Monday, September 10, 2012

Foraging for Lost Cloth as Discipline and Practice

When I first started out with Jude's classes, my discipline was that I only used second hand cloth- inherited, gifted, purchased second hand. Because, at the time, I was interested in the intrinsic qualities of old cloth. Cloth made within a less rushed, less profit-oriented production process. I was  concerned with the failure of mass production to ensure quality and durability.

-September 1, 2012, Weekend Park. An entire Dresden Plate quilt. Hand pieced, hand quilted. Cotton batting, cotton cloth. Left behind in an abandoned mid-summer camp.

I was acutely aware of the problems of a system of production driven not just by haste, but by a sense that everything is being made cheaply enough that it can be rapidly replaced. Everything from towels to garments to bedding to the cloth we buy to make things is engineered to fill a short term need. To me, old cloth carries the traces of different priorities.
-September 10, 2012, between the dumpsters at the paint store across the street. Cotton Club Monaco shirt. Not too filthy, but needs a serious wash.
But it is not just 'old cloth' that fascinates me. It is, it turns out, cast-off cloth. Stuff that has been sent off to the second-hand store, donated to charity or put in the garbage because it is excess. Not because it is worn out, not because it is used up, but because its current owner wants to move on to something else. Is ready to move on to the next thing and has too much.
-end of August, 2012, weird little meadow triangle where I found the grey Camp Shirt. Yellow with navy woven check, I guess. Cotton, blood stains on left front, but otherwise in perfect condition.
The same system of production that, arguably, drives down quality (and consumer's awareness of quality), also drives down production cost. Which drives up consumption. And drives up production. Less-discerning consumers do not need to discriminate on the basis of quality. They only need to discriminate on the basis of style, only to catch up to the ever-moving trends. Unless 'buying something new' itself is the end, which it could be.
Really horrible, inexpensive fashion shirt that inspired the boro yogi dragon coat. Because I kind of fell for it after all.
Consumption has become over-consumption, in short, and the excess that falls out of that system has to end up somewhere. And here, where I forage every day with the dog, in the big loops that begin and end at the gate, that excess is scattered around in various states of decay. Because, and this is the key, because this is the kind of landscape occupied by the people who catch this excess stuff when it lands. Where people without homes, without privacy, without a place to stash their stuff find themselves acquiring and then casting off the cast offs.
Camp Remnants in Weekend Park, September 8 2012; where the Dresden Plate quilt came from. Not an indictment of the people who stayed here, but a record of just how much stuff gets cast-off within our current system of consumption. Whoever camped here couldn't possibly have taken all this on to wherever they had to go next.
Most of the above has already been hauled to the dump. It had a brief respite from this fate after whoever brought it here found it on the curb, in a dumpster, at a second hand store. This stuff was all old, used, nothing here was even vaguely new. Most of it had still had some use.
Most stuff left behind in sites like this, however, simply rests there, worked into the plants and the soil by the usual stuff- rain, wind, snow, sun.
-Mid-August 2012, CN tracks on a rainy Saturday morning, behind the Men's Mission. Cotton (? it is still too wet to burn test it) from a padded jacket almost completely buried in the ground. This is pre-washing; it is still soaking, and turns out to have dozens of small holes in it.
It disappears to reappear in the fall and the spring. And it changes in those interactions. It gets.stained, fades, develops marks and traces. It gets shredded by lawnmowers, snowblowers, run over by cars. It finds its way into nests, gets eaten by insects, plants grow roots through it.
-September 9, 2012, Greener Pastures under the mature American Chestnut on the north side of the park. Astonishingly, I found another piece of this very same cloth about 100 feet away over a year ago.
That first piece is now part of the cloth that is on the back of the boro yogi.
Trying to understand why there is so much lost means, to me, understanding all of this- the long chains of production, getting, giving and losing. It has been necessary to me to understand that these are not isolated, individual, surprising processes. These are processes and flows that are normal. They make finding cloth unsurprising, expected, normal.
The practice of setting out to find cloth disciplines, sets the parameters within which I am sewing things like this above. This is 'discipline', not as in 'I don't eat a cupcake every day' discipline, but as in a practice that frames and limits the enterprise of making for me. Foraging is the practice that puts (welcome) boundaries on what I can use, but that also produces the ground for imagining what's next. For me, what's next has to include evaluating the processes that produce so much lost cloth.
Horrible shirt strips reworked into a flaming pearl for the dragon to pursue. HA!


  1. Your unique work and beautifully articulate writing style stays with me in memory as one word, 'honorable'. So glad you take the time to do both.
    My Daddy was in the garment business his whole life. I wonder what he would think of the way it has gone to today.

    1. Thank you Nancy; I am touched by this word honorable, and that my attempts to figure this out stay with you. I'm still just struggling to figure out why I think of this as mending. And with the question of why mending is so 'popular' now. If it is a different process now than it was for my mother and grandmother? I am starting to wonder if people feel alienated from processes like 'mending' because of the nature of overconsumption. Because the quick fix now is to replace stuff with new, rather than keep the old going.

      And I would love to know what your father saw unfold as the garment business changed so drastically in the course of his professional life. It has been a tectonic shift my books tell me, and what he knew from his early career would be likely unrecognizable today.

      Thank you for stopping by.

  2. Hello Gracie: How I enjoyed reading your blog. I have taken a couple of Jude's classes too. I enjoy your stories and your cloth. I live in London too. Small world.

