Imagine owning a little farm with cows, goats, pigs, and chickens. In your daily chores, you often catch yourself smiling at the personalities of your animals and even give them pet names based on their antics. Intellectually, your role as a farmer is clear—to raise these animals for food—but you’re also compassionate. You know cows and pigs are intelligent, feel pain, and deserve to be treated with dignity.
Come fall, when some of your livestock is destined to be killed and processed, you can’t help but feel sadness, as well as a sense of gratefulness to the animals. The somber occasion represents the same moral dilemma known to sentient humans throughout history: living on this planet often requires other animals to die.
This week’s interview brings the issue of animal welfare front and center, but through the lens of clothing not food. Melissa Kwasny is the author of Putting on the Dog: The Animal Origins of What We Wear, and, as we learn in her conversation with Foreword‘s Editor-in-Chief Matt Sutherland, she is as reasoned and clear-eyed as writers come. In addition to mesmerizing stories about how the world’s leather, wool, feathers, fur, silk, and pearls are created, her book is a call for all of us to confront the ramifications of our food and clothing decisions.
In his review for the May/June issue of Foreword Reviews, Matt writes, “Kwasny, a gifted poet and novelist, guides us thoughtfully into conversations about needless, conspicuous consumption, animal welfare, deplorable working conditions in tanneries and slaughterhouses, and Indigenous ideas of reciprocity: it ‘begins with awareness. It is guided by respect and restraint.’”
Finally, a heartfelt shoutout to Trinity University Press for bringing this project to life.
Enjoy the interview.
This project is fascinating and begs the question of why the subject of animal-based clothing hasn’t been covered in such an accessible, personal way before. Can you talk about how you conceived the book, what expectations you had, what surprises came about in your research, how the book changed you?
When I arrived at a small slaughterhouse in order to observe a cow being killed and then skinned, the owner asked me, “So how much do you know about tanning?” “Absolutely nothing,” I replied. He looked at me quizzically: “Then why are they having you write this book?” Like most people today, I am far removed from the processes that bring my clothing to me, from the raising or hunting of the animal to the tanning, spinning, weaving, dyeing, and constructing of the material into something I can purchase. What surprised me is the multitude of steps, and the diversity of skills it requires, to get from, say, the shearing of the wool to the boiled wool gray sweater I am wearing as we speak. The clothing industry has one of the longest and most complicated supply chains in manufacturing.
When I first conceived of the book, I began simply with the basic framework of six animal-derived materials: leather, wool, silk, feathers, pearls, and fur. I had few preconceptions; I had everything to learn. The more people I talked to, the more I became aware of important issues involving animal welfare, environmental degradation, worker safety and health, traditional indigenous knowledge, and contemporary ideas about sustainability. It’s a huge and fascinating world to discover.
In your chapter on silk, you make an eye-opening observation about how silk must have thrilled Europeans when they first were introduced to the heavenly stuff, after dealing with coarse wool and sackcloth for millennia. It’s also interesting to hear that the Chinese were very intent on keeping the skill of silk making a secret and threatened to torture and execute anyone who tried to leave the country with silk worms. Silk truly is a miracle fabric. In your visit to Japan, what stuck with you about silk production? Is the worldwide silk industry in a healthy place? Are those little worms happy to do the work?
The silkworms, as much as I can surmise of their happiness, are happy to be fed. Because over thousands of years of breeding, the Bombx mori has lost its ability to fly, if released in the wild, it would starve for lack of mulberry leaves. If survival is happiness, then, yes, the silkworms are happy. As far as the production of our silk goes, the silkworm weaves its cocoon of silk thread—the only one of 100,000 insects who spin cocoons that does so out of silk—in order to have a safe place to transform into a pupa that eventually will eat its way out and become a moth. Spinning the cocoon is part of its lifecycle. The moth will lay eggs that become worms that start the cycle all over again. Again, the silkworm spins its lustrous cocoon as an act of survival.
In addition to the atrocities committed in cattle slaughterhouses, leather production is nasty and polluting. Are new, less harsh methods being developed? Is there anything hopeful at all in places like India and China where most of the world’s leather is sourced, and where conditions are exceptionally atrocious?
Tanning is an ancient art that stops the natural process of death, which is rot. Tannins break down the cell structure of an animal hide so that bacteria cannot get in and destroy it. In the past, people utilized natural tannins from trees, animal brains, smoke, etc. Tanning, as you note, is nasty—especially nasty smelling. Tanning with chromium, which is faster acting and consequently more popular with the industry, is also toxic, polluting waterways and endangering the health of workers.
That said, leather is a byproduct of the meat industry—most of the world’s leather comes from cows—and so one could regard it as a good use of a material that would ordinarily be wasted. Safer tanning agents for sure could be used, but they take longer, and as long as we think time is money, they won’t be an alternative. However, awareness is everything. Because of consumer demand, there are more and more organizations that are monitoring tanneries for environmental and worker safety. The question of ethics is complicated, as many writers have said, by our expectation of cheap meat and cheap shoes, and by a global market system that expects gigantic returns.
Clothing, of course, serves many purposes, including concealment. This may be a bit silly, but can you speculate on why and how bashfulness or self-consciousness developed in humans as it relates to our bodies? Especially, in light of the realization that many experts now believe that clothing first came into use in very warm climes where it wasn’t needed for warmth or protection. Rather, it seems body wear was created as costuming, for decoration. So, why do you think we developed to be such a prudish species?
