patchouli

written by
david samuelsson

“Wearing spaghetti sauce on one’s face evokes annoyance greater than what could possibly be attributable to the mere social faux pas. And, even if dining alone, you would not wait until your next visit to the restroom to clean your face, would you?”

Greying and mealy lavender flowers, bone dry, stuffed into a little muslin sack. You may have encountered such an oddment, tucked away in the cupboards of a summerhouse, sitting on top of linen folded long ago. All the essential oils have dried up; the flowers emit only the faintest odour, hardly noticeable. It is now merely a decorative feature – a still life of sorts.

These days regarded more as an ingredient for potpourris, lavender flowers once served an important purpose. They deterred moths and carpet beetles from devouring clothes and linen. In the strict hierarchal societies of the past it surely made sense to take great care of your apparel. Namely, the pauper wore poverty on his sleeve; it was detectable at first glance. Ill-fitting hand-me-downs, patches, dirt and, of course, holes. Surely a small hole does not render a garment useless in any other way than socially. Yet we react to holes as we do stains. Wearing spaghetti sauce on one’s face evokes annoyance greater than what could possibly be attributable to the mere social faux pas. And, even if dining alone, you would not wait until your next visit to the restroom to clean your face, would you? There is no one around to see you, and the Bolognese will not discolour your cheek permanently. Still, the urge to purge is overwhelming – the stain simply must be dealt with straightaway.

This vexing and deeply felt need to wash, or to mend your blouse, suggests that perhaps there is an underlying inducement hailing from the depths of the psyche – akin to whatever possesses you to, in a somewhat comic manner, shout out: “I’m awake!” when caught asleep. It is as if to say: “I’m on my feet, do not eat me!” It may well be that the hole or stain resembles something else, a wound. According to this theory, wounds are the most acute sign of illness, a warning of sorts. Nature seems to teach us: beware of the wound; man cries: beware of the stain, stitch the hole together!

Lavender flowers came in handy when caring for garments and the name itself is a testament to that claim. It can be traced back to the Latin word Lavere which means “to wash”, supposedly originating from the habit of putting lavender into the washing water to scent the laundry. The use of lavender was commonplace in Europe – in India patchouli was used instead. Just like lavender, the patchouli plant is an excellent insect repellent. It was oftentimes put inside parcels of cloth and garments sent overseas, to leave them unscathed by insects.

The essential oil of patchouli gives off a boastful scent: It has an earthy body, dusky and sweet, somewhat reminiscent of decomposing autumn leaves – around that humming planet swirls a sap-filled mintsatellite with a chalk tail. It is characteristic, so much so that you might even remember when and where you stumbled upon it the first time.

There is an illustrative story coupled to the true originality of patchouli, as told in 1857 by English perfumer G.W. Septimus Piesse in his ground-breaking work The Art of Perfumery And Methods of Obtaining the Odours of Plants: “The origin of the use of patchouly as a perfume in Europe is curious. A few years ago, real Indian shawls bore an extravagant price, and purchasers could always distinguish them by their odour; in fact, they were perfumed with patchouly. The French manufacturers had for some time successfully imitated the Indian fabric, but could not impart the odour. […] At length they discovered the secret, and began to import the plant to perfume articles of their make, and thus palm off homespun shawls as real Indian! From this origin the perfumers have brought it into use.”

Once the secret was out, patchouli became a favourite scent among the European high street perfumers. Still popular in colognes and soaps, the practical use of lavender and patchouli subsided as synthetic materials were introduced; now it is all but forgotten. Moths and carpet beetles are particular, as it were; they do not care for synthetics.

The success story of synthetic materials tells the tale of a nervous society whose very lifeblood is pumped in time to the clonking means of production and the ringing of cash registers. From that viewpoint, one might argue that it is emblematic that nylon, first out in a long line of synthetics, caught the updraft from the hellfire of the Second World War. Often misconceived as an invention of war, nylon actually saw the light of day as early as 1935. But, it is true that at the advent of the Second World War, the Japanese prohibited the export of their habutai silk, also known as parachute silk. The Allied Powers had to look elsewhere for a canopy weave strong enough to carry an airborne man and his equipment, a light and strong enough material to replace silk in thousands upon thousands of parachutes. The solution lay hidden in the earth, and they dug deep to extract petrified plants and dinosaurs of the Carboniferous Age, synthesizing the excavated charcoal into strands of perfectly unified fibre.

It is hard to shake off the image of dirty soldiers mounted upon a petrol-guzzling tank, doling out tin-foiled chocolate and cartons of nylon stockings to women surrounding that war machine. There is something in the eyes of the women – having lost their families, standing in rubble, smiling but eagerly focusing on those objects. As if eating precisely that piece of chocolate or wearing that pair of stockings would mend the world and make everything whole again.

