Something happened to me on Sunday — an almost imperceptible shift in attitude, and yet significant at the same time.
I’m not sure how best to describe it, but let’s say I feel like I crossed some invisible line I’ve been moving toward for decades — first at a saunter and lately at a faster and faster clip. May has been a big, meaning-filled month for me. My closet clean-out has turned into a whole house clean-out. I’ve been packing my already choked calendar with all kinds of opportunities to learn new skills or improve on existing ones. There’s the steady stream of Me Made May pics from all over the hemisphere in my Instagram feed. The other day, I finally made it to The Possible, a sort of exhibit-in-progress (now closed) at the Berkeley Art Museum, which was so moving. Rather than filling the space (the most amazing space) with objects, they filled it with makers — weavers, dyers, printmakers, potters. At the front of the space was a rag rug that had expanded slowly outward for four months as a crew of approved tie-ers pulled from the artful piles of rags at one side (a pile of blues, a pile of reds, etc) and tied and tied and tied. A giant — I mean giant — woven piece had just been hung on a wall above and behind the rug, pieced together from large panels of weaving done on a nearby loom over the course of the exhibition. When my friends and I arrived, there was an Indian man perched on a plywood box in the middle of the rug playing a sort of accordion that sat next to his right ankle and singing in that strange and beautiful Indian style, the space filled with the sound of him and the sunlight. Kristine and Adrienne, from A Verb for Keeping Warm, were part of the dye studio and were at one of the tables tying indigo-dipped strips of fabric around little clay stones for all of the participating artists. (250 of them.) But what interested me most wasn’t the actual stuff that had been made, it was all the evidence and detritus of the making: the looms, the indigo vat, the ironing board, the drawings and photos and swatches tacked up everywhere. I want to live there, in that frame of mind.*
Then on Sunday I went to a workshop at Ogaard called “Boro and Embroidermending.” I love that term! Boro and Sashiko both fascinate me but, while I know them when I see them, I don’t really know anything about them, historically speaking. I’m intrigued by all of the really amazing embroidery floating around these days, but am especially taken with the Visible Mending movement, which of course goes hand in hand with the Slow Fashion movement and the “make do and mend” mentality that came alive again during the economic collapse a few years ago. So I was interested to learn about this Japanese patchwork technique. The workshop teacher, Cory Gunter Brown, had covered the long table in a lovely sackcloth, placed clay bowls of crackers and apricots in the center, along with sprigs of rosemary for our water glasses, and put an indigo furoshiki bundle of supplies at each place at the table. For the next four hours, she talked about the history of boro, read to us, showed us some of her own “embroidermending,” and taught us the basics of sashiko stitching plus one really killer knot. Katrina Rodabaugh was also there as a participant and talked a tiny bit about about the birth of her Make Thrift Mend project. It was a really perfect blend of skills and context being taught and discussed together. And while the actual skills taught were fairly minimal, by the end of class we were all happily stitching away on something of our own that we had brought along.
Somehow all of these things — Me Made May, The Possible, my closet, the boro — gelled in my brain. And by Monday morning, I realized, like I said, something in me had shifted.
Nothing about Lean Closet thinking or conscious consumerism is new to me — far from it. I’ve been a conflicted consumer for decades, and it was really driven home for me a about fifteen years ago when I read Your Money or Your Life for the first time. But while I’ve always found store-bought furniture to be frigid, preferring pieces that already haves stories to tell, and believe in adopting pets from the pound and driving the same car for as long as it will run, it’s always been difficult for me to apply the same philosophy to my closet. I always say I don’t want to eat any hamburger a restaurant can afford to sell me for a dollar, and I do feel the same way about $5 t-shirts and $19 merino sweaters, so I broke the disposable-fashion habit (for the most part) several years ago. But as anyone who’s given this stuff much thought at all realizes, it’s a difficult equation of questionably produced cheap fashion, better-crafted clothes with traceable origins that aren’t in most of our budgets, or sewing everything yourself. And even then, where does the fabric come from and was it responsibly made? It’s tricky business.
The garment I was mending in that class on Sunday was my favorite pair of jeans. I got them off the clearance rack at the J.Crew outlet in Napa when we were living there, so they’re at least ten or eleven years old — from the bygone days when “boyfriend jeans” were just called “jeans.” They’re made of good quality denim (so hard to find anymore — at least for under $200) and fit me better than any pair of jeans I’ve ever owned. And they’re full of holes — some of which they came with, but which have expanded over the years. I believe in continuing to own them and wear them, and it makes me feel really good to apply a little boro to them — following an ancient Japanese tradition of making do and mending. I understand my relationship to those jeans, and I realize it’s become much like my relationship to any sweater I’ve knitted for myself: I’m woven into the fabric. As I was sitting there communing with the jeans, I finally understood something about how to better apply those principles to my wardrobe. I am going to re-learn everything I’ve forgotten about sewing, and am committed to making more of my own clothes — along with knitting a fair chunk of them, obviously. But it’s not realistic for me to think I can make all of them. What is realistic, though, is deciding to only invest in clothes I intend to form a long-term relationship with. Clothes I care enough about to commission, modify, personalize, or simply sit down and mend when they need me.
*If you’re on Instagram, definitely take a stroll through #thepossible and also #mmmay14.