Make, Knit, Mend

Make, Knit, Mend

Something happened to me on Sunday — an almost imperceptible shift in attitude, and yet significant at the same time.

I’m not sure how best to describe it, but let’s say I feel like I crossed some invisible line I’ve been moving toward for decades — first at a saunter and lately at a faster and faster clip. May has been a big, meaning-filled month for me. My closet clean-out has turned into a whole house clean-out. I’ve been packing my already choked calendar with all kinds of opportunities to learn new skills or improve on existing ones. There’s the steady stream of Me Made May pics from all over the hemisphere in my Instagram feed. The other day, I finally made it to The Possible, a sort of exhibit-in-progress (now closed) at the Berkeley Art Museum, which was so moving. Rather than filling the space (the most amazing space) with objects, they filled it with makers — weavers, dyers, printmakers, potters. At the front of the space was a rag rug that had expanded slowly outward for four months as a crew of approved tie-ers pulled from the artful piles of rags at one side (a pile of blues, a pile of reds, etc) and tied and tied and tied. A giant — I mean giant — woven piece had just been hung on a wall above and behind the rug, pieced together from large panels of weaving done on a nearby loom over the course of the exhibition. When my friends and I arrived, there was an Indian man perched on a plywood box in the middle of the rug playing a sort of accordion that sat next to his right ankle and singing in that strange and beautiful Indian style, the space filled with the sound of him and the sunlight. Kristine and Adrienne, from A Verb for Keeping Warm, were part of the dye studio and were at one of the tables tying indigo-dipped strips of fabric around little clay stones for all of the participating artists. (250 of them.) But what interested me most wasn’t the actual stuff that had been made, it was all the evidence and detritus of the making: the looms, the indigo vat, the ironing board, the drawings and photos and swatches tacked up everywhere. I want to live there, in that frame of mind.*

Then on Sunday I went to a workshop at Ogaard called “Boro and Embroidermending.” I love that term! Boro and Sashiko both fascinate me but, while I know them when I see them, I don’t really know anything about them, historically speaking. I’m intrigued by all of the really amazing embroidery floating around these days, but am especially taken with the Visible Mending movement, which of course goes hand in hand with the Slow Fashion movement and the “make do and mend” mentality that came alive again during the economic collapse a few years ago. So I was interested to learn about this Japanese patchwork technique. The workshop teacher, Cory Gunter Brown, had covered the long table in a lovely sackcloth, placed clay bowls of crackers and apricots in the center, along with sprigs of rosemary for our water glasses, and put an indigo furoshiki bundle of supplies at each place at the table. For the next four hours, she talked about the history of boro, read to us, showed us some of her own “embroidermending,” and taught us the basics of sashiko stitching plus one really killer knot. Katrina Rodabaugh was also there as a participant and talked a tiny bit about about the birth of her Make Thrift Mend project. It was a really perfect blend of skills and context being taught and discussed together. And while the actual skills taught were fairly minimal, by the end of class we were all happily stitching away on something of our own that we had brought along.

Somehow all of these things — Me Made May, The Possible, my closet, the boro — gelled in my brain. And by Monday morning, I realized, like I said, something in me had shifted.

Nothing about Lean Closet thinking or conscious consumerism is new to me — far from it. I’ve been a conflicted consumer for decades, and it was really driven home for me a about fifteen years ago when I read “Your Money or Your Life” for the first time. But while I’ve always found store-bought furniture to be frigid, preferring pieces that already haves stories to tell, and believe in adopting pets from the pound and driving the same car for as long as it will run, it’s always been difficult for me to apply the same philosophy to my closet. I always say I don’t want to eat any hamburger a restaurant can afford to sell me for a dollar, and I do feel the same way about $5 t-shirts and $19 merino sweaters, so I broke the disposable-fashion habit (for the most part) several years ago. But as anyone who’s given this stuff much thought at all realizes, it’s a difficult equation of questionably produced cheap fashion, better-crafted clothes with traceable origins that aren’t in most of our budgets, or sewing everything yourself. And even then, where does the fabric come from and was it responsibly made? It’s tricky business.

