Circular Podcast with Tom of Holland
Is there a trade-off between affordability and disposability? Can we go back to a mindset of mending and repair, without pricing ourselves out? How do we overcome the objections of time, money and skillset to get more people involved in this movement?
On today’s episode, I’m talking to Tom van Deijnen – a self-taught textiles practitioner, founder of The Visible Mending Programme, and a volunteer at the Brighton Repair Café. He says that he likes ‘doing things that take forever’ because that slow pace gives him a deeper understanding of material qualities and traditional techniques.
Below is a transcript of our conversation. Find the full episode available to listen on Spotify here.
I’m Katie Treggiden, and this is Circular: a podcast exploring the intersections of craft, design and sustainability. Join me as I talk to the thinkers, doers, and makers of the circular economy. These are the people who are challenging the linear “take make waste” model of production and consumption and working towards something better. In this series, we’re talking about repair.
Tom You know, you might spend a lot of money on designer clothes. It doesn’t mean that they have been produced more ethically than a T-shirt from H&M or Next: they can be made even in the same factory, they will just be given higher quality materials to sew with, and they’re allowed to spend more time on putting it together or use different techniques that are a bit more expensive to use.
Katie But I guess on the flip side of that, if something is costing £3, it’s probably not been made ethically?
Tom Correct. Yes. At least I believe so.
GUEST INTERVIEW PART 1
Katie Tom Van Deijnen is a self-taught textiles practitioner, founder of the visible mending program and a volunteer at the Brighton repair cafe. He says that he likes doing things that take forever because that slow pace gives him a deeper understanding of material qualities and traditional techniques. He’s interested in both sustainability and the rich textile history of the United Kingdom and favours the old and imperfect, over the new and perfect, working to highlight the relationship between the item and its user in his mending interventions. He says the acts of creating and mending are in constant conversation with one another. Tom lives and works in Brighton.
Katie Tom, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast. I’d like to start at the beginning and ask you a little bit about your childhood and how mending and repair showed up in your early life, if indeed, they did.
Tom I think mending is perhaps not that much from my family, but, definitely, textiles were a bit of a thing. My Mum used to do a lot of knitting and also sewing. Some of my Aunts were very creative as well in that, in the textile department, so to speak. I’ve always been surrounded by “textily” things and I’ve tried all sorts of different things as a young boy; I just enjoyed really the creative side of things. I did little embroidery kits for my Mum to hang on a wall and I made crocheted doilies for my Grannies that they could use. They were only small, not much bigger than a fun egg cup. I’ve always been very creative and as I got a bit older, I started to repair my clothes a little bit, often in a creative way or adding a little flourish. Particularly when I started buying my own clothes as a teenager with my hard-earned pocket money.
I would repair things and I would buy clothes as a way of, I would never buy things for just one season. I would always think about, you know, buy something that I would like to wear for a longer period of time. And it doesn’t matter where I bought it from, even if it was a very cheap T-shirt or top or whatever, I would try to wear it for as long as I can.
Katie So I guess growing up, seeing people, making clothes kind of gave you that appreciation of what had gone into those objects and therefore the fact that they shouldn’t be sort of disposable in the way they’re sometimes seen as now?
Tom Yes, definitely. You know, it’s not like I only wore handmade clothes; it’s mostly shop-bought things, but my Mum did make me some stuff, and she was really good because she would ask for my input. So, it’s not, “oh, here’s a jumper I’ve knitted for you. You better like it”. She would get some pattern books and we would go through them together and I would choose the style and she would take me to the wool shop to pick the colours. It was a very collaborative effort and that made me really appreciate them because they would be things I actually wanted.
Katie I love that. And that sense of the kind of personal agency that you’d contributed, even if you hadn’t made them yourself, you’d contributed some of the design decisions?
Katie That’s really interesting. So how and when did your career as a designer-maker and repairer start? How did you make that leap from watching your Mum and your Aunties doing this sort of stuff to realising there might be a path for you in this discipline?
