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Early in 2020, Claire Catterall, senior curator at London’s Somerset House, began exploring the potential of an exhibition about mending. Inspired by the proliferation of social media hashtags #visiblemending and #mendingmatters, and pop-up repair cafes, she observed a new generation of thrifty fashionistas wanting to preserve clothing using traditional methods and contemporary creativity.
"There was growing interest in the craft of repair," recalls Catterall.
"Artists such as Celia Pym and Bridget Harvey spearheaded an artistic approach to the process, and mending felt relevant to all the conversations about sustainability."
An evolution of that early vision, "Eternally Yours: An Exhibition about Care, Repair and Healing", opened at Somerset House, London last week.
"Like many people, I was furloughed during the pandemic, and it was a rather dislocating experience. Ideas of repair and healing coalesced, focusing on the duty of care we have to our community, to ourselves, to the planet and to our possessions," says Catterall. That fed into the idea of visible mending: an approach to repair where trauma or damage becomes part of the story — in people or objects or clothing."
It is a timely opening, coming as BBC TV’s Repair Shop attracts more than 7 million UK viewers per episode. The show marries specialist skills in restoring broken objects with the personal stories of their owners. It is comforting television in turbulent times, which Catterall believes resonates in a world emerging from a pandemic and traumatised by conflict. "It ties in to the idea of care," she says. "I love the word ‘mend’: it talks of healing and the therapeutic mindfulness of fixing something."
As part of the exhibition, fashion brand Toast is offering workshops in mending skills. The company’s repair specialist, Jessica Smulders-Cohen, says: "Mending is about the journey travelled, not reinstating the impossible perfection of the new."
Toast began offering sessions in 2018, teaching customers Japanese stitching techniques such as boro, kantha and sashiko for repairing woven garments, then expanding to knitwear darning. To date more than 7000 people have participated, and the brand now offers a free mending service, for its own-label garments.
Where previous generations mended as unobtrusively as possible, perhaps embarrassed by enforced thrift, new-wave repairers use a more decorative style of "visible mending". Flora Collingwood Norris, a knitwear designer based in the Scottish Borders, reports growing demand for her colourful visible mending service. It’s an idea she began as a teenager, sourcing cashmere sweaters in charity shops, then embellishing any damage with her needle and thread.
"I see a hole as an opportunity," she says. "It forces me to be creative and think about the size, position and context on the garment, then I play with yarn textures, colours and a combination of traditional darning techniques, patches and embroidery to elevate it to a new design element. Everybody can do this: it’s affordable and accessible. Giving garments a unique quality and a new chapter brings immense satisfaction."
Although Collingwood Norris will repair items for a fee, she has also published a book, delivers Zoom workshops and downloadable video tutorials, and sells materials for those keen to repair for themselves — and this is the area she’s recently seen booming. Bookshops are brimming with titles such as Joyful Mending, Mending Matters, The Art of Repair and Modern Mending, while YouTube offers a wealth of tutorials for those wishing to learn how to darn, patch and fix for themselves.
Given widespread supply chain issues and the cost-of -iving crisis, many are being driven to "make do and mend" in a way not seen since the 1940s. There is, perhaps, a disconnect between mending as necessity and repair as a fashionable badge of honour — between someone struggling to keep a school jumper from falling apart and the fashionista using statement stitching to cover a moth hole in a designer item — but it may begin to reduce the stigma. It could also make people think about the disposability of fast fashion — the vast tonnes of clothing that goes to landfill annually.
A growing army of businesses, including Mulberry, Barbour and Uniqlo, have in-house mending, and other brands partner with third-party repair specialists.
Mending may have the potential to earn big bucks for some, but it could also help heal the planet and its people. As artist Bridget Harvey says in her Manifesto for Making at Somerset House: "The contemporary repair maker demonstrates not only a care for the past, but also an attitude firmly rooted in the future."
— Guardian News and Media
- Wastebusters Zipper Repair Day today, 10am-4pm.
- Kate, from Stitch n Time, and Claire, from Fabricate, will be doing simple zipper and patch repairs in the Wastebusters Wanaka shop. Bring your winter jackets/pants with broken zips or rips. There will be a part-charge depending on the repair.