Devil’s Dust

On the Cultural Significance of Detritus
by Hanna Rose Shell


Media & Resources




Hanna Rose Shell

In light of our ongoing support for Frontiers of Solitude, an art project which engages in a complex inquiry into the environmental issues of our planet, and with gratitude to Cabinet Magazine for their willingness to collaborate, we bring you an article by Hanna Rose Shell on the cultural significance of detritus through an investigation of a byproduct of the textile industry called “shoddy”.


You can see the heap as you travel between Manchester and Leeds on the M62, the motorway that crosses England’s old industrial region and connects its two great port cities, Liverpool and Hull. It is hard to tell what it is, though, and most travelers probably pass right by. Reaching about twenty feet at its highest point, the heap could easily be mistaken for an unusual geological formation. From a different angle, it might appear to be a mound of manure but for the fact that it’s dappled gray. The smell is also different: like rotten wool, or perhaps a wet dog. Up close, small items glitter amid the gray—stray rhinestones, buttons, the occasional zipper. A few peaks rise up like mini-Matterhorns.

We are on the outskirts of Leeds in West Yorkshire’s Heavy Woollen District, a region that in the early years of the nineteenth century emerged as a center for wool processing and a key seat of the Industrial Revolution. (By century’s end, it had also become an area for farming rhubarb, both in fields and in the dark in sheds that dot the nearby landscape.) A dusty footpath, one of many in a huge network of public pathways for ramblers, leads to the heap. At the trail’s entrance is an enigmatic handmade sign: “Please do not dump any more shoddy on this site.”

This heap is composed of used wool rags, socks, shredded clothes, and remnants from the textile industry, all slowly disintegrating into the earth. Despite containing the refuse of multiple fiber-based industries, including wool scouring and rag sorting, this is not a dump in any typical sense. In various states of chemical decomposition and arranged in strata-like layers, this debris has a biological purpose; wool contains a high amount of nitrogen that it releases slowly as it breaks down, making it an excellent aid to plant growth. Here, textile waste — delivered semi-regularly, though informally, by various participants in the area’s largely defunct, though nevertheless evolving, fiber-based industries — gradually turns into agricultural fertilizer that is intended for use on the surrounding rhubarb crops, but which also feeds the bright green weeds growing around the heap. This heap is an entry point into a material history of waste processing as technogenesis.

Today, when one hears the word shoddy, one thinks of an adjective meaning “low quality” or “badly fabricated.” But, in fact, the term came into existence in the early decades of the nineteenth century as a noun, referring to a new textile material produced from old rags and tailors’ clippings.1 Workers made it by shredding wool rags in what were christened “devils,” grinding machines equipped with sharp teeth producing what came to be known by detractors as “devil’s dust.” Recycled waste and other leftovers were turned into plentiful “new” raw materials in the “shoddy towns” of Batley and Dewsbury, just outside of Leeds. Over the next century, shoddy—along with a related textile waste derivative known as “mungo,” which appeared in the mid-1830s—was widely used in the production of suits, army uniforms, slaves’ clothing, carpet lining, and mattress stuffing. Leftovers from these processes landed on the fields.

Discards from wool scouring, as well as torn-up woolen rags, had been used informally before — for fertilizer and saddle stuffing, for example — but systematic processes of collection, sorting, grinding, and respinning were new.2 “The shoddy system,” as it was termed by its late Victorian promoters, reconfigured the clothing industry — and with it, machines, communities, and landscapes such as this. With its origins in clothes that were previously worn (often to pieces) by unknown and unknowable others, shoddy acted as a discomforting intermediary between human bodies and social classes. The embodiment of a complex system of materials, processes, and social structures, it became both a magnet for vitriol and a marker for the erosion — real or imagined — of boundaries between waste and manufacture, rich and poor, hand and machine.

