Selvedge Rhetorics and Material Memory

Selvedge Rhetorics and Material Memory

Peitho Volume 24 Issue 3, Spring 2022

Author(s): Jennifer Clary-Lemon

Jennifer Clary-Lemon is an associate professor at the University of Waterloo. She is the author of Planting the Anthropocene: Rhetorics of Natureculture, Cross Border Networks in Writing Studies (with Mueller, Williams, and Phelps), and co-editor of Relations, Locations, Positions: Composition Theory for Writing Teachers (with Vandenberg and Hum) and Decolonial Conversations in Posthuman and New Material Rhetorics (with Grant). Her research interests include rhetorics of the environment, theories of affect, writing and location, material rhetorics, critical discourse studies, and research methodologies. Her work has been published in Rhetoric Review, Discourse and Society, The American Review of Canadian Studies, Composition Forum, Oral History Forum d’histoire orale, enculturation, and College Composition and Communication.

Abstract: This essay briefly explains importance of an accretive approach to analyzing material research objects, focusing on the ways that fabric selvedges, as material-rhetorical practices, advance our ability to affectively think-with objects as a way to engage with material feminism in service of social justice work.


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Donna Haraway and Sharon Traweek teach us that when we tell stories these are performative…there is no important difference between stories and materials. Or, to put it a little differently: stories, effective stories, perform themselves into the material world—yes, in the form of social relations, but also in the form of machines, architectural arrangements, bodies, and all the rest.” – John Law, “On the Subject of the Object” 


Peitho readers who work with fabric materials are likely aware of the “selvedge,” the final edge of a bolt of fabric that is both warp and weft that keeps it from fraying. Selvedges, coming from “self-edge,” represent a moment in material making in fabric production that is finite and finished. It is true that most often selvedges are thrown away, the edge of a bolt of fabric that is not like the rest. It provides information like manufacturers’ names, dye runs from light to dark known as color registrations (or more colloquially “traffic lights,” as that is what they resemble), or particular pattern numbers or designers’ names. Yet each of these, I argue here, also functions accretively as a textual addition to the fabric itself. These throwaway pieces have been used contemporarily by fabric workers of all sorts as a way to repurpose and make use of scraps and often take contemporary forms as rag rugs, quilts, handbags, pillows, placemats. Rather than focus on selvedge repurposing, however, instead I focus on the ways that selvedges can reveal a particular life to the material that allows materials themselves to point a researcher towards interesting questions, histories, connections, and recoveries.  Selvedges, as material-rhetorical practices, advance our ability to affectively think-with objects as a way to engage with material feminism in service of social justice work. 

Material Practices and Accretive Methods: Theoretical Framing 

The notion that the material is central to the life of feminist recovery work is not new. Indeed, to “read” fabric as I do in this short piece brings together insights put forward by feminist scholars, rhetorical scholars, new material and posthuman scholars, decolonial scholars, and scholars doing work at the forefront of crafting and maker communities. In her Key Concept Statement, “Material,” published in Peitho in 2015, Elizabeth Fleitz details the centrality of material practices, bodies, material conditions, objects, and spaces to women’s rhetorics. Since Flietz’ statement was published, an abundance of work has pointed attention to this emergent commonplace. This is evidenced by scholarship that has examined material-rhetorical rendering of the vibrant networks that surround both objects and identity politics.  

Such examples of this scholarship abound: Sarah Hallenbeck’s  work on bicycles as “active creators and shapers of new arguments” surrounding women’s bodies in the nineteenth century (198); Minahan and Cox’s examination of cyberfeminist roots of the “reclaiming of feminine craft” through Stitch’nBitch clubs (Minahan and Cox 10); and Kirtz’s reconsideration of collaborative fiber arts movements that examine textiles as data storage are all models of the intertwining between feminism and the material. Working with textiles in particular offers up a re-materialization of making, considering that contemporary mass industrial sewing practices dematerialize those who labor to create them—primarily women and girls working in the textile industry (see in particular Propen; Cloud). To that end, it is my aim to join not only in ongoing conversations around fabric and textile-oriented scholarship that engages making (see, for example, Shivers-McNair), quilting (see Arellano), and feminist material objects (see Goggin, Sohan), but also to join scholars like Iris Ruiz and Sonia Arellano in participating in productive calls to engage with tactile and haptic rhetorics to contribute to alternate ways of knowing that might better “facilitate knowledge production in positive ways for marginalized people” (151).  As they assert, and as Arellano extends with her conception of feminist-materialist Quilting as Method (QAM), quilting in particular materially joins intellectual and creative labor, resulting in different kinds of knowledge production (Ruiz and Arellano 158). Peripheral materials such as selvedges, literally marginal to quilting, can contribute in small but significant ways to thinking about feminist material-rhetorical practices and the histories they invoke. I aim to showcase here how one example of textile making can engage in processes of reclamation—not of the histories of migrant laborers, as Ruiz and Arellano do—but of women and girls who disappear in recounting traditional history of the textile industry in contemporary documents, such as those that appear on websites and in marketing materials. 