Tom It’s grown very organically. I’ve never really set out to create a business out of this and still, now, I don’t see myself as a business person. I also have a different office job, which I enjoy too and that brings me a steady income. I enjoy what I do, but I’m not trying to make money out of it as in I don’t want it to be my main way of earning income because it’s very volatile, and it’s difficult to make a name for yourself and work on things that you enjoy doing.
I am in the luxurious position that I can say no to projects if I don’t find them interesting, because I’m not worried about having to pay the bills, because that’s already covered by my other job. It’s grown very organically. Because I don’t treat it as a business, I’ve never really done a lot of market research or anything like that; I’ve just been doing the things that I enjoy and I like sharing my knowledge and sharing my skills. So that’s how I ended up doing workshops, etc. I’m just lucky to meet people along the way that have been very encouraging to me and helped me think through and what I do, my creative side and also how I could maybe challenge myself and do things differently.
Katie I think it’s phenomenal. So, you do your day job four days a week and then focus on Tom of Holland one day a week? You talk about making a name for yourself – you’re one of the biggest names in this space and you achieve that in one day a week! I think, as someone who works seven or eight days a week, I find that really impressive, but I think it’s also really important for people to know that this doesn’t necessarily have to be an all or nothing kind of setup. It is possible to pursue a passion and sort of things that fit around your value system part-time, whilst as you say, doing something that you also enjoy that pays the bills. I think that’s really important for people to know because I think so much of the online business world is “quit your day job”,” go all in”, you know, whereas actually there’s space for balance and nuance in some of these conversations.
You talk about the acts of creating and mending being in constant conversation with each other, which I love, so talk to me a little bit about that and what that means.
Tom Have a conversation about it.
Tom For me, I think it’s something that we just kind of hint to that. If you make your own clothes, you are really involved in the process and making all the decisions. It starts from what materials I want to buy or use. If you have a big stash of fabric or yarn, then you might choose to use that. You decide what pattern you want to use. If you know what techniques you’re going to use, you might just say, well, this time I will just follow the pattern blindly. And other times you might say, “right, I’m going to change this, that, and the other.” If it’s knitting, for instance, it’s easily taken with you when you travel or commute. When you knit, you can think later when you look back, “oh yeah, remember knitting this one, when I was on a holiday”. Or, “oh, that was such a boring commute for a while because it’s very dreary, but look, I have this amazing jumper.” So, it creates a bond with that item that you’ve made. And, for me, it was already clear. That means I want to look after it because if I’ve spent so much thought and effort and making something, so if this little hole appears or a button pings off, I don’t want to stop wearing it because I spent so much time making it. I think that bond that you create naturally kind of gets lost if you buy clothes from the High Street, but at the same time, there are always favourite pieces. You know, you might have your favourite Sunday jumper for lounging around when you’re a little bit hungover or, if you also have different ways of things that make you enjoy whatever you’re wearing for the purpose.. People often think about “oh yes, I only, it needs to be a special garment before I want to decide to repair it.” But I think you should repair all clothes that you enjoy wearing, trying to keep them going for longer.
If you then start repairing and you do it in a visible way, the way I like mending; again, you can start creating something more personal and you can obviously, you know, shop-bought clothes. There’ll be thousands, if not tens of thousands made of them, depending on where you’re getting them from. They’re all the same. So, it’s nice that you suddenly turn it into something unique to yourself, but also by spending time with your garment and thinking, “oh yes, this stain that I’m covering up now, that that happened because I had a really lovely dinner with friends and I accidentally knocked over my wine glass”, or something like that. I think it’s really nice, and you start to see the history of the garment and celebrating, that you want to keep wearing it and it’s worthy of repair. And then, your repair you’ve done becomes a sort of badge of honour. For me, I enjoy learning different textile techniques, and the techniques I use for mending and making that kind of crossover between the two disciplines, if you can call them that. Certain techniques that you might traditionally use for sewing I will employ when I’m repairing, and the other way around.
So that’s kind of the conversation that I’m having with myself and I’m making or mending. There’re always little things that crossover that, traditionally perhaps, you would put in one in one box and another box, and I have one big box with all sorts of things.
