Last week we received an exciting delivery, of the second edition of Wheesht. When we published this title in December 2019, I had no idea of just how timely some of the themes the book explored would come to seem during the following weeks and months, and certainly did not expect to sell out the first edition quite as quickly as we did. Wheesht is a book I generally hoped readers might reach for when faced with moments of creative difficulty: when unsure which direction to take, when feeling generally uninspired, or when things seemed blocked or stuck. It seems that many have felt that way during the past year. My job is always rewarding, but I have to say that my work is at its most heartening when I hear that someone has found that what I’ve written has chimed with them in some way, has helped them to see something differently, to recommence or to move forward. Such is the case with Wheesht, a project I really enjoyed working on and am very glad to have produced. I thought I’d celebrate the second edition today by sharing one of my favourite essays in the book: about mending, and about the work of my favourite textile artists, Celia Pym. Thanks, again, to everyone involved in Wheesht (especially the creative folk whose work I discuss like Celia, Evelyn Glennie, and Amanda Thomson) and to the many readers who have shared their responses to the book with me.
Recent years have seen an unrelenting trend towards a “move fast and break things” model of creativity. This antagonistic mantra—famously adopted by Facebook in its dogged crusade to monetise our attention—has now garnered familiar resonance in a wide range of contemporary discussions of everything from technological entrepreneurship to the practice of fine art. Speaking personally, I find the now widely accepted notion that you must destroy in order to create deeply troubling, and I don’t mind admitting how heartily weary I am of hearing that creativity always has to be about “disruption”. Why should the idea that it is the business of art to break rules, smash conventions and engage in the aggressive “disruption” of established norms be now so very widely accepted? Why are current concepts of creative transformation and originality so very often underwritten with ideas of risk-taking, norm-busting and models of behaviour that seem at best naïve and at worst needlessly adversarial?
The fact that contemporary applications of the “disruption” buzzword involve some of the worst excesses of late capitalism perhaps tells us something quite important. For “creative disruption” is a phrase perhaps most commonly associated with gig-economy pioneers, whose business it is to make unprotected workers shoulder the burden of economic competition while simultaneously mining the last corners of the self for profit. “Creative disruption” may well spur a revolution in the market, but it also facilitates the transfer of resources from many hands to very few;reduces much-needed regulation; exploits human labour and leaves unscrupulous “disruptors” unscrutinised and untaxed while we all blithely hail our next ride. Is this a good example of what contemporary art should strive towards? Do we really need more “creative disruption” in our making disciplines and practices? Our political discourses have collapsed into a disarray that’s been harnessed by those in power in the service of their own self-interest while they simultaneously fail to address the stark realities of a globe at ecological breaking point from the perspective of our shared humanity. No-one can ignore the fact that the world in which we live seems increasingly precarious and fragile. Is there that much more remaining to be broken? And why would we want to break it anyway? In the midst of a digital sphere wearied by its own discursive fracture and division, surrounded by the wreckage of contemporary politics and culture, perhaps an idea of mending things, rather than of breaking them, might prove the more radically transformative.
Mend your socks
Think about what is involved when you darn a pair of socks instead of buying a new pair. Mending our existing socks is first about taking care of what we already own rather than demanding box-fresh novelty. Stopping, examining the damage, then slowly repairing the worn areas allows us to take stock while we take care of our ordinary possessions. In mending, we pause with our socks, examine them, and get to grips with the different meanings and memories they embody. Who made these socks? What kind of yarn was used, and why? Where have these socks been, and what places have they seen? How have our bodies aged and altered over the months and years in which we’ve worn them? Have our thoughts, ideas or circumstances slowly altered with the accumulation of steps we’ve taken? And, just as the time of wear and tear might make us reflect on the bigger picture of our time passing, so the time of our mending might also become time dedicated to the appreciation of our socks, as the process of repair enables a renewed and deeper understanding of their usefulness and significance. In darning, we are both making do (the socks are already in our possession) and making new (darned socks are completely different objects to worn-out and holey ones). Then, in their newly mended form, their darns become marks of restoration which enable our freshly functional socks to carry our feet forth to new adventures. Imbuing strength to objects that have been weakened by wear and tear, darns are marks both of healing and of continued resilience. And, in the movement of our hands and the thread or yarn we choose, the darn also identifies our socks as distinctively ours. With darned marks, our mended socks acquire their own material signatures, becoming unmistakably, irretrievably associated with our own sock-wearing bodies. We know that anyone might own an identikit pair of new socks, but does anyone else wear carefully darned socks that have been worn and mended quite like these? And finally, in the simple act of making itself visible, the darn celebrates the flaws and inconsistencies that are inherent characteristics of all made things. In mending our socks, we are also giving ourselves permission to embrace the essential beauty of their material imperfection.
