A STITCH IN TIME (Hole & Corner)
Repair skills used to be passed down from hand to hand through the generations, until they weren’t. Before mending becomes little more than memory, a rising culture of craft is celebrating the lost art of repair – and the stories to be found in the stitches. Katie Treggiden considers three women who are turning the tide.
Ask people about mending and, chances are, they will talk about family: the grandmother who darned their socks or the mother who patched the knees on their jeans – and they do tend to be women. Family stories are intertwined with repaired objects, either embodied in the damage and repair itself or captured in the cross-generational conversations that take place while the mend is carried out.
Today, repair skills have all too often been lost in the sands of time. Of course, they can be learned from books or even YouTube videos, but more commonly hand skills such as mending and sewing were passed, almost literally, from hand to hand – from mother to daughter. When the next generation wants to disassociate itself from the past or from traditionally female skills, when they become cash rich and time poor, or simply surrounded by increasingly disposable consumer products, the motivation to learn just isn’t there – and both the skills and the stories are lost. In fact, in 2008, design historian Hazel Clark declared that ‘mending has died out’.
But since then, mending has been undergoing something of a renaissance and a search on Instagram for ‘#visiblemending’ returns more than 117,000 images. Contemporary mending is driven by a desire to honour the labour of garment workers, by environmental concerns, and sometimes by poverty. But it is also driven by a desire – in our increasingly screen-based, perfectionism-obsessed culture – to embrace the flawed realities of a life well lived and the storied patina of repair. London-based artists Celia Pym, Aya Haidar and Ekta Kaul have very different stories, but ask them about mending, and they will all tell you about family.
Celia Pym describes herself as someone who is more interested in damage and the conversations it sparks than the act of mending itself, but even so, she has been exploring repair as a textile artist since 2007. Her fascination started with a rather odd gift from her father.
Her Great Uncle had recently passed away and her dad had found a ragged jumper while clearing out his house. ‘Knowing that I like things that are a bit wonky and a bit lopsided and damaged and wrong, he gave it to me thinking I might be interested in it’ says Pym. ‘And he was right, I was – in fact I was really quite taken with it.’ The jumper had been hand-knit from a cream-coloured yarn and was full of holes in the forearms. Remembering that her great uncle used to sit in an armchair with a wooden board across its arms and draw, she quickly worked out what had caused the holes. ‘My great uncle was an artist all his life, but as he got older, he would lean forward in this armchair and draw all day,’ she says. ‘So, when I saw these holes, I was really struck by how instantly I could see him sitting in that chair – how the damage could evoke the very particular and specific movements of his body.’ (She confesses that she is equally thrilled by the leg-shapes left in a pair of tights at the end of the day.)
Pym became curious about what she found so moving about this jumper and, as she looked more closely, she noticed that similar holes had been darned before. Her great uncle’s sister had undertaken a series of pragmatic and unsentimental mends over many years, using whatever yarn was to hand, but she had died a decade before he had. ‘Seeing her repairs next to this fresh damage, I couldn’t help feeling that we had somehow neglected him in these intervening years,’ says Pym. ‘And of course, he hadn’t been neglected. He was safe and well and had everything he needed, and yet, there were these fresh holes that nobody had been tending to.’
Determined to rectify that, and having missed the chance to learn from her great aunt, Pym took herself off to the library, looked up darning in a book, and started to repair her great uncle’s sweater. The rest, as they say, is history. She has trained as both a teacher and a nurse, but has always returned to her artistic practice which is grounded in repair. She was shortlisted for the Women’s Hour Craft Prize with two darned garments in 2017 and her work has been exhibited all over the world – and all because her dad thought she might appreciate a tattered old jumper that had belonged to his uncle.
As a self-described ‘mother, artist, and humanitarian,’ Aya Haidar’s creative practice focuses on found and recycled objects, through which she explores themes of loss, migration and memory, but it all started with a very special sewing machine. ‘Every day after school, I would go to my grandmother’s house,’ she says. ‘I would sit across the table from her while she sewed and mended things on a Singer sewing machine – and she would tell me stories from her childhood.’
Haidar’s grandmother and her parents are Lebanese. From 1975 to 1990, there was a civil war in Lebanon and so in 1982 they left. They came to England, via Jordan and Saudi Arabia, leaving almost everything behind – apart from that Singer sewing machine. At the age of six, Haidar’s grandmother had been invited to a tea party. She took a sweet from a bowl and popped it in her bag to eat later. When she opened it, while savouring its sugary goodness she noticed something on the inside of the wrapper. She had a won a sewing machine. It was duly shipped to Lebanon for her and from the age of six, this was the machine she used; mending and remaking the family’s clothes until her death at the age of 99. ‘To be brought up with someone like my grandmother as a principal figure in my life, I definitely credit her for that influence.’
