Circular Podcast with Celia Pym - Katie Treggiden Skip to content

Circular Podcast with Celia Pym

In this episode, we’re talking to Celia Pym, an artist living and working in London. Working with garments that belong to individuals as well as items in museum archives, she has extensive experience with the spectrum and stories of damage, from small moth holes to larger accidents with fire. Her interests concern the evidence of damage, and how repair draws attention to the places where garments and cloth wear down and grow thin. In clothing, this is often to do with use and how the body moves. Pym was shortlisted for the Women’s Hour Craft Prize and her work has been exhibited all over the world and is held in the permanent collections of the Crafts Council UK and Noveau Musée National de Monaco.We discuss:- How working with people’s garments opens the door to learn more about them. – The importance of craft and why it should be a priority in education. – Why colour contrast is creatively interesting when considering yarn and string. – The reason mended pieces deserve to be displayed in museums. – How mending showed up in her previous careers as a teacher and a nurse. – What the future holds for mending and repair … and more.

Below is a transcript of our conversation. Find the full episode available to listen on Spotify here.

Katie Treggiden 

I’m Katie Treggiden and this is Circular, a podcast exploring the intersections of craft, design and sustainability. Join me as I talk to the Thinkers, Doers and makers of the circular economy. These are the people who are challenging the linear take, make, waste model of production and consumption and working towards something better. In this series, we’re talking about repair.

Celia Pym 

Well, if you had as many lessons on materials as you do on English or maths or you know, that age old conundrum, I wonder if they said, this is as important knowing where wool comes from or how to spin it, or how it can be re-used, or the whole life of one material, wood, ceramics, cotton and of course, you can tie in politics, history, all the rest of it, but it would be wonderful. It would be absolutely fantastic.

Katie Treggiden 

Celia Pym is an artist living and working in London. She’s been exploring damage and repair in textiles since 2007. Working with garments that belong to individuals as well as items in museum archives, she has extensive experience with the spectrum and stories of damage from tiny moth holes to large accidents caused by fire. Her interests concern the evidence of damage and how repair draws attention to the places where garments and cloth wear down and grow thin. In clothing this is often to do with use and how the body moves, she explores the difficulties of mending other people’s clothes. The materials used for mending and making damage visible. Pym’s tools are scissors, yarn, and a sharp needle and she describes darning as both an act of care and of paying attention. Pym was shortlisted for the women’s our craft prize, and her work has been exhibited all over the world and is held in permanent collections of the crafts council UK and Nouveau Museo Nacional de Monaco. So I’d like to start right at the beginning and ask you a little bit about your childhood and how mending and repair perhaps showed up in your early life.

Celia Pym 

Sure, it’s funny because I wasn’t aware of mending and repair is something that was particularly happening in my early life. But I definitely grew up in a household that had toolkits and string drawers and my dad was very keen not to waste things  so would save milk cartons and stuff had second lives quite regularly. And certainly, my dad’s family who I lived with and close to in the UK, because my mom’s family are all in the US. They were all very adept with their hands. So it was kind of a, it wasn’t spoken about as like this fantastic thing everyone did it was just what happened. Everyone could make and mend and build things, you know, either with wood or yarn or can’t think what else, they could all garden, grow vegetables, so it was that kind of household.

Katie Treggiden 

What’s a string drawer?

Celia Pym 

Oh, a string draw is a drawer with little bits of string in it,

Katie Treggiden 

Like a whole drawer with nothing in it, but string

Celia Pym 

Like a whole drawer with little bits of string in it because there is always useful for something. So for tying up plants, or for tying together to make a longer piece of string, or just because you keep string. So there was a string drawer.

Katie Treggiden 

I have never heard this before, this is a wonderful now.

Celia Pym 

That’s really funny because I think I just, it’s that thing about your home when your child is you assume everyone has the same thing.  I just think I automatically thought everyone had string drawers.

Katie Treggiden 

Everyone had a string drawer.

Celia Pym 

Everyone had a string drawer and really, they were the shortest nothing was wasted the shortest bits of string would go on the string drawer.

Katie Treggiden 

Amazing and just for listeners were on zoom, so I can see Celia holding up her fingers to one inch, two inches?

Celia Pym 

Yeah, an inch, two inches. Exactly. They would really and things would get untied the string might have been used once for some, for you know had a second life. And then it would go back in the string drawer if it had finished the second job it was doing and get reused again. So things would be undone and reused and reused and undone. I mean, my dad is still way ahead of his game in terms of recycling. He keeps the tin foil that he pops off medicine packets. So you know when you pop out a pill, he saves that foil in a cup until it it amasses a volume that he can take to be recycled. So yeah, this is definitely something that existed in my family life.

Katie Treggiden 

This is wonderful. I’m getting a string drawer in my life. This is wonderful.

Celia Pym 

It’s endlessly useful and sometimes not useful. Sometimes you just love little bits of string that have no purpose whatsoever, but you’re fond of them.

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah, absolutely. I don’t even know that we have string in our house, let alone a string drawer, this is something I need to look into. So a bit later on in your life, you trained both as a teacher and a nurse snd I’m interested, I guess, in the the caring aspect of repair, and I wonder how mending and repair showed up in those careers, either literally or metaphorically?

