In today’s society, many of us go through our whole lives without ever working with our hands; we live, we work, we eat, we buy, we repeat. Everything is made and delivered at a blistering rate, from fast food to fast fashion and, although this may keep the economy buoyant, it’s not necessarily good for our mental health, or for our planet.
But during the past year of lockdown, we have been forced to stay still. The hamster wheel has stopped, and for some of us – without young children to keep entertained – this has provided a unique moment of quiet contemplation. We have suddenly found ourselves with time to spare; time to tackle those half-finished projects and abandoned hobbies – and an increasing desire to be creative, and make things with our hands.
There has been a wealth of online craft workshops popping up on everything from crochet, collage, charcoal drawing and flower-arranging to spoon-carving as well as TV programmes that have encouraged everyone to paint, draw or sculpt their view from a window with whatever materials they have at hand.
In the safety of our own homes, we have been able to try knitting for the first time, to have a go at oil pastels or attempt a pinch pot – without a teacher but also without the judgment of a teacher. The possibility of experimentation in the solitary environment of our own homes has spawned a new confidence in “having a go”, the prerequisite for learning. Mastery, after all, starts with dabbling. The freedom to create on our own has offered an effective therapy for uncertain times.
Like many of us during lockdown, my work was forced to go virtual. I am both an illustrator and textile repairer, specialising in delicate fabrics and traditional hand-sewing techniques. For the past few years, I have worked in collaboration with Toast, teaching customers how to care for and mend their garments, so that they might keep for longer. Normally, I would travel to their various stores around the country with a bag of cloth, needles and thread, to host workshops: four to five customers around a table practising their stitchwork over tea and conversation. It’s an intimate affair. So, when I began teaching online via Zoom, I was unsure if this new set-up would work, but I was happily surprised to find a surge of interest from all corners of the world – from Italy, Iceland, Portugal, Lithuania, India and the USA.
During the workshops everyone is given the chance to work on a stitch sampler, before tackling a repair. Taking inspiration from traditional techniques, such as Japanese sashiko and Indian kantha, tears are backed from the underside with a patch of cloth; then small rows of stabbing stitches form a rectangle of closely stacked rows of stitchwork, securing the tear and reinforcing the surrounding cloth, creating a pleasing mend that can be either visible or invisible, depending on the colour match.
It can be so satisfying fixing broken belongings, stitch by stitch, finally tackling long-forgotten projects – a beloved broken cushion; a favourite suit jacket; an irreplaceable pair of jeans. Repairing an item of clothing can enhance the experience of wearing it and leaves the repairer with a renewed sense of closeness and ownership, but it’s more than that. When we repair something by hand, our motor skills are honed and our head is fully engaged, leaving a sense of calm and balance. A recent study at Harvard Medical School discovered that repetitive hand-based actions, such as stitching, weaving and knitting, all create a measurable state of relaxation, slowing down the heart rate and lowering blood pressure. Here was the evidence. Repairing something by hand can’t be rushed; it is inherently a slow process that requires concentration and care.
In the past, much more emphasis was placed both in schools and at home on the basic skills to ensure self-reliance and resilience. Before mass production and readymade products, we had no choice but to repair and maintain the things we owned. Sailors and soldiers were equipped with sewing kits to darn their socks and broken sails. In the Second World War the Make Do and Mend movement implored families to help with the war effort by keeping new purchases to a minimum (clothes as well as food were rationed) and there was a general consensus to be mindful of the things that we owned; to care and repair.
Today, most of us have no real connection to the things that we wear and the products we use – we don’t know how anything works or how things are made in the first place. When things break, we often don’t know how to repair them, but more than that, we don’t see the need to repair them – and why should we, when everything is so cheaply made and so easily replaced?
The by-product of this is that many of us have been left with a feeling of alienation and disconnection. When we swap our well-made and uniquely crafted belongings with replaceable factory-made products, our connection to these things is diminished and our lives are somehow impoverished in the exchange.
I grew up in a household where things were made and mended. My mum was a hat-maker and my father was a special effects model-maker. With a sewing room in the house, I was taught early on how to repair and alter the things I loved. For me, it all started with a pair of socks. My favourite pair, the heels had become thin and threadbare. As they were too precious to throw away, I decided to mend them (with the help of my mother). I remember the feeling of it: weaving my darning needle in and out of the surviving strands; making little bridges back and forth, like a lawn mower; slowly closing the hole. The process was instinctive and I can still recall the feeling of pride and achievement when I had finally finished. Certainly, my darn looked a little rustic, but I had given my socks a new lease of life, a second chance.
It’s this idea that drew me to the art of repair as a philosophy, but also as a helpful skill. It struck me early on that mending things yourself can instil a confidence in your own capabilities, which in turn increases our connection to the things we own. I’ve always been interested in the sentimental value we hold for things; how we carry memories of people and times gone by within a hand-me-down jumper or hand-knitted hat. These items are both priceless and irreplaceable, no matter how broken or tattered.
There is a lesson within the broken fibres we are stitching back together that we might apply to our own lives. In the western world, we are actively encouraged to fight the process of ageing. We value youth and new things above all else. This worldview contributes to wasteful purchases which then contribute to the environmental emergency we all face. Fast fashion is a major player in ecological destruction and pollution.
We are told that ageing is bad and unattractive, and that we must avoid it at all costs. The problem is, that like our clothes, we all age. Our bones become brittle, our skin carries scars (sometimes after stitches) from accidents along the way. Our hair becomes thin or grey and our joints begin to seize. We all break from time to time. But we also mend, with the help of time or a doctor. We carry the knocks of life on our bodies, like an old, much-loved and patched-up pair of trousers. Our wrinkles are a sign of time, of weather and of life. Old age is inescapable, but if we are honest about it, there can be grace and beauty in it. Surely, we can see that this must be so, and when we try to deny it by avoiding old things that are worn, rather than learning to love them, we somehow deny our own reality.
To repair something (anything) is a defiant act, flying in the face of consumerist values and products. Slowing down and finding value and meaning in the smaller things in life can contribute to a more thoughtful approach to our clothes and the world we live in.
As we emerge out of lockdown, my hope is that these newly learned skills will last and endure as the wheel starts turning again. Perhaps this time has given us the chance to recalibrate and reconnect, not just with our belongings but with ourselves.
Cover Illustration: Eva Bee/The Observer
Via the Guardian by Molly Martin