Kata on Wearing Wool…

Continuing on from her post on Working with Wool, here is Kata, writing this time about Wearing Wool – or, perhaps more specifically – her philosophy of mending and repairing the woollen clothes so distinctive and important to Estonian life. In Estonia the Winter is extremely long and extremely cold, so ‘Wearing Wool’ is not only a fashion choice but a physical necessity. Mending has complex cultural resonances in Estonia’s difficult history of annexation and Soviet rule – a fact that Kata touches on lightly in this post – yet as she argues, visibly repaired clothes might exude an aura of pride, so that more positive meanings and associations for mended clothes might be formed in modern, Independent Estonia. We hope you enjoy this final post from Eesti during WOVEMBER 2012!

Mending and boredom

How many people have you heard describe mending as something they find utterly boring or that they just loathe doing? I have heard many. And these are people who are contemplating mending in the first place! I used to be one of those people – and judging by the pile of un-mended things at home, I might as well still be one who postpones mending to the last possible minute.

As always, happy coincidences guide my way. My plan for Wovember was to read one of Patricia Wentworth’s novels, but the only copies were taken hostage by an all-consuming reconstruction at the library. So, I decided to read Lars Svendsen’s “A Philosophy of Boredom” instead. This proved to be an excellent resource for rediscovering mending.

Lars Svendsen is a Norwegian philosopher who discovered the vast plains of boredom a man can be exposed to when writing his doctoral thesis, and this drove him to write an essay on boredom. Boredom, he says, is essentially lack of meaning.

The romantics deprived us of the communal meaning of traditions and replaced these with notions of personal meaning, and so it is in the hands of every individual to create their own meaning. This can prove to be difficult at times (add to this Milan Kundera’s concept of the unbearable lightness of being) and so when we lack personal meaning, we say we are bored.

I think that this goes well with mending. We all love creating and making meaning with our hands… but then this perfect creation of ours dares to wear out in places! (Might this have anything to do with the constant wearing of said garment?!) The beloved garment we have worn with pride – being stripped of its meaning through falling into disrepair or becoming somehow “unmade” – becomes somehow boring.

One might conclude that creating is the exciting part of a garments’ life, and that when things fall to bits we get bored of them – but if ‘creativity’ is solving problems, isn’t recycling even more creative than making from scratch, due to its limitations? In one sense, using an existing piece to create a new one is every bit as exciting getting your hands on fresh skeins of wool. Hasn’t wool been a good winter coat for the sheep it was sheared from? I think it might be fruitful to think about knitting in terms of reusing.

Even better would be to look at mending as a way of creating. We have the perfect opportunity to reinforce not only the fabric, but also our relationship with the garment being mended. It is up to us how much meaning we put into a given garment.

The meaning of mended clothes itself has been negative.

I remember well that mended garments were not to be worn to school and fine clothes were not to be worn at home.

Mending has been a sign of poverty – that one can’t afford to buy new clothes, so they have to be mended. The reverse concept is Veblenian consicuous consumption – stating one’s wealth by buying and wearing new clothes.

Fortunately for us, signs can alter their meaning in time and space. For example, Coco Chanel is personally responsible for altering the social meaning of suntan! In an agrarian society, peasants worked outside and were exposed to sunshine. The nobility tried to distance themselves from the peasants by avoiding sunshine as much as possible, hence the term ‘blue blood’. By the 1920s, most people worked in factories, where there was little or no natural light, which in turn meant that they had become rather blue-blooded. After Chanel was badly sunburnt on one occasion, it became fashionable to have darker skin.

Chanel relates to wool and mending in more ways than anecdotal evidence for the change of social meanings. Firstly, Chanel’s most cherished fabric was wool jersey. Secondly, the following quote is attributed to her;

I am not in favour of fashion which does not hold up. I do not like clothes being thrown out just because that the spring is here. I love clothes because they can be touched and felt, much like a book.

– Coco Chanel

This ironically means that a woman who was one of the predecessors of the fast fashion and waste culture we are so immersed in today, actually cherished quality and moderate consumption. She obviously loved clothing.

I also love my clothes. Which means that I do my best to manifest that love by mending them as best I can. At times, this means a modest patch of darning, at times it means a large in-your-face floral patch. My WOVEMBER project is to manifest the respect and love that I have for my wool coat.

I have had it for four years now and as it is worn daily for about five months a year, it has become worn in certain places. For example, it clearly shows that I wear my handbag on my right shoulder which is so big that it reaches my hip. The corners of the sleeves have worn through, which also indicates that I engage in many manual tasks while wearing my coat.

Mending the coat will hopefully give me time to contemplate the meaning of mending further and to realise how much I have been able to experience while wearing that particular coat (as opposed to staying indoors for the whole six months of the year when it is too cold in Estonia to go out without it). It feels only fair that I give something back and do my best to maintain the coat in its best possible shape.

I assessed the state of the coat and decided that probably the best thing is to needle felt some bits of the coat before engaging in actual darning. I will darn the coat mainly with fine black wool but some bits will be embroidered with wool which I have dyed myself with natural dyes.

This serves the purpose of proud darning (or Visible Mending as Tom calls it). It is my aim to state loudly and clearly that clothes need to be mended. We need to give clothes second chances. Hopefully, this will prompt people to think about both mending and what does it mean to discard ones clothes or other personal belongings.

I believe that this approach can – and must – not only be applied to clothes, but also to material and immaterial objects and concepts. Is there a relationship in your life which is in dire need of patching up? Here can darning prove to be useful, as it gives time to make plans for future mendings? I am considering darning as a time of meditation. This would help mending to become a time for reflecting on meanings, rather than a boring act, or something like a chapter from “Crime and Punishment”.

All photos and content © Kata and used here with her kind permission. The yarn is lace-weight, 100% WOOL yarn dyed by Kata; and the gloves are a selection of mended, re-mended, un-mendable and re-made gloves belonging to Kata’s Grandfather. The coat is Kata’s coat.