The finely tuned expertise of those who darn, mend or patch is often incorrectly referred to as a ‘twee’ pastime – which couldn’t be further from the truth. Far from a simple pursuit, the art of reconstructing clothing is an immensely robust and technically complex skill. My own memories of mending relate to time spent with grandparents when I was a child in the 1970s; curled up with a comic on the sofa whilst grandma deftly darned grandad’s socks.
Like many people, it’s only now they’re gone that I realise the significance of losing those older family members. I took their handiness around the home (and garden) for granted and never reached out to ask them to pass their practical prowess down to me. Looking back, seeing Grandma Sadie sat there in deep concentration, with hands slowly undulating, as the cup of tea turned stone cold beside her, she was probably experiencing what psychologists these days would call, ‘flow’. The late Sadie Cloudsdale would have said this terminology made the task sound fanciful, when to her, closing up holes where life had caused a weakness in the toe of a sock or the elbow of a sweater was just an essential act of wardrobe maintenance.
“Nature is a moving, ageing, process of change, decay and regeneration, all of which we need to learn to respect.”
Thankfully, this pragmatic approach is shifting back into focus. In order to try and understand why we all need to change our attitude towards the repair of beloved, well-worn items of clothing, I opened up a series of conversations with trusted TOAST collaborators who incorporate the renewal of garments into their everyday practice.
Jessica Smulders-Cohen is the in-house mending expert at TOAST and responsible for repairing items brought in by customers. A weaver at heart, she’s also a sustainability advocate, researcher, maker and designer who is passionate about sharing the knowledge she’s acquired over the years. “Traditionally, these skills would have been taught and passed down from one generation to the next. This seems to have been sadly lost, but that shouldn’t stop you,” she argues. “There are so many ways to learn or routes to find someone who can share this knowledge. With the work I do for TOAST customers, it’s really obvious that a garment has been truly loved and worn a lot, which is always heartening,” she says. “There is no right or wrong way to fix something as long as it’s made functional again. It’s an opportunity to really put your own mark on something – it’s about the journey travelled, not reinstating the impossible perfection of the new. With visible mending we can celebrate the repair, which in itself is a great antidote to throwaway culture. Every stitch I make brings peace of mind.”
Artist, illustrator and professional sashiko repairer Molly Martin wondered whether the legacy of the Romans might have something to do with why we’re so reticent to fix the broken. Speaking about the empire’s exquisite stone coliseums, squares and churches, and their unwavering ideals about eternal perfection and symmetry – which still exist in the West today, she compared it to the paradox of Japanese wabi sabi, which is all about seeing value in the transient and the broken. “There is no better philosophy to apply to clothing repair,” she says. “First we must appreciate the damaged form of the garment, before stitching it back together and giving it a new life. Nature is a moving, ageing, process of change, decay and regeneration, all of which we need to learn to respect.”
Our clothes carry the stories of the lives we lead and more often than not, the tears, rips and threadbare zones can offer up some clues about our lifestyle or habits. Although the majority of repair artists use a variety of specialised, finely tuned techniques that can take years to master, for repairers like Celia Pym, a fascination with damage kick-started her interest. “I’ve been working with textiles since 2007 – with garments that belong to individuals as well as museum items. The spectrum of damage spans from tiny moth holes to larger accidents with fire. In my work, I’m drawn to the attention we give to the places that have grown thin or softened with wear. The more dramatic the destruction, the slower I am forced to work. Visible mending is a meditative process and for me it’s nothing to do with ‘make do and mend’, it’s firmly rooted in art and expressing a great deal of interest in the quality of material as it wears.”
Tom van Deijen would sometimes start mending garments to help pass time on the train journey to London from his hometown of Brighton. He recalls how complete strangers would sometimes begin talking to him about how their own fathers weren’t averse to a spot of needlework. It seems the commonly held gender stereotypes around sewing and knitting are in fact, wildly inaccurate. “There are plenty of examples of how this being a women-only craft is just not the case. Think of male knitters in the Yorkshire Dales or the Shetland Isles and new military sign-ups being issued with a repair kit for socks and uniforms. Or even the magnificent patchwork quilts made by injured soldiers convalescing in the First and Second World Wars.” Through his workshops, Tom wants to reframe the notion that only expensive clothes are worthy of repair: “The things we wear frequently, the everyday pieces – they are the ones that wear out first. These are the things we need to look after better and give more love.”
Championing the contrast stitch of a lovingly darned jumper isn’t for everyone, but even so, with the TOAST Circle initiative, and free repair service, there’s no longer a reason to relegate worn clothing to the back of the wardrobe. TOAST Production Director Helen McGowan concludes by adding, “We run workshops with the aim of inspiring a community of like-minded people to create and repair. For us, it’s about balance – of course we’re delighted when customers want to buy new pieces from our collections, but they do so in the knowledge that quality and provenance will always be our top priority.”
Find more information about TOAST Repair.
Words by Leanne Cloudsdale.
Images by Kristy Noble and Emily Mae Martin.