Thursday, March 24, 2011


Two years ago, I started little sewing projects that helped me reflect on our work of creating gardens using plants native to this region and area. Details of some of them are here. I started out just using the stuff I had at hand- inherited, bits of old clothes, cloth from the second hand store that I'd picked up over the years.

I wanted to tie the materials to the story of the cloth: telling a story about recovering a landscape by reusing stuff. (That's a pun I think...)

Those little cloths featured my representations of seeds, pollen, water, soil, rain, lightening, day and night, snow, leaves, all the stuff that 'makes' the garden.

And the bugs. All the bugs that show me that the new landscape we are creating here is integrated into a bigger web of life beyond the borders of our yard.

The bugs undid my conventional view of gardens as bounded. This place is part of a landscape of places, all bound up in a web of living things. An invisible network. A 'foraging-scape' maybe.

And so I'm starting another little project about these foraging-scapes, to help me think about them. In honour of the work my little bug friends are doing, of the journeys they are making to link our place up to the other places they go, I'm using 'foraged' stuff for the project.

This is the stuff I'm starting with, dyed with stuff we find on our walks. The cloth so far is some from my Mom's old silk blouses, found rags and bits from found quilts. I'll keep you posted.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Boro Sunrise for Spring

This is the 'sunrise' part of a larger cloth I made in Jude Hill's Contemporary Woven Boro class. A misty sunrise for the first full day of Spring.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Rag of the Day March 19

-found in Watson Street Park, March 16 2011; a very worn hospital sheet that has been under the snow all winter; with a pillow.

The Necessity of Mending

-this is my Gramma's pincushion; she sewed everything from winter clothes to fancy dresses, and taught my Mom how to sew.

Deanna from Eclectic Meanderings answered the question from my first post 'why mending now?' with the answer that, as in the recent past, it is necessary again.

Deanna, your answer is a puzzle, and makes me revisit my thoughts about mending and making do. I assume we live in a world in which the kind of sewing, patching and mending once common in my family are outmoded.

Not just 'old fashioned', but unnecessary, given the easy availability of cheap clothing. Even if you can't afford to buy new, second hand is easy to come by. There is a 'clothing bank' around the corner here, we have multiple organizations in town here which provide vouchers for clothing at second hand stores.

And it is no surprise there is so much second hand. As a share of their incomes, US households last year used 3% of their income to buy clothes, one third of the 9% they used in the 1950s. And these households (as in Canada) are consuming more clothing than ever before. With a smaller portion of their income.

Reading around about my assumption about the loss of this culture of making do, I have found out that the transition was much less smooth and much less complete than I thought.

In particular, I read Susan Porter Benson's beautiful work Household Accounts: Working-Class Family Economies in the Interwar United States this week (Amazon has it if your library doesn't). Writing about a period that most economists and social historians view as the beginnings of "the Age of Consumption", Benson finds women at the heart of the work of 'making do'. How? By deliberately staying out of the trend to mass consumption: making clothes over, taking second hand, mending.

As Benson points out, these strategies were important not just because they provided clothing, but because they allowed people to stay out of debt. Benson is making a case that 'making do' is much more than struggling at the economic margins. It is a world of carefully crafted decision making that, in the end, creates its own space, its own culture, its own community.

There is lots more to think through about this, but for now, for me, Benson's work identifies the persistence of a space 'outside of' consumerism, even as consumerism was trying to capture consumers. Imagine that.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Globalization of Cheap: The Problem of Waste Textiles

Rich countries export huge quantities of used goods to poorer countries. It is an enormous export industry for Canada and the United States. "[U]sed clothing is consistently one of the top ten exports to African countries" for the US (Frazer, 2008, The Economic Journal 118, October, pg. 1765). One of the top ten.

I looked up some stats for another region, Central America: in 2010, the US exported 100,349,485 kilograms of used clothing to the CAFTA-DR countries (they are Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Dominican Republic). Over one hundred million kilograms. In one year. To one region.

