finishing a steek

threadandribbon

I have recently been designing and knitting a thing with steeks, which required finishing. This project is part of an exciting collaboration, and I’ll be able to tell you (and show you) more about it in a couple of weeks. When working on the steeks, it occurred to me how many different ways there are to finish them, so I thought I’d describe exactly what I did with this project, and show you some different finishes I’ve seen, in different contexts.

I generally swatch in the round, and this project was no different. When working a swatch, I always add a few extra steek stitches to enable me to cut the swatch open, and block it flat, before measuring my gauge. Because I’d tested the yarn in this way, I knew from my swatch that the fabric was “sticky” enough to bear cutting without reinforcement so – shock horror – that is what I did when cutting the steeks on this project. I then picked up ribbing around the steeked edges, and washed and blocked the project to the required dimensions.

steektrimmings

When the project was blocked, I returned to the steeks and trimmed them right back so that only a narrow raw edge remained.

pins

I then cut a length of narrow grosgrain ribbon, and positioned it over the top of the raw yarn edges. I pinned it down, easing the binding around the project’s curves, in the same way you’d do when preparing to machine sew.

stitchedsteek
. . . I then hand-stitched the ribbon down, securing the raw edges with my stitches, again taking care to ease the binding around the curve. The end result is very stable, and gives a neat, bulk-free finish to the inside of the project. It should also mean that this project will stand up to wear for quite a while.

I am very fond of using ribbon, in both a decorative and a functional way, for finishing a steek edge. Here is the inside of the front button band of my Ursula cardigan. In this instance, the steek edges were reinforced with a crocheted chain, which was then carefully unpicked, before being stitched down.

ursula

I didn’t trim the steeks back in this instance, but I think it makes a kind of sense to do so when reduction of bulk is crucial to the line and structure of a garment, such as around an armhole edge.

You can see how, in this vintage cardigan in my collection, the steek has been trimmed right back and the edges stitched down to the inside.

myoldcardi

. . . and here, in this garment in the collection of the Shetland Museum and Archives, the steek edges have been trimmed back and blanket-stitched in quite an attractive way.

blanketstitch

I recall, when I handled the following garment, that I was very impressed with the method that had been used to finish its buttonband steeks . . .

ribbonreinforcement

It is a 1930s Fairisle cardigan in the collections of the Shetland Museum and Archives. The grosgrain ribbon has been machine stitched to the buttonband, then buttonholes have been cut through both band and ribbon, and reinforced with hand-stitching. . .

unstitchedsteeks

On the inside, the steek edges have not been trimmed, or even stitched down, but have simply been allowed to wear and felt-in to the inside of the garment. The result is very neat, and very strong – even 80 years later!

Finally, here is my steek sandwich – in which two separate layers of stockinette conceal and contain the raw steek edges.

steeksandwich

Finished with i-cord buttonholes, the steek sandwich is a self-contained and neat way to finish the opening of cardigans like my Bláithín design. I would say, though, that because it creates a raised corded edge, it is not a finish that would work on a garment where a sleeker, more tailored look is required. (I seem to be having a buttonband thing at the moment, and really want to try double-knitting one with integral buttonholes. If anyone knows of a good book or web tutorial for me to have a look at please do let me know!)

I hope these different steek finishes have inspired you to chop up and stitch down your knitting without fear!

sew what?

stitches

I have been getting to know my new sewing machine. I have to say that I really, really love it: my old machine was rather basic, but this one has several different feet, a fancy buttonhole thingy, and a multitude of decorative stitch patterns. Plus, it is so smooth! So intuitively simple to operate! The threads do not get caught and the bobbin winder actually winds the bobbin!

This is the speed adjuster, which I find incredibly pleasing.

tortoise&hare

Surely the first thing anyone does is to make a sampler of stitches?

stitches2

Some of these really kill me, and off course set me off thinking about the structure of various knitterly motifs.

stitches3

stitches5

But my lettering definitely needs some work . . .

bruce

Should I be cutting the threads between each letter? Experienced machinists: advice please!