Celia Pym 

Well, the path through both of those careers is quite snaky. So as soon as I finished my BA, or about a year after I finished my BA, I did a PTC in art and design. So I became qualified as a secondary school art and design teacher. And I think, actually, I’m quite, I love teaching, I really love teaching and I think part of the reason I love it is it’s about relationships. You know, you’re looking to form relationships with students, professionally, and make sure that they can, or you’re working together development of their work. But also, there’s so much for you to learn in your own teaching about ideas or thoughts or about who they are and particularly in art and design there’s this lovely conversation about expression and creativity. So I never think of teaching as a one way thing you’re responding to the student or the person you’re teaching or working with. And so I did that for a couple years. And then I went back to study and did my Masters in textiles, which is when I sort of became more clear about being interested in mending. And then I’m just plotting this out for you so you can get a sense of it. And then after I finished that, I worked as an artist still teaching a bit. And I was much more involved in thinking about questions of care, because I was thinking about mending the clothes of other people and it felt like it was this not very dramatic, but small active care to mend something that belonged to someone else, sometimes not even noticeable. The hole is under someone’s arm. So and I like this idea of it having a kind of quietness to it the care having a sort quietness. So the decision to train as a nurse came after I had been mending clothes for about four years. And I’ve been doing this work sort of artwork around, mending. And the decision was rooted in trying to understand better how the body might get damaged, and what care would look like versus what as I did the degree, I realised I wasn’t so interested in medicine, or the, or the mechanics of the body, I was more interested in the nursing work of care. I mean, my favourite bit of nursing that I did was actually around palliative care, which is sort of end of life care, where you often are asking, what you’re asking the patient, what would what would you like, as opposed to what’s needed, you know, a lot of medicine and health is, what’s the intervention? Or what’s the action we can take to this make this disease better? Or this illness better? or help the recovery from that, but actually, the kind of care I was interested in is what would make you feel better? Not so much what impacts the disease or the illness? And often they’re, they’re very linked because your mental health, as we know, is so intrinsically linked to your well being and your recovery from any kind of illness. So yes, I undertook that, I sort of studied nursing as a way to better understand what smaller acts of care might look like and also to understand better, how the body responds to being cared for, in a sort of gentle way.

Katie Treggiden 

It’s interesting, I’d understood that idea of mending as an act of care, theoretically and academically, but as you know, I wrote my dissertation on mending and so my family now believe I have mending skills that I really don’t have. I’m a very amateur mender, but my little sister’s favourite top got absolutely eaten by moths, and she sent me I said, “Can you mend it for me?” And I’m like, I don’t care what you do with it. I trust you use whatever colours you want and I was like, Oh, God, the only thing I can really do is that sort of button whole thing where you just do the edges of the hole. That’s what I did. And you know, she’s happy with it. But I was just so struck by the sort of four or five evenings I spent doing it. It felt like such an act of love and such an act of care for my sister, as much as for that top because that top means something to her not really anything to me, you know, and I was really struck on a sort of emotional level by that act of care that mending can be.

Celia Pym 

I completely relate to that. I think it can be very significant. And I love what you say about the the garment not having any necessarily any importance or any aesthetic sort of curiosity for you, it was more about the other person. And that would really be, I mean, I think that mending is about relationships, it’s either a relationship with yourself or its relationship with another person to try and understand why this thing matters to them. I mean, the big take home from nursing, for me, was this wonderful work of observation that I think nurses do constantly looking for small changes, and watching for small shifts that indicate that someone is less well than they were 45 minutes ago, or yesterday or a year ago. And sometimes those small changes are in colour, the way someone’s flushed, or the temperature of their skin. But it often involves coming close to someone and really noticing them and seeing them and not making them frightened in that approach. You know, so as they come close, and I would say that teaching has an element of that, too. You’re trying to convince someone or build someone’s self belief in their own skills and their own talents, and  you’re sort of creepy. You’re getting close to helping them figure that out. But yes, I am. I’m glad you mended your sister’s top, was she happy? How does she feel about it at the end?

Katie Treggiden 

Thanks goodness, it’s now even more her favourite top, she loved it, very relieved. But you know, it’s interesting what you say about it, not necessarily being you know, it was a cheap item of clothing. It’s in no way, it’s got no inherent value other than the fact it’s her favourite top. And yeah, hopefully it now has a little bit more value to her, but  I embroidered a little tiny message on the washing label for her to find, at some point and I think it’s those little sort of subtle interventions you can you can make in these things. And so tell me, there’s a wonderful story about how darning specifically, first became part of your practice  in a jumper that meant something to you and your family. Would you mind? I know you’ve told this story many, many times. But would you mind retelling this story for our listeners, because it’s a useful jumping off point.

Celia Pym 

Of course, I mean, this story, I feel like it’s become part myth. And I sometimes wonder if it’s actually true. But no, there’s the way I became I first sort of really tuned into darning was an uncle of mine had died. And my dad was cleaning out his, you know, wardrobe, clearing up his stuff. And he found this very ragged jumper and knowing that I like things that are a bit wonky and a bit lopsided and damaged and wrong, he gave me this jumper and said, I think you might be interested in this. So it was handknit, it’s a white cream jumper and the holes were all in the forearms of the sweater. And my dad was right I did, I was really taken with it. Towards the end of his life, my uncle, he died when he was 97 years old, he would sit in an armchair with a board across the arms of the armchair, and he would lean forward and he would draw every day, all day, he was an artist his whole life. And, you know, when he was older, he would just sit in his chair and draw. And so when I saw these holes, I was really struck by how instantly I could see him sitting in that chair. And this idea that the damage in the garment could evoke the very particular and specific movements of his body. I think I have always been interested in traces or evidence of actions of life, and the way the body moves. And I mean, I’ve always been thrilled by when I take off a pair of my tights, and they still are in the shape of my body. So they’re like a shadow or an echo of my body. And I’ve always, you know, I like things like when you press into something soft, and you make a print, and you know, maybe it doesn’t last forever if the surface is spongy and it gives back to you. But so I became curious about  why that was so moving this idea of damage in a garment leaving evidence of this body. But the other thing about that particular sweater, this white sweater is that it had lots of darning already on it, lots of repair that had happened and that repair had been done by his sister, who was my great aunt who I was extremely close to who had died about I can never quite get the dates, right, but I think it’s about 12 years before him, maybe 10 years before him. And  seeing her repair next to this fresh damage I was struck by how we had somehow neglected him in these intervening years there were these fresh holes that nobody had been tending to. And of course, he hadn’t been neglected. He was fine. He was safe and well and had everything he needed. But I also was struck by how practical and yet and sort of unsentimental the care was that my aunt had shown all of us, she didn’t have children of her own, her husband had died in the Second World War. She just sort of been a kind of, she looked after lots of us, but never in a fussy way. And I really liked that about darning. So I took myself to the library, I looked up darling in a book, and I started mending my uncle’s sweater. And that was the very first piece of darning I did.

