Use/Use less: Affect, Labor and Non/materiality – Radhika Gajjala

What follows is a series of fragments gathered along an exploration of the word “use” in relation to my ongoing research on economies of yarn and value for what is seen as “women’s work.” This research thus far falls under three categories: digital presences of yarn subcultures (in a variety of formats including knit-blogs, podcasts, Ravelry, Etsy, and others), U.S.-based retail yarn venues (including market days and fiber-related stores), and yarn marketing through global online web 2.0 platforms from producers located physically in the global south.

I enter this investigation through a user/consumer location and as a participant of an imagined global community of mostly westernized women engaged in “DIY” (do-it-yourself) fiber based practices/skills of spinning, dyeing, weaving, knitting, and crocheting yarn. In what follows, the notions of  “user” (consumer), “use-value,” “use-less-ness,” and being “use-less” are played out in relation to mostly Marxian notions of use-value. The use-value of commodities, material and immaterial value and surplus value of labor, visibility and invisibility of labor, and the monetizing of particular categories of named labor are referred to both explicitly and implicitly in the vignettes performed. I do not theorize and elaborate in the present piece of writing. I base the writing on theorizing I have done (Gajjala, 2012) and am concurrently doing in ongoing writing projects. Much is left unsaid – open to the reader’s interaction, yet not permitting a settled understanding. The overall understanding I have garnered is based on evidence collected over the last ten years through non-continuous ethnographies that have been conducted in various craft-related contexts in both digital space and physical space. Geographically, the research spans an examination of contexts within the U.S. and India as well as scattered perceptions from Europe and Indonesia.

Vignette 1

But wait a moment – should this be characterized as “women’s work” from the start? Isn’t it true that male “artisans” also did much of the fiber crafting processes that are now feminized as women’s work?

From Field notes, 2009: 

On an ethnographic visit to an African American Quilters Guild meeting at Warrensville, Ohio (2009), one of them pointed out to us that we were not studying African American WOMEN – but African American Quilters and that should be how we frame it… in the DOING.

How might someone spinning identify themselves through the activity of spinning? As “spinsters.” Interesting how that very word came to connote something else once spinning itself was no longer the productive work that women alone performed – but that machines did instead.

–Yet do we value the output through the social categorizing of the body that does the work or by
the value of the work? What would it mean to truly separate one from the other? Who owns the work?

“..they exist in a state of autonomy, producing at home in an enclosed space….” (Pinkus, 2010)

Yet the production of yarn through handspinning in domestic space and the use of the yarn in the loom are two distinctly different activities.

“The loom is,…. ‘a machine for the production of [sexual sameness,’…. (Edelman as cited in Pinkus, 2010).

Writing of the story of the miller’s daughter and the alchemy of turning flax to gold in the tale “Rumpelstiltskin,” Karen Pinkus (2010) notes:

“…the miller’s daughter… could be said to correspond to Marx’s description of precapitalism: ‘Each individual household contains an entire economy, forming as it does an independent center of production,” more ideal than real…This self-sufficiency is threatened by the move to wage labor: ‘The spindles and looms, formerly scattered over the face of the countryside, are now crowded together in a few labour-barracks, together with the workers and the raw material. And spindles, looms and raw material are now transformed from means for independent existence of the spinners and weavers into means for commanding them and extracting unpaid labour from them’ (Perelman 75).” 

Vignette 2

They have started to look at the possibility of specializing exclusively on only some parts of the overall production process and considering investing exclusively in them, without having to engage in the entire the process of weaving. For example, centralizing pre-loom activities like dyeing and sizing opens up opportunities for business hitherto absent in handloom production. These pre-loom activities – spinning and hand dying of yarn most especially – are even “mobile” businesses in online micro-transactional networks contributing to and based in a mostly Western handmade only movement (Gajjala, forthcoming). It is interesting, therefore, to see how the breaking up of the overall production process into specialized tasks lends itself to the neoliberal global economy in bits and bytes. On the one hand there is a breaking up of whole communities happening in third-world contexts, while in first-world contexts there is an attempt to build these networks so that the services associated with pre-loom or pre-knitting processes are available online and in specialized craft stores. (2012-11-24). Cyberculture and the Subaltern (Kindle Locations 2816-2820). Lexington Books. Kindle Edition. 