This turn to craft as revealing important intersections between material, agency, power, and ethics is captured by Leigh Gruwell’s Making Matters: Craft, Ethics, and New Materialism, in which she turns to craftivism in particular to demonstrate the relationships between material, women, and political life. Craft, she argues—and more specifically, the agency that craft exerts on makers, technologies, artifacts, and relationships—serves to “illuminate the interdependence of materiality, power, and rhetorical action” (6). Thus, to engage seriously with scholars working in areas of both decolonial and new material theory, revisiting our methods and widening our approach to materials can be a careful extension of this line of thinking. 

I have argued elsewhere that examining an artifact not just as part of a system of things or a mediator of knowledge allows for “tactics for invention which emphasize networks over discrete discursive elements” (Clary-Lemon, “Museums”). Such a framework allows for an examination of the depth of textual circulation and emergent contexts, both present and past. I have also argued that materials themselves—like finding aids in archives—play a major agentive part in shaping our research questions and methods (Clary-Lemon, “Archival”). In other words, to borrow from Law’s epigraph, I’ve found it central in these cases to examine how stories perform themselves into the material world. In both cases I have found Vicki Tolar Burton’s notion of rhetorical accretion, adapted into a research method, particularly useful.  

Burton defines rhetorical accretion as “the process of layering additional texts over and around the original text” (547). Much as an oyster builds up accreted layers of nacre over an irritant to create a pearl, or the way layers of light gather around a black hole to create a luminous disk, allowing us to infer its existence, examining discursive-material artifacts like fabric selvedges in this way give us both a starting place and a methodological grounding to our analyses. We might read accreted layers around an object, like a fabric selvedge, that are myriad:  material (in the makeup of cotton, dye, and shuttle loom machinery), tactile (in the making and touching of a fabric project), affective (in our feelings as we engage in making or engage in research recovery), discursive (in the layers of new text, meaning, or context we discover), cultural and historical (in situating materials in a particular place and time), and social and embodied (in recognition of the relationships which make up the making and examination of the project). A scholar performing a material analysis might take any one of these layers as a way in to feminist recovery work. In the remainder of this piece, I forward an accretive analysis of one  particular selvedge in a single quilt square. 

Affective and Embodied Domains: Selvedge Meaning-Making 

To situate this discussion, I turn to the social, embodied, tactile, and affective domains of a selvedge project, and later turn to its historical and cultural traces. It begins with a 12-selvedge quilted square that was pieced and sewn by my mother, Ramona Mattix (see Figure 1). The amalgamated quilt square is made of twelve individual selvedges. While this short article examines only one selvedge in the square, it should be noted that there are countless ways that a researcher might examine such an artifact: 

Figure 1: 7×7 Quilted Selvedge Square Made from 12 Fabric Selvedges. Image description: a square of fabric selvedge strips. The strips are neutral colors (white, tan, beige, black) on top, with a colorful print strip toward the middle containing a line of 14 hearts, each in a color from the print, and more neutral selvedge strips in the bottom half in animal print. The lines of text on the selvedges read (from top to bottom) “Edwards of NORTHCOTT,” “Timeless Treasures ® For Hi-Fashion Fabric,” “© All Rights Reserved PATT # WILD-C 2047,” and “Cranston Print Works Co. Printed in the U.S.A. www.cranstonvillage.” The rest of the URL is cut in order to fit the square

As I looked closely at each selvedge and used these pieces as an impetus for research, additional layers of rhetorical meaning emerged: company names and websites (“”); copyrights and registered trademarks (©, ®); pattern numbers (“PATT # WILD-C 2047”); designers’ names (Judy & Judel Niemeyer”); and color registrations showing the numerical order in which the dye was applied to the fabric (“traffic lights” and rainbow hearts). While it is true that any number of these discursive details might be found, for example, in print documents—online advertisements, sewing or pattern booklets—my point here is to focus attention on the material itself. These are our finding tools of fabric archives, and a testament to material-discursive arguments.  

