BY KATRINA RODABAUGH | It’s a true honor to share this interview with today’s Slow Fashion Citizen, Tom Van Deijnen otherwise known as Tom of Holland (and @tomofholland). Tom is a crafter, knitter and teacher based in Brighton, England, and he is also one of my Slow Fashion heroes for his work founding The Visible Mending Programme. (That’s right, heroes — and I don’t use that word lightly.) Soon after I started my slow fashion project, Make Thrift Mend, in 2013 I stumbled upon Tom’s images of high-contrasted handknit sweaters and my heart ached with how much I loved them.
You know that feeling? You ache a little. You might stumble. You might lose your breath. You might have to sit on that impossibly small bench in the center of the gallery and stare a little bit longer at what just leapt off the wall and tried to crawl under your coat. Because now it’s burrowing under your skin and it’s heading for your heart folds and suddenly you gasp at the sensation of this thing crawling into your heart but also at this incredible experience of seeing something so beautiful and necessary and relevant and absolutely new. There’s just one word for it and that word is YES.
This was my reaction in stumbling over Tom’s work with the Visible Mending Programme. I had to sit down on that figurative tiny bench and catch my breath. The colorful darning filling in the missing sections of yarn brought visual interest to an otherwise beautiful garment but the repairs were also arresting, defiant, edgy and demanding all at once. “Look at me, there was a hole here and now it’s even more beautiful.” I was instantly drawn to the interplay of craftsmanship and color — the required knitting skills and knowledge of darning necessary to technically repair the garment, but Tom’s artful approach to celebrating the repair and adding visual interest through high-contrast stitches. YES. And thank you. And swoon.
Tom’s work with the Visible Mending Programme has absolutely influenced my work in sashiko mending and I’m confident saying he’s influenced the work of many contemporary repairs around the globe. Tom’s work lends a rich voice to the conversation about Slow Fashion, textile arts, homemade wardrobes, knitting and repairing garments because of the invention of the Visible Mending Programme. It’s as if there is an international conversation about mending through images and repaired articles of clothing and imperfect stitches meant to celebrate the most beloved garments that naturally breakdown, but through our mending we can make them even more meaningful. And certainly Tom is one of the most distinctive voices in this ongoing conversation. Let’s welcome this month’s friend from the UK, Tom of Holland.
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Tom, thank you so much for joining us today. I adore your work and you’ve been such a huge inspiration for me in my own mending, repairing, and rejuvenating garments. Can you start by telling us about the Visible Mending Programme? How did it begin and how has it evolved?
Hi Katrina, many thanks for having me! I’m so pleased to hear that you find my work inspirational, as that’s exactly why I share my work. The Visible Mending Programme seeks to highlight that the art and craftsmanship of clothes repair is particularly relevant in a world where more and more people voice their dissatisfaction with fashion’s throwaway culture. By exploring the story behind garment and repair, the Programme reinforces the relationship between the wearer and garment, leading to people wearing their existing clothes for longer, with the beautiful darn worn as a badge of honour.
By writing my blog, running darning workshops and taking repair work commissions I provide mending inspiration, skills and services to people and hopefully persuade them that shop-bought clothes deserve care and attention too, just like a precious handknit. Even as a teenager I was always interested in buying clothes with the aim to wear them for a long time, even if they were cheap. As I’ve always enjoyed needlecrafts, I naturally started embellishing and repairing them when I felt the need. This has grown very slowly and organically into the Visible Mending Programme as it stands today.
I always credit you as the founder of the term (and the hashtag) “visible mending” — it’s really the perfect phrase. How did you invent the term? Why did that phrase feel so important when you started this work?
The term Visible Mending has very simple roots: when I first started repairing, I attempted to make my repairs invisible. As this requires a lot of skill to achieve, I never quite managed it, and over time I have come to accept that my repairs can be visible, and now I positively celebrate a visible repair and have started to use the term Visible Mending. By repairing in a visible way, I can add to the story of the garment, and show it has a history. I like things that look used, as it gives them character and makes them more individual. And when it comes to shop-bought clothes, adding a Visible Mend is also a chance to add some of your own creativity.
One of the things I absolutely adore about your work is that you have this very developed craftsmanship through knitting that you apply in this completely original and inspired way through high contrast darning and mending. It’s as if you are honoring the tradition of the craft while simultaneously pushing it forward into a contemporary and more innovative space. I know this an impossible question but I’m going to ask it anyway: Do you think a crafter needs to first learn the rules before he/ she breaks them?
This is indeed a difficult question! My initial reaction was: Absolutely! Learning the rules allows you to understand how things fit together, but it will also allow you to start questioning tradition and see whether you can push yourself in new directions. However, it can be very liberating to start playing with a craft without knowing anything about the baggage that may come with it. It is a completely different way of pushing boundaries, and you’d soon learn whether certain things work or not. For me personally though, I enjoy researching how things are done traditionally, and compare and contrast techniques. It’s like having a discussion with the past, and on some things we’d agree, and others we wouldn’t.
I see your work as central to the Slow Fashion movement because it forces us to reconsider usage. But then it goes beyond usage and basic repair to embrace the creative opportunities in darning through basic design elements like color, scale, texture and composition. I find this really pushes the work to the intersection of fine art and craft. You not only repair the garment but you celebrate the usage and the opportunity for design. Can you talk about this embrace and the importance of this angle in Slow Fashion?
