An idealist’s proposal for sustainable fashion and the ever-pliant, ever-reversible art of mending, and, shall we say, re-imagining. Edited excerpts from the story.
Brooklyn based textile artist Scott Bodenner writes about a sweater vest his husband knitted for him as part of the FIT Museum’s Wearable Memories online blog series – a crowd-sourced project that was initiated as a compliment to the recent exhibit titled Fashion Unraveled that showcased garments that were either repurposed, mended, deconstructed, or in some cases, unfinished. According to Bodenner, his vest was made from yarn unravelled and re-knitted from what was originally a well-loved cardigan that held a special place in his husband’s heart, making the piece ‘the sweetest love song’.
Image: Dress, Wool and Silk Taffeta, Circa 1880, USA. The Museum at FIT, P86.66.1, Museum Purchase. This dress features a unique raw-edged trim, and was left unfinished by its maker. Some parts of the dress were left basted in place, rather than properly stitched. Image Courtesy of The Museum at FIT.
Besides its personal resonance, the stories of the re-knitted vests also form a critical component of a successful circular economy – one that is restorative, regenerative and where waste has been designed out. In the case of fashion, this can mean designing new products or services with their end use, reuse, or repurpose in mind. Such an approach of design considers much more than the journey up to the point of purchase of a garment and instead considers its entire trajectory or ways in which its lifecycle (including any waste it creates along the way) can be re-routed or, better still, reversed.
The aim here is to not throw shade at the design and creation of new artefacts, or the remarkable efforts taking place in the arena of sustainable design practice. However, most of the time, we are still expected to buy a product, more importantly, a new product. Even if the intentions of the designer is to create a sustainable garment – one that is well designed, highly crafted, ethically sourced and made, etc – eventually, through the creation of a new product and without designing into it a mechanism for recycling or repurposing both its production and post-consumer waste, often it too fails to achieve fully the goal of sustainable design. To speak of truly sustainable design futures, it is even more imperative now to embrace as close as possible to a circular model of the economy, as opposed to the linear model we currently have. One that attempts to complete the cycle or close the loop by building in mechanisms for re-use, recycling, re-routing waste.
Interestingly, many of these ideological concepts are not wholly unfathomable, as sustainability is already embedded in the DNA of our craft practices and older traditional frameworks. Yet, many of the circular fashion strategies rely on the designer or producer to take the first step or make the change – zero-waste pattern-cutting, production waste recycling, water purification, etc. What can consumers do on their end to help achieve the circularity I mention above? I believe age-old techniques of mending, darning, patchwork, or rafoo could be one answer to this. Techniques that were once a key factor in ensuring the longevity of not only special clothing but also basic clothing items like socks (the darning of which was my grandfather’s lifelong pursuit).
Much like the way new trends re-appropriate past trends in fresh ways, innovative design solutions that build on the past always do so in ways that are both familiar and yet novel so they remain relevant to current times. This makes it possible to consider alternate ways for viewing the act of mending. One that goes beyond reversing the life of the garment or the hole that is being mended, to enhancing or evolving its design and make up in such a way that it could function as a new piece. Mending that instead of hiding behind the scenes or seams, quietly holding your clothes together, now screams loudly of its existence. Parades its designs, colours, and disregard of the notion of blending in. Placing embroidered bugs where holes once were, felting coloured wool into moth-eaten sweaters, selecting colours at random when fixing prized Jamawars, patching or layering scraps to create new textiles, or applying diverse hand and machine embroidery techniques as part of the mending. The possibilities are endless. In this way, the art of ‘visible mending’ could not only help mend garments, but also the fashion cycle.
Arti Sandhu is an Associate Professor of Fashion Design at Columbia College Chicago and the author of the book Indian Fashion: Tradition, Innovation, Style.
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