The garment I was mending in that class on Sunday was my favorite pair of jeans. I got them off the clearance rack at the J.Crew outlet in Napa when we were living there, so they’re at least ten or eleven years old — from the bygone days when “boyfriend jeans” were just called “jeans.” They’re made of good quality denim (so hard to find anymore — at least for under $200) and fit me better than any pair of jeans I’ve ever owned. And they’re full of holes — some of which they came with, but which have expanded over the years. I believe in continuing to own them and wear them, and it makes me feel really good to apply a little boro to them — following an ancient Japanese tradition of making do and mending. I understand my relationship to those jeans, and I realize it’s become much like my relationship to any sweater I’ve knitted for myself: I’m woven into the fabric. As I was sitting there communing with the jeans, I finally understood something about how to better apply those principles to my wardrobe. I am going to re-learn everything I’ve forgotten about sewing, and am committed to making more of my own clothes — along with knitting a fair chunk of them, obviously. But it’s not realistic for me to think I can make all of them. What is realistic, though, is deciding to only invest in clothes I intend to form a long-term relationship with. Clothes I care enough about to commission, modify, personalize, or simply sit down and mend when they need me.


*If you’re on Instagram, definitely take a stroll through #thepossible and also #mmmay14.

45 thoughts on “Make, Knit, Mend

  1. What a great week-end! A lot of what you write about simplifying one’s life and only buying clothes that have meaning deeply resonates with me. It’s funny that, as I am about to embark in a new phase of my life and thinking hard about simplifying it, cleaning out and getting rid of the unnecessary, I am reading so many posts about it. Must be a sign of the times. Anyway it is encouraging me in setting new goals and getting started.

  2. This is something that I’ve been convicted of recently. I love shopping a good clearance rack, but on the other hand, I love a clean, uncluttered closet too, with only minimal clothing that I love and is made well. Ethical clothing is close to completely unavailable on our little town. Nearly all of it would have to be bought in the big city 3 hours away, or shipped. But I love buying locally too, and supporting my small local economy. At the very least, I should start by mending my clothes and my kids’ clothes. My husband’s farm clothes get mended a few times a year, but that’s merely out of necessity because it does get quite expensive, he’s so hard on them. My boys have been begging me to mend the knees in their jeans. It would be worth it…

  3. I feel inspired just hearing about those classes and exhibits! I’m definitely getting bitten by the maker bug (though I, too, promised to make more/buy less a year ago) this month. Seeing so many other handmade garments is really exciting and I think it keeps up the momentum. It can be really time consuming and sometimes discouraging when something isn’t coming together right but getting inspired by the amazing makers around me makes me get back on the horse every time!

  4. Karen, what a beautiful post! You nailed something for me (well, actually, there’s so much here it will take me some time to digest) and that is trying to explain why we prefer recycled furniture/clothes/etc to new (besides hating to go to malls and big box stores.) Its that they have stories to tell! More and more I’m drawn to well worn things and now I see why: they have history. The whole concept of boro and artful mending makes me about nuts. Its gorgeous! I, too, have started to think about sewing for myself again. I’m always sewing but its to make cute stuff for our store, not sew clothes. Anyway, I could go on. Certainly I’ll spend my breaks today checking through all your links and being completely inspired. Thank you!

  5. What an inspiring post! You’ve totally made me think. I love it. I have a few very lovingly mended pieces of clothing, and I’m not certain if it’s the fact that I loved them enough to begin with to bother mending them, or if because I mended them that I love them so much. Very probably the latter.

  6. thanks again, Karen for this delicious soul food! Just passed the “boro” link along to North House Folk School, a wonderful place in Grand Marais Minnesota (along the north shore of Lake Superior) that focuses on traditional craft – everything from canoe building to basket making, knitting weaving and dyeing etc… I hope to see it in there offerings in the future – would love to learn more about this somewhere close to home! Love your blog – keep up the good work!

  7. One of the really inspiring things that has happened in my town, is a repair day. People can bring household items and clothing and repair them with the help and instruction of expert repair people.

  8. For the last couple of years, I thought I was being merely frugal by not shopping for new clothes every new season but I’ve come to realize that my knitting items for friends, family and myself has been based on wanting to offer wearable goodies handmade with love. Knowing where my clothes come from now is a big deal to me and your post hit a lot of points I’ve been thinking about, too.

