December 13, 2021

Claire Wellesley-Smith

The Cardigan

The cardigan was very basic: black cotton fine knit, long length, buttons, a masculine cut but bought in Top Shop – I wore it for years. Then the pockets developed holes and runs. My line of work, teaching and running long-term textile projects, meant that I often had sharp embroidery scissors on my person, and the blades broke through the knitted threads. Other areas of the cardigan began to unravel. Thin areas on the elbows went to holes, a run appeared under the armpit, another from the neckband. I patched up the damage with colourful scraps of fabric, cotton lawn, prints, stitching over them with repetitive running stitch to embed them in the existing garment. I wore it more for work events, whilst teaching workshops, sometimes mending it whilst teaching a class. The pockets became more patch than the original fabric of the garment.

Around that time, I began working on a project about the textile recycling and repairing heritage of the city where I live, Bradford, West Yorkshire, looking at stories from the wool industry from the 1880s onwards. Groups around the city explored the domestic and industrial heritage of mending and repair. From the final destination of dust from spinning mill floors – the hop fields of Kent as fertiliser – to stories from the 1920s, recalled in a local oral history archive: ‘… clothes they got a fair amount of hammer, so you had patches, and everybody went to school with patches on their backside and on their elbows. And I mean, your jerseys…’ganzies’ they were always patched at the elbows or where there was a hole. I mean it wasn’t thrown away because you clicked it on something, it was a darn.’ [1]

This led to conversations in community workshops about mending today, which I attended with a box of darning mushrooms, bright lengths of darning wool, a jar of mismatched buttons. I talked about the current interest in ‘visible mending’, the workshops and books embracing the idea of showing the story of a garment through its flaws and repairs. Wearing my mended cardigan during the weekly craft sessions that followed, a conversation started about the idea of ‘showing off’ your mended garment. Why would anyone draw attention to the fact that they couldn’t afford to replace something? There was nothing glamorous about poverty. Surely, I could have used black wool to mend it, making a repair invisible meant it was good as new. Pointing at the cardigan one of the women said, ‘You don’t need to do that though do you.’ It was true. I can afford some choice about what I buy, and I mostly purchase things that I know I can repair and keep for a long time.

The conversation was good natured and open, the critical thinking around mending, repair, and privilege for me invaluable. I looked down at my pocket with its small, printed rabbit patch and felt slightly ridiculous. Not everyone wants to draw attention to the age and use a garment has had. This doesn’t mean they are uninterested in repairing it. In underserved communities the connections made to the worn, torn, patched, and broken are not always positive. I share a wider range of repair resources in workshops like this today – recycled patches taken from ordinary black t-shirts, neutral-coloured threads along with brighter yarns.

The cardigan is now a teaching sample.

[1] Bradford Heritage Recording Unit, A0183 (M b.1910)

Claire Wellesley-Smith is an artist, writer and researcher based in Bradford, West Yorkshire, UK. She creates collaborative and site-specific projects with communities. These socially engaged textile-based projects explore community development and issues around heritage, sustainability, and wellbeing. Her two books, Slow Stitch: Mindful and Contemplative Textile Art (2015) and Resilient Stitch: Connection and Wellbeing in Textile Art (2021) are published by Batsford.