I’ve really missed sewing of late: I sewed a lot of clothes prior to my stroke, but afterwards found it too difficult / tiring (even getting out the machine, and setting it up was tiring!) and it has now been almost four years since I whipped myself up a skirt or dress. Sheesh! But I am now going to set aside a few hours a week to spend with my lovely new machine and am already looking forward to redeveloping my stitching skills.

stitches4

my handmade childhood

Various things have been prompting me to think a lot recently about the role that sewing and knitting and other handmade things can play in the shape of ones life. Like many crafty folk in the UK, I enjoyed watching the Great British Sewing Bee. Unlike so many of these competitive TV formats, this programme seemed to me to celebrate genuine amateur skill, and although one might take issue with some of the judging decisions, the nature of some of the tasks, and particularly the time allotted to said tasks, I thought the series was largely really inspiring. I also found it both interesting and moving to see the levels of meaning that were invested in hand-made garments by the competitors themselves, and particularly by their family members, who were so incredibly appreciative of the things that had been created especially for them. It made me think about the fact that there is hardly a single photograph of myself or my sister from our childhoods where we are not wearing something hand-made.

Here we are, enacting a decorative and singularly jolly protest against the privatisation of some green public spaces at Castleton carnival, probably, I think, in 1980. My mum fashioned these gigantic floral costumes from tissue paper that was one of the waste products in the factory where my dad worked. Our headgear was attached around our chins with a pair of tights.

flowerpower

You could easily narrate the story of mine and Helen’s childhoods through the marvelous matching cardigans we wore. My grandma was knitting constantly, and had a particular penchant for the kids’ Aran patterns she found in Woman’s Weekly. These wee hoodies might well be my favourites. . .

merrygoround
(Helen looks very cool on that Lambretta)

. . . though I also love these sleeveless cardis.

arans

Grandma had a ‘Tyrolean’ phase later in the ’80s. . .

tyrolean

. . I recall that she knitted my mum a similar garment, too.

In this photo, I am wearing a sort of snood-y balaclava thing knitted by Grandma, and a quilted coat sewn by my mum.

snowman

My mum is a whizz with the sewing machine. I couldn’t find a picture of the most memorable garment she made for me — a chocolate-brown dress with white polka dots, full skirt, and sweetheart neckline that I wore for my first grown-up party (a sort of prom equivalent, I suppose), but I did locate a photograph of me in my First Communion dress that she made from a Vogue pattern. I remember many details of this dress so clearly: it was lined, with a top layer of light cotton voile with teeny tiny pin-dots. There was a beautiful floral trim around the cuffs and bodice that my mum got from the market, and I remember that the whole thing hung really beautifully, and swished in a very pleasing fashion as I walked. I am the one sitting in the middle, without the red carnation.

firstcommunion

Thanks, Mum.

Modern Embroidery

A few weeks ago, I discovered a craft / design book that really blew me away. This hasn’t happened for a while, and I love this book so much that I’ve been itching to mention it. Here’s how I came across it: back in April, I decided I would design a tea cosy for Woolfest. I knew that, if I was going to design a tea cosy it had to be an all-out kitschy novelty item, and I also knew that I wanted the design to have a Woolfest-appropriate sheepy theme. After a few days of thinking about sheep; of the generic shape and design of tea cosies; and just letting things mill about and brew in my head (my general way of working), I had a mild eureka moment: a Sheep Carousel! Yes! This idea seemed a good one, and I felt excited about designing and knitting it. But had anyone thought of it before? Tea cosies (which are often striped) seemed to lend themselves so well to representing a circus tent or merry go round: perhaps another designer had previously had the same idea? This does occasionally happen, and I find it is generally worthwhile checking such things out before one embarks upon a design, so I spent a morning poking around the interwebs, searching for sheep carousels, and carousel tea cosies. During my search I discovered that Jade Starmore had designed a marvelous carousel-themed baby blanket called Widdicome Fair; that Kathleen Sperling had designed an intarsia merry-go-round child’s hat; and that a JC Penney carousel sweater had recently generated some interest when it featured on Glee last year:


