Craftsmen: Capitalism’s conscientious objectors

What an artisanal renaissance tells us about the automated age

John Paul Rollert

In-House Ethicist

John Paul Rollert | May 30, 2019

Sections Economics

Collections Ethics

This is the most amazing sound,” Warwick Jones says. I listen closely. There are footfalls, the rustle of fabric, and, most importantly, the voices of craftsmen. Jones grins. “You don’t hear a machine,” he says. 

Jones is the CEO of Oxxford Clothes, a company that largely eschews the conventional machinery of mass-produced clothing. Even in the luxurious realm of high-end men’s attire—suits, topcoats, blazers, tuxedos, and slacks—Oxxford’s commitment to handwork is unique. There is no other company in the world that I know of with a corps of trained artisans committed to producing the kind of handmade garments that, once upon a time, the likes of Cary Grant, Joe DiMaggio, and Walt Disney favored.

In an age when automation threatens to eliminate whole categories of employment—loan officers, telemarketers, truck drivers, and others—there is something pleasantly, and pointedly, out of step in an enterprise such as Oxxford. Increasingly, however, it has company. In the artisanal renaissance among hipster millennials, the mushrooming of farmers’ markets, and the surprising success of Etsy, we find other craft-based, conscientious objectors to contemporary capitalism. 

Nowadays, craftsmanship is a viable alternative for a larger segment of the public. In the past, handmade goods had been the reserve of the well-to-do who could afford tasteful inefficiency. But with growing wealth and an expanding middle class over the past two decades, we have seen the popularization of the craft credo: a concern for quality over quantity, the commitment to honoring the work of human hands, and a belief that less is more. 

These commitments stand at odds with the twin currents of industrialization: enhanced productivity and increasing automation. For over a century, the artisans at Oxxford Clothes have stubbornly resisted these forces, an achievement that holds lessons for the fate of craftsmanship in a world of wider affluence.

Beauty in a buttonhole 

For one accustomed to the earsplitting impersonality of machine production, a visit to the factory floor at Oxxford is a series of revelations.

Trousers, for instance, can be a thing of wonder. Oxxford’s are based on a construction (patented by the company in 1936) wherein the pocketing and lining are assembled from four pieces of fabric, all hand sewn. Also hand sewn are the buttons, the buttonholes, the nickel-plated hook and eye, and even the hidden watch pocket. The last is an old-world amenity, a curiosity more than a convenience, and one which, unlike the cigarette pocket inside Oxxford’s jackets, hasn’t fallen victim to an evolving sense of etiquette. 

“You create. We make.” This is the motto suggested by Stanley Morawa, Oxxford’s master tailor, for the company’s obliging approach to its clientele. Still, most customers are content to trust Morawa’s sartorial expertise when it comes to the choices that might be most becoming. Should a blazer be single- or double-breasted? Two buttons or three? Double vent, center vent, or no vent? Peaked or notched lapel (and, for that matter, what about the width)? 

“You can take a piece of flat steel and make a car,” Jones observes, but “you’re stamping it out with a mold.” Any mold Oxxford uses is unique, and the suit that takes shape around it requires three fittings of the client and an average of eight weeks to assemble. “We take a flat piece of fabric and make it three-dimensional using our hands. That’s it,” Jones says. “Only artists can do that.” 

Greed has always been with us, but for those who looked on with horror at the Industrial Revolution, its price warranted an urgent reassessment.

There are nearly 130 of them on the 45,000-foot factory floor, most of whom spend their days stitching garments by hand. And, believe me, there are a lot of stitches. Jones counted nearly 5,000 hand stitches in a pair of suit pants he had made for himself in the fall, a number that rises to 14,240 when the jacket is included. This handwork amounts to 85 percent of the total stitching in a suit, with the final 15 percent done using machines involving only those seams, such as the one along the back of a jacket, that should be strong but not supple. 

Such hand stitching far exceeds that of comparably priced attire. For example, Jones reckons that suits from Ralph Lauren’s elite Purple Label line feature only 20 percent handwork, an estimate a Ralph Lauren representative couldn’t confirm. Why the disparity? It may be explained by a single statistic. Making a buttonhole by machine takes roughly 10 seconds. By hand, it’s 28 minutes.

Seeking redemption from industrialization

The artisans at Oxxford are part of a tradition of craftsmanship that precedes motorized looms and sewing machines by several hundred years, but the advent of industrial capitalism served to sacralize their art and instill it with a reactionary purpose. The social crusade inspired by these developments came to be known as the Arts and Crafts movement, a campaign that once shared a home with Oxxford Clothes in the industrial outpost of Chicago. 