As an example of how much this is, Honduras' share of that in 2010 was 21, 091, 077 kilograms- that is 6.2 lbs for every man, woman and child in Honduras (US Census Bureau).

These exported second hand goods are sold to local entrepreneurs who then retail them in market stalls, shops and door-to-door. In Zambia these goods are sold as salaula, a noun derived from a verb used to describe the act of 'rummaging' (see Karen Hansen's awesome book.) In Central America they are sold as ropa americana which means 'American clothes'. I have been told that this term originated for the clothes left behind by aid workers, missionaries and Peace Corps volunteers. That might not be true, but it is apt in other ways.

The most magnificent of all the names for these imported used goods comes from Ghana- obroniwuawu. Which means 'the white man is dead'.

Well, no, all of these second-hand clothes do not come from dead white men. The sad truth is that they are produced by the normal functioning of the economy in places like Canada and the United States, places where the importation of mass-produced cheap clothing drives over-consumption. Because garments can be easily replaced as they cycle out of fashion.

The 'old' stuff is donated to charities which sell a small portion at home, and then sell the rest by the pound to used clothing exporters like this one. They sort it and bale it and load it on the container ships that take it far and wide.

And, predictably, this textile waste from the richest countries undercuts African and Latin American weavers, millers and seamstresses. Everyone from the large textile factories to the seamstresses who used to make a living sewing clothes for their customers is overwhelmed by the flood of textile waste. The problems are so acute, and so much a matter of national success or failure that some countries are beginning to reject it. You can read an article about Ghana's tentative steps toward stemming this flood of used goods here.

Ghana is making a crazily courageous move. Restricting the flow of used goods has impacts all the way back to the sending country. Canadians would have to find some other outlet for their own used stuff, for example!

And, what of the workers who produce all this cheap stuff? Like the workers in the assembly plants in Honduras who sew the $5.00 t-shirt that later becomes the $2.00 salaula t-shirt? Assembly of goods for export (to the US and Canada) is the second largest sector of Honduras' economy. Can anybody afford not to be 'cheap' anymore? Are we all captive of this system now?

But maybe 'cheap' hasn't won, just yet. The example of Nigeria's wax-resist textile manufacturers is a partially hopeful one. These producers now find they are competing with cheap counterfeits of their wares that are being smuggled into the country from China. But Nigerian producers provide a product that is valued for its intrinsic qualities. In a lesson that is important for everyone, these producers are asking consumers to choose these qualities over 'cheap'.

Now. The pictures in this post are of some of the garments I have collected that are representative of the industries and production systems that are being displaced in this globalization of 'cheap'. I can tell you that they were all inexpensive- these are all from the Goodwill.

These textiles are part of the puzzle, because they, too, have become waste. How do these common, locally made and beautiful garments and cloths come to be discarded? Were they purchased by a tourist, and then, like a $5.00 t-shirt, tossed away? Were they 'mom's old stuff'? Were they fashionable decorative items that have fallen out of fashion?

The pictures here are my indictment of this strange system of consuming/discarding, and the implications it has for our collective ability to comprehend its consequences.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Mending and Renunciation

Reading around about Qing-era silk goods, I came upon this remarkable Buddhist ceremonial garment. It is identified as a mantle for a Buddhist monk, designed to look like it is made of patches. In a beautiful academic essay (in the catalog for an Art Institute of Chicago show featuring the garment) John E.Vollmer explains how the object's patchwork design is meant to evoke the Buddhist tradition of monks clothing themselves in rags.

This stylistic tradition echoes a moment after the Buddha awoke enlightened. As he set out, he clothed himself anew, with a shroud. This shroud was left on the path for him, and when he picked it up, he recognized it as the garment of the first Buddhas. As his followers became adepts they too took up this asceticism, wearing pamsukula ('ragheap') robes. Soon after, Buddha prescribed that each monk's garments would be formed by stitching together torn cloth. From 'rags'.

