The Dissolution of the Factories, or Lines Composed a Few Days After Laptops and Looms

In the corner of an attic room in one of Britain’s oldest factories a small group are engaged in the assembly of a Makerbot Thing-O-Matic. They – it – all of us – are there for Laptops and Looms, a gathering of people whose crafts cross the warp of the digital networked world with the weft of making and holding real stuff.

It’s a privilege to be here. Projects are shown, stories shared, frustrations vented. This is the place to be if you’ve ever wondered how to:

  • get funding for projects not considered “digital enough”
  • break out from the category of hand-craft without entering the globalised game of mass-scale manufacture
  • create a connected object that will still be beautiful when the Internet is switched off
  • avoid queuing at the Post Office
  • make a local car.

The inspired move of holding Laptops and Looms in a world heritage site dares us to draw parallels with the makers, hackers and inventors of the past. We are at once nostalgic for the noble, human-scale labour of the weaver’s cottage and awestruck by the all-consuming manufactories that supplanted it.

The nearby city of Derby has just hit the reset button on its Silk Mill industrial museum, mothballed for two years while they work out what to do with it. Rolls Royce aero engines rub shoulders with Midlands railway memorabilia on the site of a silk mill with a claim to be the world’s first factory.

Like Derby itself, the museum needs to find a way to build upon these layers of history, or be crushed by the weight of them. Water wheels, millstones, silk frames, steam locomotives, jet engines  – they all go round in circles.

Skimming stones on the river at Matlock Baths, someone mentions how the beautiful Derwent Valley reminds him of Tintern Abbey. And I realise that to understand where we are now, 30 years on from the last great Tory recession, we need to twist the dial back another whole turn, to the age of the English monasteries.

Abbeys such as Fountains, Rievaulx and Kirkstall began humbly enough, as offshoots of the French Cistercian movement. Their needs were simple: tranquility, running water and some land for agriculture. But over time they grew, soaring higher, sucking in labour, expanding their estates, diversifying their industries and dominating their localities. Imagine the noise, imagine the power! Until a greedy monarch who would brook no opposition made a grab for their riches and sent the monks packing.

England’s monasteries were washed away in a freshwater confluence of printing presses and Protestant ideology. The clergy who had used the Latin tongue to obscure the word of God were cut down to size, disintermediated by the Bible in English. They still had a role, but no longer a monopoly on the invention of new meanings.

In the shadow of the Gothic ruins, sometimes literally from their rubble, arose smaller vernacular working class dwellings, cottage industries. Among the cottage-dwellers’ most prized possessions was the family Bible, not as grand and illuminated as the monks’ Latin one, but there, accessible to anyone who could read.

To our modern eyes, there was much wrong with the cottage industries: patriarchal, piecework-driven and still at the mercy of merchants higher up the pyramid. But economically this seems closest to the model to which some laptops-and-loomers aspire, (dread phrase) a “lifestyle business” bigger than a hobby but smaller than a factory.

It was 200 years before Britain’s gorges would see the rise of new monsters: water wheels and spinning frames and looms and five storey factories. Something in the cottage industries had got out of kilter. With the invention of the flying shuttle, home-spinning could no longer feed the weaver’s demand for thread. The forces of industrialisation seemed unstoppable, pressed home by a new ideology, Adam Smith’s invisible hand and the productivity gains from de-humanising division of labour. The pattern was repeated elsewhere in Europe with local variations: Revolutionary France threw out its monks and turned the Abbey of Fontenay directly into a paper-mill.

By then the ruined abbeys had lost their admonishing power; some became romantic ornaments in the faux-wild gardens of the aristocracy. Gothic became the go-to architectural style of the sentimental idealist. I’m still a sucker for it today.

There were warnings, of course. Just six years after William Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”  we got William Blake’s “And did those feet in ancient time”. But still the dark Satanic mills grew. They outgrew the valleys and by means of canals and steam engines dispensed with the need for water power. They swept aside the Arts and Crafts objections of Ruskin and Morris, who fought in vain to revive a labour theory of value.

Until one day some time in the second half of the 20th Century, the tide turned. And here we are today picking our way through the rockpools of the anthropocene for glinting sea-glass, smooth abraded shards of blue pottery and rounded red brick stones. Look closely in those rockpools – the railway arches, hidden yards and edge-of-town industrial parks – and you’ll see that Britain is still teeming with productive life, but on a smaller scale, more niche than before. No longer the workshop of the world.

What comes after the dissolution of Britain’s factories?

That 3d printer in the corner could hold some answers. Despite its current immaturity, 3d printing seems an emblematic technology – perhaps as powerful as the vernacular Bible. It may never be the cheapest way to make stuff, nor turn out the finest work. But it speaks powerfully of the democratisation of making, now within reach of anyone who can use a graphics programme or write a little code. Factories still have a role, but no longer a monopoly on the invention of meanings.

These things move slowly. A straw poll in the pub reveals that many of us already come from the second generation of geeks in our families. Some of us are raising the third. A child who grows up with a laptop and a 3d printer knows she can make a future spinning software, hardware, and the services that bind the two.

This time around the abbeys and the factories should stand equally as inspirations and warnings.

Their makers’ inventiveness and determination have left us a rich seam of narrative capital. And for all the current Western angst over the rise of Chinese manufacturing, the Victorians were nothing if not outward-looking. Leeds’ engineers willingly gave a leg-up to Germany’s Krupp Brothers and motorcycle pioneer Gottleib Daimler.

Yet the overbearing influence and precipitous declines of monasteries and mills should make us wary of future aggrandisements. Want to know how that last bit pans out? Please check back on this blog in August 2211.

Thanks to Russell, Toby, Greg and everyone else who made Laptops and Looms happen. And thanks to you, dear reader, for making it to the end of this ramble. As a reward, check out Paul Miller’s proper take-out from Laptops and Looms. He has a numbered list and everything.