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Archive for the ‘Slow Fashion’ Category

Recently, I was invited to deliver the keynote speech at Cultures of Repair: Past and Present, a one-day conference to conclude A Remedy for Rents, an exhibition of darning samplers from the Whitelands College Collection.

Curated by Vivienne Richmond, head of Goldsmiths History Department, A Remedy for Rents showcased a rare collection of exceptionally fine needlework by working-class women in the last quarter of the 19th century. As students at Whitelands College, the first all-female teacher training college, now part of the University of Roehampton, the women were training to teach in elementary schools for working-class children and their needlework focused on the production and repair of simple garments and household textiles.

Remedy for Rents offered a rare opportunity to see needlework by non-elite Victorian women, but illuminates also the history of working-class dress, female education and gendered roles, experiences and expectations in 19th-century Britain and beyond. If you missed this exhibition, then you will have a second chance to catch it again, see details at the end of this post.

Photography credit: all the images I’m showing here were taken by David Ramkalawon, and all items belong to the Whitelands College Collection, University of Roehampton, and are used with kind permission.

Note: simply click on an image to get a closer view of the exquisite needlework

Specimens of Needlework Whitelands College

Specimens of Needle Work, Whitelands College K.S. 1902. This unassuming leatherbound book contains a stunning collection of extraordinary needlework

The items on display are of an an amazingly high quality, and provide me with a lot of inspiration, and something to aspire to. The book shown above holds page after page of darning samplers and plain sewing samplers, each and every one of them showing the very best needlework.

Sampler by Annie Hewins 1879

Sampler made by Annie Hewins, 1879. It shows a combination of darns, damask darns, patching, decorative borders and buttonholes. All made by hand

Tailored buttonhole by Annie Hewins 1879, Whitelands College Collection

Close-up of one of the buttonholes from the sampler shown above

Whereas most of the darning and embroidery samplers I’ve seen from the late 19th century are no longer of the finest quality displayed in work from earlier centuries, the work displayed by the teachers in training at Whitelands College is an exception, and it’s almost inconceivable that they were all made by hand. I’m particularly fond of the many fancy handworked buttonholes; I’ll be giving them a go when the opportunity arises.

I’ll share more images from the needlework on display throughout this post, but I’d also like to share with you the one-day conference. Vivienne Richmond talked about past cultures of repair. Needlework was a respectable way for a woman to earn some money, both teaching it, or providing needlework as a service to other households. Obviously, learning needlework is a very hands-on approach, and the Whitelands College Collection is a prime example of the students’ work. If you want to know a bit more about this, then I can recommend the blog posts I wrote about darning samplers from the Fries Museum (parts 1, 2, and 3). She also touched on the Make Do and Mend campaign of World War 2, and all those middle-class women who, with the very best intentions, wanted to teach working class women on how to mend their clothes and to be careful with resources. Needless to say their reception was rather mixed, as for working class women making do and mending was already part and parcel of their lives.

Sleeve with darning detail, Whitelands College Collection

One of the many practice pieces: a sleeve with cuff, ruffle, patching, darning, and stitching

After learning about repair in the past, we moved on to a number of artists and makers who use repair as part of their practice:

Lizzie Cannon has a background in geography and as a result her artwork reflects her keen sense of space and place. She gathers discarded items which get augmented by adding other elements, often using embroidery techniques. Her ongoing project Mended Leaves investigates how mending reflects, and sometimes accelerates, decay of delicate structures. The threads used to mend the holes in the leaves are carefully matched with the leaf is still fresh, but later contrasts with the changed colour once the leaf has dried.

Katherine May works as a designer, researcher and facilitator tracing the threads that weave together textiles and society. Through research and making she explores the origins of materials and the story of techniques. Her projects often reflect specific social contexts and emphasise participation through the dressing or inhabiting of these spaces, that she uses as a platform to engage people in an imaginative and sensory relationship with cloth. This was seen in Water – Colour a site specific installation where a ritual of practice evolved through indigo dyeing on site over 2 months. With her work she aims to expose the relational aspects of textiles and subvert prevailing processes of value production.

Ruby Hoette  works independently as a designer/curator/researcher exploring fashion in context through the intersection of theory and practice. Her projects reveal patterns of use and often investigate the construction of value and meaning in fashion. The WORN_RELICS project was launched in 2008. It is an interactive online archive in which the stories and memories attached to garments can be collected and shared. The project explores the idea that clothing acquires value over time through being worn. It is a platform for the communication of the creativity and innovation that can be found in the diverse ways we interact with clothing in everyday life.

