‘A bit too big.
Coming apart at some of the seams, the lining a bit tatty in places.
Weather worn wrinkles in the leather, a web of interwoven lines.
Lines that have gathered in habits and years of holding, touching,
A lifetime of un-events imprinted in their essence.
I once lost them briefly in Sainsbury’s. Present absent hands slipping quietly
out of mine.
Plunged into childlike panic, I asked for help to find them, we searched,
retraced steps, looked in, over and under.
We found the gloves and I wanted to hug the man who found them sitting
waiting on a shelf. He could see they were important but didn’t ask why.
I know I won’t ever again find the hands that shaped the gloves but every
time I wear them I feel their hold.’
The gloves belonged to my Dad. His clothes are emotionally important to me but they also capture something of his own unique approach to fashion. Dad was quite experimental with clothes; he liked to shop secondhand and perhaps this habit freed him from convention. Mum often laughed at his sartorial choices, but he knew his own mind and despite her mocking every time he wore it, he was very proud of his long dramatic ‘stockman’ waterproof coat with built in rain cape that he’d found in a charity shop.
His rejection of convention went beyond simple curation; repairing and modifying clothes didn’t faze Dad and he was happy to use the sewing machine he and Mum gave me for my 13th birthday or a needle and thread to shorten sleeves and legs, sew and patch up tears and sew on buttons. Occasionally he would opt for a “fancy” stitch on the sewing machine when shortening his shirt sleeves, making them decorative as well as functional. William Morris would be proud.
Inevitably these habits meant that Dad kept stuff for a long time, in fact he had trouble throwing things out and I now wonder if this was directly attributable to their secondhand status or because he had ‘interacted’ with them through repair and modification. I don’t know because I never asked him, these practices seemed so normal in our lives that they never warranted investigation by either of us. His preference was definitely for secondhand clothes and I got the sense he didn’t really like brand new clothes: if someone gave him a new piece of clothing (he received the occasional jumper at Christmas), you would see him wearing it for a few weeks and then it would gradually disappear into the back of his wardrobe.
My first memory of Dad’s interaction with textiles and sewing was with my childhood teddy bear. Teddy had no name beyond “Teddy” and has always been in my life, a friend of my mum’s gave him to me when I was a baby. I developed a deep emotional attachment to Teddy, unable to sleep or relax without him and consequently he became very worn and prone to the odd hole, loose eye and leaking innards. Dad was always the one to fix him up for me; these fixes were from a place of love and care, but executed in a very functional style. Teddy has patches made from cleaning cloths and dusters and a tunic made from one of Dad’s old socks, which became the most practical way of keeping all his stuffing inside his threadbare skin.
Dad and I were on a very similar wavelength, always tinkering and making with our hands. I’m an only child and his death in 2018 had a profound and devastating impact on my life. He didn’t leave much behind but I kept almost all of his eclectic collection of clothes, thinking that one day I would “do something” with them. Mum thought this was a bit odd, but went along with it, although she did manage to throw away what she described as “a pile of scruffy, tatty old t-shirts”. Those t-shirts haunt me; they were likely his most worn garments and those most imprinted with his presence.
Although I knew I couldn’t part with Dad’s clothes, I was unsure what the “something” was that I had in mind for them. I’m still not sure. Cutting them up and making them into patchwork or art pieces of some kind feels too extreme: as if breaking down the garments might also somehow break down the meaning they hold for me. As “complete” objects they contain the size and shape and often habits and activities of Dad: those shortened shirt sleeves stitched with the overly fancy decorative machine stitch; the overalls covered in paint; the gloves that took on the shape of his big vice-like working hands.
In working to mend myself after Dad died, I found a lot of comfort in his clothes. They continue to be a reassuring presence, reminding me that something good might emerge from my sadness and trauma. They embody hope and potential. My life felt so irrevocably impacted and changed after Dad’s death and I carried a strong sense that it would be impossible for me to simply return to what had been before. This sense was both within and outside of my control: the prospect of returning to my life as it had been felt insulting (making me consciously resist it) and actually impossible, I simply no longer had the physical or emotional energy for that life.