Any number of these clues might be taken up to “read” fabric in particular ways to understand the textual amalgamation and accreted rhetorical layers that make up this one, re-pieced square, yet it’s also important to note the research value of affectual proximity—what Solberg defines as “the intellectual and emotional investments and orientations that drive a researcher’s choice of topic” (67)—or what Sara Ahmed more eloquently describes in her article “Happy Objects,” as how we are “touched by what we are near” (30). Fabric—and those who work with it, bring it close, create with it and give it as gifts of love and labor—constructs a particular affectual proximity. I am close to this 7×7 inch square of fabric because I am close to my mother, and those proximities have relationally and affectively shaped my choice of research design. It affects why I sit writing this piece today, why I’m connecting it citationally to others the way that I am, and exerts a kind of “craft agency” (Gruwell 7) on me that both points me toward its most discursive bits, and allows for historical analysis to come.  As a rhetorician, I am drawn to the most discursive selvedge in the square, the bottom strip which reads “Cranston Print Works Co.,” which points me to a textile manufacturer located in Cranston, Rhode Island, and to a particular small piece of recovery work, which the next few pages reveal. 

Historical and Cultural Traces: Fabric as Archive 

Scholars doing work in the area of women’s labor history and early industrialization, particularly in New England, will be somewhat familiar with the role that the “Lowell Mills” of Massachusetts played in the American Industrial revolution. It gave rise to the “mill girls,” rural women who would move to cities to work in textile mills but had to spend most of their income on boardinghouse fees. These histories gave rise to some of the first female workers’ unions in the United States in the late 1840s. However, before the Waltham-Lowell power loom methods were adopted in Massachusetts, placing the entire process of textile manufacturing under one roof, there was an industrial precursor. That precursor existed in Rhode Island with the emigration of Samuel Slater from England in 1789. Slater, known as “Slater the traitor” in the UK for developing new spinning and carding techniques stolen from Richard Arkwright in England, owned many small mills (known later as “Slater Mills”) all over Rhode Island, one of which, the Old Green Mill, later became the Cranston Print Works Company (“Our History”). 

We collectively know that textile manufacturing has long been a feminized workplace of questionable safety.  The Rhode Island Slater mills, like the Cranston Print Works Company, show us a similarly problematic historic backbone to our love for warp and weft. Gail Fowler Mohanty notes that “the introduction of spinning, roving, and carding mechanisms in the late 18th century served as a catalyst for changes in workshop management” (5) and used spinning frames, namely the Arkwright model that Slater imported, with which to do so. The Rhode Island mills often relied on “hand-spun cotton, woolen, or linen warp” (6), and thus different parts of the carding, spinning, and weaving processes would take place in different locations, unlike large-scale manufacturing offered by the power loom. These two models manifested a long-seated rivalry between the Rhode Island and Massachusetts systems: the industrial water-powered mills in Massachusetts which had the capacity to run the power looms by women under one roof, and the smaller, dispersed cottage system of the Rhode Island mills. Thus in order to employ factory labor to run the various new machines in the Rhode Island system, Slater’s brainchild was to employ child labor, particularly children living in poverty between the ages of 7 and 12 working 12-16 hours a day, six days a week with a forced “Sunday School” on the 7th day (Tucker 22).  

The Slater Mills, and in particular the Cranston Print Works’ historical evolution from them, draws our attention from the common narrative of women working in large textile factories and instead toward rural poor children given room and board in lieu of wages and forced to attend religious school. Although histories of the industrial revolution suggest farm children were raised on hard work (see Simonds, Stearns), they were not in any way raised for exploitation. Like other histories of trauma and abuse that become paved over and sanitized in favor of master narrative of progress—Slater has been called the “father of the Industrial Revolution”— histories of capitalism and industrialization tend to tout the revolutionary nature of the power loom in manufacturing without actually touching a story of sending a seven-year-old child to work, often through the night, operating dangerous machinery. 

Of course, this system became untenable as families complained about the lack of wages and the treatment of their children, which included whipping and other corporeal punishment. Thus, Slater turned to what is now deemed the “family system” of labor, a deeply patriarchal system dependent on the notion of a male householder who “owns” familial women and children. Under the village, or “Rhode Island System,” a rather sanguine “Early Industrialization in the Northeast” open-access U.S. History text has this to say: 

…families were hired. The father was placed in charge of the family unit, and he directed the labor of his wife and children. Instead of being paid in cash, [often] the father was given “credit” equal to the extent of his family’s labor that could be redeemed in the form of rent (of company-owned housing) or goods from the company-owned store.  

Such compensation in the family system is represented by Figure 2, taken from Edith Abbot’s “A Study of the Early History of Child Labor in America,” which she culled from an 1815 manufacturing memorandum book from Poignaud and Plant Papers. 