I couldn't resist learning this story, thinking it alongside the work of Jude Hill and the Contemporary Woven Boro community around her. Thinking, too, about this story alongside the problems of over consumption and mass production that have become distractions to real human creativity in so much of the world. I couldn't resist the idea that working with old cloth disciplines the imagination, doesn't limit it. And, I couldn't resist the sense of renunciation- for me, it is happily giving up the idea that old cloth isn't sufficient.

Maybe all rags need to mean more. Maybe all cloth needs to mean more.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Why Mending Now?

The popularity of patching, mending and recycling today in mass societies is unquestionable. And fascinating! Ever wonder why? Above is a photo of a piece of boro cloth I ordered from Sri, a dealer in vintage and antique textiles from India and Japan, a place where valuable textiles are described with words like 'abraded' and 'stained' and 'marked'.

Like Arcadia Smails over at Fibercopia, I feel the resonance between Japanese boro and the spectacular artistic traditions of Gee's Bend. And wonder at the growing interest in these textiles today.

Mo'a, my class mate in Jude Hill's Contemporary Woven Boro, asked this same question. Her beautiful post about Iceland's National Museum show, Mending and Making Do, is here.

The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. also has a show on the theme coming up, called Second Lives, here.

The work of mending, making do and recycling is nothing new. The photo above I took at the Fall Fair in Highgate, Ontario- it is a patched sheet being used as a backdrop for a shelf of items that had been entered in a competition. An entry (in the popcorn bag competition) from the same Fair seems to be celebrated for capturing the spirit of the times.Reading the award-winning catalog from the Kantha: The Embroidered Quilts of Bengal show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I find out that kanthas were traditionally made with recycled textiles, layered and stitched to give them strength, designs added along the way to invest them with meaning. Below is a photo of some kantha stitching, from a contemporary cloth produced for the Bangladeshi development organization BRAC's retail outlets Aarong.As this piece demonstrates, the skills that were once tied fast to 'making do' have more recently become tied to the more institutionalized work of 'producing'. Or 'developing'. The coiled newspaper trivet below is from another Fair Trade retailer, one of the many items they sell that is based on recycling common materials. Like old newsprint.

So not only are patching, mending, making do ubiquitous, so too is this kind of recycling- of stuff there is just too much of. The most compelling example of this for me is the humble pallet strap- that plastic strap used to bind bundles of everything from newspapers to pallets of pre-packaged food to t-shirt parts being sent to low-wage assembly plants around the world. In 'host' countries, these strips become, what else, baskets.

These are two I've made from straps I collected out walking the dog (we live in a lightly-industrial neighborhood), but I copied some I purchased in Honduras- North America's closest textile Assembly Plant.

I mean to imply with these last two examples something of the thorny tension that emanates from such examples of 'recycling'- do they do anything to halt the cycle of consumption? The Honduran example, especially, where pallet straps are waste from a process of rich countries massively over-consuming textiles ('cheap t-shirts'). At the same time they signal the remarkable innovation and spontaneity that is artistry.

Which leads me back to my question 'why mending now'. Is it because in a society so geared to massive over consumption, the cycling of 'things' in and out of fashion, we've lost our bearings? Have we become disoriented by this over load, and are now only able to find 'beauty' outside of the products of this cycle? Does it take the sharp eye and skill set of someone not targeted by the merchants of these things to create beauty? Is that why we are all looking for things mended, made to do and made of 'nothing'?

So my answer is- the meaning of the mended object exceeds the meaning of the original. We are learning, in looking to these processes and traditions, to see beyond the narrow constraints of mass production/consumption/waste. Maybe.

Grace and Mending

I like that the title of this blog sounds like an intersection- "I'll meet you at the corner of Grace and Mending". This is going to be the place where I think about cloth, mostly, but also more generally where consumerism, mass production, waste intersect with creativity. Where 'lost' meets 'found' maybe?