By the start of the twentieth century, woolgrowers, increasingly concerned about the threat that shoddy wool posed to their profit margins, launched widespread anti-shoddy campaigns in the United Kingdom and, even more so, in the United States, where the shoddy process had landed in the 1820s and had come to thrive in the second half of the nineteenth century. A glut of used military uniforms available for shredding after World War I further panicked the wool industry. From this panic came a new term, virgin, introduced to describe not-shoddy wool. As labeling legislation began to require specification of material components as either virgin or shoddy, euphemisms were coined for the latter — among them adulterated, reworked, and renaissance wool. By the last few decades of the twentieth century, shoddy-as-noun was a designation almost universally forgotten, except in places like West Yorkshire.

Our heap is in some ways similar to one that might have been here a hundred or even two hundred years ago, when textile waste also made its way onto local agricultural fields. These are piles of industrial detritus that cannot find another home; the dregs of the dregs aspiring to some form of late-in-life productive function. But other features of this heap suggest a much more recent vintage. While some of the material is clearly wool waste, leftovers from the scouring process carried out at one of the few remaining wool treatment facilities in the region, there is also a lot of what looks like laundry lint. These striated mounds are baled-up dust collected from extractor fans in rag-grinding mills, or else collected in “cyclones,” machines used to shake rags before shredding. The powdery excess of this process — modern-day “devil’s dust” — is compressed into bales, shrink-wrapped, and tied with wire. Once it has been delivered to the field, the wires are clipped and the shrink-wrap cut, but the moisture in the material helps the bales retain their form. Over the coming season, or even seasons, the mountains of textile dust will be left in place to slowly merge with the soil and plant scum as they decompose.

In today’s West Yorkshire, the recycling industry has largely outlived its technological and material progenitor, the wool trade. The region between Leeds and the nearby city of Bradford has now become a centralized area for the collection and sorting of clothing donated to charities from all over the United Kingdom. These organizations bale most of the clothing and either ship it to Poland for further sorting or send it outside the EU for immediate use; the rest, however, is sold to be shredded to create shoddy. Whereas traditional shoddy was (and still is, to an increasingly limited extent) formed into yarn, cloth, clothing, and army blankets, this new shoddy increasingly makes its way into carpets, carpet backing, mattresses, speaker systems, and padding for automobiles and envelopes. That is because most of the clothing being shipped to the Heavy Woollen District — huge numbers of T-shirts, pants, and socks produced in sweatshops in the developing world but worn in England or elsewhere in the EU, all to be reprocessed here — is made of synthetic fibers. Now manned by the relatively recent influx of Pakistani and Indian immigrants, the factories devoted to the task of processing this new shoddy often employ the very same machinery used decades ago in the production of traditional shoddy. One type of recycling has morphed into another.

One of shoddy’s first great promoters, a West Yorkshire businessman and historian, proclaimed of the “rag and shoddy system” that “there are no accumulations of mountains of debris to take up room, or disfigure the landscape; all — good, bad, and indifferent — pass on, and are beneficially appropriated.”3 Much of what we see here today, however, will never be “beneficially appropriated.” That is because the synthetic fibers that make up an increasingly large part of the heap biodegrade much more slowly than natural ones (if they do at all). But despite the protestations of landowners, the dumpers have a vested interest in calling this material “useful” rather than refuse, and depositing it as such; doing so provides a way to avoid substantial “waste” fees levied by the United Kingdom in accordance with the very European Union legislation that drove so many in this region to support the Brexit referendum. Shoddy’s constantly shifting manifestation in space, time, and states of de- and recomposition binds nature and artifact, found and forged, waste and wanted. At levels both material and metaphorical, shoddy continues to wear the traces and bear the burdens of an environmental and political history in progress.

1. On the contested etymologies of this term and others used herein, and on the history and significance of shoddy’s emergence more generally, see my “Shoddy Heap: A Material History between Waste and Manufacture,” History and Technology, vol. 30, no. 44 (2014), pp. 374–394.

2. The genealogy of wool waste processing, in particular rags’ reduction to fiber and their respinning into new fabric for wear, is distinctive from — although technologically related to — that of the collection and reuse of cotton and linen rags for writing paper manufacture.

3. Samuel Jubb, The History of the Shoddy-Trade: Its Rise, Progress, and Present Position (London: Houlston & Wright, 1860), p. 24.

First printed in Cabinet magazine no. 60 and reprinted here with their kind permission.