Katie Treggiden 

Such a beautiful story. And I love that idea of Kate Fletcher talks about the craft of use doesn’t she and this idea that clothes, our clothes are in some ways, empty and lifeless, until you know the creases come in the jeans and the fading on the elbows. And that’s the point at which they really come alive because, you know, they’re starting to, to sort of betray evidence of the lives that are lived in them. And I think, certainly from a sustainability point of view I think thats a really wonderful way to look at objects. I think too often, we think something is perfect the moment we buy it, and then it starts to deteriorate. Whereas I think seeing something as lifeless at the moment, we buy it and becoming storied, as we own it, I think is a much more powerful and helpful from an environmental point of view way of looking at the objects we inhabit.

Celia Pym 

That’s a nice way of describing it. I mean, I know that I, there is nothing I like more than putting on someone else’s sweater. I love that feeling of the shape of someone else. And that the story. I mean, for me, the other thing about clothing is it lives so close to our skin that it’s so there’s a weird intimacy about it being the shape of the person. So the story is in that creases and folds, but the way that garment and the softness. I mean, it’s the nature of textiles. It softens into the shape of the person.

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah, that’s really lovely. So a couple more items of clothing, a tank top belonging to Bill, a retired GP in his 90s and a jumper belonging to Roz an intensive care nurse were the two pieces exhibited at the V&A when you were shortlisted for the Women’s Hour Crafts Prize, could you tell us a little bit about those two pieces and the stories behind them?

Celia Pym 

Yeah, sure it’s really fun. This is like a memory lane trip down  all my mended garments. So by that point, I think the Women’s Hours Craft Prize was in 2017, my uncle’s jumper, I had mended in 2007. So we’re 10 years on from that first jumper, I probably mended several 100 items between these garments.  I was shortlisted for the exhibition and the prize, and I wanted to make new work and I’d been thinking increasingly about making portraits of people with their items. So the way it had worked before I was mending things and returning them to their owners. And  I was also thinking about how many extraordinary nurses and doctors and healthcare professionals I had met while I was nursing, and I just wanted to honour or wanted to care, offer them or care or make an exchange with them. So I I tracked down Bill who was a friend and Roz, who was also a friend and invited them to take part and Bill’s sweater, so the idea this time around was that I would meet them, ask if they have something with a hole in that needed mending. I would mend it. And then I will return and we would make a portrait of them wearing the garment. And then the garment, the portrait and the account they gave of the item would be on display. Bill was in his mid 90s when I went to visit him. And I mean, it sounds straightforward to ask someone for a garment with holes in, but actually, it’s quite complicated. Sometimes there’s a lot of shame around something being damaged, or  they’ve got to trust you. It’s a bit like being a teacher or a nurse, you’ve got to trust you. It’s such a privilege to care for someone or to teach them. And part of that is that you have established a relationship of trust. And they are confident that you’re going to look after the thing this rather precious thing to them, as you said about your sister’s t shirt. It’s not that it’s precious to you. It’s that it’s precious to them and that you’re going to respect that and look after it. So I went around to Bill’s house, we had a long lunch and tea. I’ve been there for about three hours. And he was completely unforthcoming about giving me an item that was damaged. And I actually thought Oh, well, this isn’t going to work there he has nothing for me. And so I was all ready to leave. I’m at the door and he said hang on a minute, come upstairs and we go upstairs, he opens the bottom drawer of his wardrobe and there is, I think, five, maybe six hand knit vests. So knitted vest in amazing colours, pinks, oranges. And he takes out the orange one, and it’s completely moth eaten at the front, and we sit down on the bed and look at it, and we start talking about his wife. And in the three hours we’ve been there, we’d hardly talked about Ursi, his wife at all. But he, I think talking through an object when the topic is sensitive is a lot easier. It turned out Ursi had knit this sweater for him. And he said that he had such a nice phrase, he said, “Oh, she could knit the shape of me without measuring me”, you know, she could just she knew my size, and  he chosen that orange colour, and he was extremely pleased with it. But we found ourselves talking a lot about her through this garment, which I think is also an interesting aspect of some of the work I’ve done is that makers and wearers sometimes come into these objects. So for instance, my uncle sweater, my aunt had, in fact, knit that original sweater. And I like how it’s not only the wear of the garment, but you start thinking or into this narrative into this bigger picture of the object comes the maker as well. So we talked about Ursi, and as I said, with lots of my work around mending the one of the things that excites me is that it’s sort of like, if you invite someone to show you their thing with a hole in it, their garment with a hole in it, you don’t really know what you’re going a get, but the object can, it’s much, much easier to talk about a very specific problem that can be practically mended. And then the satellite conversation or the the way the conversation opens out from that is a lot easier than just asking straight off the bat, you know, who’s an important person to you? Or why is it that the object gives you  a concrete place to start a conversation. So that’s what I’m with Bill.

