It’s been a make do and mend sort of weekend.
Tom of Holland is a textiles practitioner who specialises in mending and in visible repair. He talked to the group about his practice and his decision to repair things, not because of a need to ‘make do’ but because of a desire to engage more deeply with the things we use and consume. As makers, we grow to love the things we have made. Every time we pull on a pair of hand-knit socks or wrap ourselves in a hand-made blanket, we are reminded of the story of the item – the hours put into making it, the materials within it, its flaws, its beauties. It’s all too easy to overlook the stories behind the objects we buy from the high street, or to see these stories as less valuable. Repair can help us to re-engage with these items and add new strands to the story.
In the workshop, we learned two darning techniques: Swiss darning (which is a bit like embroidering on knitted fabric) and stocking darning (for repairing holes in knitted fabric). Tom showed us some beautiful examples of decorative darning and encouraged us to try things out, to make mistakes, and to be brave with our new skills.
I found Swiss darning sort of relaxing. There’s a nice rhythm to the needle swinging in and out of the fabric, following the path of the original yarn. After about ten minutes I was totally addicted. I want to Swiss darn everything. Cushions. Jumpers. Socks. The backs of other people’s coats on the bus. I could be like a darning Zorro, leaving my mark on everyone that comes within reach of my needle.
Thankfully, just before I got completely carried away, we had a break from the darning and were taken on a little tour of repaired items in the Pitt Rivers museum. There’s a special exhibition on at the moment – Preserving What is Valued – and a museum trail of repaired objects. The tour added a different dimension to the workshop. There’s a tradition of mending that extends across the world, to every community and it was interesting to see where our own practices and habits fit into this tradition.
After the tour, we came back to the workshop space and learned stocking darning (also called web darning) which I found trickier because knitted fabric just wants to stretch and filling in the holes feels a little like working against, rather than with, the fabric. I wasn’t so enthusiastic about stocking darning – I didn’t want to mob people on the bus – but I can see how functional it is and how useful it will be. I can think of at least four things in the house that need to be darned and now I sort of know how to do it.*
So, Sunday came round and I was keen to try out my new darning skills. I settled in with a pair of very holey socks (so holey they could belong in a shrine), a cup of tea, and A Playful Day’s podcast which, serendipitously, was an interview with Jen Gale of Make do and Mendable.
And then I REALLY started to think about mending…
Jen’s No New Clothes for a Year challenge seems tough. I love the idea of the slow wardrobe and I’m more likely to buy wool or fabric than new clothes from the high street but I feel that a total ban would be hard. There are things I just don’t know how to make – like shoes and waterproof coats and jeans – and I don’t know if I can really do without them. Am I cheating on my slow wardrobe if I go out to buy quick fixes? Is saying “I don’t buy things from the high street except for X” really hypocritical? Kate and Jen discussed the fears and the stumbling blocks that stand in the way of embracing this sort of sustainable living. For me, I worry about the feeling of denial (insert the long shadow of an Irish childhood here) Would it feel like a year-long Lent? How does this feeling of denial tally with the inspired, happy feelings I want to associate with my crafting? I find myself strangely reminded of Jeanette Winterson’s discussion of fasting – and I’m thinking about how greed and consumption apply to fashion and material culture, just as much as they do to food.
I’ve been thinking about sustainable and fashion and my own practices as a consumer a lot more recently. Some of this was sparked by teaching war-time texts and discussing rationing in Britain with students. When I teach C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Unicorn, I bring in rationing books and get the students to ‘add up’ how many coupons they would need to purchase the outfits they are wearing to class. We normally find that very few people could ‘afford’ their outfits under the strict rules around the clothing-ration in 1940s Britain.** Recently, I found my conscience piqued by the 2015 documentary The True Cost. The documentary is sober and sobering – it talks about the problems of consumption in the western world and, particularly, our problem of confusing the things we use (like clothes and furniture) with things we use up (like food and fuel). The idea of throwing something out because it has gone out of fashion is crazy. And our appetite for endless things is getting out of hand. We have a consumption crisis. Our wardrobes are obese.
And so I’m having a make do and mend weekend. I’ve just book marked Felicity Ford’s wonderful post about gathering a Slow Wardrobe so I can go back and read it. I need to think about how making and buying work together and what role mending can play in my own life. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this too. Do you mend things? Do you have a slow wardrobe? What are the stumbling blocks you’ve found on the way? How did you over come them? And what advice can you give me?
*I was always warned that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”. But, if something’s broken anyway, how much worse can I really make it by trying to fix it? It’s not like knitted things will suddenly burst into flames if my darning is a little crappy, right?
**Students are always surprised to find that Lucy’s feast with Mr Tumnus breaks all the rules of rationing. They have real butter and eggs and toast – a huge indulgence for an afternoon snack – and this excess marks Mr Tumnus out as a strange and perhaps slightly dodgy character.