Jennifer Martin Writing on Wool – IFWC


Barn 42

The women toil, naked but for the pathetic rag of hemp which is their uniform. In place of gloves the women’s calloused hands wear yet more callouses. Shackled by indoctrination they turn soil, plant seeds, harvest crops in fractured harmony. But the earth is almost barren. It is hard and unyielding. Breaking through the frozen surface takes great effort now. Only muddy brownness and frost span the desolation which is interpolated every now and then by a farm building or a decaying tree. The sheep, all that are left of the farm’s livestock, are kept indoors. The cold burns through the skin and freezes the blood as it slowly trickles through the veins. This is not the reason so many women and all but the sheep have died. The Evelyns say it is because God is punishing the feeble to show us that “weakness is not the way”. Dead bodies are displayed at various points around the farm to prove this. Nobody knows why the sheep continue to survive.


If she turns slightly to the left and squints over the mounting debris of human and animal carcasses, from the corn field in which she works today, Martha can see her sleeping quarters, next to Barn 42. She longs to be there now. The windy, creaky, tin barn and her thin muslin sheets offer little protection from the cold, but the straw bales promise rest. She would give anything to let her heavy eyelids slide shut, to feel the delicious pull of sleep on her limbs, but she must endure. Sleep is for the weak and “women must work.”


“Women must work.” There is scriptural precedent. Naturally this does not apply to the Evelyns. The Evelyns oversee the work . They live on the farm with the working women; two per dormitory. The Evelyns are different from the women because they are fertile. This is why they are protected. By night the Evelyns wrap their bodies in luxurious layers of thick, warm sheepskin, which is salvaged after The Slaughtering of the Lamb ceremonies. By day the Evelyns’ don trouser overalls of layered sheep’s wool. The Evelyns’ uniforms are made by the women who work in Barn 42. Martha remembers the barn in the time before. It had no specific name then but it was where the cows were milked. Every time she works there now Martha squeezes her eyes tight and holds her breath. She can still smell the sour creaminess of cow’s milk. Now the barn is divided into sections. Some women are responsible for shearing the sheep, others scour, card, gill, and comb until the wool is ready to spin into yarn. Sitting cross legged on the ground some women finish the process, knitting together the yarn by hand. The long, thin knitting needles chink and clink as the women weave. Cast on, knit, purl, cast off, cast on, knit, purl, cast off; a steady, syncopated rhythm.


Most of the women only know the basics, unless they learnt more in the time before, but even then that is necessarily forgotten here. There is no finesse in the uniforms’ manufacture; no softness or lustre which existed in the wool of the time before. The Evelyn’s attire is designed solely with functionality in mind. The beautiful, pastel blue, Merion sweater – soft to the touch, delicate, and warm, embroidered with white and baby pink sequins – Martha used to own is brought to her mind. John had bought it for her one Christmas. It would be deemed sinfully superfluous on the farm now.


It hurts to remember the time before but sometimes the past explodes into the present without warning. When it does it shatters the protective wall Martha knew she must build around her heart from the moment she was selected to be a worker like a hammer to glass. Martha tries to forget.


Later the woollen uniforms will be taken and dyed crimson. This is not the right order of things. The women do not dye the uniforms themselves. It is the guards’ job. There are rumours that the Evelyns’ woollen attire is dyed with the martyred blood collected after every Slaughtering of the Lamb ceremony. This could signify their status. The Evelyns still bleed once a month; “by the grace of God”. They are special. Once the Evelyns have completed a year’s term on the farm they will be entered into the pool of eligibles from which the Adams select their wives. Most of the Adams have no more than three wives. Since the earth got cold, food is short. It is hard to feed one wife and her children let alone more hungry mouths. But this is a matter of pride for the Adams. The uniforms are heavy and suffocating on the small frames of the Evelyns. But they serve their purpose. Body heat is trapped between the Evelyns and their fleecey uniforms. A deep, satisfying warmth engulfs them; they have security.


Icy bitterness seeps into the working women’s pellucid skin. It enters through their pores and buries deep into their bones. Nobody really remembers when the sun stopped shining but the Evelyns say it is God’s way of punishing the sins of our previous ways. This is why the women work; they are the only redemption. The thick, cold air is white hot. It cruelly deceives the senses. At its worst the women feel as though their fragile bodies are being plunged into boiling oil. Oil which burns and crisps every inch of their precious skin. Work for the women is mostly outdoors, the elements are unrelenting, and layers of flesh peel away every day. Yesterday number 123 fainted at the sight of pearly ulna protruding through soft tissue. She was flogged by a guard in full view of the women. Another warning that “weakness is not the way”.


Most of the women’s toes and feet are now lumped together in a painful, sodden mush of rancid flesh. Bodies are in a state of decay. “This is God’s will.” Once vital to life the women are now emaciated and wasting. Hands are useless blocks. Tongues are swollen, blue, and frozen immutably. The disabled organ leaks a puce discharge of blood and puss: a visceral reminder that women cannot speak here, though this is not merely because they lack the physical means. It is hard to believe that women’s lips were red and plump once. Now the cold chaps, lips are colourless like glass noodles. Even the women who arrived on the farm in the last delivery, a little over two months ago, already have blisters and sores around their mouths. They look like what the Evelyns refer to in their teachings to the farm women, as the “heroin-hookers” and “hedonist-night-club-whores” of the previous world, whose diseased faces were manifestations of God’s shame in their sinful exploits. The stubs of what are left of the women’s ginger teeth grind and chatter taciturnly. There is no shelter from the plummeting temperature for the women and cold’s numbness is pervasive.


Martha craves warmth. She wants her pastel blue sweater. She wants to wear it curled in her favourite armchair reading a cheap novel. She wants to wear it watching TV curled in front of the fire with John. She wants John to peel it from her body.


This text on Wool was written and submitted by Jennifer Martin for Round 2 of Modeconnect’s International Fashion Writing Competition. Check Jennifer’s entry for Round 1: From benality to Brilliance: the fashion of Hussein Chalayan

Read all the International Fashion Writing Competition published submissions.