Celia Pym 

And actually a similar kind of situation with Roz her sweater had belonged to her mum. And what I loved is her mum, on the phone, Roz said, Oh, yeah, I’ve got just the thing for you. So RoZ was an intensive care nurse. She’s just moved into oncology, actually. But she said, I’ve got something with really big holes in it for you, I’ve just got got the perfect thing. When I get there, it had this small, tiny elbow holes.  Roz these are not massive. But her mum had worn it and her mum, when I came to mend it, I discovered there was actually a lot of mending in the cuffs, particularly in the folded back bit of the cuffs. But it had been done so invisibly, it hadn’t been obvious straight away. And that was nice. And so I was able to write up in the account. So there’s the portrait, the photograph of Roz, and her sweater, and I was able to write about her mum. And then the portrait of Bill, I was able to write about Ursi and so to look at it, you would see both the wearers and owners of these garments, but also their satellite relationships.

 

Katie Treggiden 

And do you think you’re training as a nurse and a teacher helps you to navigate and hold space for some of those bigger conversations?

Celia Pym 

I definitely think it’s made me more practised at it. And, you know, my nursing training was really like a baptism by fire. I mean, I should say, I haven’t worked as a nurse, I did about six months of professional work as a nurse, I really undertook the training and it kind of clarified for me that I’m an artist. But the training was, you know, full of privileged experiences about people in very vulnerable, when you’re sick, you’re just so well, you know, you feel you’re very exposed when you’re sick. And being let in to care for someone  is a huge privilege. So yes, I think there was experience. I don’t know, otherwise, how much  informs the way I deliver the mending conversations.

Katie Treggiden 

But I think it’s interesting isn’t that sense of vulnerability when you’re poorly. You know, you have to expose often parts of your body and weakness and vulnerability. When you’re a student, you have to expose your ignorance and your sort of lack of knowledge in order to learn. And when you’re offering up something that’s broken, you have you know, as you said, there’s often shame around that the fact that something has been neglected or damaged. And I think there’s a definite parallel between certainly the roles of those people and therefore the role you’re playing in offering care in each of those situations, which I think is really interesting.

Celia Pym 

I mean, you might be able to tell all my, the path I’m in my early 40s, err mid, and sometimes my choices about work I’ve always been very instinctive so I’m never sure which one leads in which one, you know? I like talking to people. If you ask me what my main qualification is, I like talking and listening.

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah. And it’s not just small talk or chitchat is it? It’s quite meaningful conversations that you enjoy. And  people don’t often get an opportunity, I don’t think to talk about the big stuff and that in itself, I think is an act of care is just allowing space for those conversations that might be deemed sort of socially inappropriate or, you know, not lightened fun or,  you know, those heavier conversations, I think that there often isn’t enough space for so I think that’s an act of care in itself. Now, on a seemingly more flippant point, but I suspect there’s more depth to it. For Bill’s tank top, you used a yellow yarn on an orange jumper and for Roz you chose blue for a white jumper Tell me about that colour contrast and why that’s creatively interesting.

Celia Pym 

So ever since the very first time I did my uncle’s jumper. I think contrast.  There are two reasons I love contrast. Number one, it’s easier, you can see what you’re doing. So you can see the stitch that you’re making. I also have always felt that I wanted to see what was missing. So I’ve always sought to mend with a contrast, because I want to be able to see the actual damage in a way. But the other thing that I think about a lot is that I’m following the damage I’m not you know, the bit that’s interesting to me is the damage bit of the garment and the mending is the work to understand that and sort of reconstruct it. So you need to be able to see that.  The colour is where it gets fun because you’ve got this base colour. Bill’s sweater was orange, Roz’s white cable. Sometimes you have a bit of texture as RoZ’s jumper had cable knit in it. And the colour is, the colour play is really really delightful. I actually tested about four colours on Bill’s orange sweater. I think I tested a blue, I tested a pink, we settled on the yellow. And also I always negotiate it with the owner. I mean, I would never want to mend it with a colour that someone wasn’t happy about. The blue and white we’d been Roz lives near the sea. So we’ve done the shoot. When I picked the sweater up, we’ve been by the sea and then the blue just made perfect sense with that white. You know, it was sort of a creamy white sweater, blue is definitely a go to colour for me, but the yellow. Yeah, Bill is quite, he’s quite bold with his colours. So I thought the yellow, would be, he’d be up for it. I sort of had hoped that pink would work but I couldn’t quite find the right pink for that sweater. I mean, he would have worn it I’m sure, but the yellow really worked.  I have the way I shop for wool. I really like having as well. I mean other textile people might relate to this, but I love the way that yarn is colouring your hands in your fingers like it’s a physical material colour. And so when you’re mending with it, it’s like drawing you know you’re colouring in with the colour.

Katie Treggiden 

Yes, I guess often people make something and then apply colour to it, don’t they? Whereas in your work, you are literally weaving with colour into the piece. Yeah, interesting.

Katie Treggiden 

I’m trying a few different ways of supporting the podcast this time around. So we’ll be back after a short break. And thank you so much to everybody who helped to make this season happen.