Figure 2: Compensation from the Family System (Abbot 28) Image description: a written table of salaries for each member of a family. One section of the table is a list of salaries of a man and his children. The family members’ names, ages, and relations are written on the left side of each line, and a series of dots separates the person from the salary amount. The top section reads: Himself $5.00, His son Robert Rier, 10 years of age 0.83, Daughter Mary, 12 years of age 1.25, Son William, 13 years of age 1.50, Son Michael, 16 years of age 2.00. Underneath Michael’s salary is a line and the total for the family, 10.58. The bottom section reads: His sister, Abigail Smith 2.33, Her daughter Sally, 8 years of age 0.75, Son Samuel, 13 years of age 1.50. Underneath Samuel’s salary is a line and the total for Abigail and her children: 4.58.

While men were valued the most highly, they did not work alongside their children, but rather, negotiated terms of their employment and collected their wages (Tucker 22). In supplanting manufacturers’ discipline for fathers’ and husbands’, as Tucker notes, the Slater system “sought to strengthen patriarchy, not challenge it” (22). In 1817, ten years after what is now the Cranston Print Works Company opened, the Niles Register (a weekly national magazine of some import) noted that “the work of manufacture[r]s does not demand able-bodied men…but ‘is now better done by little girls from six to twelve years old’ (qtd. In Abbott 24). Because of the Slater village system, Rhode Island led the nation in child labor throughout the 19th century.i It should be noted, too, that before child labor laws were introduced, these children were whipped and slapped for failure to perform or for falling asleep in their 12-14 hour workday (which was often followed by household chores and evening school), often worked without access to bathrooms, and were not allowed to sit down while working (Tucker 23; Abbott 33). [1] 

Layers of Fabric, Layers of Meaning: A Conclusion 

So what impact does such a discursive-material rhetorical reading have on feminist rhetorical work? In part, it is central to recover the difficult histories of labor and who is affected by those untold stories that rest in materials in order to work against simple narratives of progress. The Cranston Print Works Company has a history, as all industrial textile mills do, that is obscured today. Its current company website lauds Slater’s life and work, highlighting words like “expansion” and “innovation;” yet a different story is made available by a particular kind of affective proximity to the material and an accretive research process. It also helps us recover specific directions for reconsideration of women’s histories and marginalized communities that add to our already existing rhetorical histories of labor mills and women’s work (see Propen; Cloud). Although many are familiar with contemporary and historical connections between the poor conditions of textile work and the living conditions of women (at least in the late 18th century and early 19th century) women had far more comparative agency than those who remain the most invisible and vulnerable in the histories of textile work: children, particularly those living in poverty, or, by the 1840s, immigrant children. What working with textiles and materials in the form of selvedges may allow us is a tactile entryway into a history of an industrial colonization of families and an extension and solidification of a dominating patriarchal system that preyed on the defenseless: children raised to be both obedient and deferent to those they trusted.  

My point is not to suggest that an examination of every selvedge, or every scrap, or every craft might necessarily lead to such recovery work. Still, the possibility of material agency’s exertion on rhetorical work—even in the smallest of artifacts—is nonetheless one worth reconsidering.  When we research such traces, such object-stories, we are brought closer to suffering, to outrage, to deep sadness. As Ahmed suggests, we are “moved by things” (33). What material-rhetorical research allows is an account of such movement; an account of how we might generate a small window into connecting present and past in the spirit of feminist recovery and reconsideration. In urges us to consider differently the layering together of subject and object, to ask complex questions of our research processes. For example, how might we use contemporary or historic selvedge fabrics as starting points to trace not only the histories of child labor in a patriarchal system, but the emergence and decline of textile manufacture as they responded to women’s rising power in production? How might we imagine selvedge and other fabric research as part of what might bring us closer to other recovered histories: of cotton dust into lungs, the affects of chemical carcinogens in dyes, of bodies maimed by roving frames? How might we use material to pay closer attention to bodies, material conditions, spaces, and women’s rhetorics? And how might this kind of research help us understand that there is no important difference between stories and materials? It is central to recover in these fabric archives the bodies who have labored to produce them. 

End Note 

[1]An 1831 Friends of Industry report chronicled that of 4,691 children working in cotton factories in New England, 3,472 of them were from Rhode Island (Abbott 30).  

Works Cited 

Abbott, Edith. “A Study of the Early History of Child Labor in America. American Journal of Sociology, vol. 14, no. 1, 1908, pp. 15-37. 

Ahmed, Sarah. “Happy Objects.” The Affect Theory Reader, edited by Melissa Gregg and  

Gregory J. Seigworth, Duke UP, 2010, pp. 29-51. 

Arellano, Sonia. “Quilting as a Qualitative, Feminist Research Method: Expanding Understandings of Migrant Deaths.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 41, no. 1, 2022, pp. 17-30. 

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