Katie I love that, and I love the idea of kind of borrowing techniques from each and the fact that we can sort of build a relationship with our clothes by mending them, and almost imbuing them with the value a hand-made piece might have.
So, are menders always makers and our makers always menders, or is there an overlap, but some people perhaps only fit into one or the other? How are those two skill sets and mindsets differ, I suppose?
Tom I think maybe it’s like a Venn diagram.
Katie I love a Venn Diagram.
Tom Overlapping circles and maybe three or four other ones floating in the periphery. I think some people are more interested in making things; they might not necessarily care that much about repairing and other people feel like, “oh, I have no clue how to sew a shirt, but you know, if I need to fix it, then I’m happy to give it a go”. And other people will do either. And it’s difficult. I don’t think there’s a black and white scenario and it really depends on your own abilities and your own understanding of what you can or cannot do. I’m always willing to give things a go and see what happens and some other people might feel a bit afraid to venture out.
Katie I think it’s really interesting that that sense. I have very few skills in this area, but I’ve started mending clothes and also started looking at. I had a trench coat, which was ruined. It was filthy and I couldn’t get it clean, but the inside was still beautiful; the fabric was really lovely. So I ended up cutting it up so I could save the buttons and the attachments and the bits of fabric that were still lovely. And it’s the first time I’ve ever cut up a piece of clothing. So, for a start, I felt really naughty, even though it was going to go into the bin otherwise. And secondly, I started to be able to see the pattern that it had been made from. And I wonder if there’s a sense that mending might be a way into making? Because I think I never would. I would voice that I was someone who could never make clothes, but now I’ve started mending them, and started understanding how they’re made a little bit more.
Tom It reminds me a bit of Amy Twigger Holroyd’s work in a research that she’s done. She’s written a PhD, and then subsequently a book called Folk Fashion. She talks about a closed item on an open item. And it’s exactly what you just described. Many people see a garment as a closed item as in, you can’t tinker with it, but if you allow yourself to change the mindset and think, “oh, actually, yes, I am going to cut up that coat and see what the pattern pieces look like”. Or, if you’re a bit more adventurous with, say, knitting. You feel confident in just taking things apart, lengthening or inserting additional ribbing; I think it’s a concept. I can’t quite remember where the concept came from. I remember something vaguely about architecture, or somebody who’s written a lot about architecture, but I really liked that concept about seeing things as open structures and open systems where you can go in and play around and and change them.
Katie Yes, I love that idea!
Tom Some people find that really scary.
Katie I’m going to look that up and include that in the show notes. So, if people want to dig into that in a bit more detail, they can do. I think that’s really important; I think there is something about mending that opens systems and structures and items. Thanks for that reference point, I think that’s really valuable.
We’ve talked a little bit about the difference between handmade clothes and cheaper high street stores, and you’ve talked in the past about going back to an older mindset where clothes were expensive and we looked after them and repaired them until they were threadbare, anecdotally. I can’t find the reference for this, but, anecdotally, I have heard that before the Industrial Revolution, a man’s shirt cost a month’s wages, which seems crazy now, doesn’t it? And obviously, it’s important that everybody can afford clothes, right? So how do we balance this idea of affordability and democracy, but value and respect for the people who’ve made those clothes? How do we keep those two things in check?
Tom I think it’s important to realise when I say we should go back to an older mindset. I’m not saying we necessarily need to raise prices.
Tom It’s more about the way that people would treat these items that I think we should go back to. The other thing that people often confuse is price versus ethical production. You might spend a lot of money on designer clothes. It doesn’t mean that they have been produced more ethically than a T-shirt from H&M or Next. They can even be made in the same factory, they will just be given higher quality materials to sew with, and they’re allowed to spend more time on putting it together or use different techniques that are a bit more expensive to use.
Katie But, on the flip side of that, if something is costing £3, it’s probably not been made ethically?
Tom Correct. At least I believe so. When I say, go back to an older mindset when clothes used to be more expensive, for me that means even if you did only spend £5 on a T-shirt because that’s what you can afford. Try to look at it as if you have spent two weeks’ worth of wages or a month of wages on it. So, you’d look after it. I think it is really difficult for people to understand that clothes are still all made by hand.
