Expert visible mending tips from artist Celia Pym — That’s Not My Age

When I catch up with artist Celia Pym it’s the start of term at the Royal College of Art (RCA). She studied Textiles here, and has subsequently returned as a visiting lecturer on the MA course. ‘I’m always excited about teaching,’ Celia says, of her one-day-a-week position, ‘ the students present new ideas around the field that I care about. They’re the future and it feels positive.’ Though Celia takes time to point out what the education system is up against, right now, ‘ It’s complicated. Arts education is not seeing a lot of support from the government and I find that disappointing. It misunderstands the many skills children have and what education is for – empathy, knowledge – the creative arts offers this in spades.’

Occasionally referring to herself as a ‘ Damage Detective’, Celia’s artwork explores worn (sometimes moth-ravaged) fabrics and repair and she is known for her exquisite, visible mending. It all began, in 2006, with her uncle’s jumper. ‘He had this sweater he used to wear all the time, sitting in his chair, he’d lean forward onto his drawing board and so the forearms were completely ragged. He’d just put another sweater underneath, like a telescope!’

Until then, she had mainly focused on sculpture and worked with quite heavy materials, ‘I’d taken tentative steps and done a bit of weaving and knitted sculpture. My dad thought I’d like the sweater, and looking at it I could see my uncle sitting in his chair. It was so close to his body, like a second skin, very evocative.’ On closer inspection, Celia discovered the jumper had been repaired, ‘ There were lots of darning marks, done by his sister who died 10 years earlier – that really hit me hard. She used to look after us in a deeply caring, pragmatic way – you felt her constant care. These darning marks were a small act of care.’

Double Denim. Photo: Michele Panzeri

After mending the first sweater, Celia wanted to become ‘an expert in holes.’ So she headed to the library to do some research, ‘ There wasn’t a massive number of people mending at the time, I didn’t know how to darn, I just filled in the gaps. I wanted the invisible to become visible – my marks to communicate a feeling about the garment through visible mending.’ Inviting people to bring an item of clothing along, she started to hold mending events. When I ask Celia about the type of clothes, and if the guests brought any precious heirlooms, she adds,  ‘Obviously, I would love to mend Zendaya’s party dress! – but the things I attract are jeans, gardening sweaters, blankets, pyjamas. The things people wear at home, the things they feel comfortable in.’

It soon became apparent that the sessions were about more than the clothes. ‘This was a transactional arrangement, I’d look at their thing, we’d discuss colours – it’s easier to talk through the object and so people would tell me about their emotional stuff, often to do with grief and loss, it was kind of magic. I felt like a therapist, doctor and a skilled mender,’ Celia continues, ‘ You are holding onto something that matters to someone else – it is a huge privilege to hear the stories. There’s so much we can understand about ourselves if we understand the lives of others.’

Celia Pym’s Norwegian Sweater

As well as obtaining a BA in Visual & Environmental Studies, specialising in sculpture, from Harvard, and an MA in Textiles from the RCA, Celia is also trained as a nurse. Believing the latter is where she honed her caring skills, she continues, ‘I have always been super-interested in the way we care for the body and mind, in my 20s I worked as a healthcare assistant (hospice care rather than medical care). In my early 30s, I was at a crossroads, finding it hard to make a living as an artist, my grandma and a couple of other people had died and I felt that I had something to learn. That’s always been my approach. I spent most of the two years on placement and then one year working as a nurse – the curve of learning was massive. I was interested in end of life and how we address that.’

Returning to her artistic practise when she realised that she couldn’t balance the two careers, Celia started teaching part-time. She continues her work as a Damage Detective, though no longer holds mending workshops. And this, together with the rise in slow fashion, sustainability and a shift in consumer attitudes, has brought an increased interest in her beautiful artwork. Celia Pym has exhibited at: Eternally Yours, Somerset House (2022), Keep Being Amazing, Firstsite, Colchester (2022), On Happiness: Tranquility and Joy, the Wellcome Collection (2021) and Waste Age at the Design Museum (2021).

‘Mending is building up what’s left behind. I do it because I like being in my body. Losing myself in making. I’m happy working with my hands.’

Jumper with moth holes, 2020

Celia Pym’s mending tips

Have a go. The thing about any hand skill is it’s a good idea to do it often. To practise. It’s hard to radically change your life in one go but start gradually and encourage yourself to do some mending on a regular basis. Then it won’t feel too pressurised –  you won’t feel like you have holes looking accusingly at you!

Have a practise jumper (item). Start in a discreet area, for example, the back hem and then move on to a more prominent hole. But don’t worry too much about perfection.

Get yourself some different colours of darning yarn, choose the colours you like and a few sharp darning needles.

Take a nice sweater, full of holes and give it a hot machine wash. This felts the garment making it good for patching.

Nothing can go wrong, the thing is already damaged so it’s stuck and so making an effort to mend it will take you somewhere.

Begin with something that you love. Something that you would be reluctant to give to charity.

Keep darning and re-darning, the mended object is going to get good in about 20-30 years!

What I love is it is slow work but it also works slowly on us.

Celia Pym On Mending

Celia Pym’s paperback book On Mending is published today, by Quickthorn. The book is a collection of 10 stories of damaged garments (plus a rug and two backpacks), it is not a guide to mending techniques. We have one copy to give away to a lucky reader. Please comment below if you would like the chance to receive it.

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