Vegetable and animal sources of our clothing are biodegradable, so no one knows what the first clothing may have looked like because all evidence has disappeared. We do know when animal hides were first used—over 100,000 years ago—because of the stone awls and needles left behind. Stone and clay carvings and pictographs provide evidence of plant fiber or baste skirts or loincloths in ancient Africa. The earliest excavation sites have found shell and clay beads, as well as ochre for body paint.
Adornment probably is the reason for our first clothing, given the climate where homo sapiens emerged was relatively mild. I like to think humans have had a love of beauty from the beginning and, because we are a creative species, created ways of making ourselves beautiful, often borrowing from the beauty we found in animals: tattooed stripes, bright feathers, ivory labrets. One reason for evolutionary beauty in animals, scientists speculate, is for sexual attraction. One could argue that a bit of concealment was more seductive than nakedness. So maybe early humans were sexy rather than prudish? (And certainly they didn’t want to advertise their sexual willingness to everyone!)
Many of us are mostly ignorant (purposely, perhaps) about the gory details of sourcing and processing the animals used in our clothing, similar to the meat and poultry and fish we eat. If there was more awareness about the way animals are slaughtered and processed for clothing production, would we likely see lots more people wearing cotton and polyester? And, aside from the inexcusable cruelty in slaughterhouses, etc., would it be a good thing if there was less reliance on animal products, knowing that cotton and synthetics cause alarming environmental problems? Can you explain the trade offs?
In his beautiful book Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez states that every human culture has had to confront the basic fact that to live we often cause the deaths of others. How we do so—ignorantly or with awareness and respect—can have profound consequences for us as well as for the natural world. I have been inspired and drawn to the wisdom of indigenous cultures I encountered in the researching of this book. As Lopez relates, arctic people believed that, if they were successful in the hunt, the animal gave its life to them.
This belief is not just a fairy tale people tell themselves to make themselves feel less guilty. It determines how much they take; it determines how they pay attention and care for the environment in which the animal has to thrive. They don’t then pollute the water without thinking about the seals that live there. There is a measure of restraint and reciprocity. We cannot do that as long as we live in and support a culture of solely economic trade offs.
We know now that plastic pollution is one of the greatest threats to the health of our water. Synthetics—including polyester, which is, along with cotton, a major source of our clothing—are petroleum-based products that break down quickly and enter our waterways through the washing of our clothes. Cotton production requires enormous amounts of water and energy. Wool, on the other hand, is biodegradable. As I write in the book, “Many ecologists—and those working in animal ethics—are beginning to acknowledge the naïveté of thinking that there is one easy solution or that one fabric—or one practice or one theory—would enable us to clothe ourselves more wisely on this earth.” Informing ourselves is key. We have seen what a tremendous change awareness of our food sources has wrought. More people are eating organic, raising their own food or buying locally. Small changes, spread out over huge populations, as we know, can have tremendous effects.
Your chapter on feathers, and the section on down specifically, was fascinating. In reading about the traceable down campaign to insure duck and geese are treated kindly, and the fact that a medium-fill down jacket uses feathers from the necks and breasts of seven ducks, it’s easy to see where the high cost comes. (I laughed to read that your friend refers to the clothing company Patagonia as Patagucci.) What happens to all those ducks and geese? Are they eaten? Are birds from colder climes more prized for the warmth of their down? Is down really all that special?
Although almost all birds grow down feathers to insulate them from the cold, down is a byproduct of meat consumption, just as leather is. Most down comes from China where duck is a regular and beloved part of the cuisine. No one kills a goose or duck for their feathers. These are also domesticated ducks and geese we are talking about, not the wild Canadian goose or the mallard you see swimming in the city park. They are grown on farms for food. The down is incidental. And so, it is a good use of the whole animal.
Is down that special? Well, ask anyone who lives in a cold climate what they would do without their down coat in winter. Because of the loft quality of down clusters—their propensity to spread their fibers so air is captured in pockets between them—it is the warmest and lightest material around. No synthetic can match it. Ask any goose you see navigating the opening channels of ice in early spring.
After all the time and thought you put into studying the fur industry, can you please tell us where your head is right now? Should we all send $50 to PETA? Is the trapping of wild animals like beaver, coyote, bobcat, and wolf still a big part of the fur market? Are mink farms hell on earth?
No; in general, mink farms are not hell on earth, unless you believe that any human interaction with animals, including caring for them, is hell—as PETA believes. Not that there aren’t bad actors everywhere. Or to say that mass production has not replaced human care for animals with capitalism’s view of them as simply product. In a world culture predicated on capital as the only value—not care, not environmental health, not respect for the spirit of all living things—hellish things occur.
Mass production obviously undermines the individuality and aliveness of animals. Yet we also can’t undo thousands of years of breeding that has resulted in the domestication of cattle, sheep, mink, ducks, geese, and even silkworms so that these animals cannot survive without their human helpers. As I try to make clear in the book, farming and hunting techniques often demonstrate ancient relationships that humans and animals have forged for their mutual survival, a relationship that has also domesticated hunter-gatherer humans. Things are more complicated, as I have learned, than simply exchanging polyester for fur.
This is not an anti-hunting or anti-farming book. I have tried to be fair-minded, to lay out the facts and the issues. I am asking readers—consumers—to contemplate these issues, to inform themselves. Consumer choice is one of the greatest drivers of change in our culture. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and other animal rights organizations, as well as the animal rights movement in general, are to be given credit for raising consciousness about the suffering of animals. Their view, given that they advocate for no human-animal interaction at all, also lacks nuance. So, giving $50 to PETA? Actually, PETA does just fine. They raised $16,000,000 in 2016 alone.