Tom There are people that seem to think there’s a robot which can shoot them out.
Katie Yes. Even I just said the difference between handmade clothes and mass-produced clothes, didn’t I, but you’re right: even mass-produced clothes are made with people’s hands, right?
Tom By hand, yes. They use a sewing machine like you can use. Of course, it’s an industrial-strength, high powered sewing machine, but the principle of how it works is exactly the same as your little hobby sewing machine that you put on your kitchen table when you want to make something. And the difference is just knowing that the different techniques, and they often specialise in a particular part. Maybe someone is really good at attaching collars and somebody else is good at setting in sleeves, so it is very productionised and streamlined. One of the ways it can be cheaper is to be made in countries where the hourly wage is lower, or laws around working conditions are not as strict as here.
Katie I think that’s really interesting. I was going to ask you is if there isn’t that cost difference, where do we get that motivation from? But actually, just that simple understanding that every piece of clothing we own has been made by somebody’s hands almost gives you immediately that respect to say, well, in that case, I will mend it rather than throwing it away, doesn’t it?
Tom Yes. I think one of the ways to make people understand would be; if you were to try and make a piece of clothing, particularly for people who aren’t necessarily creative in that way. Try and make a t-shirt or a shirt and see how you get on. If it’s not your skill, then you might get very frustrated after two hours and your sewing machine has seized up 10 times and your fabric has been eaten you might start to think, “oh yeah, well, hmm, I wonder how that works in the factory. If this were to happen; how come my t-shirt is only £5 whereas I’ve already spent three hours trying to cut it out without everything going wonky.”!
Katie Yes. I think that’s really good advice. It’s slightly unrelated, but I recently did a course with a company called We are Stardust run by Agnes Becker and in part of it, we had to try and make a bird’s nest. Oh my God, it’s difficult. And I’ve got opposable thumbs! I’ve got a whole new level of respect, and so, I think that’s really true. I think just trying to make something yourself immediately demonstrates the skill involved. Even, as you say, when something has been made at a very low cost.
AD BREAK INTRO
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GUEST INTERVIEW PART 2
Katie Obviously, this podcast is about the circular economy and encouraging people to become more sustainable. Why is this mindset shift important within that context as we try to move towards a circular economy?
Tom I think that’s a quite a lot of research now showing that using existing garments, things you already have for your wardrobe, for longer, has a real impact on the environment and all sorts of other things around fast fashion. By keeping your existing clothes in use, for longer, in active use, does make a real impact on the CO2 emissions that a T-shirt represents or the water that’s used. This is a bit of a side-track, but another thing that I always feel is missing from these conversations about cheap clothes and fast fashion; people always talk about when the fabric arrives in the factory to get cut up and to be made into clothes. But they often forget to think about the whole trajectory of making the fabric. So, if you have a £5 T-shirt, that £5 doesn’t just represent the mark-up and cutting out of the fabric and rushing it through the sewing machine . There’s also been a whole trajectory, beforehand, of are they growing the cotton, or the man-made fibres made in a factory, and it needs to be spun up, needs to be woven, dyed, and finished. That is also all factored in that £5.
Katie And in the environmental impact of that. Right.
Tom Exactly. Yes. I often feel that’s missing from these conversations. People seem to think that it starts when the bolt of fabric arrives in the sewing factory.
Tom But it doesn’t, it starts much earlier.
Katie When we were talking about respect for the people who’ve made that garment, it’s also about the people who’ve grown and harvested the cotton, flax or linen, or whatever it is, and the people who’ve woven that fabric or, however that fabric has been made: knitted or whatever. So yes, there’s a huge amount of people to take into account there, isn’t there? And then as you say, the longer we use those garments, the more we’re reducing their environmental impact. I think there’s a stat, which is something like if you extend the lifespan of a garment by nine months, you reduce its environmental impact by 30%, I think says the Stat.
Tom From the RAP Report.