Eventually, I began to slowly explore his clothes. I noticed that I had, without even realising, sorted and stored the clothes in a kind of hierarchy. Garments that I have lots of pictures of Dad wearing (a particular mustard coloured shirt and his many caps), garments that he’d had for a long time or that I have particularly vivid memories of (his go-to jacket with the tricksy zip that he often struggled with, as I did when zipping it up to put it away – a stuck zip making me feel completely undone) and garments bearing evidence of his activities such as his paint covered overalls, were kept in a suitcase. They were too raw, places I wasn’t yet ready to go. On the shelves of the wardrobe in my old bedroom at my parent’s house are garments I remember Dad wearing, but have no specific memories attached to them, nor bear any particular traces of Dad’s presence. These are shelves that can bear being looked at. Then there were a few garments that I don’t really remember him wearing at all, these became a small pile of ‘potential experiments’ in my workshop: garments with which I felt able to try out some ideas. I’ve drawn some of them, taken rubbings of them, stitched onto them, and dared to cut up a couple and cover one in ink to take prints from.
There is one last category that consists of only a handful of garments. One of them is a secondhand cardigan that Dad wore a lot in the final year of his life. I’m wearing it right now, I wear it a lot while working at my desk in the winter, which has made me realise why he wore it so much: it has a shawl collar which feels reassuringly cocooning, the practicality of pockets and a high wool content (80% lambswool), which along with its chunky knit makes it really warm. Interestingly it isn’t a garment that I would be likely to wear out in public, but wearing it in and around home feels right – it gives me a sense of protection and comfort, a wearable hug from Dad. In this same category, is a pair of his leather gloves that he gave me several years ago, as they were a bit small for him. These gloves embody my Dad perhaps more than any other garment. I loved my Dad’s hands; they were big, incredibly strong, but also extremely skilled (he was a joiner all his working life) and because the gloves are leather, they’ve taken on a 3D imprint of his hands. I keep them in my car, wearing them while driving in winter and it feels like my Dad holding my hand. I used to wear them more often, while out and about until I once lost them in a supermarket. The short account at the start of this piece is about those gloves and that experience.
This organising of Dad’s clothes and my conscious and subconscious awareness of the connections I had to them, alongside early explorations of what to physically do with them, were fundamental to the change I eventually made to my life, by embarking on a PhD. After completing an MA investigating ways to recycle textiles in 2004, I had toyed with the idea of doing a PhD on and off ever since. My decision to explore the idea again was brought about by an aligning of personal and global circumstances. The search for self-healing through those early explorations of Dad’s clothes and my growing realisation of their importance was enabled by the Covid-19 pandemic, which had forced me to stop teaching and spend more time in my workshop tinkering and thinking. I’d always known that if I did a PhD it would be in the area of sustainability in fashion, but inevitably things had moved on since 2004 and the ideas I’d had back then weren’t as relevant. However, the presence of and interaction with, my dad’s clothes had introduced a new layer of meaning to think about and I began to consider whether people’s relationships with their clothes was crucial to the success of any movement towards to more enduring and sustainable ways of existing with clothes.
Here I am, eighteen months into my PhD exploring the many relationships that people have with their clothes: from the deeply emotional to the ambivalent; what makes us fall in love (and stay in love) with certain clothes; and what causes clothing relationship breakdowns? What makes some clothes broken beyond repair, while leaving some with a chance of redemption?
My idea is that any form of move towards more sustainable behaviour in fashion is based on an understanding of our relationships and connections with our clothes. Surely, if we have a healthy relationship of understanding and respect with our clothes, we’re more likely to care about them?
At the heart of a PhD is a contribution to knowledge; I think this PhD is also playing a fundamental role in the restoration of “me”. The loss and grief remain, but my life continues to grow around them, creating a more comfortable place for us to co-exist and it’s a comfort to know that my Dad remains a presence in that.
Wendy Ward is a PhD candidate at Sheffield Hallam University researching sustainability in fashion, specifically through the lens of people’s relationships with their clothes, and the potential for using these relationships to lengthen the time that we keep them.