    1. Hi Cathy! Yes, we were in one of Jude's classes together, and I marveled then at what a small world it is. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. gosh , this is so interesting.
    my observations and thinking tells me that much of the over consumption of clothing is certainly to do with the need for the next new thing,the need to be judged well by external appearance, and very often, to fill up some empty place within by manicuring the outside.
    shopping is recreation for some.
    dressing is how people value themselves. how they show who they wish to be .. and as fashion constantly shifts so must the wardrobe.
    are we ever satisfied anymore i wonder?
    what is most interesting to me is your observation that 'mending' has become popular or indeed 'fashionable'.to me it is now not so much about retaining the life of old clothing or sheets etc.for years of further wear.
    so i then wonder ..will it too become unfashionable again with the ebb and flo of interests and generations. when it's purpose has been served? more cast offs ?
    hmmmm . a lot of words from me ! will stop there !

    1. Hi Roz; thanks for stopping in. And I agree, exactly, with your question about the current fashion for mended stuff. I am wondering if this popularity is (or coud be) more than aesthetic, if it might in some ways be a kind of intervention, a commentary and critical reflection on over-consumption. I find Jude's work and the principled way she engages materials as instructive for me- her practice and principles allow me to reflect on over-consumption.

    2. And, let me add one more thing, I find Jude's principled teaching challenges another problem related to over-consumption, and that is: the alienation of each of us from our own creativity by ready-made, pre-packaged creativity. By which I mean that creativity is, maybe, being reduced to finishing a pre-determined project. We are often being marketed 'projects', not taught skills. Mending is an unbounded skill, once you know how to do it, you can apply it anywhere! Now, I'm not speaking for Jude here, far from it. Instead, I realize that what I'm learning over there is tools for making what I want, or in my case, tools to working with these materials that are before me....

  4. Wendy...i am asking self many questions, more than
    usual even and one thing that rose up is: is it in just
    this last generation...our generation...that things have
    gotten so care- less? i'd be interested in your thought
    about this. i guess i am grasping at a Hope that maybe
    it is, and maybe then it is not so ingrained, not so much
    something that can not be mended?

    1. That is the question, exactly, Grace! And it is the question because determining how 'permanent' this system is helps to determine what mending means today. Is mending just fashionable nostalgia for a time imagined to be better, or is it a direct intervention that tries to identify (or identifies by accident, even) what is wrong with the dominant order of things? I always read Jude's work as such an intervention, for example. And your entire life!!!!

      The dominant order of things is, demonstrably, different: there is more consumption and more waste than ever before. That stuff is routinely counted, of course.Cheap goods have not meant we saved money to plant trees or nurture bird habitat- it has just meant we can consume more, and more often. Some people argue this is the consequence of a changed economic order (the shift of production to lowest-cost setting, making things cheap), others that it is a cultural shift (the triumph of consuming as our most important social function, which makes 'replacing things' more important than anything else we do). Others argue it is both in combination. It probably is this latter.

      And yet, I am doubly full of double doses of hope, because of how thoroughly disenchanted with consumerism so many especially young people are. And they KNOW what they are doing, they are courageous, deliberate and clear on the fact that they are harnessing their wealth, creativity, energy and skill to avoid having it harnessed to the dominant order of things.

  5. you teach at the University and so would have awareness
    of that student population. i hope the tide will rise
    high enough.

    1. i keep thinking.
      and this is United States. we are crazy here.
      Canada may differ.

    2. Canada doesn't differ; and you're right, in the university everybody is full of something like hope. But the young people are also full of feelings of alienation. They recognize the compromises in their lives, BUT they also recognize alternatives. My job happens to include revealing the viability of those alternatives in the spaces of day-to-day life, and they can see the difference. Often better than me. They bring a certain power to drive a shift when they acknowledge and celebrate those alternatives.

  6. i like to use cast-off cloth, too. it has a different feel, having once been used and valued. love the way you say that old cloth carries traces of different priorities, that the former owner has moved on. that casting aside is the reason i am using (mostly) cloth found in thrift shops for my latest project. i'm stitching drawings made by my developmentally disabled sister-in-law, a woman who has spent most of her life being overlooked and dismissed. see why i'm using thrift shop cloth?! my authority issues are showing, aren't they?

    1. Jeanne, your comment has really stuck in my mind for days. I am still trying to figure out why the project you describe here speaks so loudly to me. Thank you, still, for sharing it, and for sharing it here!

  7. I appreciate this post and all the thoughtful comments -- have no words to add other than I'm leaving here with much more than I came with. Enriched. xx

    1. Thank you Peggy, this is such a beautiful comment. And from such a beautiful place as yours.

  8. What a beautifully written, thoughtful post. When I was collecting discarded cloth for my Buddhist quilts, it was amazing how once I started looking, it was everywhere. And I remember being told by someone who worked with the homeless in Vancouver that people who received a blanket from her agency would often need another within a day or two, since they either couldn't carry it with them or had such chaotic lives they simply couldn't remember where they had stashed it. Different from the deliberate discarding of something a person just didn't want to wear anymore.

    1. Thank you so much for coming by Heather, and reminding me to go and see the Buddhist quilts again. And thank you for telling me that it was revealed to you that a homeless person can't drag around everything all the time, that chaos makes it impossible, even that things get wet and too dirty too use. I am glad you said that. It is not disregard, it is 'chronic crisis' that 'giving blankets and clothes to charity' intersects with, yet doesn't change. I continue to struggle with that piece of the lesson, that all this surplus found as cast off from lives in crisis hasn't done a thing to change that crisis. It's humbling, gives me a kind of super-annoyed reverence (ha!) for the cloth.