  9. I just took pictures of freshly darned socks for a blog post later this week, so maybe there’s something in the air? Whatever it is, I like it, and like you I think I’ve made a thoughtful shift this year from shopping for seasons to shopping for years (life?) and, where possible, learning how to make things myself. It’s exciting and scary, but I’m excited about the possibilities it opens up.

  10. This has all been on my mind recently, too, and as I’m getting back into sewing I’m thinking quite a lot about fabric. Where is the fiber sourced? Where and how was it made? And I’m realizing that a lot of that information isn’t easy to find. While I love the print of the dress I just made, when I visited the Moda Fabrics website (and it seems Moda’s carried in quite a few of the independent fabric stores I’ve checked out), there was zero indication of where the fabric was actually coming from or how it was being made. Zero.

    On the bright side, as I’ve started to look at sewing patterns I’ve been thinking about fabric choice – and while I am always drawn to the beautiful prints on display (like Moda’s), I’m realizing that more often than not I’d rather hang that print on my wall than on my body. I wear a lot of solids, neutrals, navy blues, black and white. Simple stripes, plaids, checks. I think it’ll be easier to find fabric I can know the source of in that family. We shall see…

  11. Another “me too” here. In Texas, we’ve had some wicked storms lately and my house lightly flooded this morning, mostly in my dressing room (which isn’t as Kardashian as it sounds–it’s basically one half of my bedroom). Trying to get everything cleaned up, I’m seeing that I have way. too. much. stuff.

    (Your Money or Your Life should be required reading for everyone.)

  12. Wow, Karen! What a great piece! Lots of inspiration. Those Boro pieces are beautiful. I too have been interested lately in mending, including “visible mending.” (Have you seen my board? ) I’m trying to find ways to fit more creative time into my life. I’m so inspired by what you have accomplished!

    • Yeah, love it! I inadvertently follow a bunch of mending boards — by virtue of following people who are clever enough to start one — and need to start one of my own. I’ve had sadly too little time for Pinterest lately.

      • I have only recently started doing more after about a month or two hiatus. (Thank you, work!)

  13. Beautiful post, Karen.

    FWIW, I have those same jeans, bought at the same place. Two pairs… because the first pair felt so right I went back for a second. I have patched mine in different ways. And, they also have paint stains, now. Which makes them even better. ;-)

    • Yes, there’s nothing like legitimate paint on a pair of pants. My friend Leigh has the most brilliantly mended pair of jeans. The patch pieces are all paint-splattered denim from an old painting apron of hers, some of it paint side out and some paint side in. They’re amazing.

  14. Yes! I was nodding my head and cheering throughout this post. Exactly. That’s what happened before I started Make Thrift Mend. I finally felt like I needed to do more than be informed. I needed to commit. To deepen. To fast. Applauding your courageous post. Nice to meet you in the workshop.

    • You too, Katrina — I wish we’d had a chance to talk, but I was glad you said your full name and all, so I at least knew it was you! (I refrained from saying “omigod, I know who you are — we have a lot people in common!”)

  15. Such a thoughtful and thought provoking post, Karen. The phrase “I am going to re-learn everything I’ve forgotten about sewing, and am committed to making more of my own clothes” particularly spoke to me. I’m currently teaching a friend to sew and as such am teaching her how to do it properly…not the half-assed, by-the-seat-0f-my-pants way that I usually sew for myself. And, as I sat and taught, I realised that I was missing out on so much by not according the clothes I make for me, and, I suppose, myself by default, the same level of respect and attention to detail.
    So, I’m clearing out all fabrics and patterns that don’t speak to my or my aesthetic any more, and will also only be sewing and knitting “Clothes I care enough about to commission, modify, personalize, or simply sit down and mend when they need me”. Thank you for the inspiration.

  16. Clothing is a huge part of the story of ourselves we tell the world each day. Thoughts like yours above are so encouraging to read! I’m excited that nearly everyone I know now understands the value of cloth, even if they haven’t yet taken steps to make that value a priority. One garment at a time…

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