(“Glee” carousel sweater, JC Penney)

So there were a few knitted carousel designs, but none featured sheep, and none were tea cosies. But then, on one of my searches I came across a discussion of a “Merry go Round” tea cosy in a book by Ike Rosen called Modern Embroidery. Like most carousels, this one apparently featured horses rather than sheep, and it was a stitched rather than a knitted design, but I was nonetheless intrigued and wanted to check it out. So I tracked the book down on ABE. Here is the tea cosy in question:

It was indeed a carousel, but happily quite different in inception to the stripey marquee and bouncing sheep that had popped into my brain. . .

. . . and, as it turned out, Rosen’s merry-go-round was, for me perhaps one of the least interesting designs in a book which was packed full of TOTALLY AMAZING THINGS.

Rosen’s book was first published in Germany in 1970, and translated into English in 1972. Rosen addresses herself to women with “two left hands” who assumed that embroidery had to be fiddly, complicated, and difficult to execute. She clearly wanted Modern Embroidery to be an enabling beginner’s book, and so the stitches featured in her designs are very simple – most use a combination of stem stitch and chain stitch. But the variety of results Rosen achieves with this limited range of stitches is pretty incredible, as well as really beautiful.


(“Summer Souvenir”)

This is a book very much of its moment – pitching its use of colour and simple ornament as definitively “modern”: “Sensitive people of taste,” writes Rosen:

” . . . at the beginning of this century, were no longer able to put up with the overpowering ornamentation of the last century, and consequently the reaction against it was a rigorous cut-back of all artificial adornments. A new objectivity asserted itself, and strove under the leadership of prominent architects and artists for a pure clean-cut form. We have been profiting from it up to the present time and we are still gaining from it, for it is a style which was carefully thought out from many angles and deliberately fought for.”

But, among the clean modernist lines that then dominated design, Rosen detects “a longing for pattern,” and a yearning for bright colours that might “harmoniously unify various articles in a room.”

The styling of Rosen’s embroidery in “modern” 1970s interiors speaks to this idea of harmony — decor, objects, and designs speak to each other in a most extraordinary matchy-matchy way . . .

. . . these purple and orange plates with their nifty built-in egg-cups and even the eggs themselves are carefully styled to tone in with Rosen’s table runner . . .

. . . and the forms of cakes and biscuits echo Rosen’s abstract designs.

Despite the overwhelming 1970s vibe of this book (and it is overwhelming – shades of brown, orange and purple dominate; cigarettes nestle daintily among the pretzels) as one flicks through it, it is difficult not to find something contemporary and familiar about Rosen’s designs; hard not to think that Orla Kiely has somehow been inspired by these chained-stitched stems and pears. . .

And there are many knitting design-echoes too: these oven mitts immediately reminded me of Heidi Mork’s lovely Vinterblomster mittens.

But perhaps it is less a question of direct influence: rather, Rosen, (much like Orla Kiely and the inimitable Spillyjane) has a feel for a combining the folksy and the abstract in bold, simple and colourful design.

Rosen’s design referents are vast and eclectic, ranging from the Bauhaus through to Tiny Tim. The text of the book is extraordinarily eclectic too: there are occasions where Rosen seems to be setting out an entire design manifesto, while at other times she becomes philosophic and reflective with observations about the gendered division of labour or the tastes and habits of modern teenagers. In fact, I would say that the book is worth getting hold of not just for the designs (which I absolutely love) but for Rosen’s text, which is often weirdly engaging, even in translation. For example, this is how Rosen introduces my favourite design in the book:

“The more people there are, the scarcer mushrooms and edible fungi become. The case is similar to that in the adage: where we set foot, no more mushrooms grow. Moroever, at the present time, with more free time and a lot of cars to take us out into the open, we would have a lot of fun looking for mushrooms. Let us hope that some professor or other will find an opportunity of making these mushrooms grow in increased numbers everywhere. Since we are accustomed to the fact that scientists make everything possible, and in double-quick time as well, we will console you with this prospect, and in the meantime we have embroidered a dish of mushrooms which at least you can feast your eyes upon.”