Katie Yes, that’s the one. I guess mending is one of the ways that we can extend the lifespan of garments, and also looking after them and folding them up nicely and washing them carefully and not too often.
Tom No ironing.
Tom No ironing.
Katie Ooh, why no ironing? Tell me about this.
Tom Ironing wears down the fabric with the heat.
Katie Aha. I did not know that. Amazing. Does that mean I’ve officially got an excuse not to do any ironing anymore? People often cite lack of time, lack of money or lack of skill as reasons they can’t mend. How would you, I was going to say, how would you overcome those objections? But I know that you’re not someone who is sort of mend, mend, mend. Everybody must mend. But if somebody wanted to mend, but had those objections, how would you sort of reassure them or, or help to encourage them to get involved?
Tom It’s a difficult question to answer, I think. Like you say, I’m not somebody who shouts everybody must mend and you’re being a bad person for not mending your shirts, because I find that very counter-intuitive and it’s not very productive and it just puts people off. But I think if you are interested, then just give it a go. I share all my repairs with the visible mending hashtag (#visiblemending) and I’ll know lots and lots of other people do that now, too. So, it’s very easy on social media now to find inspiration or tutorials. I think some people might say, oh, I don’t have the time or no skill, kind of means I’m just not sure where to start. And I think if you find it important enough, you can find time for it. But you know, that’s my personal opinion. I’m not sure everybody would agree with that.
Katie Especially if we’re not ironing anymore, right? We can spend all the time we were spending ironing, instead. It’s something that, as I said, I’ve taken up relatively recently and found it. I did a Master’s a couple of years ago and wrote my dissertation on mending and so whenever I’m learning about something academically or theoretically, I always try to learn the hand skills as well because I think the two different types of knowledge that are really important. That’s really why I took it out was to understand it from a sort of tactile haptic level as well as just academically. But I was surprised by how enjoyable I found it and how it’s almost meditative. I often mend my sister’s clothes more than anybody else’s, you know, more than my own even and I find it to be a really, well sort of, moving experience. It’s a real act of care, I think, mending something for someone else.
Tom I find that when I run workshops and I notice from other people who run these kinds of workshops as well, once people are shown what to do and they start to get it, the whole room will go quiet for five or ten minutes. Everybody’s just really concentrating on, on the fixing and just enjoying the process and you know, after a while somebody pops up and they go like, oh, that’s really meditative, or I’m really enjoying this, you know, so nice to concentrate on this for a little while. So, I think, maybe that’s one thing, if you can, you’re not sure about whether you want to, or if you’re feeling a bit hesitant about mending. Just try it out on something simple, something that you are not too worried about if it does go wrong. That’s not a thing that I often think for myself. Okay, I’m not wearing this item anymore because this that is wrong with it now, so why would I hesitate to try and fix it because I’m not wearing it already? If a repair goes wrong, there’s no additional damage done, so to speak because then I’ll just continue not wearing it.
Katie Yes, you have nothing to lose.
Tom I have nothing to lose. On the other hand, I might actually come up with something I really like, and I’ll start wearing it again.
Katie Yes, I love that.
Tom Just take something that you’re not precious about and just give it a go. If I want to try a new technique, I might just get some scrap fabric out and just try it out on that. You know, don’t feel you always have to dive straight onto the item you want to fix. Start with some scrap material or something that’s not so precious.
Katie Yes. I love that. I think that’s really important. And I think there’s something you touched on, which is a big part of my belief system around sustainability, which is that I think if we’re full of kind of, oh I should really mend this and you know, the sense of heavy-duty about sustainability, it’s not very motivating. Whereas, if we can get excited about the creative possibilities and the fact that we enjoy doing it, then I think that’s where a real change is going to happen. And people are far more likely to get involved with mending, as you say, because it’s meditative or because it’s exciting or because it’s creative than because someone like you or me has wagged the finger and says you must mend because it’s just not very motivating is it?
Tom Yes. I think people sometimes think if they can’t do everything, then they’re so demotivated that they’re not going to do anything.
