Darn It

This art of beautiful (and visible) mending turns clothes into works of art. Or at minimum, keeps them ready to wear.

When Maya Critchfield caught her favorite black cashmere sweater on a garden fence she assumed she’d ruined it. Then an image on Pinterest of a well-darned sweater inspired her to pull out needle and thread. With each maraschino red patch she adds to that old black sweater, she falls a little more in love with it. “I feel like there’s going to be a time when it is completely patches,” Critchfield says. “It makes me excited not just about the past and present of clothes but the future of my clothes.”

Her deliberately visible mending represents a new-old approach to fashion that embraces and even enhances flaws. That sweater, which she thrifted in Boston four years ago, along with a pair of well mended jeans, are the garments she keeps coming back to. “I can wear them in any situation and I feel so at home in them because I have worn them so much.”

From her favorite jeans to her favorite black cashmere sweater, Maya Critchfield embellishes her clothes while strengthening them, and making sure they will be around, and enjoyed, for years to come. Photo courtesy of Maya Critchfield

For many who practice the art of visible mending, the inspiration comes from Japan. Sashiko or boro, is a Japanese practice of turning a tear or worn patch into a decorated highlight. Visible mending is a trend—mainstream enough that Martha Stewart Living has covered it. Critchfield stumbled across it when she saw how artist Celia Pym had completely re-knit and re-darned a garment. “I was like, ‘this is art!’ It was the first time I thought of mending [that way], so her work kind of launched me into using it in my art practice and explore darning in general.”

Critchfield learned to sew from her mother when she was very young. Her mother had learned from her own grandmother, Agnes (which is Critchfield’s middle name). So she already had the skills to make her mending beautiful. She also had the background to be attracted to it for more than aesthetic reasons. She went to the College of the Atlantic, where everyone has the same major— human ecology—and she’s embraced it as descriptor for herself in her post-graduation life. As a human ecologist she’s happily mending and living within the parameters of Slow Fashion, the term for the conscientious fashion movement that started more than a decade ago in response to the wasteful practices of the fast fashion industry.

The movement has grown as the news about climate change becomes more dire. It includes thrift store shopping and shopping from ethically sourced new lines, like those made by Patagonia, Everlane and The Toad Store (with its outlet in Freeport). But it doesn’t get any more basic than picking up needle and thread to fix what you’ve already got. “Even if your clothes are from H&M or whatever,” Critchfield says. “If you’re mending them and making them last longer, that is sustainable; that is Slow Fashion.” And mending might be the most financially accessible entry point into Slow Fashion for most, she adds. “There are so many YouTube videos, diagrams, tutorials online that are free. If you can get to a craft store, you can start darning or sewing on patches.”

The tools of the mending trade. All it takes is needle, thread and some patience to mend the clothes that matter. Photo courtesy of Maya Critchfield

But if you want to take it to the next level, Critchfield teaches darning classes around Maine, including at Smith’s General in Yarmouth. Her next session is this month at the annual Fiber College of Maine (Sept. 4–8) in Searsport. And she’s not alone. Rewild Maine regularly offers mending classes (upcoming ones will be announced on its Facebook page; act fast, they sell out). Biddeford-based Samantha Lindgren runs an annual retreat called “A Gathering of Stitches: Slow Fashion.” She regularly brings in guest teachers, like Katrina Rodabaugh, author of Mending Matters: Stitch, Patch & Repair Your Favorite Denim and More and Slow Fashion journalist and expert Amy Default.

Lindgren isn’t a professional mender or weaver but she does make (and mend) most of her own clothes, even jeans and bathing suits. She also quilts and knits, but garments remain her first love. “I was a clothes horse when I was a kid.” And she relishes the opportunity to teach, including about the accessibility of sustainable fashion. “Slow Fashion often gets tarred with the same elitist brush that Slow Food did,” Lindgren says. When she first became aware of the mending movement it made sense to her, an extension of the concepts that Slow Food had instilled in her. “Why throw away a beloved garment because it had a hole?” she says. “Why not find a way to fix it, even embellish and celebrate it with the fix, in a way that prolonged the garment’s life, and allowed me to live my values beautifully, creatively, visibly.” That’s why her Slow Fashion retreat includes three lessons from professionals—one on pattern making, one on natural dye processes and a third on visible mending. ”It is a cornerstone of the movement, an incredibly useful skill, and an important message to spread.”

A pair of jeans Maya Critchfield has mended. Photo courtesy of Maya Critchfield

Casey Ryder, owner and proprietor of Portfiber, a shop in the East Bayside neighborhood of Portland, also believes in spreading that message. Portfiber is dedicated to ethically sourced and produced textiles and tools for sewing your own clothes, so mending was a natural fit with her mission as a maker. Ryder teaches spinning and weaving and often brings in outside professionals to teach sustainable methods of garment construction and maintenance. Recently she asked Critchfield to teach a darning class. She also applauds the breadth of free tutorials available on the internet. “The thing that blocks us the most is our own selves getting in the way,” explains Ryder, “that little voice in your head that’s like, ‘why do you want to do that? That’s dumb.’”

For Critchfield and Ryder, their projects in mending and making have value beyond mere practicality. Critchfield’s current project is to restore and mend very old, antique garments in hopes of someday displaying them in a museum. The garments “are completely destroyed” and beyond wearability. But they represent history and maybe something more. “We don’t normally think of clothes as art,” Critchfield says. But why not? “I like putting clothes on a white wall and being like, ‘Hey, look at this, this is art. Someone made this, someone mended this, what does that make you feel?”

Maya Critchfield is teaching at the Fiber College of Maine, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sept. 7, in Searsport. $84, call 207–548–6059 for more information.

Hannah Johnston graduated from Connecticut College and completed an honors thesis in creative writing. She is from South Portland and wrote about the barista life for MWM in June.

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