Personally, I think there is only one appropriate reaction to “The Dish of Mushrooms” which is to hail it as a work of pure stitched genius.

I’ve not been able to find out about much about Ike Rosen herself – – perhaps because my German is so poor. I wonder whether any German readers might know more about Rosen and her influence? In the meantime, if any English speakers would like to track down a second-hand copy of the 1972 edition of Modern Embroidery, here are the details:

Ike Rosen, Modern Embroidery (London: B.T. Batsford, 1972) ISBN 0 7134 2655 1

In case you were in any doubt at all: I love this book!

another feature

The new Rowan Magazine has just come out, and I have a feature in it, exploring the history of mending, darning, and ‘plain work’. I really enjoyed researching and writing this piece, and working on it became quite important to me during some difficult times over the Summer. In many respects, it is a very “me” sort of piece, and I feel rather happy to see it published. Reading my words, and remembering the ideas behind the writing, reminds me that I stayed me even when I did not feel like me at all (if you see what I mean). I can perhaps give you a quick taste of the feature with a few of the images that Rowan did not use:


Margaret Boxall’s darning sampler (1799). © Ackworth School Estates. You can read more about these beautiful samplers in Carol Humphrey’s super book).


“Two women set up a make do and mend exhibition” (1943) (D14646) ©Imperial War Museum (grateful thanks to Eleanor Farrell at the IWM)


Liz kindly agreed to be my darning model. Here are her hands mending a lovely Hopscotch sock (of her own design) using Felix’s darning egg.

I am also very happy that the wonderful and talented Mandy, and her mother-in-law, Noreen, feature in the feature. And, quite apart from anything else, I reckon that this is a sterling issue of the magazine. I was particularly struck by the ‘Illusion’ story, which showcases some beautiful, airy pieces, set off with Rowan’s characteristically gorgeous photography and Marie Wallin’s great styling. Just the thing to brighten up a dreich January day.

Buttons of Dreams

Several of you left comments or sent me messages regarding my button dilemma (for which many thanks). But the biggest thanks must go to Jayne, who told me about the amazing buttons of Lionel Nichols. (Warning! Prepare yourselves! The link takes you directly to button heaven!) Sixty years ago, Nichols fashioned beautiful glass buttons by hand for London couturiers. His daughter, Dixie, has inherited his collection, and now offers the remaining buttons for sale in seasonal collections. To quote Dixie’s website:

“For two decades, 1946 to 1966, L. Nichols produced what were probably the most interesting and original buttons in England. I have boxes and boxes of buttons, many of them unopened for decades, a treasure trove built up order by order as extras had to be made to ensure that a matched set could be found for each garment, in spite of the irregularities of the hand made process.”

All of Nichols buttons are unique, and many are quite staggeringly beautiful. Perusing Dixie’s collections, I was reminded of just how precious-seeming and utterly desirable buttons can be (more thoughts on which here). Indeed, in terms of their beauty, the care of their craftmanship and their sheer rarity, these buttons really are almost jewels. . . and their prices quite rightly reflect this. . . in any case, when I spotted the buttons you see above I knew I had to have them for my 1930s/40s inspired cardigan. This is the first time I have ever made anything in which the cost of the fastenings has outweighed the cost of the yarn, but these really are superlative buttons.

This cardigan does not have buttonholes: rather, I’ve used clear snap fasteners and a taped reinforcement on the inside of each of the button bands to secure the closures and help the cardigan fronts to keep their shape. Most people use grosgrain ribbon to do this, but I tried this linen tape I had knocking about, which seemed the right sort of colour.

Does it sound weird if I say that I really enjoyed stitching the tape to the inside of the button bands? And am I allowed to admit that I am quite proud of my almost invisible stitches?