By the time Oxford was founded in 1916—the second “x” only entered the company’s name in 1949 when it filed for a trademark—the Windy City had been the American home of the Arts and Crafts movement for nearly three decades. An earnest crusade to revive the skilled workmanship associated with traditional handicrafts such as woodworking, stone masonry, stained glass, and weaving, the campaign spawned a consortium of schools, guilds, and societies whose “purpose,” the economist Thorstein Veblen wrote at the time in his essay “Arts and Crafts,” was “to humanize and beautify industry and to bring art into the everyday work of the industrial classes.”

This second aim, which was less about beautifying factory work than about banishing its dehumanizing elements, gave the movement its social mission. American adherents had adopted it from abroad, where the movement was something of an awkward addition to the cultural politics of Victorian England. It began in the 1840s with Thomas Carlyle’s call for a return to “chivalry of labor.” In his most famous book, Past and Present, the social critic derided the industrial barons whose values, in his view, omitted any tender aim or civic virtue in favor of filthy lucre. “To see beauty, order, gratitude, loyal human hearts around them, shall be of no moment,” he declared. “To see fuliginous deformity, mutiny, hatred and despair, with addition a million guineas, shall be better?”

Greed has always been with us, but for those who looked on with horror at the Industrial Revolution, its price warranted an urgent reassessment. It wasn’t merely the claustrophobic squalor of cities such as Manchester, England, which nearly quintupled in size during the first half of the 19th century, but the depredations of factory work. As John Ruskin wrote nearly a decade after Carlyle in The Stones of Venice:

We have much studied and much perfected, of late, the great civilized invention of the division of labour, only we give it a false name. It is not, truly speaking, the labour that is divided; but the men—Divided into mere segments of men—broken into small fragments and crumbs of life; so that all the little piece of intelligence that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin, or a nail, but exhausts itself in making the point of the pin or the head of the nail.

Ruskin, like Carlyle before him, was essentially an aesthete. And yet, if both men were most at home diagnosing the ailments of the age from the sanctuary of a study, their obsession with the miserable working conditions of the machine age made them long for the beauty, simplicity, and versatility of medieval workmanship. 

They would write about such a world looking backward, but their spiritual protégé, William Morris, would endeavor to revive it. The son of a financier who made a fortune investing in copper mines, Morris could have afforded a life of leisure, but as a student at Oxford, he fell under the spell of Carlyle and Ruskin, becoming enchanted by the vision of a working world far different from the one that confronted him. After brief postgraduate sallies in architecture, poetry, and painting, Morris drew on his funds and a few of his closest friendships to found what became known as the Firm. It focused primarily on the decorative arts (furniture, tapestries, glassware, even wallpaper), a scrappy enterprise whose ambitions a contemporary observer described in Scribner’s Magazine as “a revival of the medieval spirit (not the letter) in design; a return to simplicity, to sincerity; to good materials and sound workmanship,” according to a biography of Morris by the social historian E. P. Thompson.

William Morris saw a sinister relationship between the cretinizing effects of factory life and the crummy goods that, to his mind, were synonymous with machine production.

Morris was an antiquarian in his artistic affinities, but he never regarded the Firm as an endeavor in nostalgia, nor even an aesthetic exercise to invigorate a culture of craftsmanship. Instead, it had a clear social mission. Morris, his partners, and their apprentices would be a living (and working) rebuke to the “eyeless vulgarity” of an England in the thrall of the Industrial Revolution—an age, he believed, that was characterized by the “degradation of labour” and the “sham work” it facilitated. 

The relationship between these qualities helped to distinguish Morris’s craft-based critique of capitalism from Karl Marx’s theory of alienation, which held that the working conditions of heavy industry tended to suffocate the natural instinct of human beings to envision and actively create the material world around them. Like Marx, Morris believed that hyperspecialization in factory work denuded one’s daily labors of any sense of beauty, meaning, or active purpose, and he hoped to restore these qualities by means of his handicraft gospel. A “man at work, making something which he feels will exist because he is working at it and wills it, is exercising the energies of his mind and soul as well as his body,” he wrote in one of the many public lectures he delivered to audiences across England. And yet, there was a sinister relationship for him between the cretinizing effects of factory life and the crummy goods that, to his mind, were synonymous with machine production. 