As my practice has grown so organically, I have developed my creative language at an equally slow pace. I’ve always been drawn to the used and imperfect, as opposed to the new and perfect. Clothes that you like wearing rarely stay looking new and perfect for long, so it makes sense to me to embrace and celebrate the fact that garments have a history, and to use a repair opportunity as a way to be creative. If we can make a change in what people find acceptable to wear, and are happy to wear something that no longer looks pristine, then that removes a reason why some people feel they need to replace their clothes so frequently.
When did you learn how to knit? Was it love at first stitch or did your knitting evolve more slowly or labored over time?
I was originally taught to knit at primary school, and also by my mum, although I remember not enjoying it much when I first started out. I made a little scarf for a teddy bear. It had brown and cream stripes and a cable. The tension was way too tight, so every stitch was a struggle. I then didn’t knit until I was an adult, and things went surprisingly easy for the beginning. I never looked back since!
Who do you consider to be the most exciting makers in the Slow Fashion movement today? Why?
There are a few exciting makers I’d like to mention, although some of them you may not consider a maker as such, but each and every one of them provides me with lots of inspiration and food for thought, hoping to be able to implement some of their practices into my own:
Manonik (Yoshiyuki Minami): Manonik makes amazing clothes, the cloth for which he weaves himself, and sometimes also spins the threads. His weaving is shaped according to the pattern pieces required, which reduces waste considerably. All materials seem to be sourced from small, independent producers such as Sally Fox’s beautiful cotton, or made especially by or for him.
Gridjunky (Jerome Sevilla): Jerome recycles a lot of old clothes, and documents his processes meticulously. Sweaters are unraveled and the yarn reknit into new garments; jeans are carefully picked apart, and every bit, including the sewing thread, will be used again. I like his considered and mathematical approach to creating new items from the old and undervalued. [ED NOTE: More on Jerome here]
Logo Removal Services (Miriam Dym): I first met Miriam at the first MENDERS symposium in 2012, and we got on really well. She does a variety of slow textile related things, but I picked Logo Removal Services because I love the subtle subversive message of excising unwanted brand names, logos, tags, stains and marks, and replacing them with new shapes in fresh colours and contrasting threads. It makes a mass-produced item completely individual.
Bridget Harvey: Bridget is another person I first met at the MENDERS symposium, and we’ve worked on a few things together since. Bridget makes me think about the interventional act of repairing, and what that means for the object repaired: by repairing similar objects in many different ways (for instance, a series of broken plates are repaired by using glue, plasters, wire, tape, etc) the use and function of the object is questioned and re-contextualised.
Craftivist Collective (Sarah Corbett): Sarah might not be considered a maker as such, although she’s definitely making waves as the founder of the Craftivist Collective. Through this collective, Sarah shows people how they can use craft as a tool for gentle activism aimed at influencing long-term change.
I’ve noticed that lately you seem to be collaborating with larger brands, institutions, or shops. Was this an intentional step for you to move into darning in a more public space or was this just a natural extension of your work teaching, exhibiting, and knitting? I love that you’re taking the work to a larger audience through your collaborations, particularly the work with The New Craftsmen.
Although not an intentional next step, in the back of my mind it’s something I have dreamt about doing for a while. By being able to work at “the next level” I hope I can share my way of looking at the world with a wider audience, and make repaired clothes and other items something acceptable and normal. Working with, for example, The New Craftsmen, let’s me lure people into my world, which allows me to show them that repairs can be beautiful, thoughtful, and made with great skill and integrity.
If you could identify one most important aspect about Visible Mending what would it be? What’s the most single most important aspect of this work for you personally?
I think the most important aspect about Visible Mending is to inspire others, and be inspired by others. This is why I write blog posts, run workshops and take repair commissions. In this way it’s possible to strike up a conversation, and explain to people why I want to repair things, and at the same time I can learn from others, hear their stories and concerns around slow and fast fashion. I love it when people share their visibly mended items on social media, and I would encourage everybody to do so, and use the hashtag #visiblemending. This way you can inspire others, and be inspired by others.
What’s your advice for folks who are just starting to darn or mend? Any tips or encouragement you’d offer?
I think you need to give yourself some time to learn the skills needed to darn, and don’t be too critical of your own work. Start with something manageable, and if you’re not sure, do a little practice run on a scrap of fabric. Look at other visible mending examples. See if there’s a Repair Café or other communal mending groups and join in, either as a volunteer, or to learn how to repair.
Three favorite tools for knitting or darning that you cannot live without?
Apart from the obvious such as the tools needed to do the job: My notebook to write down how I’ve done something, makes notes and sketches and keep track of things (I’ve started using the Bullet Journal method); my library of mending and knitting books, which are mostly about techniques. I have relatively few books with actual knitting patterns in them. A large stash of wool yarns and threads for making and mending!
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Thank you SO MUCH, Tom. I have this daydream that we’ll get to teach together someday so I’m going to cross my fingers that will actually happen. Until then, I’ll keep applauding your work from across the Atlantic.
Katrina Rodabaugh is an author, artist and slow-fashion advocate. Visit her website www.katrinarodabaugh.com or follow her on Instagram at @katrinarodabaugh
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Photos © Tom Van Deijnen, used with permission