Tom So if you just do a little bit, even if it’s not, you know, oh, oh, well, I really loved the way that Tom of Holland guy, you know, is mending whatever. Or maybe you’re not ready to, to reach my way of working because I’ve spent lots of years perfecting my techniques and practicing loads. You know, don’t beat yourself up. If your first attempts don’t look like mine or somebody else you really admire because we’ve all been on a journey. We all started out somewhere and just try it out and it might not work for you the first time and don’t feel bad if you don’t want to try it again for a few months.
In the meantime, donate something to charity and sell, whatever. We can’t always be on with these things.
Katie I think that’s really important. And that idea of just kind of doing what you can when you can, because I think so often we get so overwhelmed by the enormity of these problems that we get paralyzed into inaction.
Katie Now you mentioned that your particular style involves a visible mending. Why is that important to you? Why is it kind of creatively interesting or, from a value perspective, interesting to bend in a visible way?
Tom Again, this is something that’s grown very organically and I think is actually a good example of I just need to try things out because, originally I was of the very traditional mindset of, oh, if I repair something, it needs to be invisible. Nobody should be allowed to see it. It turns out, that it is really, really difficult to repair something invisible, you know, it’s just very, very difficult to do that. So, I was thinking, well, if you can kind of see it anyway, then that’s turned into a feature and let’s not try and hide the fact that man mended. So, yes. I kind of started changing my mind a bit about that. And then I started to enjoy adding something visible and highlighting the fact that my items have been worn.
You know, I love the patina of Used, anyway. Shoes to me are not beautiful. I’ll buy shoes that I really like, but I only find a really beautiful once I’ve worn them in and you get all the nice creases in the leather. That’s when I find my shoes most beautiful or bags, or what have you. I enjoy seeing the patina of use, you know, lots of people, for instance, with denim, they want to see that used look. In fact, you can buy jeans pre-distressed. Obviously, there’s a big interest in that, but I like that seeing that I’ve repaired it and the, and for me, it’s also a way of showing that I care about this item, highlighting the history of it. It’s sometimes a conversation starter. I’m not going to shout “you must mend!”. But if somebody asked me, “oh, I see you’ve got this patch on there. What’s that all about?”, then I’ll explain, “oh, you know, I like to look after my clothes and make them last for longer and this is why I do it. And look, we’ve had a conversation about it now, maybe, you know, if you fancy it, give it a go yourself.”
Katie Yes. And you and I have talked about the idea of sort of the plainness of an object could be something you mend, so that it might be that you’ve, I mean, I’ve got a particular denim top, it’s like a T-shirt, but it’s made of denim, and it is just a bit plain. And when I’m brave enough, I am going to embellish it and, in some way, and I love that that’s where you start to get this real overlap between mending and making, isn’t it, that it sort of starts as a mend and then you’re sort of moving into embellishments and those sort of creative conversations that are happening.
Tom Yes, I think that’s more of looking at the function of that object rather than the materiality of the object. So, if you think or feel that the function of a garment is to wear it and either provide warmth, or, you know, not being nude or looking nice for a party or whatever you want to wear this item. If there is a reason why you stopped wearing it, you might say it’s broken. Even if, materially, there’s nothing wrong with it. If you just bored with it because it was so plain or it doesn’t fit anymore, something like that, you can alter it or you can add something to it, a bit of embroidery or some funny patches, I don’t know, you know, there’s also different things, isn’t it?
Katie Yes. I love that, different definitions of broken. It’s not necessarily materially broken. It might be emotionally broken or functionally broken. If your relationship with it has broken down and you’re not wearing it anymore. I love that. So, you mentioned the hashtag visible mending (#visiblemending) earlier, and we have reason to believe that you started this hashtag visible bending. It now has more than 116,000 posts on Instagram. I checked this morning. How does that make you feel, that this thing you started as a way to share what you were doing has gone global on a big scale?
Tom My work is done!
Katie I love that.