The labor of (hand) spinning yarn – what is it – productive or reproductive? Material or Immaterial? Affective or Material? Is it commodity or process? More so, is the activity of hand spinning of any use in post-industrial times of production? What of the person who spends time producing yarn using such old technology as a spindle or a spinning wheel? Is this person a part of a productive labor force or just useless – an act of simultaneously producing (yarn) and using up surplus raw material (roving). In fact working with any “old technology” in this sense – using modes of production that are out of sync with the speed of production that is necessitated by contemporary supply chains and so-called market (consumer) demand – might it be considered value-less?

[“But the technology of sewing has changed little over the last hundred years,” Piore, 1997]

What is the use-value of technologies that do not emphasize speed?

(How does the inability to fully deskill or mechanize particular tasks in the production cycle affect the management, structuring, and use of labor?)

What use are the skills associated with such technologies? Are they not excessive? What is one to do with excess that cannot be mobilized as surplus value?

Delink it from the context of production where yarn is but a way to make cloth – fetishize yarn. Yarn itself becomes a product. Viewed in this way, what use has the work of spinning in the current global economy?

“Non-material use-values are those goods produced within the housework process which have no material basis: affection, sexuality, companionship, ‘love,’ and the like. These goods satisfy the individual’s non-material needs, which are as important for his/her reproduction as is a grilled steak or an ironed shirt…they are use-values for value…But surely the differences between individuals’ consumption of non‐material use‐values have a far more concrete basis.” (Fortunati, 1995, 74-75)

In most societies around the world – at least according to recorded history – the spinning of yarn was done mostly by women and in the house prior to the systematic mechanization of the process. How was the work done by these “spinsters” valued? Was it considered reproductive work or productive work? Can spinning ever be equated with non-material work (valued or not)?

There is much attention paid to the production of yarn in writings about productivity, labor, and industry. As Federici (2010) has noted, even Marx was meticulous in noting the role of yarn and its production in relation to paid and surplus labor. She notes this in the context of bemoaning the lack of attention paid to value-ing reproductive labor by Marx and his contemporaries.

“The production of workers is by means of commodities. Nothing is said
about women, domestic labor, sexuality and procreation” (Federici, 2010).

Is the activity of spinning yarn “domestic labor” in this sense? Possibly, but is it “reproductive” or “productive?”

“….he [Marx] did not ask what transformations the raw materials implicated in the reproduction of labor-power must undergo in order for their value to be transferred into their products (as he did in the case of other commodities)” (Federici, 2010).

Does the activity of spinning yarn contribute to “transformations [of] the raw materials implicated in the reproduction of labor-power”? If so – how so?

1.spinningwheelmotionfornmpImage: “Wheel in motion” Gajjala 2013 (Virtual/Real New Year’s Spinathon 2013)

Vignette 3 

2012 September, Hyderabad, India

As I sat spinning on my top whorl drop-spindle yesterday


[My mother

Watching me – peering through eyes that are both all-seeing

And unable to see because of age]

I watched my sister try to crochet with the

Handspun yarn (from the spinning wheel) that I had given her.

She asked for a pattern.

I told her she should make whatever she wanted with it and that the point of it was the story(ing).

The pattern is the story.

           The story is the pattern.


Does it matter that I spin animal fiber with far greater ease than I do cotton?

Am I unfaithful to my ancestral soil that brought forth cotton and rice fields along the banks of the Godavari?

“Bring me the charkha and takhli,” my mother said,

“I’ll show you how.”

(“We used to spin cotton everyday in the days of Gandhiji. I would teach the use of the charkha and I also gave Hindi lessons. He said we should spin the yarn and give it to the weavers to weave so we could be free of the British.” In a village on the banks of the Godavari, in her father’s home across from her father-in-law’s home.)


Now you must remember –
I have had the opportunity to
learn from her many times over
the years. She has
demonstrated and tried to teach
me many times over the years. I
am still unable to fully grasp the
practice of spinning cotton on
the box-charkha and am very
awkward with the takhli spindle.


Bring me the charkha and takhli,” my mother said,

                                                 “I’ll show you how.”

3. ammacharkha
Image Caption: A spinning demonstration


And she sings as she spins

                                                                                                   “Paadevey Raatnama”

                                                                                                    Asking the raatnam (spinning


To sing

It’s a song in Telugu composed by a renowned Andhra freedom fighter from the Satyagraha days

Warning all, that if we do not spin

We are bound to the mills

of Lancashire

“milluley gathi aaye”


“Gandhiji asked us all to spin

everyday,” she said


One must hear the rhythm of the wheel, something Gandhi romanticized in the context of the crushing of grain in village contexts, but something too that underscores the unifying practice of groups spinning together, breaking their normal routine to spend half an hour or an hour in shared silence or shared singing at the wheel. Spinning involves the other senses as well: the spinner tastes the cotton when wetting the fingers or dampening the raw cotton. Cotton fragments fly about in the air, impregnating each breath with the fibers produced in the process. Wet cotton, dust, wooden implements and the sweat of labour combine with those fibers to produce a particular scent. The texture of the raw cotton, the feeling of the wooden crank, the bodily relation to the wheel all produce different sensations beyond the visual observation of spinning. Brown, Rebecca (2010-11-03).