Contrary to the caricature his critics favored, Morris was not a Luddite. Where machines did jobs that humans couldn’t do or which “human suffering would otherwise have to do,” cautiously, he allowed for them. But whenever he turned his eye to the “dark Satanic mills” the poet William Blake had warned of decades before, the use of machines failed to meet these standards. That was bad enough, but what enraged Morris was that they were busy producing garbage. The Industrial Revolution had ushered in a “competition of cheapness, not of excellence.” 

For Morris, the remedy lay with the craftsmen. They alone had “the duty and honour of educating the public,” he said, as well as “the seeds of order and organisation which makes that duty easier.” Making everyday items of immense beauty would always remain Morris’s first love, but this pedagogical mission became a lifelong passion. If people could only learn to prize quality over quantity, they could redeem themselves from the soul-stunting effects of industrialization and daily rediscover the essential lesson of his social philosophy: less is more. 

The failed crusade for craftsmanship

If William Morris led a “holy warfare against the age,” as Thompson described it, the crusade was a failure. Morris was never able to resolve the tension between his aesthetics, which were underwritten by bourgeois admirers, and his egalitarian longings. “I hang along with my creative work on to the apron-strings of the idle privileged classes,” he complained to a friend in a letter Thompson includes in his biography. Indeed, if there were any larger lesson to be drawn from the precarious finances of the Firm, it was one that Morris resisted: the handicrafts might abide under capitalism, but they would be the exclusive possession of the elite.

Such a predicament is familiar to Warwick Jones, for elites, like fashion, can be awfully fickle. As a stroll through the offices of most any Fortune 500 company makes plain, professional men simply don’t wear suits any more. (In March, for example, Goldman Sachs became one of the last of the big Wall Street firms to relax its formal dress code.) The consequences for companies such as Oxxford have been keen. In 1986, just a year before Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko sent young stock brokers scrambling for flannel pinstripes, Oxxford made an estimated 35,000 suits. Today, it produces around 4,500, almost half the number of garments the company makes annually. The difference is reflected on the company’s balance sheet. Whereas sales were around $30 million annually in the mid-1950s, today they are closer to $20 million, a substantial difference when inflation is considered, and one that gives Oxxford’s execs ample reason to long for the days of the three-martini lunch.

The company has explored ways of goosing sales. They experimented with introducing new types of apparel—shirts, ties, shorts—and even tried to ride the tide of fashion, promoting suit styles that exchanged the lissome silhouette of a Fred Astaire for the sutured impression of “slim fit.”

The greatest temptation, however, has been to follow the lead of other luxury makers, whose off-the-rack garments feature similar price points but only a fraction of Oxxford’s handwork. Nearly a decade ago, Jones’s predecessors gave in, introducing the 1220, a since-discontinued line of suits with far less hand stitching. Jones doesn’t regret the departure. “It’s easy to take out of the garment,” he says. But doing so comes at a cost. It “changes the DNA” of Oxxford.

A commitment to handcrafted clothing is the essence of Oxxford’s brand and central to its value proposition, but unless you’re convinced that customers would abandon Oxxford en masse at the introduction of machine-padded lapels, the company could probably make more by doing less. And yet, by doing less, it would be purchasing greater efficiency at the price of its legacy: a painstaking commitment to craftsmanship. 

Does that mean that an Oxxford Clothes or, for that matter, any enterprise organized along craft principles doesn’t fit within the DNA of capitalism? Perhaps not as comfortably as an Oxxford blazer. Craftsmen, such as Morawa, are not creatures of the marketplace. They may be able to work with one eye on the bottom line, but if you force them to focus on it exclusively, they lose sight of their creations. 

In the modern world, this has meant that craft goods have been viable for only the rarefied few who can afford a little less efficiency. This was certainly the case for Morris’s clientele, as it has historically been for Oxxford’s, but, from handmade goods to farm-to-table restaurants, the expanding wealth of the modern world has had the effect of making craft goods more readily available to a wider group of consumers. Oxxford’s problem is that Americans have traded the Dapper Dan look of days gone by for the haute couture hoodie of Silicon Valley. Their challenge is one of changing tastes, not the adulterating effects of mass production.

No doubt, the ghost of William Morris will not soon supplant Adam Smith as the guiding spirit of capitalism. But craftsmen take note: in a world of increasing affluence, there may be room yet for working side by side with the inventions of the Invisible Hand.

John Paul Rollert is adjunct assistant professor of behavioral science at Chicago Booth.