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Katie Treggiden 

What does it mean when darned woollens appear in a space like, like the V&A? And I remember the first time I saw that piece, I’ll be very honest. I saw it and I thought, darling, really, as a crafts prize, I don’t get it. And obviously I’ve spent a lot of time digging into your work and I now totally get it. But I think there’s something quite interesting isn’t there about putting such a traditional skill that our grandmothers and possibly mothers would have done on a weekly basis into an establishment such as the V&A. You know, it’s an art gallery and design gallery. It gives it a sense of stature. What do you think it did to that work to appear in that place?

Celia Pym 

I mean, it was huge. I, you weren’t alone I think I got very mixed feedback about being shortlisted for that prize. Like, you know, what is this tool? Yes, that is craft versus this is just someone’s old sweater in, you know, mended up on a wall. I think the thing that well, first of all, the thing that I loved was when it went up, and we went to the opening, Bill and Roz came, Bill was like the hit of the party. Everyone wanted their photo taken with him, it was like, yeah look at  me I’m at the party, he was a superstar, it was a really, really exciting night. I like the shift of value, that things that come from your home, might be held to have value within a museum context. And this idea of a skillfulness that gets practised at home has a place in the conversation about what craft and skill is, which is what, you know, a significant museum, a really important Museum, like V&A is it’s sort of saying, this has meaning in our culture. And I really do think the craft from within home spaces does have a place in our culture. I mean, it’s it’s the stuff I’m interested in. I’m interested in  the mended chair or  homemade objects.

Katie Treggiden 

When you say within the home that often meets female, right? A lot of the crafts that are practised at home are practised by women and a lot of the crafts that are practiced outside of the home is something in that as well as sort of idea of elevating traditionally female skills.

Celia Pym 

Yeah, I think  there’s an element of that. I think more the way I feel about it is a diversity of stories as well. So that Intensive care nurse has a relationship with her mother and that story is presented within the content and that there was a sweater that is not a, she refers to it as her comfy sweater, the sweaters that keeps her cosy at home talks of this sort of comfort and care and home and these things. That’s what I’m interested in presenting, but I do think that kind of skill that people don’t necessarily think of a skill, it’s just the work they do at home stitching, making, fixing, I don’t know, building things, building sheds in their backyard or lean twos or fixing a car. I mean, that’d be amazing if the V&A had a whole display of mended cars, or cars pieced together from bits and pieces. I guess I’m daydreaming now. But yes, I do think it was very significant. And it was quite controversial to have that. I mean, weirdly, it was a bit of a hot, press people’s buttons to have a mended item, mended sweater, up on the wall in an exhibition.

Katie Treggiden 

And, you know, making people ask questions and making people think is what art is for? I think so and you’ve also taken darning everywhere from community centres to surgical training rotations in hospitals. Can you perhaps tell us a little bit about some of those projects and how those different environments shaped your work?

Celia Pym 

They were I mean, it this really is like a history tour of my life,  go back to things that I’ve done before. So the dissecting room project was funded by the Craft Council. And I was partnered, the idea was it was a project called Parallel Practices. And I’m only going to give the background because I think it’s helpful for people in general to understand how artists make a living. So a lot of my work is through commission, or through I might apply for things that have funding. And so this project was an application based project, and they were looking for crafts people and healthcare professionals or healthcare academics to partner and see where their practices overlapped. So I got partnered with the Head of Anatomy, and we discussed the nature of working with real materials and the value for his anatomy students. So he had about, I don’t know several 100 anatomy students, so 18 to 24 year olds studying human anatomy on real human cadavers. And the quality of working with a real body all donated of course, you know, all ethically organised. That there was a level of learning that went beyond just knowing where the liver in relation to the lungs were, or knowing the top colour anatomy, that actually touching a body was extremely, operated on a different level at quite an emotional level. And it was almost as if it was students v patients. And I said, Oh, this really resonates with me because I think that the thing about mending that I love is you’re touching real garments that belong to actual people and the material has in it quality of life as we talked about earlier. So, I said, I would like to just sit in your dissecting room and offer to mend things for students. And it was completely at first, they all, you know what was great about this funding, and I would encourage funders everywhere to think about this as we were allowed to be really open ended. So we didn’t have to say what our outcome would be. We were just investigating, we were just testing this idea of what is it like? What does it mean to work with real materials, a body, a real sweater? And at first, the students really thought I was going to teach them something useful. Are you going to teach us suturing? Are you going to teach us how to thread a particular kind of needle because I had a little desk set up in the room. And the room is very, is a really extraordinary space, there are about 90 to 100 full bodies that have all died, people who have all died in the last year. And then on top of that, you’ve got at least 130 students in a session. And then you’ve got all the staff as well. So there’s a lot of people in this room. And your students would talk about how, after I’d been there a while students started to bring me things to mend. And then as I’ve described already, you know, they’d show me their backpack or their coat that had a hole in it, and then I’d say, and what’s it like working in this room, and then we’d get a whole set of, they’d say, Oh, it was really weird holding the body I’m working on her arm felt exactly the way my grandma’s arm feels, you know, the weight of it, or this, you know, so there’s this physical associations or, emotional connections that were being made. And then things students found difficult that they reported was if one of the bodies had a tattoo or nail polish, anything that personalised them made them more specific. And I was really, yeah, I was really struck by this, that they are training themselves for a caring profession, these anatomy students, but they’re also trying to find the happy balance between creating a bit of distance between them and their patient. So they’re not overwhelmed by this question of care, but not dehumanising the patient too much that they lose that sense of it being a real person. And so we  would talk about that, and that the idea of the mending was this sort of modelling of care. Like, what is the, the soft way in? Or what is the way to have conversations with people about difficult things? And, yeah, it was incredibly successful from that point of view, we work with a lot of students, and of course, I mended a lot of things in the course of the residency,

Katie Treggiden 

I just gonna say 18 to 24. They’ve perhaps just left home for the first time. It’s the first time they’re responsible for caring for their own clothes. It’s a very sort of transformative time of life for anybody let alone people embarking on medical training.