I secured the snap fasteners and buttons using strong quilting thread. Then I un-plied a few lengths of the corriedale yarn I had used to knit the cardigan, and, with a sharp sashiko needle, covered all the stitches that were showing on the right side of the garment with the single-plyed yarn. I also went all-out binding and blanket-stitching the shanks of the buttons: they are quite heavy, and need lots of reinforcing to sit correctly.

(the Nichols buttons have been updated with new metal shanks that are well-made and well-glued)

Anyway, I’m pleased with my finishing – which has resulted in a cardigan that closes neatly without undue stretch to the front bands. . . adorned with some extra-special buttons.

I really am stupidly happy with the Nichols buttons and, since they were attached to the cardigan, have been revelling in foolish button joy.

(Pics and specs of the whole shebang tomorrow. Can you tell I am excited?)

racy mending

I have been playing around with ideas about mending and darning for a forthcoming article, and have been turning up some interesting tangential things in various digital collections. Pictured above are “Chicago’s top models for 1922″ who have been co-opted to advertise the novel innovation of the seam ripper. The caption reads “Ripping is a pleasure with Rip-Easy!” What’s interesting about this Iowa sewing company’s choice of marketing is that it seemed to be entirely directed at men. This photo, with its group of local lovelies, “pleasurably” ripping the seams out of silk and lace while displaying their ankles, most obviously speaks to the male viewer. That same year “Rip Easy” advertised itself in Boys Life Magazine as “the best and most practical device to help the folks at home with their home sewing. Send in 10c for a sample and Do a Good Turn for Mother.” Perhaps “Rip-Easy” assumed that men and boys were more likely to be fascinated by stitching gadgets than the women stitchers themselves . . or that blokes were simply more interested in the rather racy idea of women’s ripped seams. . . either way, I’ve not found any comparable advertisments in the women’s magazines of 1922.

Here is more racy mending, from a 1904 postcard. This stitcher is clearly an impressive multi-tasker: fixing a hem while reading The Sunday Magazine and giving whoever is watching her raise her skirts a wee thrill. No matter that it is much easier to stitch a hem if one is not already wearing it, to sit in a comfortable chair while sewing, or to use a pair of scissors rather than one’s teeth: the legs are what’s at stake here.

I’ve found lots of these mildly racy, early twentieth-century images of mending, and it isn’t that surprising. Associations between mending and s*x are conventional and familiar from centuries of genre painting and portraiture: a woman looking at the work in her lap gives a man an opportunity to look at her; a female servant bent over her darning displays her hands or chest; an idle stitcher clearly has her mind on other things.

but then I began to find an awful lot of these:

which took the s*xual politics of the sewing basket to a slightly different place. . .

at lorna’s

Mel and I popped over to Lilith‘s for some dyeing and some secret planning (oho! what fun!) Visiting West Kilbride gave me the opportunity to drop in on Lorna Reid again. If you haven’t heard about Lorna, it’s time you did. She’s the inspiring hands and brains behind independent design business, Chookiebirdie.

chookie1

Lorna has a successful background in commercial textiles: she spent fifteen years creating sought-after floral prints, and counting some of the biggest names in the fashion industry among her clients. But, in 2007, she set up independently in her West Kilbride studio, where she now designs and makes beautiful hand-stitched accessories, toys, and textiles.

chookie2

I love Lorna’s work. There are several things that immediately strike you about what she does: her use of colour, the quality of the materials she uses, the precision of her stitching and, in every piece, the same incredible attention to detail.

chookie3

There is a pleasing simplicity about Lorna’s designs — in her bold use of both shape and shade — but this apparent simplicity belies the careful and thoughtful nature of her hand-stitched creations. You can see how she loves colour: how the pinks and blues in this Matryoshka are exactly the right ones. She also obviously has a very precise feel for the properties of fabric: how jersey might lend itself to the shape of a particular creature, or how felt enhances another design’s rounded edges and saturated hues. Every piece is individually made and because of this, each of her designs is singular, and full of character. From the largest hand-stitched panel to the the tiniest tree decoration, there are evocative details that draw the eye. I love how the dotty button on this jolly horse speaks to its neighbouring hand-stitched patches.