Tom It kind of feels like that, sometimes; it’s really great to see. I really like seeing other people’s repairs and I really like the social aspects of social media and the internet. That has really allowed people to come together from all over the world. That’s something that I really enjoy. I’ve met quite a few people through that, which are people I would never have met otherwise. And yes, we start sharing ideas and hear about how people in their own country or their own family look at these things and what they might do and not do, or how they view repairs and things like that. So yes, I find it really interesting and it’s very nice to see that so many people have embraced it.
Katie It’s fantastic. I love, I mentioned this hashtag and how many posts it’s got every so often in various bits of writing. I mentioned it in the book and talking to you, every time I go and check it, it’s shot up again. It’s quite fascinating. I was saying almost 100,000, I think, last time. You mentioned earlier that a darn, or invisible mend can be a badge of honour. And I certainly know through my research, for my dissertation, that it can also be a sign of poverty and a sign of shame. I interviewed somebody who had been alive during the second world war, Make the Mends campaign. And she said to me that she would only ever wear darned clothing for gardening or housework. She’d never wear them out of the house. And if she saw someone else with darned clothing, she’d feel sorry for them because she would assume they couldn’t afford new things. And so, I find that that kind of contrast quite interesting, this idea of a badge of honour or a marker of something to be ashamed of and obviously if mending is going to become part of the circular economy and something that forms a part of this move towards a more sustainable living. We need that as many people as possible to get involved. So how do we kind of balance those two things and turn something that historically has been seen as something to hide? And as you say, traditionally, European darning was invisible, wasn’t it, and sort of flip it so that more people can see it as a badge of honour.
Tom I really don’t know.
Katie Love an honest answer!
Tom Being really honest there. Without rubbing people the wrong way, I feel at the moment, it’s a bit of a middle-class pursuit to look after the clothes and repair them and try to look at the authenticity of things and, you know, and I certainly feel I’m part of it in that way. I find it interesting to understand the authenticity of things and, you know, I like things to be unique and all that kind of stuff. And I’m so immersed in this world of visible mending. I’m not really sure if I can now look outside it and look into it, so to speak.
Katie Are there situations where you wouldn’t feel comfortable wearing something that had been visibly mended?
Tom Yes. So, for instance, in the office, I probably wouldn’t wear mended clothes much, although even there I have worn mended clothes, but maybe not quite so “out there” as the ones that I wear when I’m not in the office. My company is quite a traditional company that way. It’s not that I have to wear a suit, but there are certain expectations, unspoken expectations, of how you should wear, what things you should wear in the office.
Katie Yes and I guess where people have to wear uniforms to work, that again, it probably wouldn’t be appropriate with it to wear something visibly mended?
Tom I would say so. Yes. There are still situations where I feel, no, I wouldn’t wear something mended.
Katie But I think things like the hashtag are increasing the acceptability of this visible mending, I suppose, aren’t they? There’s, as you say, more and more people all over the world getting on board and I guess the more you find other people doing it too, it sort of emboldens you, doesn’t it?
Tom Yes, certainly. You know, I think it’s something completely different, but if you look at tattoos or piercings, they are much more acceptable nowadays than they would have been even 15 or 20 years ago.
Katie Yes, and actually I think the same generational thing is true. My grandparents were in the forces, so they had lots of tattoos, but wouldn’t have seen it as appropriate for me to get a tattoo as a woman, I don’t think. That’s interesting, I’ll have to look into that more in terms of the kind of societal acceptance of men and women having tattoos and the class and professional implications of them and how that’s changed over time. I wonder if there’s something that you could track between the two. Ooh! PhD subjects!
You also volunteer for a Brighton Repair Café. Tell us a little bit about the repair café movement and its values and purposes, and then why it’s important to you to get involved.
Tom The Brighton Repair Café is like a chapter, if you like, of the repair café foundation, which started originally in Amsterdam, and it was started by a woman. Her name escapes me right now, who had some white goods that got broke, like a kettle, you know, something simple or that. And she remembered from when she was young, there used to be all these little repair shops and every high street where you could take your broken toaster or other small electrical appliances to get them repaired, and they have kind of disappeared. And she then started chatting to people who do have repair skills, perhaps with somebody who retired, used to run a shop like that. And so, she started setting up this little group where she gathered some people with the knowledge to repair stuff, and then you could bring your items that needed repairing. And what’s important to the repair café, is that you, where appropriate, the person who brings the thing that’s broken, will fix it as well. So, it’s about sharing the skills. It’s not just about offering a free repair. It’s really about sharing the skills to empower more people.
