolve. So long as they spend that money on more businesses that choose to support people here in West Virginia. Businesses that understand that we want competition – we want lots of businesses – we want to diversify risk – we want to follow the laws of nature and let lots of seeds bloom, see which ones endure, let them evolve.
I wonder if the luster of scalability has finally worn off – and we can see that scalability increasingly means – automated – that these scalabile businesses will continue to extract work from us, for less money – until we are not needed. So what else is possible?
If find myself fearing an illusion that businesses that are not scalable can’t make money. But this can’t be true – because so many very small businesses do make what they need to survive and pay their bills. And I wonder – is it a success if my small business allows me to pay myself, and grow by paying more sewers, and then I’m able to pay a local accountant and attorney, I’m able to spend more at the grocery store. I am able to pay collaborators who are able to showcase their work and meet new clients through my work. Is that not a success? And when someday my business dies – it has supported all these individual makers and professionals who will keep on going without me. And so I wonder – when we worry about scale – are we really worried about people who can extract a profit without doing too much work? Easy money. But we know that there are no shortcuts. Somebody pays.
And we also may logically worry about price. A product that is scalable, that is made by a machine or can be made in the thousands of units by a single individual is cheaper and therefore you can sell more of it. So if you can do this – why wouldn’t you? Why wouldn’t you buy a garment made by people who are sewing at breakneck speed in a poisoned community in Bangladesh over one made by people in your community for many times the price? This one I find harder to answer. Yes on the surface it seems obvious – cheaper is better, more productive is better. But then I look around and see all the people who are unemployed or underemployed, who are not really making ends meet, but who are able to buy cheap shoes from Walmart and I wonder – IS this better?
There are no jobs making shoes in our community – there are very few good jobs but we can afford to buy shoes, sometimes on a credit card, so are we better off? And again – I can’t easily answer this. I suspect the answer is no – that we, in this community and throughout America have mostly gotten the short end of the stick on this. We feel bad about ourselves that we can’t get a good job – when the truth is that there aren’t many of them. We may have been better off repairing our old shoes – saving to buy them from someone who lives in our country, supports a family here, and then repairing them and continuing to wear them even when the style has moved on. They wouldn’t be cheap because we don’t short change each other and the work we do. We don’t ask each other to do work for less than it is worth.
The global economy has made it so so easy for us to cheapen each other’s work. When someone is on the other side of the world sewing up your t-shirt – it can be difficult to remember that a person’s energy and hard work went into your garment before you grumble about the price. If we went to a cobbler in our town (if we were so lucky to still have one and if the shoes sold here were nice enough to warrant a cobbler) we would be taken back if that person charged us $0.75 for the job. And so perhaps that part of us that used to like to support people with our business has lost the connection. A t-shirt is just a disembodied object – and we might as well spend as little as we can on it – so that we can have more money for other things.
But then we look around – and our present is in a deteriorated state. And so somehow we need to rethink it all. And for me I draw inspiration from nature – how would nature create an economy that sustained people? By planting lots of seeds, supporting lots of niche products and services, making sure that people and businesses and services are interconnected, that the cost of trying something is low and available to all and by de-stigmatizing failing as a natural part of life. And yes – that the strongest ideas – whose time has come – survive and others fail. Low cost to try something out – low cost to walk away, try something new or team up with another enterprise. And lastly, by giving everyone access to the learning, skills and tools they need to try their hand at creating something valuable.
Please feel free to write and share your thoughts, ideas or experience with all this.
I am still a few weeks out on getting my Substack account up and running. I will let you know when that happens.
Go, fight, win.