"Low prices, alluring as they are, make us forget about other important aspects of consumption – we let our guard down and even today we let Trojan horses into our very homes."

The scene is saddening because it is suggestive of times to come – entering a state of agitated consumerism, citizens lived their lives in constant fear, huddled together under the nuclear umbrella, planning for their lives as if everything was fine but expecting doom. They went to work in factories that spewed out products – often cheap in every sense of the word. As anyone who has compared the two knows, nylon hosiery is a far cry from silk. But with affordable synthetics came the unbeatable promise of eternal life – no more holes, no more decay. Once you have a run in your stockings, just throw them out and replace them with spanking brand-new ones. Et Voilà, forever young!

It seems that it is easy enough throwing caution to the wind when rewards are easily attainable and instantaneous. When the price is right, who cares what costs may arise further down the line? In the chemical era of the twentieth century, blind trust and ignorance made for catastrophic results. For example, countless boys and girls have gone to bed still wearing their wrist watches; with their valued prize still on, not knowing that the fluorescent clock faces were shot full of radioactive minerals radiating through the night, through their heads. Wardrobes oozed with the foul smell of chemical mothballs of the kind that replaced lavender and patchouli. These nasty dichlorobenzene spheres did the job, but, besides impregnating the clothes with their special smell, they were carcinogenic.

Low prices, alluring as they are, make us forget about other important aspects of consumption – we let our guard down and even today we let Trojan horses into our very homes. We own more leaking plastics, jeans prepared with toxic fungicides and electronics drenched in brominated flame retardants than we care to know. Some of us even sleep with those electronic devices under our pillows.

Certainly, you can wrap your head around the economics of it all – when oil runs through the veins of modern society, it is only natural that the spillage is used to make products like petrolatum (brand name Vaseline) and synthetic fibres. The more oil that gushes out from the earth’s gut, the more dependent on it you will become – and suddenly you stand idly by, sporting a polyester suit, surrounded by machinery run on petroleum distillate; faint from its exhaust fumes, you wonder: “What the hell happened?”

If you spend a small fortune on handmade leather shoes, what would possess you to smear them with a plastic polymer? That is in fact what you would be doing if the grease contains petrolatum. The long molecule chains prevent water from getting in, but on the other hand the substance is too refined – it will not let air out. Your feet will suffocate and perspire; the moisture will then dry out the leather, and inevitably, it will crack. Now, compare the properties of petrolatum with those of beeswax. Besides being a renewable raw material, it is water-resistant and lets the air out. If properly cared for, the chances are you might wear the same pair of shoes for life. But then of course, beeswax costs a bit more than petrolatum.

Perhaps natural and costly materials are better suited to times free from rattling sabres, cut-rate commodities and dumbed-down ad hype; when the quality of fabric and craftsmanship once again is appreciated for its true value. When linen is worn on hot summer days, when wool keeps us warm as the weather takes a turn for the worse and silk makes laughing men and women gleam.

San Francisco might be as close as it comes. Summer of love, Alcatraz, cable cars and its flourishing gay community – this city is known for a great variety of things, and as it happens, patchouli is one of them. Some say that if you just follow the scent of patchouli, you will get there eventually. Patchouli was popularized by hippie and gay cultures and became the preferred perfume of the sixties – worn by advocates of alternative life styles. There are too many milestones in San Francisco’s civil rights history to mention. But for example: In April 1964, black nationalists led a protest march against the Vietnam War; most of the twenty thousand participants were white. This was at a time when there was no peace movement to speak of. And by now the names of gay rights champions, such as José Sarria, are well known outside gay circles. Over time, San Francisco has become a loadstar for one of the pivotal ideas in western society. That is: Judge by deed, not breed.

Oddly enough, the American army was instrumental in creating San Francisco’s queer sanctuary. During the Second World War, the military actively sought gays and gave them dishonourable discharges. From 1941 to 1945, over nine thousand men were processed in this way, most of them in San Francisco. Even if the ruling generals did not understand it then, could not even begin to grasp it, in hindsight it is easy enough to see that war was fought for places just like San Francisco. Not for the right to buy happiness (mainly), but for peaceful times for everyone to enjoy.

Returning to this theme that revolves around flowers, fabrics, original and fake: At the turn of the twentieth century, Louis Vuitton fashioned its famous handbag with the floral print. By chance, the design solved a counterfeiting problem that the company had been suffering from. At the time, this new pattern proved too intricate to copy. Later, the bag rose to iconic status and soon enough it was reproduced ad absurdum, becoming one of the most copied objects ever. What man has made will be reproduced – because it can be. What nature forges is hard to emulate. Though many have tried, still no one has successfully made a synthetic patchouli scent.