Celia Pym 

I mean, the funny thing about my mending desks, because I’ve done them a couple times, is that it’s a bit like being a bit like a doctor’s consultation. I sort of set it up they approach me like I am a very serious professional. Oh, how are we going to deal with this hole? And there was no you know, in that room, I think I mended one boys pyjama bottoms. The garments were more, some t shirts, quite a few coat pocket holes, and backpacks, more bags and backpacks than I’ve ever mended before. I guess their books are really heavy or something. I’m not sure. But it did feel like they were in a transitional stage, personally, as well as academically and professionally but that leaving home and being foxed about caring for your own clothes, but if I’m honest, lots of people don’t know how to care for their own clothes. And I thought, you know, I’ve met people in their 50s who don’t know, who were like, help. What do I do about my favourite moth eaten scarf?

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah, my sister.

Celia Pym 

Yes, exactly.

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah. So yeah, tell me about the community centre work because that must have been a very different setup.

Celia Pym 

Yeah, the project that springs to mind is the one I did with Craft Space who were Birmingham based. Excellent. Honestly, for me, one of the best craft organisations in the UK. And the project was called I can’t remember the specific name apologies Craft Space, but the premise was they had a van. They had this van that opened up essentially into like a mobile hangout spot and they were they would park the van in different wards in Birmingham close to health centre. The one I did was parked up next to a health centre. And we had little hot chocolate and coffee machine in the van. And they would offer craft based activities as a way of connecting people. I think a lot of the thinking was, you know, if you want people to participate in ideas or projects you’ve got, you should go to them. You know, I agree with this wholeheartedly, like if you’re interested in sharing ideas, just to, it’s more exciting if you were sort of pitching you’re stall near where someone might out. So we would I was just offering sort of mending sessions and mending consultations, and just generally all things mending in this van. And was so much fun. I just got to sit there all day, drink hot chocolate and wait for people to come in the van and tell me things about the holes in their clothes and mend things with them and actually, the good thing about that was I think we did it two or three days in a row in one place. And so you, if someone had seen me the day before, they were able to come back with the item the next day, which was really good, or just pop their head in and hang out for a little bit and sit with the yarn and the darning. I think anything that gets people keen on using their hands. I mean, I think whatever I can do to promote craft is a good thing in my thinking, you know? So if that means if that encounter with craft is just sitting near yarn, then that seems like a positive encounter. And that was sort of how that worked? Yeah.

Katie Treggiden 

What do you think is the power of people using their hands? Why is that important?

Celia Pym 

Oh, I think it’s so extensive. I mean, I think it’s very intuitive. I think using your hands taps into a completely different bit of your brain. And I think it’s expressive. I mean, there’s a heap of evidence to say it relaxes you that bits of your neurons in your brain fire differently so that it’s good for your mental health and your well being. But I actually think it’s really expressive, like you can express things with your hands that you can’t express with words. And the difficulty is that we’re not very good at reading or understanding those things because we’re so focused on words as a tool of communication, that we’re not very good at understanding in the same way physical expression, or the made object as an expressive item. I mean, not everyone, but I think that, you know, children have no difficulty in making things with sand, or, you know, they’re talking to you all the time through this material world and material language, building mud pies, or drawing or whatever. And so I really think that it’s a great way of communicating and it says things differently, you know, you choose red instead of blue. And it’s expressive, it’s communicating. so, yeah, I like talking with hands, even though I like talking with my mouth as well, a lot.

Katie Treggiden 

It’s a great way to put it. I like that. You’ve been running darning shops via zoom during lockdown. I’d love to know what the response to those has been. Because it seems like there’s been a real upsurge in craft and people doing exactly what you’ve just talked about during lockdown. So I’d love to kind of hear a bit about your experience and what you think is driving that interest.

Celia Pym 

Yeah, I think that so my, I had a load of workshops, face to face live workshops booked in for 2020, but once, when we were all at home and locked down, it seemed like oh, let’s do them on zoom. You know, my university teaching I was doing had moved online. And so I moved these workshops online, they became really popular, more almost than the face to face ones. But I think part of what people have said to me is that they’re sitting around looking at their stuff. So they’re in their homes, looking at all the things they’ve accumulated, their clothing. So there was a lot, particularly in that first lockdown, there was a lot of clearing out and I think people came to workshops being like, I’ve made my, you know, discard pile and my but there are these things that need mending and then, but I also think people found they had more time on their hands. So they were looking for ways to be off their screens as well. A lot of people communicated how they were looking for activities or work or something to do that wasn’t their screen. That’s part of the interest. I also think there’s been I mean, when I started mending in 2007, I had no idea. I mean, I really didn’t plan this as a career a mending career at all. And I’m always slightly surprised that it’s still has legs a little bit. I keep waiting for it to peter out, like, pop interest to get quiet. And I started teaching workshops about 2011. And I remember saying to the person who is hiring me, oh, we’ll probably have about two years before I’ve taught everyone who’s interested, but the interest keeps growing. And I would say the significant shift in the teaching is that people are talking differently about the environment, you know, and fashion, there’s a massive shift in the way people talk about wanting to mend because they don’t want to throw things away. So they  they want stuff to last longer. And that’s part of what’s going on in lockdown as well. But I would say more than that, it’s been this sort of looking around and going, I’ve got a lot of clothes, or I, you know, I don’t have this much space to store everything so I have to make better choices or different choices about what  I’m keeping, and people are bored, as well. I mean,  and they want to be working with their fingers.