Miniature Knitted Sock, Whitelands College Collection

Many items were made on a miniature scale. They’re easily confused with dolls clothes, but their main purpose was to learn all the different sewing techniques and construction of all manner of garments. This lace sock measures no more than 4.5cm (less than 2in) in height. I guesstimate it has about 60 stitches in the round.

Those of you who have been following my blog, may have noticed that many of the other artists and makers’ themes and interests are reflected in my own practice, so my keynote speech tied it all nicely together. I spoke about my love of old sewing and needlework books; my issues with using the phrase ‘make do and mend’ in the 21st century, when many people make the choice between replacing or repairing; aspects of Japanese crafts such as boro and sashiko, but at the same time trying to bring things back to local culture; learning from studying samplers (see links to Fries Museum above); and my bottomless mending basket at home.

Detail of sampler made by Witteridge, Whitelands College Collection

A darn made to emulate a jersey (machine knitted) fabric, which is made by stem stitching over foundation threads that go across the hole

I also discussed my shift in focus, or end point, of a garment. If I aim to wear clothes for a long time, than I will have to acknowledge that they will need some repairs at some point. With that in mind, when I make my own clothes, a garment isn’t really finished when I cast off that last stitch, or sew in some ends. I know there is more work to be done down the line. So those finishing touches are not final, but merely one of the stops on the journey of the garment’s life. To me, making and repairing are no longer discrete activities, they belong together, and the boundaries between the two are blurred: repairing is making.

Whitelands College Collection Sample Garment

A miniature undershirt as a way of learning all aspects of technique and construction of undershirts

If you want to catch Remedy for Rents at Roehampton, then please know that they don’t have a webpage for the exhibition yet, but in the meantime people are welcome to contact Gilly King: Gilly.King@roehampton.ac.uk for further information. The exhibition is opening there on 14 May, 2016 and running to July (actual closing date tbc).

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After my interview with Cecelia Campochiaro about Sequence Knitting, I was very eager to cast on a project and use her innovative techniques. Let me explain briefly what ‘sequence knitting’ is: by repeating a simple unit of knit and purl stitches over and over again, it is possible to create a complex textured fabric. A simple sequence knit example would be a 2×2 ribbing. You cast on a multiple of 4 stitches, and repeat the unit ‘knit 2, purl 2’ until you reach the end of the row. On the next row, you can start again with the unit. By playing around with the unit, and the number of stitches cast on, you can create very complex patterns indeed. They would be a nightmare to follow in a chart, but by memorising the unit, it is, in principle, very easy to knit.

Sequence Sweater Arms Wide Open

Easy knitting makes you feel good!

 

So, when my partner Anthony wanted a new sweater, we went yarn shopping and he set his heart on The Uncommon Thread‘s BFL Fingering in ‘Fe2O3’, which is a colourway custom-dyed for Yarn and Knitting, Brighton’s newest yarn shop. The sequence knitting needs something that will show up stitch definition, and from pictures in Campochiaro’s book it was also evident that a hand-dyed yarn would look wonderful. The slight irregularities resulting from hand-dyeing, combined with knits and purls makes for a very vibrant and lively looking fabric.

Sequence Sweater Standing

A comfy sweater in a soft yarn

Anthony wanted a sweater with plenty of ease and nothing too warm, so I psyched myself up for a project that would take me a long time to make: frequently changing knits and purls and a fingering weight yarn meant slow progress. The sequence knitting was easily committed to memory and almost drop-shoulder shaping meant there was little shaping to worry about for the front and back panel and those two parts were easily knitted. However, in this particular sequence pattern, the number of stitches cast on were not a multiple of the number of stitches in the unit, which meant that at the end of the row your unit was not completed. On the next row, you complete the unit. So, for armhole, neck, and sleeve shaping I had to come up with a method of keeping track of where to continue.

Sequence Sweater Chart

A sequence knitting chart. The numbers represent a block of knits or purls in a unit, and the shading shows how it shows on the right side of the fabric

It turns out that Cecelia has used similar methods when knitting something that included shaping. The chart may look confusing, but the only thing you need to know is how to continue at the beginning of a row so you know how to complete a unit. After that it’s plain sailing until the beginning of the next row.

So although the front and the back panel were easier to knit, as I didn’t have to refer to these kind of charts very often, I found that feeling to be making progress was more evident when knitting the sleeves: with such skinny yarn it can feel like you haven’t done a lot of knitting at all, as the fabric doesn’t grow quickly, and it was nice to be able to tick off rows and see I completed another ten rows on my daily commute.