chookie4

Many of Lorna’s designs have a nostalgic, wistful feel — compounded by her use of found or recycled vintage materials. I particularly like how she transforms old golf sweaters into her signature Scotties.

chookie5

Lorna and Lilith (who we already know is brilliant) are what makes West Kilbride such an inspiring and interesting town: a place full of life, bustle, and creativity. At a moment when the media are gloomily sounding the death-knell of the town centre, and when to some the only answer seems the weird fantasy that’s being enacted in Poundbury (with apologies to Dorset Cereals), West Kilbride provides an instructive example. Here is a small town which, due to the presence of independent craftspeople in its once-empty shops, is starting to thrive again. (Also, it is probably just some sort of strange anomaly, but I swear that every time that Mel and I have visited, the weather in West Kilbride has been amazing — clearly the town is some sort of perpetually sunny craft oasis). However, the recent visit of the Scottish Culture minister only serves to highlight the question mark that currently hang over the future of its status as Craft Town Scotland. It is an initiative that deserves strong support — and especially that of anyone interested in independent craft and design. I suggest you go and see for yourself.

If you like Lorna’s work as much as I do, you can commission hand-stitched pieces from her, or just pop into her studio to buy something she’s stitched up already. Can you guess which creature I found impossible to resist?

stitches

it’s perhaps hard to tell from that detail . . . I shall pan out to its wee felt feet . . .

owlfeet

. . . indeed yes, it is an owl: stoic, inscrutable, self-contained. And beautifully hand-stitched, of course.

perch

I know I am very foolish, but how I heart my owl.

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unpicking

When thinking about process, there is nothing more instructive than unpicking someone else’s stitches.

stitches

I found a beautiful hand-embroidered cloth on ebay. I have plans for it. The plans involve deconstructing and transforming it into something else. I began by undoing the slip stitches of its heavy, worn cord edging.

cord

Then I started to unpick the tiny stitches which attach the embroidered front to the cloth’s very fine silk back. The silk is faded but luminous, alive with copper and green.

cutstitches

The secrets written in the cloth began to reveal themselves. Neatly folded hems. Pale green silk thread that moved through the cloth like clockwork. An outer layer of heavy cotton satteen. An inner layer of lining satteen, fresh and bright because unseen for decades. Embroidery worked through both layers. Each thread end carefully woven and hidden. The back of the work faultless in its steady execution.

back

. . .and just as mesmerising as the front.

front

It was then that my fascination with the little mysteries of this cloth changed into a something else. I felt a sense of privilege and respect — in unpicking the stitches I was re-living the work of their making, admiring the skill of a talented needlewoman. But my act was also one of trespass: me and my snipping embroidery scissors were destroying a once-whole thing. And as I, blithe, curious, surgeon-like, began to examine the cloth’s insides, I uncovered the truth of its age: the satteen was of a certain kind, and a little older than I’d imagined. I was an historical vandal, cutting through the threads of time.

In cutting someone else’s threads, as in wearing someone else’s clothes, there is the frisson of encounter. We don’t know and will never know the person who made or wore the thing, but they are speaking to us nonethless, in the movement of their hand through the stitches, or in the the shape of their body left in the garment. There is something deeply uncanny in the silence of cloth and clothes: the trace of an unknown and never-to-be-known physical presence. (One does not buy second hand shoes, because one shies away from the ghost of the foot inside.) As I unpicked the stitches, then, a simple encounter between me and the cloth changed into a more complex one between me and its maker. Because I was un-making a made thing my act seemed an intimate one, but it was an empty intimacy, an intimacy with no content. The embroidered cloth was both speaking and not speaking: of a someone living in those stitches and of the silence of the grave.

Wallace Stevens’ brilliant poem, The Emperor of Ice Cream, (1922) has much to say about the dumb intimacy of embroidery — and of death. Stevens describes the covering of a woman’s corpse with a cloth she embroidered when alive.

Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam
(lines 9 – 15)

Here the corpse is, like the cloth she embroidered, an everyday material object. She reminds us of death’s easy finality. Yet she also suggests the mute compassion of the world of things. We feel the weight of her hands on the lost knobs of the well-worn dresser; her fingers quick movement through the stitches of the cloth that decorates her dead countenance. She does not speak, all we can know is her corpse and her cloth. And it is in the relationship between these two material objects that the essence of the poem (perhaps another object in itself) lies. Gaudy embroidered fantails will never cover death, but each small act of making is an end in itself, capturing the (perhaps pointless) vitality of the human. Now get back in the kitchen (says Stevens) and enjoy your ice-cream.

cloth

Having unpicked my thoughts I will get on with the uncanny work of unpicking.

out with the old

You may remember that a year ago I decided to stop buying clothes for the duration of 2008. My decision to do this was sparked by a couple of things. I had been reading a bit about darning and mending and wanted to think about what repairing and caring for one’s clothes meant. Also, since I heard this very-well researched series of documentaries on the BBC world service, I had been increasingly bothered by textile waste — the sheer amounts of it, as well as the complicated politics of its disposal. I then had a moment of utter revulsion after seeing Florence and Fred’s Affordable Elegance advertisements, in which the disposability of the 20 quid dresses they had designed for Tesco’s was “cleverly” celebrated.

landfill
(textile waste now makes up 30% of rubbish destined for UK landfill sites)

The year is up, and here’s my summary of the project: During 2008 I have fashioned or refashioned for myself 7 tops, 5 skirts, 4 dresses, 3 sweaters, 3 pairs of socks, 2 shrugs, 2 cardigans, 2 hats, 1 shawl, 1 coat, 1 maud, 1 tank top, 1 jacket, 1 pair of gloves, and 1 scarf. Additionally, I have repaired and re-repaired the sleeves of sweaters, the seats of pants, the hems of coats, the heels of socks, the tops of mittens, and the feet of stockings. I made lots of things from patterns and kits and in doing so, have participated, in a vicarious sort of a way, in the design process of some really talented people. I also designed several items of clothing for myself from scratch, and have encountered my own limits and shortcomings along the way. This year of stitching and knitting and learning has been both enjoyable and thought provoking. It has certainly changed the way I think about the making, consumption and meaning of worn textiles.

clothingoneself
(clothing myself in 2008)

Despite the apparently prohibitive terms I set myself (“you will not buy clothes”) this project was never about denial. As you may have gathered, I am someone who loves clothes. I mean, I really love clothes. The things I wear are a source of tremendous pleasure for me, and I regard dressing up in them (however foolishly) as a sort of creative act. So I was not about to deny myself that pleasure or that creativity, but rather wanted to think about focusing it a little differently. One other thing that the project was not was generically anti-consumerist. For I am undeniably a consumer. I exchange money for stuff. I do not regard The Commodity as the root of all evil and in fact I think that commerce — of ideas and words as well as things — is generally a very necessary good. So I did not deny myself the pleasure of clothes, nor did I cease to be a consumer. I bought notions and fabric and quite a lot of yarn. I continued to cut pictures out of magazines, read about fashion history, and dream about the qualities of fabric, and the possibilities of different outfits, just as I had done before. Raw materials, ideas and images continued to be rich sources of inspiration and enjoyment to me. And I had many, many clothes already. To be frank, I had no need of any more. But if there was something that I wanted, as opposed to needed, I would have to think about how to make it, about where the stuff to make it was coming from, and then about how to sew or knit it up for myself. So, in fact, the only thing that I stopped doing this year was spending a lot of time in shops, and buying a lot of clothes in them. And I can honestly say that I’ve not missed this in the slightest.

romney
(handsome Romney. Diamonds Farm. Horam, East Sussex)