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah. Yeah, I think I think that’s right. And we should we should say some people, you know, some people are working incredibly hard during lockdown, and haven’t got time or time on their hands at all.

Celia Pym 

Of course sorry, I think that’s a given. But also, I think there was a lot of need for, I mean, it was that split right, between those who were needed at the frontline and had to work really, really hard. And then people who were sort of, you know, needing to take care of their own mental health, their family’s mental health, and having to stay home. So I felt like there was a real split between us sort of two extremes where people were either working extraordinarily hard in health care, or deliveries, or, you know, all of the work that kept us running and kept our food that going and all the supply chains working. And then people who had to stay home and really had to really just not go out and look for work to do within the sphere of their home.

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah, absolutely. And I think that sort of doing something with your hands as opposed to the screen has certainly been a you know what, we can’t go outside and get the sort of tactile stimulation that we might normally have had from from being outside. And I mean, this the trend, particularly for visible mending is huge. So if you type #visiblemending into Instagram, right now you get 96,000 posts pop up. So this huge thing crazy. I find it fascinating. What do you make of this sort of, particularly this visible mending trend, and a sort of mend as a badge of honour? You mentioned a little bit this, this sort of environmental driver for some of this behaviour, but what do you make of this sort of very Instagrammed manifestation of it?

Celia Pym 

Well, I mean, social media is so powerful. So there’s lots I think that is positive. It’s mainly what I see around the visible mending is people are enthusiastic to show off their work. And so it’s hard to knock that because enthusiasms enthusiasm and if people are making things I think that’s great. I mean, it feels like a craze in a way. Like again, I think you know when will it peter out? What will be the next trend or or what will move on? But I don’t give it a lot of thought very often, actually. But I I mean, I have a 10 year old friend who gets very defensive when she sees people visible mending, because she says well, that Celia’s work I say no, no other people can visible mend Dot, it’s okay. This idea is out there for everyone to participate in. And I think it is, you know, it’s like fashion revolution, which is that organisation that sort of raises awareness around fast fashion and the implications of fashion impacts fashion on the environment and on labour. Yeah, I mean, fashion revolution are great, but I think it’s sort of a kind of activism, even a visible mending movement. If it generates that kind of passion in people then I’m okay with it. I’m not sort of interested in mending as a worthy activity. But I’m not very interested in worthiness, or good being good. But a lot of the time, it just looks like people excited about having, you know, been in a gang almost like I’m in the visible mending gang.

Katie Treggiden 

Do you think there’s a, I guess one of the things that I’m interested in from a sustainability point of view is if we’re going to bring about genuine change, the sort of things that we do have to be accessible to everybody. There’s a wonderful quote in a book called All We Can Save which is an anthology of women, writing about the environment. And that was edited by Dr. Ayanna Elizabeth Johnson. And she says in the introduction to change everything we need everyone. And I guess one of the things that interests me, concerns me about the visible mending movement is it’s perhaps only accessible to certain segments of society. Do you think this, you know, there are still associations for some people between mending and poverty? People have to wear uniforms to work that can’t be visibly mended. You know, there’s sort of a perhaps even even for people who can wear visibly mended items, in some contexts, they might not be appropriate for other contexts. So I guess I’m interested in how accessible that is to people of different classes and backgrounds.

Celia Pym 

I think that’s a really great question. I would sort of flip it a little bit because rather than worrying or like I said, I don’t really give a lot of thought to hashtag. But I do think a lot about inclusion and how people participate with materials and ideas. And this idea, I love that quote about it, it needing to be, how did you phrase it? The sustainability needs to be inclusive to actually work, everyone needs to be participating. So me, it starts with education that we need, children need to be much more engaged with craft and materials, younger and longer. Until you understand how something’s made and the materials it’s made from, it’s very hard to even imagine mending it, you’re a big jump away from mending it, you don’t even realise that a yarn is what you might need to fix your clothing, you know that you. So if children are more literate and educated and have more experience with the material world, inevitably, they will have a curiosity. Not all, but many more will have a curiosity about what they can do with the material in their lives, when it gets broken and how it could be mended. And I think there’s a real richness, as we’ve already spoken about from a narrative point of view of engaging with the materials and cloth of your life. And I think that’s the way to a greater inclusivity around thinking about mending and repair, because then you can innovate, then you can mend them visibly, or you can, perhaps the question isn’t, Oh, do I mend this item? But what can I, you know, sometimes you might look at something and think, I can’t be bothered to mend this, it’s too much hassle, but the fabric is useful for something else, or the cloth is useful for something else, so then you can reinvent it into something else. So it’s not, the answer isn’t always for me mending. The answer to a damage isn’t necessarily to mend it, but you have to be, you have to have experience with material and with making to even begin to have those thoughts about doing something with it. That’s what saddens me about inclusivity around material language and culture is that it’s not broadly taught, it’s much more to do with your experiences within your family, what you know about materials because it isn’t prioritised  in our public education system, it’s not an essential part of the curriculum. And it really should be. So yeah, if I was gonna get angry and upset, it would be about curriculum, and where art and crafts sit in the curriculum.