Tom So that’s really important. I think as part of this, of course it depends if, if there’s soldering involved, or potentially dangerous things. Then, of course, maybe it depends on that person’s skill level, whether you’d let them do it or if we do it for them. But yes, it’s about sharing repair skills and why I really enjoy doing it and why it’s important to me, is I offer commissions and workshops where you pay money for the services. So, if you can’t afford that, I still want to be able to share some of my skills and knowledge in that way, because you know, it’s accessible to anyone. All you have to do is turn up.
Katie Fantastic. So, tell us a bit about the workshops that you run.
Tom I’ve actually taken a little break from running workshops, but before COVID, I ran workshops quite frequently in either yarn shops, knitting shops or as part of an exhibition or other things. And I would show people how to repair clothes and we would repair things together. I’m quite a technically minded person, so it’s quite technique heavy. Often, I would show people a scrap of fabric and give them scraps of fabric to practice on, but I would also ask people to bring their own clothes so we could talk through what’s broken, and why would you fix it? Or how would you approach the repair and then just try it out then and share my knowledge and talk about things I’ve learned along the way.
Talk about the books that I’ve learned from. I really enjoy learning from old books. Yes, so there’s all sorts of things like that, where it’s just knowledge sharing and having a good time. And as I hinted at, before, the meditative flow that often occurs, which is really nice.
Katie And there’s something nice about doing that in a community as well as a group of people.
Tom Yes, certainly.
Katie Are you still taking commissions?
Katie Tell us how people can get in touch, if they’ve got a thing they’d like you to mend.
Tom The easiest is either through Instagram; you can send me a direct message, or you can email me at email@example.com.
Katie Cool. I’m really asking because I have a pair of slippers I would really like you to mend, but we’ll get back to that. So how do you think that opinions towards mending, and repair are changing? You’ve been doing this for a while, now, how have you seen sort of perceptions shift over that time?
Tom Well, I think that #visiblemending speaks volumes in itself. I think more and more people are starting to understand that we can’t just keep replacing things that we should try and make them last for longer. And, you know, the COP 26 thing that’s happening in November and the report that was brought out by the IPCC, which is really scary.
Katie At the time of recording, that report has dropped today so I will pop a link to that in the show notes as well so that’s coming out ahead of COP 26, which is November, I think isn’t it?
Tom I think more and more people are getting interested in that side of the world at large.
Katie Yes. So, what do you think the future holds for mending and repair and are you hopeful?
Tom Yes, I am hopeful. I think people are getting more and more interested in repairing and I would love to see it to become part of the vernacular around items, whether that’s clothes or anything else. There are so many different things that you can repair, you know, that there’s more and more interest in promoting repairability. In Sweden, there’s a new law around that. And the UK there’s the right to repair, there’s interest in that topic. And that’s also part of the repair café foundation. They’re really promoting repairability and contacting big manufacturers to say, well, you’re so sorry I can’t repair it because you’ve glued it together instead of screwed it together. Can we go back to using screws because often things could be fixed if you can get into them. So again, that concept of open and closed.
Katie Yes, and it’s so important that designer/makers think about that stuff at the beginning of the process, so that when they’re sort of bringing objects into being, they’re already thinking about how they might break them, how they can be fixed. But yes, it does come back to that open and closed. I’m going to dig out that article and pop a link in the show notes. That’s a really useful framework, I think.
Brilliant. Thank you so much, Tom. I really appreciate your time and really looking forward to this one going live so that everybody can tune in.
Tom Thank you, Katie, for having me. It was a really enjoyable chat. Thank you so much.
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This episode was produced by Sasha Huff, so thank you to Sasha, to October Communications for marketing and moral support, to Sugru for their sponsorship, and to you for joining me. You’ve been listening to Circular with Katie Treggiden.
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