Gandhi’s Spinning Wheel and the Making of India (Routledge Studies in South Asian History) (pp. 16-17). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.


Vignette 4

Spinning as Satyagraha led to a sense of community during the Indian Nationalist movement as indigenous communities refused the exploitative hierarchies of colonial manufacturing. Spinning still provides a sense of individual autonomy as modern women – young or old – rediscover the skill in present-day United States.

Cartoons lampooned Gandhi’s commitment to spinning as world wars loomed, Indians faced police beatings and unconscionable massacres, famines spread and communal violence took hold.  Brown, Rebecca (2010-11-03). Gandhi’s Spinning Wheel and the Making of India (Routledge Studies in South Asian History) (pp. 5-6). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

Yet, at the same time as Gandhi was being denigrated for putting the population to spinning instead of to other more “productive” tasks – in New Zealand women were spinning as their patriotic duty to Great Britain.


L., the crochet instructor in an urban yarn store in Texas:
“What kind of wheel do you own?”

Me: “I think it may be an Ashford Traditional. I bought it used.”

L.: “Yes Ashfords are good.”

She proceeded to tell me that Mr. Ashford of New Zealand had designed and produced the Ashford Traditional spinning wheel in New Zealand when there was a demand for yarn during World War II.


Excess Affect – Use-less 

Excess bursts forth in interstices of the said and unsaid, the cracks, rips and the mistakenness of (un) planned textures. Mediated. This excess (not to be confused with “Surplus” that is appropriated and used to enhance the pattern) poses affective critique and material discord. Refusing to fit the pattern.

The excess draws out the unintended exclamation – the unintentional cry of the person hailed through the affective anguish or ecstasy.

Oops I say – I did not mean to. But I did. And there it is. Texturized and present. Resisting the pattern. Speaking dissent.


Confusing to “use-value”
Quite Use-less?

I create an avatar – through digital, visual recordings of offline material. Imaged, reshaped, reused, replicated, copied. Not original, yet mine. Creating you.

I pass you the image, in a socially networked platform, mysterious algorithms allowing our virtual contact. You accept it as you.

Then the image travelling in bytes, bursts forth in another socially mediated online venue.
“That’s me,” you instantly type out.
I am puzzled.

“You told me that was me”

Who tells us who we are? Who interprets us as we are born into the world of signs and

My weaving practice came out of my intersecting research investigations into alternate communities of production that co-exist within modernity – yet are coded as “pre-modern.”

Who tells us who we are? Who interprets us as we are born into the world of
signs and

What if I told you the next swatch on my loom will be you – how might I build you


What would be the point of building you – through the use of my excess affect?

To you who have no use-value

Seemingly for it


We live in communities both rigidly bounded and organized

By corpo-(rate)-reality

And unbounded through seemingly directionless


With transactions and exchange

Occurring in (im)materiality…


placing affect that may have had




through corporeal-ity

Excess affect



Cautioned to use




Lest the more it overflows

the less it can be bound-ed

[and used]

use-less (im) materiality





Value use

Use value

Used spinning wheels and charkhas


Yarn stashed

Vignette 4


Image: Woven on a four-hash loom from Kesenich Looms & Knit Shop Inc., when it was still located in Wisconsin (the loom came to me used – bought at a fiber show in Michigan). The warp used is industry-made cotton yarn; weft uses handspun yarn from hand-painted roving bought from several of the fiber artists engaged with for this research project (various fibers – not cotton – alpaca, merino, silk).

“Yarn with which we neither weave nor knit is cotton wasted. Living labour must seize upon these things and rouse them from their death sleep, change them from mere possible use values into real and effective ones” (Marx, Economic Manuscripts: Capital Vol. I, Chapter Seven).