For Haidar, mending today is a metaphor – a way of telling and retelling her family’s stories. For her Recollections series, she photographed sites around Beirut, printed them on to linen, and ‘repaired’ the cracks and bullet holes in the buildings with what Glenn Adamson describes in his book The Invention of Craft as ‘coloured bandages’. ‘It was about filling these voids with colour,’ she says. ‘It was a way of embellishing, but also highlighting, something that my family find ugly, not just ascetically, but in the sense that it reminds them of something horrific – but something that absolutely needs to be remembered.’
She continues to work with refugees arriving in the UK, running embroidery workshops as well as creating artworks that tell their stories. ‘I see my work as layering a story on top of a material that already tells a story itself,’ she says. Her Soleless Series comprises shoes that were worn by refugees across borders and are beyond functional repair, but now embroidered with images of their owners’ journeys. ‘Instead of throwing them away, I felt like they needed another layer, because they physically carried these people across countries,’ she says. ‘For me to embroider an image of that journey onto their soles tells that story so powerfully.’
Her education has taken in Chelsea College of Art and Design, the Slade School of Art, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and a master’s in non-governmental organisations and development at the London School of Economics. Her career as an artist includes international solo and group shows in London, Berlin, Jeddah, Paris, Dubai and Turkey. And her humanitarian work makes a difference to thousands of women and children every year. But it is ‘mother’ that comes first in her description of herself, and talking to her, you get the distinct impression that her grandmother’s wisdom is being passed on to the next generation of women too.
Textile artist Ekta Kaul sees mending is a matter of respect. She grew up in India where mending was part of family life, a reflection of its deep roots in the wider culture, where everything from ceramics, jewellery and textiles to electronic gadgets is routinely repaired. ‘I always felt very connected to the land and the resources it provides,’ she says. ‘My ancestors were farmers, so my dad would always explain to us that somebody had worked really hard to get the food to our table – there was always this notion of respecting the land and the labour that had gone into it – any leftovers were reinvented into something else the next day.’
And it wasn’t only food that her family saved and repurposed. Kaul describes her mother as extraordinarily creative. ‘Apart from being a brilliant scientist, my mother was also a prolific needle woman,’ says Kaul. ‘When we outgrew out jumpers, she would unravel them, steam the wool so it was nice and fluffy again, and then reknit them into new patterns she had learnt. She embroidered, knit and playfully reinvented textiles constantly. I absorbed this throughout my childhood.’
Similarly, at the start of each winter, Kaul would see beautiful quilts laid out on the side of the streets, soaking in the sun before being used again for the next season. The quilts would be unstitched, the wadding taken out and beaten, aired in the sunshine, and sewn back together – often using the same thread. ‘I’ve often wondered if the idea of rebirth and the circularity of life, which is so entrenched in Indian culture, manifests in our culture of recycling as well,’ she says. ‘Mending was and still is very much a way of life.’
It was quilts that provided Kaul’s entry point into textiles. ‘My grandmother had this huge bag – it was blue with embroidered flowers on it – and she would tuck into it any scraps of fabric, or parts of saris, that she wanted to save,’ says Kaul. ‘Once it was full, we would start making quilts.’ Kaul would layer up the pieces of fabric, so her grandmother could secure them together with long rows of running stitch into the resultant quilt. Stitching layers of discarded fabric together into quilts – commonly known as Kantha in the west – is a tradition practiced in several parts of India, each with its own regionally specific name. So, what Kaul and her grandmother were practising in was ‘gudri’.
Having studied at National Institute of Design in India, Kaul had come to the UK to do a master’s and was surprised to discover that a culture of mending and respect for materials was no longer part of the culture here. ‘There seemed to be this disconnect, where traditional knowledge – once passed down through generations – had been lost in the post-industrial era,’ she says. She soon found herself drawing on her upbringing within her artistic practice. Using techniques inspired by gudri, she now creates embroidered maps which explore places, history and belonging through stitch. She has appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, won the Cockpit Arts Textile Prize and has work in the collections of the Crafts Council, Liberty London, the Gunnersbury Museum and private collectors. Having lived in diverse, vibrant cities like Edinburgh, Bath, Ahmedabad, Delhi and London, she describes her work as “rooted in the non-binary” and imbued with a plurality of perspectives and cultural influences – not least those of her family.
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