Katie Treggiden 

And I think that is true, right up until the design profession, you know, I think the material literacy, even amongst professional designers is lacking. And the things we do to materials at design stage, often determine whether they can be repaired or whether they can be disassembled for reuse. And I think we’ve sort of got this heat, beat, treat methodology around materials, that only really enables them to be fit for single use. And I think there are so many interesting materials emerging that almost the educational system can’t keep up with. And I do think that material literacy piece is really important to all stages of design education, not just in schools.

Celia Pym 

No, but if you think about it, they have to start young, otherwise, you’re not going to even get into the degree course right? You’re not, if you’re if you have no exposure, but I also just think there’s a general richness to understand the different, to understand, you know, it’s sensational materials, you know, they feel different against your skin. And that’s something that’s full of pleasure and excitement and memory, and you know, that  we’re denying children, and it would enhance their imagination. And then as we say, you know, from a sustainability point view, then they’re the designers of the future. And they they do it completely differently in ways we can’t imagine. But yeah, I would. I was this morning. I was actually thinking what if you had as many lessons on materials as you do on English or maths or, you know that age old conundrum, What if they said, this is as important, knowing where wool come from, or how to spin it, or how it can be reused or the whole life of one material. Wood, ceramics, cotton, and of course, you can tie in politics, history, all the rest of it, but it would be wonderful. It would be absolutely fantastic. Yeah, I could happily write that curriculum.

Katie Treggiden 

Excellent. Put it on the to do list.  How do you think opinions towards mending and repair are changing? You mentioned sort of, in the 10 years, you’ve been working in this area, the environment has become more of a driver.

Celia Pym 

I think that’s still the biggest shift I’ve seen is that an evaluation of consumption, a different thinking about how much clothing we consume, is really important. And so the next step from that is, well, if I want to consume less clothing, if I want to engage less with fast fashion, then I need to think about mending things. So that has been the really big shift. And I do take your point from earlier about the stigma around mended things. That in a weird way, the beauty of, not that there is any beauty really to fast fashion, but there was something levelling about the idea that you could buy something brand new, and look smart for four pounds or five pounds. And I do think it’s really hard when you talk about mending, mending is slow work. So you also need to have time to do it, which isn’t something that everyone has either. So that’s that’s an issue around encouraging people to mend or, you know, save your clothes mend them, it’s like, Yeah, when have you, if you’ve got children or you’re working, you know, when is this precious hour that you’re going to carve out to mend everyone’s socks or something I don’t know. So I don’t actually champion it that way. I sort of look for it more you know, my own personal interest in mending is much more to do with its narrative qualities or its capacity to spark imagination or stories and that for me, that’s where its power lies. And that’s not knocking it’s its power to look after things for longer and keep things used longer. But I don’t really get into the I’m not telling everyone to mend certainly.

Katie Treggiden 

No, I think it’s I think it’s important. We don’t tell everybody to do anything, really. But I think those those things are are really linked, though, because I think the 20th century has seen this veneration of newness. You know, this idea that, you know, you see our unboxing videos on YouTube or sort of people wearing baseball caps with the label still on the message. There’s this idea that when something’s new, it’s perfect whereas I think that the idea of objects with narrative and with story, damage becomes less of a negative thing and more part of that object’s history and the story. So I do think those two things are interlinked actually.

Celia Pym 

That’s a really nice way to put it. Sorry, I interrupted you.

Katie Treggiden 

No, it’s fine. We’ve both just got too much to say on this subject, I think so. Last question. Last question. What do you think the future holds for mending and repair?

Celia Pym 

Well, I think , what do I think the future holds for mending and repair. That’s a really difficult question. Honestly, I still think I still can’t believe I pinched myself that anyone’s continues to be interested in mending. So I imagine this ebb and flow that it will go out of fashion for a bit and then come back. And I mean, my point of view is, I love the word mend. I really like the associations. I like the way it sounds. I like the way sometimes we describe our bodies as being on the mend. So you’ve had a cold or something and you’re on the mend. And I think of it as this very layered thing mending, that you mend an item once and really, you’re waiting for the next in the future, it will get damaged again, then you’ll mend it again and then and then again. And you’re you’re really engaging with this thing for a long time. So you’re making a commitment to something for a long time. So I hope that the conversation around mending or the future for mending is this sort of commitment to something not waiting for the immediate hit, that you’re actually engaging with this process for a very long time. And that the mending sort of is something that just hums along, like quiet care in the background, it just keeps happening and slowly, slowly, it builds up a new surface and a new layer and a whole new story about what objects are and garments are.

Katie Treggiden 

I think that is a beautiful note to end on. Thank you, Celia it’s been absolutely wonderful talking to you. As always, I really appreciate your insights on this matter.

Celia Pym 

My pleasure. Thank you, Katie was really fun.

Katie Treggiden  

If you enjoyed this episode, can I ask you to leave a review, and perhaps even hit subscribe? I’ll be honest, I don’t really understand how the algorithm works. But I’m told those two actions really help other people to find the podcast. So that would be amazing. Thank you. You can find me on Instagram @KatieTreggiden.1, you can subscribe to my email newsletter via a link in the show notes. And if you’re a designer maker, you should really join my free Facebook group Making Design Circular see you there. Part of my commitment to 1% for the planet I’ve donated the ad spot in this episode to Surfers Against Sewage an organisation I’m really proud to support. The episode was produced by Sasha Huff so thank you to Sasha and to October Communications for marketing and moral support and to you for joining me. You’ve been listening to circular with Katie Treggiden