As my mother keeps telling me every time she asks if I continue to spin…

My mother: “how much yarn do you have now?”
Me: “er um – I don’t know – not sure…”

my mother: “what will you make with it?”
me, shifting further in my seat: “uh um… I don’t think its really good enough for…”

my mother: “make it into a blanket (meaning afghan) – I made one, I remember when I was sitting in… (and so on)”

me: “er um – I really don’t think I have that much spun already – I do have a job I go to everyday, you know.”

my mother: “do you have that red shawl I crocheted when I was there in your apartment in Pittsburgh? (Her voice gets reminiscent) I used to make so many things and leave them … (and mutters) not much value these days – careless… (and so on)”

me, glad to contribute positively to the conversation at last, even though she may not hear me anyway: “yes! Yes! I have it.”
Sharing practices in digitally networked hand-craft space instantiate a “bringing forth [of] ghosted bodies and the traumatized remains of erased histories” (Clough, 2007), and allow for the conceptual re-crafting of these ghosted bodies and erased histories through the designing, producing, marketing, selling, and consuming of hand-crafted products. Supply chains and value hierarchies are re-formed and reconnected through old and new intersections and fabrications. The storying and the form of storying guide the formations of platforms for the performances and transmission of affect.

“…and it is that image that we are supposed to buy. This transformation also entails a fundamental mutation of labor: It is no longer simply physical labor power that is put to work but knowledges, affects and desires” (Read, 2003, pg. 2).

Excess as surplus – reproductive labor is exerted in drawing out affective labor and tacit practice from thus far non-waged social work and home sphere contexts…

Vignette 5


Such intersections produce very specific, situated contexts for productive labor forces to emerge at the interface of technologies “old” and “new.” Through these situated contexts, the individual is placed in relation to market forces and community production logics through which labor and affect are placed in hierarchies of digital globalization. I examine this local/global relational placement of productive labor online and offline by looking at how the “sari” – an implicit and explicit signifier of “Indian” identity in current times – is produced, marketed and worn in two “cy-borg” contexts. (2012-11-24). Cyberculture and the Subaltern (Kindle Locations 1980-1984). Lexington Books. Kindle Edition.


The labor of (hand) spinning yarn – what is it – productive or reproductive? Material or immaterial? Affective or material? Is it commodity or process?



Brown, R. (2010). Gandhi’s Spinning Wheel and the Making of India (Routledge Studies in South Asian History). London: Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

Clough, P.T. & Halley, J. (Eds). (2007). The affective turn. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Fortunati, L. (1995). The arcane of reproduction: Housework, prostitution, labour and capital. Translated by H. Creek. New York: Autonomedia.

Federici, S. (2010). ‘The Reproduction of Labour-Power in the Global Economy, Marxist Theory and the Unfinished Feminist Revolution.’ Paper presented at the seminar on the Crisis of Social Reproduction and Feminist Struggle, 27 January 2010, University of California, Santa Cruz. Available at

Gajjala, R. (Ed.) (2013). Cyberculture and the subaltern: Weavings of the virtual and real. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Pinkus, K. (2010). Alchemical mercury: A theory of ambivalence. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Piore, M. (1997). ‘The Economics of the Sweatshop.’ In No Sweat: fashion, free trade, and the rights of garment workers, edited by Andrew Ross. New York: Verso.

Read, J. (2003). The micro-politics of capital: Marx and the prehistory of the present. Albany: State University of New York Press.

All images used with permission from Radhika Gaijala.

Radhika Gajjala (PhD, University of Pittsburgh, 1998) is Professor of Media and Communication (joint appointed faculty in American Culture Studies) at Bowling Green State University. She has published books on Cyberculture and the Subaltern (Lexington Press, 2012 and Cyberselves: Feminist Ethnographies of South Asian Women was published in 2004. She has co-edited collections on Cyberfeminism 2.0 (2012), Global Media Culture and Identity (2011), South Asian Technospaces (2008) and Webbing Cyberfeminist Practice (2008). She is currently continuing work on two interrelated projects—one on microfinance online, digital financialization to P2P lending and borrowing based in social media and neoliberal entreprenuership with a focus on “women’s work”, value and tacit practices/contributions in transitioning  economic times through an (auto)ethnographic focus on craft communities (book in-progress as of 2012 Fall). This project continues to link with examinations of the ITization and NGOization of Global socio-economic work and play environments started in Cyberculture and the Subaltern. Thus she continues to examine the connections between money and value in global work-space, virtual worlds and on coding and placement of affect and labor in DIY and craft networks. She is also a member of the Fembot Collective and FemTechnet (participating in the DOCC 2013 nodal teaching project) and is co-editor (with Carol Stabile) of “ADA: Journal of Gender, New Media and Technology.”