For her 16th birthday, Molly Martin was given a silk shirt by a family friend, the same shade as a lilac rose and just as delicate. “It has become quite a pivotal repair for me,” Molly explains. “It was torn all the way up the main seam on one side, and I remember being so determined to fix it because I loved it so much.” With a needle and thread, she painstakingly patched it from the inside, reinforcing the petal-thin fabric with minute straight stitches. Molly still has the shirt, hanging on her studio wall. “It’s become a real keepsake because it’s so soaked in memory,” she says.
Molly – who describes herself as “an artist who does repair” – has always mended. First for friends, then for clients. For the past three years, she has been hosting textile repair workshops both on and off-line for TOAST. Participants are given a small stitch sampler to practice on before attempting a real repair. Using the ancient Japanese technique of sashiko, Molly explains how to patch the tear, reinforcing the fabric with lines of hand-stitching that prevent the damage from spreading.
“Most of us feel quite hopeless when it comes to repairing our own clothes,” Molly recognises. “What is fantastic about this technique is it just works.” She has found that one simple, guided repair is enough to empower and inspire others. “It gives people a feeling of confidence and connection,” she says. “Not only are they reconnecting with their clothes, they are finding a new skill with their hands.”
It’s possible to trace the beginnings of her creative talent to her childhood home in Somerset. Her father was a special effects model-maker; her mother a children’s physiotherapist and hat maker. “My Dad was both an artist and an engineer, so there were always pens and paper lying around. My brother and I would spend hours drawing at the kitchen table ...” When Molly wasn’t drawing, she would be rummaging around her mother’s sewing room. “All the materials and expertise I needed were at home,” she recalls. “If I wanted to make curtains for my doll’s house, I could.”
This innate creativity was further encouraged by several years at a Steiner school where embroidery, knitting, mosaics, pottery and gardening were all part of the alternative syllabus. Molly went on to study illustration at Falmouth University. “I think that – more than anywhere else in my life – that’s where I was cultivating my stitch work with illustration,” she recalls, citing the work of Louise Bourgeois and Tracey Emin as inspiration – both of whom communicated with stitches and quilting, creating tactile, intimate pieces that are both feminine and political. Bourgeois' fabric illustrated book, Ode à l'Oubli, and Emin’s Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, also known as The Tent, remain influential works for Molly.
Molly’s illustration work is both delicate and considered. Line, space and subtle colour define her portfolio, which includes a series of figures hard at work in the landscape – hoeing a field, processing a crop, stirring a vast cauldron. “I treat delicate cloth like I treat paper,” Molly explains. “I have a respect for it as a canvas and I want to approach it in the same way. Colour is also important to me – in all that I do,” she continues. “I love visible mending, but like my illustration work, I consider the colour quite carefully: a light pink looks great with red, for example. Or a mustard yellow on navy blue.”
Molly’s two creative outlets are conjoined in her book, The Art of Repair, which is part how-to guide, part manifesto – a gentle exhortation that encourages us to reconnect with our damaged belongings and ourselves. “The TOAST workshops became fantastic research for my book,” Molly reflects. She noticed that, in every small group, at least one participant would raise their hand and say: “I’m not creative,” as though issuing a disclaimer before picking up the needle and thread. “I always say, ‘Why would you get it right the first time? You've never done this before!’” says Molly. “Often, we're so scared of getting things wrong, of making a mistake, or doing something badly, that it actually stops us from having a go in the first place.” Her book, which came out earlier this year, actively encourages “dabbling”– remaining curious, having a go without fear of failure.
“Repairing something by hand can’t be rushed. It is inherently a slow process that requires concentration and care,” Molly says. “It makes sense that the feedback is always about how relaxed participants feel after the TOAST workshop.” Further research for her book led her to a recent study at Harvard Medical School where it was discovered that repetitive hand-based actions, such as stitching, weaving and knitting, all create a measurable state of relaxation.
At the end of each session, Molly likes to leave the group with the idea that each act of repair is a small act of defiance. “It’s never been easier to replace what’s old or broken,” she explains. “By buying less, choosing well, caring and repairing for our belongings, we are breaking that destructive cycle.”
Ultimately, for Molly, the act of repair is life-affirming: “There is something about a little darn in the cuff of a cardigan that somehow makes you feel hopeful,” she suggests. “There’s also something so authentically human about it. In a way, it reflects our true nature and the fact that we are all ageing. It's inevitable. And a repair on your jumper somehow celebrates that fact rather than hiding from it. And I think that – inadvertently – is why it makes people feel good.”
Interview by Nell Card.
Photographs by Roo Lewis.