What I started rather than stopped doing over the course of the year is much more interesting (well, it is to me at least). Of course, I made things, and I thought about what I was doing when I was making them. But additionally, I also visited farms, crofts, mills and other businesses where fibre is spun, dyed, and woven into cloth. I have learnt how fabric is produced from animal or plant to finished garment, how and where it is sold, to whom, and why. My love of finished textiles has developed into an interest in the process of their production, and the history of those processes. I’ve started thinking in a new way about the importance of textiles to different local economies; about the provenance of materials; about how Britain’s regional fabric is a very literal thing; and about the ways in which different national, local and global histories are all woven up in, and told through, textiles. I’ve also met and learnt from lots of wonderful people who live and work with fibre and fabric. Through this, I have also started to regard the value of textiles very differently indeed.

sweatshop

Clothes are not cheap. Time and care and labour are all expended in the rearing of a British sheep, but the three pence the farmer receives for the fleece makes it hardly worth the shearing. At the other end of the production-consumption chain, 2 million tonnes of largely man-made textile waste is discarded in Britain every year. The quality of this stuff is so low that charity shops cannot re-sell it, and laudable schemes like Oxfam’s wastesaver find it difficult to re-use or recycle. Our cheaply bought and easily discarded textiles swell mountains of domestic landfill, or are exported in containers for other countries to deal with. In the Czech Republic, for example, the outbuildings of former collective farms are now filled, floor to ceiling, with Western Europe’s abandoned clothing. Meanwhile, in Sri Lanka, adults and children suffer the indignity and poverty brought by brutal employment practices that we should more accurately term indenture or slavery. And all to make a mountain of transitory crap that is daily bought and thrown away.

bicyclethief2
(Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) exchanges his bed linen for his bike in the Bicycle Thieves)

Now, I am not making any great claims for myself here. I know that my 2008 make-your-own project was an exploratory luxury. While I could go on about how I have learnt new things about production, process, and materiality, I also know that fundamentally, this is the politics of luxury: of someone who has enough disposable income to spend on yarn and fabric, and enough leisure time to make things and (crucially) to enjoy making them. People do not have the time or money for such luxuries, and they certainly still need cheap textiles. But we also need textiles of durable, lasting quality. We aren’t pawning our good bedlinen (as in the Bicycle Thieves), we are chucking it out and buying another flimsy ten-pound duvet cover whose seams were sewn up by an impoverished ten-year-old on the Indian subcontinent. A recent consumer survey for Asda has apparently shown that supermarket shoppers now value durability as much as price where clothing is concerned. Asda is now changing its “George” ranges to reflect this shift in priorities. Wouldn’t it be nice if they added a guarantee of fair, non-exploitative labour into this mix?

stoppax

I want to conclude with some inconclusive remarks about mending and representing mending. I’ve been doing a lot of darning this year, and have become very interested in the care and repair of clothes, as well as in the way that mended and re-made textiles are such rich repositories of personal and cultural memory. A lot of really good British artists are interested in this as well. I particularly admire, for example, Kirsty Hall, Celia Pym and Tabitha Moses, who all use the processes of mending or repair to explore the evocative and ritual nature of textiles. The work of these artists is rich with thought and meaning. But their practice is now one of the only ways, it seems to me, that contemporary audiences can look at made and mended things as public objects upon which to think and reflect. And sometimes, I am a little troubled by how the only way to approach the acts of women and men that were once quotidian and exceptionally ordinary is through extraordinary forms of representation, such as those that art affords. While the work of the three artists I mentioned is without exception, truly brilliant, there are certainly many other art practitioners whose work does little more than decontextualise familiar household textiles and the practices associated with them to very little end. I am naming no names, because this is something I am still thinking about . . . but I am wondering . . . could there be another way? Or if this is just a matter of there being Bad and Good textile art, as with any other form of art or practice. Anyway, there’s something to mull over further. (Any thoughts on this issue appreciated).

styles
Scrap of linen check (1759) used to identify foundling number 13169. (London Metropolitan Archives)

Making and mending my own clothes will continue in 2009, as will the thinking about the making. But I might just have to buy myself the odd pair of pants, and also hope to have a bit more time for some other truly luxuriant crafty things that I enjoy and have not done much of in 2008 — in particular, embroidery. I also have a new and exciting year-long project for 2009. More on this — and on my lovely trip to Islay — anon.

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