So, why not forget about disruption; forget about breaking things to force something new upon the world; forget about destroying in order to create? Instead, let’s pay careful attention to the damage. Let’s thoughtfully repair what we already own. Let’s make mending integral to creative making.
Mend, like Celia Pym
Celia Pym is an artist whose practice explores—and engenders—care and repair in many different contexts. Beginning her working life as a teacher, Pym went on to study textiles at the Royal College of Art before training and qualifying as a nurse. In Pym’s creative practice, all three of these roles are interestingly combined: the communicative, supportive role of a teacher; the practical skill and nuanced understanding of textile artistry; and the nurturing, caring work of nursing. In their different ways, all three of these roles involve ideas of care and repair, and the act of mending—in the widest possible sense—is what her art is all about.
Celia Pym’s aesthetic medium is the darn, and she first became interested in darning after inheriting a well-worn sweater owned by her great-uncle, Roly, which had been repeatedly repaired by Pym’s great-aunt and Roly’s sister, Elizabeth. Roly had been an artist, and his sweater was worn out in the particular places where his arms had pressed against his drawing board in the routine course of his work. While the everyday movements of Roly’s body were present in his sweater’s areas of wear, the practical care of his sister was equally present in its places of repair. Elizabeth’s darns were, Pym says, distinctive: “a reflection of her practical character [with] an individual style which I loved”. Handling Roly’s worn and darned sweater, Pym immediately saw how it spoke of the body and activities of its wearer, the character of its repairer, and the caring relationship that had existed between two siblings who were no longer alive. Feeling the materiality of Roly’s sweater very forcibly, Pym was struck by how the related slow processes of wear and mending might articulate something very complex, very tender and very human too.
Pym taught herself to darn, and carefully filled in the thinning areas of Elizabeth’s repairs, adding her own marks of care—her own layers of human meaning—to Roly’s sweater. She then began to explore darning in a range of different artistic and community contexts, participating in projects in which people could bring in objects to be mended, or receive advice about fixing and renewing broken things. Through these educative participatory projects, Pym began to develop a creative practice in which darning became a great way to open conversations; to continue dialogue by sharing stories in which grief was often an auxiliary to damage; and to exchange acts of care between repairing humans and the material objects that, through repeated use, had assumed significance in their lives. Mending also became a means for Pym to reflect more broadly on ideas of ownership and cost. Worn-out or broken things are still, in their most basic sense, possessions, and yet Pym realised that the desire to repair material objects conferred on them a human value that far surpassed the economic. Why would you bother mending something that doesn’t actually mean anything to you?, Pym’s work implicitly asks. Or, as she puts it succinctly in an interview, “you only really want to mend what you live in”.
Whether mending 60 sports socks with bright, colourful yarns in First One’s the Best (2015), or revivifying a gansey from Annemor Sundbø’s ragpile that was worn and felted to the point of complete unwearability through darns that are beautiful material objects in themselves (2010), Pym describes her practice of visible mending as profoundly “unapologetic”. Central to her work is the idea that darning is much more about display than about disguise—and we might reflect on that in three different ways. First, wear and tear are part of the action of time that lends meaning to the things we make and use. Material objects are worn, broken or damaged through processes that are themselves integral to that object’s life. Retaining the memory of an object’s wear or damage through the obvious visibility of repair is, for Pym, a way of adding to, or celebrating, that object’s narrative. Second, against the backdrop of worryingly unsustainable global textile production, at a moment when clothes are increasingly cheaply acquired and just as casually discarded, the careful repair of garments through visible mending might enact a kind of resistance to a culture of disposability. In a world where we can easily choose not to think about an object’s provenance and processes, and simply throw everything away, mending rather than replacing is one practical way of our starting to think differently. Finally, Pym’s visible mends are important forms of aesthetic production in and of themselves. “I like it when things are lumpy and bumpy,” she says. “It’s nice when you can see the landscape of damage which although I am mending I am also distorting.” Pym’s visibly darned distortions are the aesthetic form that gives her expression to her creative impulses. Yet there’s an implicit feminist politics to such distortions too. For many centuries, darning has largely been women’s work, part of the countless inconspicuous acts of daily care through which women have maintained themselves, their wardrobes, their domestic textiles and their families. While the very idea of invisible mending seems in itself to be a powerful symbol of the historic invisibility of women’s labour, Pym’s beautifully conspicuous visible mending reclaims a much-overlooked and often-derided domestic activity as a significant act of creative invention.