Sequence Sweater Neckline

 

The ribbing on the welts, cuffs, and neck is based on the particular unit of this sequence pattern; see if you can work it out

I’ve written before about slow crafting and taking time, and this is a good example of it. Slow crafting means accepting slow progress. This is probably easier to accept if you’re a process knitter rather than a product knitter (ie your emphasis is on the process of knitting/making, rather than on getting a finished object,) but being accepting of slow progress, allowed me to take the time for details such as the visible three-needle bind-off I used for all the seams. There’s an awful lot of stitches to pick up on each seam! However, the bold lines that are created this way really frame the textured fabric: well worth the effort and the week it took me to complete it.

Sequence Sweater Seams in 3-needle bind-off

Bold seams frame the sweater

Another detail I was very happy about is the neckline. After seaming together the panels, I crocheted a chain around the neck line. I then picked up stitches through the crochet chain. This gave a very flush transition from main panel to ribbing, and I like the way it subtly accentuates the neckline. The ribbing itself was knitted on graduatingly smaller needles so that it really pulls together at the edge.

I’m glad that Anthony was also accepting of my slow approach; he’s been patiently waiting for his sweater. But after nearly five months of knitting, it’s now finished. And as you can see, he’s lovin’ it!

Sequence Sweater Posing

Strike a pose!

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I’m very excited to announce a extraordinary Visible Mending Programme collaboration with one of Brighton’s finest vintage clothes shops: Wolf & Gypsy Vintage. I have been shopping at Wolf & Gypsy since they first opened their doors many a moon ago, so it was only a matter of time I’d walk in with some visibly mended clothes. Laura, the owner of Wolf & Gypsy, loved the look of my repaired French workwear so much, that she asked me to create a micro-collection for her. And that’s exactly what I did.

Wolf and Gypsy Window Display

May All Your Dreams Be Indigo, at Wolf & Gypsy Vintage Boutique, Brighton

All four pieces I repaired are of an indigo blue, and I think they were all dyed with a chemical dye rather than actual plant-based indigo. I decided to provide a contrast by using vintage Japanese natural indigo-dyed fabrics; by only using yellow sewing and embroidery threads I highlighted all the hand stitching.

Wolf and Gypsy Trousers VMP Detail

All garments have been repaired visibly, and the Visible Mending Programme logo is handstitched into each garment

Laura carefully hand picks all the garments for her shop, and I have used the same attention to detail in making the repairs. Although the fabric I used for patching is Japanese, I steered clear of employing Japanese embroidery techniques, such as sashiko and boro. Instead, I found my inspiration from my old, and very Western, needlework books.

I’d love to share some before-and-after pictures:

KLM Overalls

Being from The Netherlands, I could only ever repair some overalls originating from my home country. KLM (Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij) is the Royal Dutch Airlines.

Wolf and Gypsy Visible Mending Programme Overalls Before

A crumpled KLM overalls in dire need of some TLC

Wolf and Gypsy Visible Mending Programme Overalls After

Rejuvinated overalls: new button, fraying cuffs dealt with, small holes turned into eyelets

Overalls repairs: fraying cuffs rebound with fabric, small holes highlighted with eyelet embroidery.

Friendship Sweatshirt

Although there wasn’t any actual damage on this sweatshirt, it did look a bit dull. To remedy this, I added a colourful darn to be worn as a badge of honour. “Friendship” is the unknown-to-me label of this sweatshirt

Wolf and Gypsy Visible Mending Programme Sweatshirt Before

The Friendship sweatshirt is looking for some pizzazz

Wolf and Gypsy Visible Mending Programme Sweatshirt After

A beautiful darn to be worn as a badge of honour

Sweatshirt repair: darn in multiple colours, created with my Speedweve.

French Workwear Trousers

These are very similar to the trousers I walked into the shop with and which led to this gig to start with. I’m happy with the look of the binding around the pockets (see picture above), and a fabric patch which shows fading. Most of all though, I love the tailor’s buttonholes, handstitched in a perlé cotton to make them stand out.

Wolf and Gypsy Visible Mending Programme Trousers Before

These French workwear trousers needed a fair bit of attention

Wolf and Gypsy Visible Mending Programme Trousers After Patch Detail

I love the fading on the patch, which I’ve sewn in using the flannel patch method, more commonly used for, you guessed it, flannel!

Wolf and Gypsy Visible Mending Programme Trousers After Buttonhole Detail

I love working proper tailored buttonholes, and this commission was a good excuse to really make ’em stand out!

Trousers repairs: fraying pockets rebound with fabric, fraying buttonholes restitched, hems re-sewn, patches, waistband cord ends replaced.

French Workwear Jacket

Possibly my favourite of the series: the pockets had a lot of tiny holes in them, so these got covered up by pocket-sized patches. One sleeve had a very ugly and stiff iron-on patch. This peeled off easily, and I replaced it with a classic felled patch.

Wolf and Gypsy Visible Mending Programme Jacket Before

The jacket sported a really rather ugly iron-on patch and some holes were crudely sewn together

Wolf and Gypsy Visible Mending Programme Jacket After

Luckily the patch came off easily, and a new patch was inserted with felled seams

Wolf and Gypsy Visible Mending Programme Jacket After Detail

Patches on the pockets, and the patches behind holes, which have been delicately outlined with a half-back stitch

Jacket repairs: buttons replaced, various patches, fraying cuffs rebound.

If you find yourself in Brighton during the month of November, then you can avail yourself of one of these fine Visible Mending Programme garments. Each one comes with a special card that details the repair materials and techniques used. I hope four lucky people will enjoy wearing these as much as I enjoyed repairing them!

Wolf and Gypsy May All Your Dreams Be Indigo Banner

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During a paper I gave at In the Loop 4, I mentioned a blurring of boundaries: when does a garment start, and when does it end? Musings about Taking time, Woolly Comrade Felicity ‘Felix’ Ford’s Slow Wardrobe project, and having conversations with other friends who make clothes to last, have culminated into my own thoughts about a Slow Wardrobe.

Brioche Sweater and grafitti

My Brioche Sweater: a recently completed garment. Or is it?

Since I started repairing with purpose, I’m slowly but surely drifting away from the idea that once the last loose end has been woven in, a garment is finished. Over time, clothes start to develop signs of wear, of having been washed, of having been used. Inevitably, an edge starts to fray, a seat wears thin, or a hole appears, and the time comes I’ll be getting out my darning needle. By making my mends visible, I continue adding to the garment. A beautiful mend can be worn as a badge of honour, and in my view, augments and alters the garment repaired.

Flanelette Plaid shirt darning by tomofholland

Darning the threadbare yoke seam of a flannelette shirt

A shift of focus from trying to keep things looking new and perfect to favouring the old and imperfect, means I’ve stopped looking at repair as a chore, but as a creative challenge in its own right. Instead of fixing something that is broken, which implies the item was finished, I now continue working on something that wasn’t complete yet. This idea is perhaps easier to embrace where it concerns clothes I made myself, but I now extend it to the clothes I buy. I frequently purchase secondhand clothes, and they already show signs of wear, and the time to repair something usually comes along sooner.

Tom spinning a yarn

Spinning a yarn

Conversely, making my own clothes has made me question at what point a garment starts. When you buy something, you could be led to believe that your garment’s life starts when you’ve handed over your cash. But this, of course, isn’t true. Somebody somewhere has laid out cloth, cut it up, seamed it, pressed it. Most likely different people were involved in different stages and many things are now mechanised.

When making your own clothes, you get to choose the fabric or yarn, the pattern, the buttons, and put it all together into a garment. You could argue that the item starts its life when you clapped your eyes on that beautiful tweed, or when you dreamt up that Christmas jumper and you started looking for the right yarn. Now that I also spin, even if as yet I haven’t spun enough of one yarn to make a whole jumper, my boundary has shifted even further back: it is possible to make a garment-specific fibre, so really, its life starts there. In fact, we can take it back right to the beginning: wool, linen, silk, and cotton are all fibres that theoretically I could grow or farm myself.

Roger from Diamond Fibre Mill

Roger from Diamond Fibre Mill spinning a yarn or two

So even if I’m not personally involved in all the process steps from farming to harvesting to processing of fibres, and subsequently turning the resulting cloth or yarn into a garment, I’m aware that all these steps are part of the story. If you want to get an understanding of some of the issues around the fashion industry, then there’s no better way than trying to make something yourself. When you wash your raw fleece, you’ll notice how much water you use. When you spin a yarn, you understand how difficult it can be to get something just right. When you sew a shirt, you get a feel for how complicated sewing can be. Try and imagine any of these processes on an industrial scale, and soon all sorts of questions pop up: how can we grow/farm fibres in huge quantities? What happens with waste water from processing fibres and dyeing it? What happens to by-products and waste from the spinning process? How can somebody sew 50 shirts a day? How are prices of clothing set on the High Street?

These are just a few questions, and answering them is difficult, and fixing things that appear to be a problem is also very complicated. So what can I do about it myself? Talking to people such as Sarah Corbett from the Craftivist Collective, or reading John-Paul Flintoff’s book Sew Your Own, made me realise that there will be things I personally cannot influence, but there are other things I can do something about. I can run workshops, I can volunteer, I can decide what goes into my wardrobe, and I can share my experiences in this blog.

A follow-up post is in the making, in which I want to share with you my thoughts about my Slow Wardrobe: what does it mean to me? Sewing and knitting my own clothes, making things that last, repairing things, and thinking about long-term style, not short-term fashion.

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