“I value tenderness,” says Pym. “It is important to me as an approach to working. There is a tenderness in noticing holes, worn-out things, damage, and also in handling objects, garments, materials.” There’s a profound tenderness, too, in that other practice in which Pym has experience of noticing damage and working with the hands—nursing. While nursing is “intimate work, requiring great tenderness”, sewing is, says Pym, “an act of healing”. “I use [nursing] skills when I make things or mend them, but perhaps it’s the other way round,” she says: “perhaps I took these skills from mending into nursing.” So much of what Pym does seems to be about bringing the tender, nurturing disciplines of nursing and stitching together—and perhaps nowhere is this more powerfully apparent than in her Parallel Practices work of 2014, part of a collaborative project between King’s College Cultural Institute and the UK Crafts Council. Working with Richard Wingate, head of anatomy at King’s, Pym became interested in developing a dialogue between the activities of human dissection and repairing human possessions. “Notions of mending and repair”, Wingate reflected, were already part of the “intimate and unusual territory” of the dissection room. On the one hand, because of the profound and inescapable materiality of the human body, a dissection room is inevitably filled with emotion and affect, yet, on the other, medical students often find themselves having to depersonalise and distance themselves from their dissection work simply in order to manage the experience of cutting into real people with real stories. Pym set up a “mending desk” at one end of the dissection room, and invited staff and students to bring in their beloved worn and damaged textiles for her to repair. What would it mean to bring the practice of mending human textiles into such close proximity to work that’s often assumed to be dehumanising?
While Pym acclimatised herself to the strong smell of preserving fluids, so the anatomy students accustomed themselves to having the activity of mending taking place at the same time as dissection. “They brought their favourite things,” says Pym: “a jacket with a mouse hole chewed in the cuff, a backpack from childhood, an abaya that was new before being ripped at the knees from a fall.” As she mended their possessions, Pym engaged in conversations with staff and students about their backgrounds, families and career ambitions. Staff spoke of how they continually held in mind the relatives of the donated bodies with which they worked, and of their occasional personal knowledge of these families or sometimes the donors themselves. Soon, Pym’s mending desk became a sort of informal breakout space, as students overwhelmed or close to fainting came to sit with her while they recovered. Conversations with these students enabled reflections on skin as a very particular kind of worn-out textile, one that’s particularly intimately and profoundly bound up with a human sense of self and identity. Some students spoke of their instinctive difficulty with handling certain kinds of skin—skin that reminded them of people to whom they were close, such as an elderly relative—or of how encountering marks of an individual’s history—like scars or injuries—increased the difficulty of handing and dissecting certain bodies. Students shared with Pym how they found the human signs that a body possessed a personality—such as tattoos—quite literally hard to handle. And, at the same time that these students confronted their own difficult feelings about these visible marks of human preference and intent, Pym quietly mended the possessions which spoke similarly of their own intentions and desires.
Pym’s creative practice found its origins in a dead man’s sweater and the profoundly tender, profoundly human act of mending it. Continuing to repair Roly’s sweater brought a new kind of understanding to it as a possessed object, and lent it a new kind of life. Possession resonates doubly with ideas of ownership and haunting, and both meanings seem important to Pym’s project in the King’s College dissection room. While a dissection room is a place of the dead, its single purpose is to increase knowledge and understanding of the living human body in those who will be later entrusted with its care. Enabling reflections on our ownership of our own bodies and on what our damaged physical possessions might mean to us as humans, Pym’s project suggests how placing the activity of mending in a dissection room might allow the ideas of tenderness that are already inherent in that space to be foregrounded. During her residency, Pym found that she “thought again about why I found my way to darning and also to nursing”. Establishing a mending desk as part of the dissection room made that space explicitly and effectively about human care—the care of the staff and students through supportive dialogue and the repair of their possessions alongside the distinctively human act of handling and caring for another human body, before and after death, with kindness, thoughtfulness and respect. This is the kind of creative care we might consider extending more broadly to the broken material world that now surrounds us.
Through creative acts of mending, we might see that alongside the death of a body or the damage to a material object there are forms of life-giving renewal and restoration. In mending, we acknowledge in the midst of wreckage and despair, there can also be also the slow, thoughtful, reflective work of repair. And, in these times in which we are often forced to confront the emotional and material realities of our own personal damage, Celia Pym describes her mending as an act of “emotional sustainability”. So, as we turn our backs on destructive or disruptive models of creativity, there’s a profound lesson in Pym’s work about what contemporary creative making might now strive to achieve.
Images of Celia Pym’s projects can be seen, and her work more fully explored at her website
The second edition of Wheesht is now available from the KDD shop!